She Escaped Charles Manson’s Murderous Sex Cult
Orgies, drugs, and prepping for Helter Skelter: Juanita Wildebush fell for “Charlie” Manson’s Family—and barely made it out.
Charlie, Juanita, Clem, and Sadie huddled together in the back of the Dodge van that had become Juanita’s traveling home in the summer of ’68. Clem and Sadie made no attempt to conceal their sexual desire for each other, and soon retreated to the upper loft. Now, alone with Juanita for the first time that day at the beach, Charlie knew he had her cornered.
At 24, Juanita was a few years older than most of the free-spirited hippie girls in Charlie’s orbit, but no less idealistic, and Charlie knew that. He turned to her and smiled, his eyes wide with enthusiasm, a toothy grin across his face. He slithered his small, compact frame closer to her, and kissed her. She pulled her lips away from his. “What about Carlos?” she asked, referring to her fiancé, the man she’d planned to rendezvous with in Mexico.
He giggled, that little stuttering laugh she initially found so delightful and charming but would later try to erase from memory. “You don’t need to worry about Carlos, because I am him, and he is me,” he said, his calm, soothing, self-assured voice settling any anxiety she may have had about what was about to happen. Then, he made love to her in the back of the van, while Clem had his way with Sadie in the bed above them. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to punctuate a moment with drama, Charlie even invited Sadie and Clem to join him and Juanita in bed together. That didn’t matter much to Juanita, she was open to it, and if Charlie said it was cool, heck, it must have been.
From that moment on, Juanita Wildebush was hooked, so meeting up with Carlos in Mexico would just have to wait. Before that night at the beach was over, she’d agreed to give Charlie Manson not just her van and the $14,000 she had in a trust fund account, but her whole self.
“He was amazing,” she says, describing Manson’s sexual prowess to me over Zoom. Now 77, a retired social worker who spent the better part of her career helping others who, like her, have escaped a dangerous cult, Juanita lives comfortably in Oregon, a widow, mother, and grandmother. “He was so tender, he would bring you just to the point of orgasm and then he would bring you back. Like a Kama Sutra kind of thing, you know, just bring you up, and bring you up, and bring you back.” I had to remind myself that she was describing the lovemaking technique of one of America’s most notorious criminals, the Machiavellian cult leader who masterminded the brutal “Helter Skelter” murders in 1969 that shocked the world.
When I ask if sex was a tool Manson used to get people hooked on him, she pauses for a minute. “I think so,” she says, as if realizing this for the first time, but this should come as no surprise: she’s spent the last 50 years of her life running as far away from Manson as possible.
“I just don’t get why this is so interesting to people,” she tells me. It won’t be the last time I hear her say this.
I ask her about her earliest memories of life before “Charlie.” “I had a pretty unremarkable childhood,” she says. “My father had had a heart attack at the end of World War II and was given 18 months to live, a year before I was born. And so there was always that undercurrent of he could die any minute. That weighed heavily on me because I was much closer to my dad than I was to my mom,” she continues.
Growing up just across the river from New York City in Westwood, a modest New Jersey suburb, Juanita has fond memories of her father but had, at best, a contentious relationship with her mother. “She had a rule for everything,” she says. “Like you never went into New York City without wearing gloves. You had to wear stockings. You know, there was just a rule for everything. You don’t tip on alcohol. You only tip if there’s table service, there were just rules, rules, rules, rules, rules, rules.”
Religion was hardly center-stage in the Wildebush home. Juanita was Jewish on her father’s side (her grandmother had escaped the Holocaust) but told by her mother she was Lutheran. She has no recollection of going to church or Sunday school as a child.
