Manson Ranch Focus of Search for Bodies

A Death Valley ranch used by Charles Manson and his murderous clan nearly 40 years ago may be a burial site for murder victims. Inyo County investigators suspect Manson, serving a life sentence for the "Helter Skelter" killings of 1969, may have hid more bodies at the ranch.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Detectives and forensic experts will spend a second day digging up the ground at the last hideaway of Charles Manson. It's a remote ranch in California's Death Valley. That's the place where Manson was arrested after he and his so-called family carried out the brutal murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others back in 1969.

Now authorities want to know if there were more murder victims, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Rumors have been running through this desert region of California for the last 40 years. Did Charles Manson and his murderous followers kill people and bury them at the desolate Barker Ranch on the edge of Death Valley?

Authorities are trying to answer that question with shovels.

(Soundbite of digging)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) level, best you can.

KAHN: Local police, along with some of the leading forensic scientists in the country, are scouring the ranch, looking for graves and hoping to put an end to the speculation.

Yesterday, in 107-degree heat with a hot, dry wind blowing, authorities began digging at the abandoned ranch. Leading the way is a small-town detective and his black Labrador retriever, Buster.

Mr. PAUL DOSTIE (Detective; Cadaver Dog Trainer): Well, I want to find something.

KAHN: Paul Dostie has been training Buster to be a cadaver dog. He had always heard about the Manson ranch rumors and wanted to put Buster to the test.

Mr. DOSTIE: And for a first search, I thought this would be a good speculative search. I didn't really think we'd find anything, let alone five spots.

KAHN: Then Dostie brought back other cadaver-sniffing dogs to be sure he had taught his companion well. They pointed to some of the same sites. Scientists took soil samples, but they were inconclusive. But Dr. Marc Wise, a leading forensic scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee, says it's worth taking a closer look.

Dr. MARC WISE (Forensic Scientist, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Knoxville, Tennessee): It is a needle-in-a-haystack thing. And right now, dogs are very good at what they do, but the more tools that we can provide to people who are out in the field investigating, the better that will be, ultimately.

KAHN: Wise is using tools that didn't exist 40 years ago, like soil-penetrating radar and sophisticated chemical analysis. Everyone admits finding remains is a long shot. But the big dig, as locals here are calling it, has captivated the region.

Mr. ROCK NOVAK: (Store owner, Ballarat, California): I just call myself Rock. It's easier to spell.

KAHN: Rock Novak runs a tiny store in the Ballarat ghost town near the former Manson ranch.

Mr. NOVAK: I've heard there was like two bodies up there. I've heard there are like 20 bodies up there, and people's imaginations run wild. But I guess they're going to find out for sure.

KAHN: There are no active missing persons reports from the time the Manson cult lived at the ranch. It was a former member who suggested bodies were buried there, while others have speculated that hitchhikers and runaways may have come to the ranch but never left.

Novak says he's curious what the detectives will find. For now, though, he's happy playing unofficial host to reporters, sheriffs' deputies and the curious, who pop in to his rag-tag store.

There are some residents who say the financially strapped county shouldn't be spending money on the dig, but others, like Laura Kirkner(ph), who works for a local newspaper, say it's time to solve the mystery.

Ms. LAURA KIRKNER: This is the only way to come to some conclusion. Otherwise, there's always going to be speculation and in another 10 years, there's going to be somebody else saying we need to go out there and dig and see if there's bodies. So we might as well get it done with now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: The Inyo County sheriff says he'll let the digging continue until Friday. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Inyo County, California.

INSKEEP: Go to npr.org, and you can find photos of an earlier search at that ranch.

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Authorities Hunt for Graves at Manson Hideout

Photo Gallery

hide captionA magazine with the killer's photo remains on a kitchen table at the abandoned ranch.

Gary Kazanjian/AP

For nearly 40 years, rumors have swirled that dozens of victims of Charles Manson's family are buried at a remote, mountainous ranch in California's Death Valley National Park. Now, with the help of a dog named Buster, authorities are investigating whether the talk is true.

A police detective last year took Buster, a dog trained to find cadavers, to the site where Manson hid after a killing spree that left seven dead in the summer of 1969. Buster's agitated behavior indicated the presence of decaying human remains, Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun told Alex Chadwick.

Subsequent searches were inconclusive, as were soil tests, but Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze said he would allow a limited four-day excavation at Barker Ranch beginning Tuesday. The main targets of the dig were to be hot spots that Buster had flagged.

"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 a statement. "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."

Locals, however, have predicted that the only remains investigators will unearth will be from ancient Indian graves. They are concerned about the dig's costs, Sahagun reports. Even if investigators find remains, it's unclear whether Inyo County can afford to perform the necessary tests to identify the victims.

Manson is serving a life sentence at the California State Prison in Corcoran for the murders, whose victims included actress Sharon Tate. Manson had been sentenced to die, but that sentence was commuted after the California Supreme Court declared the state's death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. It was reinstated several years later.

Sagahun posits that if Manson were to be convicted on additional homicide charges, it's possible he might once again receive a death sentence.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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