How Many Uncounted Victims Did the Manson Gang Kill?

Charles Manson’s last days were filled with talk of marriage and environmentalism, but there wasn’t a word about the undiscovered corpses the Manson Family may have murdered.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

A new generation of followers has been exposed to Manson ideology through the work of his closest associates outside prison, whom he called Star Manson and Gray Wolf.

Star, aka Afton Elaine Burton, grew up in Bunker Hill, Illinois, a rural white community of 1.25 square miles and seventeen hundred residents. An idealistic animal advocate who grew up playing in the woods with her brother, Star was so inspired by Manson’s environmental philosophy that she began writing him. It took only one letter for him to write her back.

Next thing her parents knew, their 18-year-old daughter had moved to California in 2006 to be near a convicted mass murderer who had given her a new name.

Star acknowledged “it might sound strange” that it took such a short time for her to decide she wanted to be with Manson. “He never asked me to come here, I just did it,” Star said in a radio interview in 2015. “I just knew that’s what I was going to do.”

For the next decade, she seemed to have helped inspire Manson to reinvent himself and his image, disseminating his ideas about saving the planet in new ways via interlinked websites and social media.

Even though Star carved an “X” into her forehead like her predecessors, her well-coordinated multimedia approach was much more benign, and a marked contrast to the fire and blood of Manson’s old-school “activism.”

Under her watch, the blog Release Charles Manson Now was launched, with a letter-writing plea for advocates who believed in his innocence, along with the websites Atwaearth.com and the more political Mansondirect.com. After a decade of lying fallow, ATWA was also resurrected as a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation by Star and Craig Hammond, a decades-old friend of Manson’s who went by the name Gray Wolf.

Over the years, Manson had invented a device dubbed the Savior, an unpatented seed gun, similar to a paintball launcher, that uses “seed balls” made from clay, compost, and seeds to help renew and restore public and private lands. The goal of Manson’s larger mission, perversely titled the Savior Project, was to sprout trees and “beneficial native plant species” in California areas “that have been degraded by logging, erosion, fire, drought and other natural and industrial processes,” according to the ATWA website.

A Manson warning from 2011 is also posted on the site, cautioning that people who used chemical products such as toothpaste, soap, mouthwash, bleach, and hair dye were enemies of planet Earth: “Everything I touch is polluting. The birth of life on the planet has got to be green, it’s got to come through the bushes, got to come through the trees, it has got to come through the seaweeds and the fish, the birds, the bees. Your bumble bees are dying. Your trees are being warred upon.”

Manson isn’t mentioned anywhere in ATWA’s organizational paperwork on file with the state attorney general’s office, however, which states that the group is raising money to carry out these same educational programs.

In 2012, ATWA projected it would raise $73,000 over the next three years. But by 2015, it had collected only $8,986, with a mere $86 coming in that year. ATWA isn’t required to disclose funding sources because it collects less than $50,000 a year.

“I have to be always above board, because I know that people want to catch me doing something, so I don’t do anything, and the same goes for Charlie,” Star said in 2015, adding that the interest in ATWA hadn’t been as strong as they’d hoped. “I’m not using this [money] to buy candy.”

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Curiously, though, after Gray Wolf was booked into the Kings County Jail in March 2013 for bringing a phone into Corcoran before a planned visit with Manson—possession of an illegal communication device, and conspiracy to commit a crime—he was able to cover the thirty-thousand-dollar bail and get out of jail within just four hours.

On November 7, 2014, Star created a national media furor when she walked into the Kings County Clerk-Recorder’s Office and obtained a license to marry Manson in a prison wedding.

Star had already told Rolling Stone a year earlier of their plans to marry. “When that will be, we don’t know,” she’d said. “But I take it very seriously. Charlie is my husband. Charlie told me to tell you this. We haven’t told anybody about that.” If she and Manson had been allowed conjugal visits, she added, they would have tied the knot already.

“It’s what I was born for, you know,” she said.

Manson confused matters by dismissing the marriage idea in the same Rolling Stone article. “‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘That’s a bunch of garbage. You know that, man. That’s trash. We’re just playing that for public consumption.’”

Not long after they got the marriage license, Manson had a routine checkup and was immediately sent to a community hospital. He’d been taking nitroglycerin for heart problems since at least 2010, and had long suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. After some kind of operation, possibly to place stents to enhance blood flow to his heart, he was moved into Corcoran’s hospital unit.