Summer camp had a profound impact on her as a teen. “It was a girls’ residential camp in Vermont and it probably did more to mold me into the person I am than anything else in my life,” she says enthusiastically. “It was run on the freedom program,” she continues. “We all lived in cabins, two to four campers in a cabin, two on each side of a cabin, no counselor in the cabin with us. The activities were open. I’d be hot and I’d say, hey, I’m gonna go swimming. So you got to really roam free and kind of be independent and roam. “
The way she talks about the camp, it’s hard not to make the connection between those early experiences and the ones she would have later with the Manson Family, in the hippie commune she discovered in Los Angeles—Charlie, with his beard, guitar, and New Age ideals, could have easily been mistaken for a Camp Director at any run-of-the-mill free-love community. Only in Manson’s case, activities like horseback riding and arts and crafts would eventually take a backseat to those with a darker bent, namely, auto theft, assault, and murder.
Charles Manson was 32 years old when he was paroled from McNeil Island prison in Washington state in March of 1967. Having spent half of his life up to that point behind bars for mostly petty crimes like check forgery and pimping, Manson eventually settled in the Bay Area, where that year as many as 100,000 people converged in San Francisco’s neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury for what would come to be known as the “Summer of Love.” There, Manson recruited a group of young girls and formed “the Family,” a roving band of bohemian nomads doing whatever possible to avoid the straight life, traveling around the country in a modified school bus in search of enlightenment.
The Family settled in the Los Angeles area, first at a flophouse in the Topanga Canyon area that separated the sprawling San Fernando Valley from the Pacific coastline, then at Beach Boy Drummer Dennis Wilson’s estate in Pacific Palisades, and later at Spahn Ranch, at the northwest tip of the Valley. By the time Juanita hooked up with them, the Family had grown into a full-fledged commune with Manson at the helm, dictating their every thought and action. He kept his followers isolated; at Spahn Ranch there were no newspapers, calendars, or clocks—the only information they received is what Manson wanted them to know.
Ultimately, Manson would become a household name in December of 1969, when he and other members of the Family were arrested and ultimately convicted of the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders in August of that year. Fortunately for Juanita, by the time those murders took place, she was long gone from the Family and had no role or participation in the crimes, and has lived under the radar ever since. Now, she’s one of the few remaining Manson Family members who can provide a firsthand account of what it was like to fall under Manson’s spell—and to make it out safely.
Long before she hooked up with Manson, Juanita pursued an undergraduate degree at the Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City, where she met Carlos, a philosophy major at nearby Autonomous University. “He looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo. He was just dashing—he was an Olympic-caliber swimmer, so he had that swimmer’s physique, good shoulders, slim hips. He knew he was brilliant, so he was a bit arrogant,” she tells me.
Juanita and Carlos, along with one of his friends from school, would travel around the villages of Mexico, where they came to be known affectionately as “Los Tres” by locals; Juanita stood out with her striking looks and blond hair. Along their many travels, they encountered hippie expatriates who, like Juanita, had grown disillusioned by the political and social climate of the United States and were seeking refuge in a society less consumed with consumerism. Through them, Juanita heard stories about, and became intrigued by, the concept of communal living in the States, specifically, the Hog Farm, an organization founded by peace activist Wavy Gravy, today considered America’s longest-running hippie commune and what some say Manson used as a model for his Family.
And it was in Mexico that Juanita had her first experiences with LSD. At college, she’d befriended a chemist from Sandoz Laboratory who would “show up on a Friday afternoon with a handful of pharmaceutical-grade acid pills in his pocket, lay them down on the table and say, ‘This should hold you for a while.’ We’d go up into the mountains outside of Mexico City before dawn,” she tells me. “We would drop our acid. We’d trip through the day. We’d come down (from the trip), then we’d go home. Yeah, it was beautiful. Just beautiful.” However, her dealer friend warned her of the dangers of “street acid.” Little did she know the role it would play in her life only a few short years later.
