May 10, 2008 - 9:00 pm
At a remote Death Valley ranch 150 miles west of Las Vegas, a forensic dig is about to unfold that could lay to rest years of rumors or unearth another grisly chapter in the story of Charles Manson and his “family” of followers.
Authorities in Inyo County, Calif., on Friday announced plans to excavate several sites at Barker Ranch, where the doomsday cult leader was captured after a 1969 murder spree.
The dig is slated to start May 20 and last about four days, although it could be expanded depending on what investigators turn up.
Earlier this year, a team of forensics experts searched the property with a cadaver dog and high-tech equipment designed to detect buried human remains.
In a statement released Friday, Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze said that search was inconclusive but did identify several spots that seemed to warrant excavation.
“There was no consistent response from the dogs that searched, and no conclusive findings from the soil samplings tested by top experts in the field,” Lutze said in the statement. “Therefore, I believe the only way to determine once and for all whether there are bodies buried at Barker Ranch from the time of the Manson family is to proceed with limited excavation in a very few areas.”
The National Park Service has announced plans to close the ranch and surrounding area during the dig to “protect the integrity of the investigative process as well as the property rights of the private land owners adjacent to Barker Ranch.”
The earlier search was conducted by Inyo County investigators and forensics experts from the Utah State Attorney General’s Office, the Uintah County, Utah, Sheriff’s Department, and a private lab in Virginia.
They used portable ground penetrating radar, magnetometers and lasers. Lutze called it “the stuff of television’s ‘CSI’ series.”
“A laser … causes bones to literally glow at a great distance, which is helpful to search teams covering a large outdoor area,” he said.
Investigators also brought a portable gas chromatograph mass spectrometer to test soil samples at the site, but the device was damaged during the rough trip to the property.
Barker Ranch is just inside the national park’s western boundary in a remote area of the Panamint Mountains, miles from the nearest paved road.
The most direct route from Las Vegas involves 120 miles of desert highway and another 30 miles of rough dirt road.
The site is not listed on a map handed out to Death Valley visitors, and the Park Service has made little effort to publicize or interpret the ranch.
“Currently, there’s not much out there,” said Aaron Shander, acting chief ranger for Death Valley National Park. “The site has experienced vandalism to a great degree.”
Rumors have swirled for years about unmarked graves at Barker Ranch, sandy holes dug for hitchhikers and runaways who were drawn to Manson’s hideout only to fall victim to his cult of the apocalypse.
The Manson family fled to the desert after terrorizing Los Angeles with a series of brutal murders in the summer of 1969.
They were captured that October, when a joint force of park rangers, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies raided Barker Ranch and neighboring Myers Ranch in search of suspects in a rash of car thefts and vandalism at what then was Death Valley National Monument.
No bodies were discovered on the property, but about two dozen people were swept up in the raid, including Manson, who was found hiding in a cabinet beneath the ranch’s bathroom sink.
Manson, now 73, is serving a life sentence at California’s Corcoran State Prison for the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate.
If the remains of more victims are discovered later this month, it could strain the resources of far-flung Inyo County.
Covering more than 10,000 square miles of mountains and desert, the county is larger than six Eastern states but it has a population of fewer than 20,000 people.
Already, Inyo County authorities are trying to head off a possible media frenzy.
Only a small pool of reporters will be allowed onto the ranch for daily briefings on the dig, and none of them will get to camp on or around the property.
In a tersely worded statement issued along with the announcement of the dig, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department announced it would not entertain any requests to let more reporters into the area.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.