There, he still had a single cell, but he slept in a hospital bed instead of a pad on a slab. His phone access also became more limited, and he wasn’t allowed visitors for several months.

Manson told friends that prison staff had also started requiring him to be shackled while walking from that unit, through his old digs in the PHU, to the visiting room, so he stopped accepting most visitors.

The marriage license expired after ninety days on February 5, 2015. Three days later, the New York Post ran a story headlined “Charles Manson’s Fiancée Wanted to Marry Him for His Corpse: Source.”

Manson’s friend John Michael Jones said the article was based at least partially in fact: Star had told someone, who told the media, that she and Gray Wolf were planning to display Manson’s corpse in a glass case and charge admission.

Once the story went public, Star said it had nothing to do with the wedding delay. “We got blindsided, because when he went to the hospital—I don’t want to accuse anyone [at the prison]—but they took that as their chance and I didn’t hear from him for like a month… I wasn’t able to see him for ninety days,” she said. “So, yes, that was the reason, not because I wanted to [display] his dead body.”

Four months later, a videographer saw Star and Gray Wolf acting chummy at a gem show an hour’s drive from Corcoran. When the videographer asked Star about her wedding plans, Gray Wolf reportedly put him in a chokehold. The result was a National Enquirer story headlined “Charles Manson Lover Two-Times Him With Cult Disciple ‘Gray Wolf.’”

Manson had asked Star to let Gray Wolf sleep on her couch, but he ultimately had to acknowledge that the man, who was also many years older than Star, had become more intimate with Charlie’s girlfriend than he’d expected. Feeling betrayed by Gray Wolf, Manson started referring to him as “Dead Rat.”

Manson’s grandson, Jason Freeman, had gotten to know Star well enough by phone to jokingly call her Grandma. When he asked her about the marriage delay, she said she couldn’t get Manson to sign paperwork that would give her a say over his estate and belongings.

“Charlie’s so hard to speak with sometimes, he moves so slow,” she told him.

By 2016, Manson’s longtime friend Ben Gurecki said Charlie had never been serious about the wedding, and that Star had since moved to Malibu to be with a guy closer to her age.

A year later, Jones confirmed that Manson knew all about Star’s new man: a Hollywood actor in his midfifties named Vincent Gallo, who sought out Star, did in fact live in Malibu, and, because of his physical resemblance to Charlie, had been asked to play him in a movie. Could this all be part of his method-acting prep?

Manson’s friends on the outside contend that other inmates had been stealing his mail and belongings for years to sell them on the Internet. Recently, Manson told Jones that personal items such as his dentures and reading glasses had been found in the cells of inmates who worked in the prison hospital.

But what most infuriated Jones and Gurecki was that Star and her new boyfriend convinced Manson in 2017 to ship them his beloved guitar, a hand-made instrument crafted out of Bulgarian rosewood and cedar, with the promise that they would send him a “better” one. Jones and Gurecki had split the cost of that guitar and sent it as a gift to Manson years ago.

Jones said he was also upset that Star had left the town of Corcoran for LA with a bunch of Charlie’s artwork and other items, which Jones valued at twenty thousand dollars.

Nonetheless, Jones said, “I think he’s still in love with her.”

Even in his final days, Manson still wouldn’t comment on other murders that he and other Family members had boasted they committed fifty years ago.

When asked, he said, “I’m not a snitch, and the last person I’ll snitch on is me.”

Based on ranch hand Juan Flynn’s statement that Manson had bragged about killing 35 people, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said he believed the number of victims could “be very close to, and may even exceed, Manson’s estimate,” which would leave at least 26 unsolved murders. Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Ruth Ann “Ouisch” Moorehouse have all said there were eleven murders, still two more than the official total.

As such, the LAPD continues to deny public record requests for information on this case, citing open investigations into “unsolved crimes Manson Family members are suspected of committing.”

When details of the known murders hit the news in 1969, authorities up and down California looked for possible connections to unsolved homicides in areas where Family members had stayed or been arrested.

These included the deaths of two teenagers who were each stabbed more than 50 times, their right eyes removed, and the girl left naked near Scientology communes in LA; an antique store owner and her granddaughter in Ukiah; and a nineteen-year-old Swedish-born girl from Canada whose body was found on Mulholland Drive not far from Spahn Ranch. After the Canadian visitor was finally identified in 2016, LAPD detectives traveled to Corcoran to interview Manson, but got no useful information from him.