Juanita graduated from university in Mexico in 1967 with a degree in psychology and returned to New Jersey with Carlos, who after a short stay in the States retreated to Mexico with the intention of Juanita joining him there after she’d saved up enough money to purchase a van. “He had an odd view of our relationship at the time,” she recalls. “He said to me, you and I are one. There is no need for me to write you. There’s no need for you to write me. There’s no need to call each other. We are one. But then I didn’t hear from him for six months.”
She worked for a time at the Aid to Dependent Children program in Patterson until she’d saved up enough money to acquire a Dodge van with a fancy sound system. Then, towards the end of the summer of ’68, she bid farewell to her parents and made the cross-country trek to California with a friend in tow, whom she planned to drop in San Francisco before heading south to visit her sister’s family in Palo Alto. Then, she would drive to Phoenix, visit a friend, and make her way to Mexico City to rendezvous with Carlos.
On the night before she planned to leave for Phoenix, Juanita’s van was burglarized and the $850 stereo that had become her prized possession was gone. Heartbroken, she spent a few hours the next day searching for a shop that could replace it, and found one in San Jose. She kissed her sister and her nieces and nephews goodbye, loaded the van and made her way south.
After replacing the stereo in San Jose, she noticed a pregnant woman leaning against a tree near the on-ramp to the freeway, holding up a hand-written sign that said “Los Angeles.” She invited the woman, and the two men with her, into the van.
The woman introduced herself as Sadie. After getting in the van, Juanita says, “she starts telling me about ‘the Family’ and how they’re a band, how they sang with the Beach Boys. I liked her right away.”
They drove south to L.A., and Sadie directed her to Spahn Ranch, a horse property and sometimes Western movie set in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, just outside the city limits of Chatsworth. By the time they arrived, it was dark out, and Sadie invited Juanita to stay for the night. “I can’t wait for you to meet Charlie,” she told her.
Manson’s female followers were notoriously devoted to him, even after the murders, none more so than Susan “Sadie” Atkins, the troubled daughter of alcoholics and one of Manson’s earliest recruits. During the trial, news outlets would broadcast startling images of Sadie, Katie, and Leslie (her co-conspirators in the Tate-LaBianca murders) parading through the halls of the courthouse, holding hands and singing Manson’s songs in unison. Some of the girls, including Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (who stayed devoted to Manson for decades even after his murder conviction), set up an encampment outside the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles during the trial, where they could be seen sitting cross-legged on the ground, often singing Manson’s praises to anyone willing to listen. When Manson appeared in court with an “x” carved into his forehead and his scalp shaved, many of the girls followed suit. To them, Manson and God were synonymous, and law enforcement’s attempts to “crucify” him were only further proof to them that he was, in fact, Jesus incarnate.
Charlie Manson, as Juanita had already learned from her conversation with the hitchhikers, was the leader of Sadie’s band. When they arrived at Spahn Ranch after dark, Juanita followed Sadie towards a trailer off to the side of the faux-Western “town” in the center of the ranch. “Charlie! Charlie! Look what we found you!” Sadie yelled out as they approached the trailer. The trailer door opened and out popped a naked man, no more than five feet two inches, grinning from ear to ear, accompanied by his naked lover, a beautiful brunette who went by the name “Gypsy.” “They welcomed me in, handed me a joint and asked me if I wanted some tea,” she says.
At the ranch, she found herself in the company of warm people just like her, disillusioned with the world as they saw it, more interested in peace and love than material wealth. They were the kind of people she’d been looking for; they shared the same values, they spoke the same language.
That night, “we talked, we hung out, they sang for a while. And then everybody went to bed and Charlie invited himself into my van. And I said, no. I mean, I just met the guy.” I ask her if she was taken back by his forwardness. “It’s hard to explain what the hippie life was like to somebody who didn’t believe it,” she tells me, “but it was just all open and free-flowing and you just, you know, you just went where the wind blew you. You know, and that was what you were supposed to do, because the universe would provide.”
Still, she rejected Manson’s overt advances. “Well, now you’re just being selfish,” he told her. “But we’re gonna fix that.”
