I am really going off the beaten path today as Christa, my daughter, and I decided to have an adventure in Hollywood history this week while we were off for the holiday and the reaction of others to our destination was quite surprising to me. We went to the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch which was home to Manson and The Family at the time of the Tate/La Bianca murders.
Having spent many years of my early career working in death row and criminal law I was interested in the prosecution of the Charles Manson murder trial. I have read Vincent Bugliosi’s book, “Helter Skelter” several times as has Christa and been fascinated by his brilliant prosecution of Manson and the girls. Well, not so much the girls who could be placed at the scene of the crime and were witnessed participants, but the fact that he could successfully prosecute Manson who though the mastermind and guilty as hell, did not physically perform any of the murders. This was beyond brilliant and being in this area of the legal field for so many years, I was so very impressed. The unfathomable mistakes by the LAPD, the loss of evidence, the egos within the department and the threats and courtroom antics of Manson and the girls all should have made successful prosecution impossible, but this man prevailed. The difficulties he was up against just floored me so I wanted to see the ranch for myself.
This year Christa and I moved to a new home that is about 10 minutes from Spahn Movie Ranch so since we had the time off we headed over there yesterday. When many of our friends found out where we were going they found it frightening and disconcerting. I was amazed at the fear and anger that still surrounds this once historic film and tv ranch. It was very disturbing to a lot of people that we chose to go. I have trouble understanding this because to me it is the people who committed the heinous crime that are guilty, not the land. I was shocked to realize that it actually made me kind of sad that this historic old place is now saddled with this public view and that its once charmed history is now forgotten and replaced by the memory of its one time murderous inhabitants. It is such a breathtakingly beautiful place. Yet, despite my feelings I very much respected how others were feeling. My mother was very upset that we went and made that very clear, friends worried about us getting hurt in some way there and others felt as though the evil was so great that they could not look at any photos we took or hear about our trip. These are very real and valid feelings for them. They care about us and this was such a horrendous crime.
Friends from Los Angeles who were here at the time of the murders tell us that this event totally changed Los Angeles. This is when people started locking their doors, getting attack dogs and security. They tell us that the Los Angeles was absolutely crazed at that time. When wildfires burned down all of the residential buildings and movie sets on the ranch in 1970 people in Los Angeles said that it was God purging the evil from the land.
In it’s heyday, Spahn was quite the magnificent place. And I’ll wager that most all of you have actually seen Spahn Ranch in its pre-Manson days. It was the location of many of our most beloved old westerns tv shows and films. It was the location for “Zorro” and “Bonanza” among so many others. It was also a place where horses, wagons, stage coaches and the like were rented by filming companies for their projects.
George Spahn bought the 500 acre ranch in 1948 from silent film actor William Hart and at that time began to rent it out for location filming. It’s almost prehistoric looking terrain, gulches, caves and trails made it perfect for Westerns. While never the “A” film location that some of the other ranches were, it was a popular filming location for the industry and served George Spahn well. The now leveled ranch has now been made part of the Santa Susana Pass National Park.
In August of 1968, 80 year old George Spahn, in fragile health and nearly blind, allowed Charles Manson and the family to move onto the ranch rent free in exchange for labor. They fed the animals, did what little cleaning was done and kept Spahn fed. Unbeknownst to Spahn it was a bargain with the devil for certain. After Charlie and the girls were arrested for the murders, Vincent Bugliosi’s investigation in preparation for trial revealed that there were at least nine other murders that took place on the ranch and that the bodies were buried all around the place. The most notable one to me was the murder of Spahn’s ranch hand, Shorty. Shorty didn’t buy what Manson was selling and just “suddenly disappeared.” Spahn was told he ran off. Bugliosi was told by witnesses that he had been shot by Manson and his body dismembered and buried there on the ranch in numerous places. Shorty’s body was found, in one piece, but lack of evidence saw no one charged for the murder. He was among many who have been found, but whose murderer, though known, could not be proven.
One of the first things Christa and I noticed as we looked over the ranch was the fact that there were a million places you could hide yourself, a body or run to if you were being pursued. Manson was very smart in his choosing of the ranch, though not so brilliant in the execution of his plan to take over the world, uncaught. It was a fugitive’s dream if he had the sense to run. Instead, when the police raided the ranch to arrest Charlie and members of the family, Charlie, who is very tiny in stature was found hiding in a kitchen cabinet under the kitchen sink.
Charles Manson and the family lived at Spahn Movie Ranch for barely over a year and in that time totally obliterated its once glowing history as a film location for great western films and tv and instead branded it for eternity as a haven for murderers and a piece of hell on Earth. A place so evil that many people still can’t bear to talk of the place.
The ranch is no longer accessible as it was during Manson’s time there. There is no place to pull off the windy two lane road and try to enter the property which is a good thing considering that many people who have managed to get onto it have been run off by a man with a rifle. Instead the best thing you can do is take photos of it from the church that stands directly across the street. When you walk across the road to the edge of the property and look down the gulch to the right, there is a definite eerie, frightening feeling. It truly feels haunted. As beautiful as it is, it is a very solemn place. Christa and I, avid Bonanza fans, recognized certain rock formations that we have seen on episodes of the show, but while that made us smile, it still couldn’t overcome the feeling that there was a pall over the place.
We talked of the movie history and of course the Manson history as we stood there on the very edge of the gulch. We discussed how you could see the different places they kept their armed lookouts, the places they drove their dune buggies, where the ranch stood, all the cult type crazies that still sneak up there for their different reasons and rituals in their sort of homage to Manson and what a shame it was that the movie sets and all that film history had been destroyed. At that very moment neither of us felt that Spahn Movie Ranch was hell. We felt it was a victim of circumstance. Then I looked down at my feet which were right at the edge of the gulch and not 18 inches away just over the edge lay a dead ram. It had almost made it up the side of the gulch and was literally about three steps from being on the level ground where I stood. I just stared at it knowing that the chances of a ram of all things, one of the most sure footed of animals, an animal often sacrificed in rituals, just dropping dead 18 inches from the top of the gulch was infinitesimal. I quietly asked Christa to come next to me and look at my feet. I knew from the look on her face that she was thinking the same thing that I was. Maybe this piece of land is cursed to be a part of hell now. Then we quietly got in the car and headed home.