The list of potential victims also includes Charlie’s paternal uncle Darwin Scott, who was found stabbed nineteen times in his apartment in Ashland, Kentucky, by either a kitchen knife or a bayonet, both weapons used in the Tate and LaBianca slayings. Due to the “overkill” nature of the crime and its timing—on May 18, 1969, three months before the others—some believe this could have been a revenge killing in retaliation for Darwin’s brother Colonel abandoning Charlie and his mother.

Ronald Hughes was another whose death Vincent Bugliosi and others attributed to the Family. Bugliosi said as much in Helter Skelter: “One thing is now known, however. If an admission by one of Manson’s most hard-core followers is correct, Ronald Hughes was murdered by the Manson Family.”

James Forsher, one of the teens who drove Hughes to the Sespe Hot Springs, subsequently sued Bugliosi. Forsher, who accused the author of libel, invasion of privacy, and obliquely linking him to Hughes’s suspicious end in Helter Skelter, lost his lawsuit.

Similarly, Bugliosi saw a connection between the Family and the murder of a young marine whose car was parked outside a house where his young wife’s body was found buried in fresh dirt in the basement. Family members Nancy Pitman and Priscilla Cooper were arrested there—with Xs on their foreheads—along with two men with “AB,” short for Aryan Brotherhood, tattoos. Police also arrested Lynette Fromme after she called the house to ask for a ride there.

Cooper claimed that the dead marine’s wife had killed herself playing Russian roulette, just like Zero. But Bugliosi believed that the couple, who had been associated with the Family for a year, had been murdered because they knew too much and were about to report the Family’s crimes, including Hughes’s murder, to police.

Other Manson Family victims were thought to have been killed in Death Valley, where Atkins and other members said “two boys and a girl [were] buried about eight feet deep behind the Barker Ranch.” More specifically, members said a girl went for a walk toward Myers Ranch with Charlie and Tex but never returned, and a teenage hiker suspiciously “disappeared” from Barker, leaving his backpack behind. Investigators tried searching at the time, but never uncovered any graves.

Paul Dostie, a retired Mammoth Lakes Police Department sergeant, has been on a mission to unearth these bodies in the desert for more than a decade. Dostie has made numerous trips to Barker and Myer Ranches, where his trained cadaver dog, a Labrador named Buster, “alerted” at more than five sites. The sites have since been reconfirmed multiple times by Dostie’s colleagues, forensic anthropologists Arpad Vass and Marc Wise, using devices designed to detect chemicals specific to the decomposition of human remains.

Dostie, Vass, and Wise have attempted to persuade authorities, ranging from Inyo County law enforcement to the federal Office of Inspector General and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, that local officers have never dug deep enough to find the remains.

Previous digs have gone no deeper than four feet at all but one of the sites, even after Dostie relayed this comment from Manson, who attributed the tip to his Mafia mentors at Terminal Island: “You always bury bodies eight feet deep because the cops won’t dig past six. If you can go twelve, go twelve.”

But after officials found no remains, they refused to dig again, insisting it was fruitless and costly, and that their conclusion was based in science.

Vass strongly disagreed. “We were in the right spot, I’m sure of that,” he said recently. “There’s absolutely no question there are bodies out there. We knew the bodies were going to be deep. Even Manson was freaked out that we were digging out there.”

Vass was referring to a remark Manson made after reading news reports about Buster’s “alerts” in the desert. “I’m having nightmares about that dog,” Manson told John Michael Jones. “That dog is trying to get me the death penalty.”

Dostie blames the roadblocks on Inyo County politics and fear of revealing the incompetence of past investigations. “The reason why they refuse to do any further investigating and ignore proven science and additional investigative leads that we have developed is because they don’t want to expose the poor job that they have done investigating the Manson Family’s activities in their county for over forty years,” he said.

Dostie said he personally interviewed Manson 170 times by phone, but was never able to obtain any admissions. However, he is still convinced that the remains of at least five missing people are waiting to be discovered in the desert where the Manson Family was arrested in October 1969, and that the victims’ families should have justice and closure.

“Those families deserve to know what happened to their loved ones,” he said.

Excerpted from Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Age of Helter Skelter by Lis Wiehl with Caitlin Rother. Copyright 2018 by Lis Wiehl. Published by Thomas Nelson.