The next morning, Juanita awoke in her van to a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar being offered to her by one of the girls. Moments later, Manson appeared with two cups of coffee to choose from, one with and one without cream. Juanita recalls the image in her mind. “He said, ‘Come on, let’s show you around.’ “And that’s when I got out of the van and I looked around, and it was magical. It was like, hey, I’ve got a movie set. Look at all those horses. Look at the cowboys over there.” I ask if her first impressions of the ranch reminded her of summer camp. She doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah, it sort of did.”
Spahn Ranch in the Manson years is reported to have had a similar effect on other outsiders who encountered it. Greg Jakobson, a songwriting partner of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (who invited Manson to live with him in the summer of ’68 and nicknamed him “the Wizard”), was so taken by Manson’s Svengali-like hold over the young girls in his midst, he tried to convince his friend, record producer (and future Manson foe) Terry Melcher, to finance a documentary about the Family. There’s no doubt the ranch would have been an assault on the senses for anyone experiencing it for the first time. The setting was a rustic, boulder-strewn canyon; the sights included horses, ranch hands and a gaggle of LSD-infused hippies cohabiting amidst a decrepit Western movie set; sage and jasmine and eucalyptus perfumed the air. While only 10 miles from the sprawl of Los Angeles, the ranch, with its idyllic location at the foot of the Santa Susana mountain range, was nothing short of an oasis; even today, the terrain feels better suited for a high-end resort than what lies just beyond it.
Ingratiating herself with the group, Juanita found it harder and harder to leave with each passing day. Had she found the utopia she’d been looking for since her days wandering around Mexico as part of “Los Tres”? “I had this pre-formed thing of what life on a commune in the States would be,” she recalls. “And all of a sudden I was on a commune in the States, so I was really interested in it. And I kept thinking, oh, God, I should write to Carlos and have him come up here.” But that never happened.
One night at Spahn Ranch, Manson organized a group LSD trip in the house they shared together. Once the drug took hold, things spiraled out of control. She describes it to me: “I can still remember it, it was like I was in this Arabian tent, there’s Arabian Nights kind of scene and there were pillows everywhere and horses jumping through and people were fighting and yelling, it was really chaotic. And Charlie came in to where I was because I was just watching it and said, ‘I got to find my shoes. I’ve got to get out of here.’ And I stood up and asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘I have to leave, all the love here has gone. I don’t know what happened, but I’m leaving.’”
At one point, Family member “Little Paul” Watkins punched her square in the jaw, so she walked out of the house to get some fresh air. One of the male members of the Family followed her out and asked where she was going. “I don’t want to go back in there,” she told him.
He told her to stay put. The next day, with Manson missing from the ranch, Juanita shared her conversation with him with the Family, and they grew concerned about the whereabouts of their leader. Then, as if nothing had happened, Manson arrived back at the ranch later that afternoon, and the incident was soon forgotten.
“Little” Paul Watkins was, by all accounts, Manson’s right-hand man—his best recruiter and a personal favorite among the female members of the Family. When Family members (including Juanita) began defecting from the group of ’69, it was Little Paul who initially dug his heels in, boldly confronting anyone who dared challenge Manson’s theory on the impending race war, something Charlie called “Helter Skelter,” named after the song on the Beatles’ White Album he’d become obsessed with. Later, Little Paul would be among those who testified for the prosecution at Manson’s trial, sharing details of his former guru’s dark philosophies to a shocked courtroom: “There would be some atrocious murders; that some of the sp--es from Watts would come up into the Bel-Air and Beverly Hills district and just really wipe some people out,” he said, using racist slang, “just cut bodies up and smear blood and write things on the wall in blood, and cut little boys up and make parents watch.”
In November of ’68, the Family loaded up the old school bus they had outfitted as their primary means of transportation and set out for the Mojave Desert. They’d learned of the remote Meyers Ranch, a miners’ outpost deep in Golar Canyon in the southwest corner of Death Valley National Park. Family member Kathy Giles’ grandmother owned the ranch, and they initially planned to set up an encampment there. Manson often shared with the group his fascination with the desert. He believed its vast, empty landscape would provide fewer distractions for his growing Family.
Upon reaching the base of Golar Canyon, they attempted to navigate the bus through the narrow, dusty road that led to the ranch but it proved no match for the rocky terrain, so the Family found themselves hauling their gear up the wash on foot. At this point, Juanita became startled by the sound of bombs exploding in the distance and flashes of light across the sky. “I freaked out,” she explains. “We were traveling that day and I absolutely freaked out, ducked my head, covered. It was the scariest thing I had ever been through. And they helped me get up.”
Years later, she would visit a psychic medium who would tell her that in a previous life, she’d been a 13-year-old Jewish boy who was smuggled out of Belgium by nuns to escape the Nazis, and the sound of bombing she’d heard that day in the canyon had triggered memories of those events. Later, she would identify the actual source of the sounds: the Naval Weapons Air Station at China Lake, some 20 miles from the canyon.
When it became apparent that Meyers Ranch wouldn’t provide enough space for the Family, which by now had swelled to over 30 members, they opted instead to stay at nearby Barker Ranch, which offered more expansive accommodations. They settled into their new life in the desert. By day, Manson would send the Family out to search for a secret cave, the “bottomless pit” that would lead the Family to an “underground city” where they could hide out during the forthcoming race war. At night, they’d drop acid and sit around the campfire singing and listening to Manson preach. Some nights he’d try to orchestrate a group orgy, which never quite materialized.
After a week or two at the ranch, Manson dispatched Juanita and Family members Diane Lake (“Snake”) and Little Paul Watkins to Las Vegas to drum up supplies for the group. They spent a few days there fundraising, going door to door and introducing themselves as members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority, collecting food for hungry people in the desert.
On their way back to Barker Ranch, they stopped in Shoshone, a dusty desert outpost on the banks of the Amargosa River not far from Golar Canyon, to panhandle and pick up more supplies. There, they came face to face with Inyo County Sheriff Don Ward, a small bulldog of a man whose children attended the local schools and who’d grown concerned about the hippie contingent infesting his otherwise conservative community. He offered them a simple piece of advice: “Get out, and don’t come back.”
Fast-forward to March of 1969. Manson and the rest of the Family had gone back to Spahn Ranch to continue preparing for the inevitable race war—spending the majority of their time building dune buggies and “fundraising” to finance their retreat to the desert.
Juanita, along with a relatively new Family member, 19-year old Brooks Poston, had been left behind at Barker Ranch, directed by Manson to “keep an eye on the place.” Though the Family told them they would be back to get them in 10 days, they’d been separated from the Family for three months. But then, two unexpected visitors showed up at the ranch in a Dodge Power Wagon.
The men, Paul Crockett and Bob Berry, introduced themselves as gold prospectors from New Mexico looking for a place to stay while they set up their operation in the abandoned mines scattered around the Panamint Mountain range.
“You can’t stay here,” Juanita told them.
Crockett, the older of the two, took charge. “It’s getting dark, code of the desert is you take care of us and we’ll leave when it’s daylight,” he said. “And they offered us food, and we were running low on food, so we all cooked, and we ate together that first night,” she recalls.
The next day came and went, and it soon became apparent the prospectors, now living in the small “bunkhouse” about 50 yards away from the main house at Barker Ranch, weren’t going anywhere. “We were wondering how the hell we were going to get rid of them before Charlie came back,” Juanita says.
Crockett, somewhat of a stoic figure, took a liking to her and Brooks. Despite their urging him to leave, after long days collecting ore samples at the mines, he would join them at night, along with Bob, for dinner and company in the main cabin. “We would sit around the kitchen. Brooks had a four-string guitar, we would sing, and it wasn’t very long into this that we started playing metaphysical games,” she says. “Paul taught us how to create energy balls in our hands, hold it there long enough and we would throw the ball around the kitchen to each other, sort of like playing keep away, but with an energy ball.”
The more he got to know Juanita and Brooks, the more Crockett learned about them, the Family, and “Charlie,” whom they seemed afraid of. They learned about him, too—he told them stories about his mentor, “Doc” Bailey, a student of L. Ron Hubbard who used a machine to help his patients overcome their physical pain through the use of electro-magnetic energy. And he talked about “agreements,” “hundreds of agreements that we make with other people, and it’s the implied agreements that are the strongest,” she says, no doubt referring to their precarious relationship with Manson.
Juanita tells me that Crockett picked up on their concern about “outsiders” at Barker Ranch. “Paul said, ‘I can fix that. We can fix that together.’ And I said, ‘What do we have to do?’ He says, ‘Let’s go back down to the wash’ (the point of entry into Golar Canyon). We get there, and he says, ‘Just imagine an arch made of energy that fills that wash. And on the arch, it says all those who pass this point must be prepared to pay their karmic debts.’ And so we visualized that. We put it up. And people stopped coming. Later, Little Paul told us that Charlie had tried to come up many times and he’d get so far, and he couldn’t get up any further.”
By now convinced that Crockett had special powers over Charlie Manson, Juanita and Brooks began to join him and Bob on their prospecting excursions into the mountains. Juanita jumped at the opportunity to learn a new trade. “We’re all prospecting,” she says. “We had our claims staked.”
They would pack what little gold they found into small vials and take them to Las Vegas, where they could sell the gold for three times its value in the back of a Chinese restaurant.
Meanwhile, Juanita and Bob Berry developed a romantic relationship, after Bob volunteered to stake out a wild cougar that began showing up at the ranch during the night, and Juanita offered to keep him company.
Eventually, Little Paul and Family member Barbara Hoyt (Bo) made it through the energy field and arrived back at the ranch to fetch Brooks and Juanita and bring them back to L.A. Upon their arrival, Little Paul was shocked to learn that they’d taken up with the two prospectors, more so when they confided in him that they’d decided to leave the Family. Little Paul, in his best efforts to emulate Manson, went to work on Crockett, warning him of the coming race war and all that might befall him if he didn’t get “hip” to the scene. Seeing his efforts have little to no effect on Crockett, Little Paul soon became convinced that Crockett had power, perhaps more so than his beloved Charlie, and began talking of defecting from the Family himself and hooking up with Crockett’s prospecting venture. But those plans would have to wait—Little Paul had promised Manson he’d come back to Los Angeles and he intended to honor his commitment. So he and Bo bid farewell to Brooks and Juanita, but not before they asked him for a favor.
“When he was leaving, we said, (Little) Paul, will you do us a favor? Some evening when Charlie and everybody are together in the living room, would you tell Charlie that we want him to release us from all agreements implied or direct? And we will do the same for him. And so Little Paul, I guess, went back and did it, and Charlie said something like, ‘That’s fine. I don’t care.’”
Polish film director Roman Polanski, fresh on the heels of the success of his first Hollywood production, the 1968 horror film “Rosemary’s Baby,” moved into the ranch-style house in Bel Air at 10050 Cielo Drive with his new wife, the up-and-coming young actress Sharon Tate, in February of 1969. The house had previously belonged to music producer Terry Melcher, whom Manson had crossed paths with a number of times through his Dennis Wilson connection.
On the evening of Aug. 8, 1969, Manson instructed family member Charles “Tex” Watson to take Sadie, Katie, and Family newcomer Linda Kasabian to “that house where Melcher used to live” and “totally destroy” everyone in it, and to do it “as gruesome as you can.”
At the house that night were Tate, 8½ months pregnant with Polanski’s baby (he was in Europe working on a film); her ex-boyfriend, the flamboyant hairstylist to the stars, Jay Sebring; screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski; and Frykowski's girlfriend Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune.
When police were called to the scene the next morning, after Polanski’s housekeeper discovered the bodies of Frykowski and Folger on the lawn outside the house, they discovered a ghastly scene that looked like something out of one of Polanski’s movies, with blood splattered throughout the house, and Tate’s body on the ground with a noose around her neck and her stomach cut open. There was even a cryptic message left behind by the killer(s) on the front door: the word “PIG” written in blood.
The following night, grocery store owner Leo LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were murdered in their Los Feliz home in a similar fashion, and the entire city of Los Angeles went into panic mode, certain they’d been targeted by a serial killer of one form or another. It wouldn’t be until December of that year that they’d learn the identity of the killers: a group of drug-induced hippies, members of a religious cult operating inconspicuously in the shadows of the City of Angels.
After she freed herself from Manson, Juanita set about moving forward with her life. At one point, a prospector nicknamed “Heavy” paid a visit to Barker Ranch. When he mentioned to Bob that he was a Justice of the Peace, Bob asked if he would marry him and Juanita, since he had all of the paperwork and could file it at the court in Independence, the seat of Inyo County some 200 miles from the ranch, and he agreed to do it. “I didn't have a dress,” Juanita says. “I just had what I had been wearing. I took the curtains off the windows (of the school bus) and turned them into a dress.”
Meanwhile, Bob’s brother, also a prospector, had a line on an opportunity to mine for turquoise in Arizona, and brought the news to Barker Ranch. With the Golar Canyon operation yielding minimal results, the newlyweds decided to try their luck elsewhere and left Brooks and Crockett behind to carry on without them.
In August of that year, Juanita, Bob and some friends were sitting around a TV in Kingman, Arizona, watching news of the moon landing when a special bulletin about a series of gruesome murders in the L.A. area appeared on the screen. As images of the gory crime scenes flashed across the screen, Juanita felt a pit in her stomach, and turned to Bob. “That’s Charlie. That’s the Family,” she said, though it would be months before investigators would link Charles Manson and his group to the crimes.
Little Paul eventually made it back to Barker Ranch and hooked up with Crockett and Brooks, fully ready to cut ties with Manson. In late September, Manson and the remaining members of the Family finally made it through the energy field and settled in at Meyers Ranch, initiating a stand-off of sorts with Crockett and his camp at Barker.
Manson did his best to woo the hardened prospector to him, but Crockett held his ground. Eager to continue his prospecting in the area, he agreed to offer his assistance to Manson and began bringing supplies up to the ranch in his Power Wagon from the valley below.
At the same time, Sheriff Ward began to grow suspicious of Manson’s activities in and around the desert, believing them to be criminal in nature. One day while exploring the area, Ward happened across Crockett, who was en route back to the ranch with a truck bed full of supplies. Initially reluctant, Crockett agreed to talk with Ward about what he knew, and told him everything, furthering Ward’s suspicions; by now, Ward was devoting all of the resources at his disposal to take Manson down.
That day would come in October, when park rangers discovered one of their earthmovers had been set ablaze deep in the desert, and followed tire tracks from the smoldering heap straight to Golar Canyon. Crockett, having been told by Manson that he “should be more afraid of me than the law,” decided he’d gone about as far as he could at Barker Ranch, and escaped with Brooks over Mengle Pass into Shoshone, where they hooked up with Sheriff Ward, who committed their testimony to tape.
The law descended on Barker Ranch shortly thereafter and arrested Manson and his followers, booking them in jail in Independence on an arson charge. On his arrest report, Manson signed his name “Manson, Charles M., aka Jesus Christ, God.” It wouldn’t be until December that Ward would learn that the hippies he’d arrested for setting fire to an earthmover were guilty of crimes far worse than that.
Manson, Sadie, Katie (real name Patrica Krenwinkle), Leslie (Van Houten) and Tex, were ultimately convicted for their roles in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Initially all received a death sentence, however, in 1972, those sentences were commuted to life in prison (with the possibility of parole) after the Supreme Court of California ruled that the state’s death penalty laws were unconstitutional.
Sadie died in prison from brain cancer in 2009, at age 61, after having been denied parole 14 times. Manson remained in prison until his death at age 82 on Nov. 19, 2017 from cardiac arrest.
Katie and Leslie remain incarcerated and have been denied parole 14 and 22 times, respectively. Tex, a born-again Christian, also remains incarcerated, having been denied parole 17 times, most recently in 2016.
On Sept. 9, 1971, as Barbara “Bo” Hoyt was preparing to board a flight from Hawaii back to California where she was to testify for the prosecution in the Helter Skelter murder trial, Family member Ruth Anne Moorehouse bought her a hamburger and laced it with a multi-dose of LSD in an attempt to kill her. Hoyt survived and testified at the trial, and Moorehouse, along with four other Family members, were later charged with attempted murder. Hoyt died in 2017 at age 65.
Brooks Poston testified for the prosecution during the trial, helping to explain to the jury the Helter Skelter motive. After the trial, he formed a musical group called Desert Sun with Paul Watkins and performed in Inyo County, California. He eventually followed Paul Crockett to Washington, where he still lives today.
Little Paul Watkins went on to become the founder and first president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce and the unofficial mayor of the small town of Tecopa before his death in 1990 from leukemia. He is survived by his second wife and their two daughters, one of whom is the writer Claire Vaye Watkins.
After his confrontation with Manson, Paul Crockett settled into life in the desert and for a period of time, acted as the manager for Brooks and Paul’s band. He eventually married his wife of 30 years, Sylvee, and moved to Washington where he started a metaphysical coaching practice, Balance Point School for Personal Evolution. In a 2012 radio interview, Crockett was asked about his time with Brooks and Juanita in the desert, and the deprogramming he did for them. “They were hungry, they were sharing our food,” he told the interviewer. “And so later on, it became obvious that they sold out to me for a bologna sandwich.” Crockett died on Jan. 10, 2014, at age 89.
As for Juanita, she is content to leave the events of ’68-’69 where she thinks they belong—in the past. She stayed married to Bob until his death two years ago, and they had one son together, who now has his own family. Now retired, she built a successful career working as a licensed therapist and has received high esteem from her colleagues for her work with cult survivors. She is lovely, whip-smart, and very funny. I ask her, with the passing of time, if she ever thought about Sadie or any of the other girls she befriended in the Family. “That’s what the survivor’s guilt was about. I had no doubt that had I been there, I would have done (the same thing). Sadie and Leslie were the people I felt the closest to,” she tells me candidly. She even admits that she considered visiting Sadie in prison at one point, though her therapist talked her out of it.
Today, she is a committed and practicing member of the Jewish faith. She often thinks back to the day she first hiked into Barker Ranch when she heard the sound of bombs and wonders if the psychic medium might have been right—she thinks perhaps she was a young Jewish boy in another life.
Very few people in Juanita’s orbit know about her time with Charlie and the Family; she has not even shared her past with her neighbors who she regularly socializes with. When she tells me her story, she’s remarkably detached from it, but I can tell it still affects her to a degree. I ask her about that. “(I’m hopeful) something good will come out of putting myself out there in a way where it makes me feel better about this whole thing. That like by putting myself out there, I’m breaking the shackles off of me and I’m no longer constrained by this thing, that I have control over it and it doesn't have control over me.”
In one of our conversations, I ask Juanita about Carlos. “What ever happened to him?”
She laughs. “Who knows. For all I know, he’s still in Mexico, waiting for me.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned Beach Boy Drummer Brian Wilson’s estate in Pacific Palisades. The estate belonged to Dennis Wilson, not Brian. The Daily Beast regrets this error.