Stop Four: Spahn Ranch The Manson Family 1969

A decade after The Fountain of the World was bombed, an infamous cult leader decided to set up shop at the Spahn Ranch, located along the east end of the Santa Susanna Pass, just a few miles from Box Canyon.

Spahn Ranch

Spahn Ranch

George Spahn bought the movie ranch in 1948. The property, once owned by Western silent film star, William S. Hart, was the setting for many great films and TV shows; including the classic, “Duel in the Sun” and episodes of “Bonanza” and “The Lone Ranger.”

As the era of Westerns declined, the elderly, Spahn agreed to allow an unsavory element, in the name of Charles Manson, to move onto the ranch. Manson brought with him his “family”; a large group of young Hippie women and several men. The nearly blind Spahn and Manson made an agreement: Spahn would allow Manson and his “family” to stay in exchange for help on the property.

Charlie, deciding to take over operation of the ranch, assigned one of his ‘girls,’ Lynette Fromme (who later attempted to assassinate President Ford,) to take care of Spahn. Apparently she excelled in giving Spahn sexual favors to keep him happy. The old man called her “Squeaky” because of the sound she made when he ran his hand up her leg.

By 1968, Charlie, was an expert at pimping out his girls. The son of a prostitute, Manson had spent much of his 34 years behind bars. Cloaking his dastardly aspirations underneath the Hippie morals of the day--Peace and Love, he’d collected a group of rabid followers that he soon came to completely control.

One of Manson’s dreams was to become a rock star. An answer to his vision came in the form of a chance meeting in the Summer of 1968, when Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys fame) picked up two hitchhikers, who happened to be Charlie’s girls, Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel. Through Wilson, Manson and his family found a connection to the Hollywood scene, partying with some of the elite in the entertainment industry. One promising contact was record producer Terry Melcher, actress Doris Day’s son. (I have a weird association here: a childhood friend--the maid of honor in my wedding--lived in one of Doris Day’s early San Fernando Valley homes.) Over time, Charlie’s Hollywood luster began to fade, and by the Summer of 1969 Charlie was beginning to plot revenge.

Manson, a bigot at heart, concocted his own skewed philosophy, extrapolated from the Beatles song, Helter Skelter; predicting his own version of the end times. The Civil Rights Movement that had erupted all over the United States convinced Charlie of its fast approach. According to his vision blacks were destined to take over the world, but they weren’t inherently smart enough to control things once they came into power. Charlie felt he was the only one with the brains to accomplish that. Eager for world domination, and with a tribe of disenchanted, dysfunctional, and drugged out kids under his spell, all Charlie needed was a plan to get the ball rolling.

The Summer of Slaughter

But before Charlie could bring his plan to fruition his attention was turned elsewhere. Gary Hinman, a devout Buddhist, who lived in Topanga Canyon, was a kind, generous man, who naively considered himself a friend of the Manson family. On July 25th, 1969, Charlie, hearing Gary had come into a $20,000 inheritance, decided to send some of the family to pay him a visit, including family member Bobby Beausoliel.  During three days of torture, Gary was encouraged to join the family and to turn over the money, along with two cars he owned.  When he continually refused, Charlie arrived and struck Gary in the head with a sword, slicing through his ear.  Finally, on July 27th Beausoliel stabbed Gary in the chest twice, killing him. Afterwards, Beausoliel wrote ‘Political Piggy” with Gary’s blood on the wall. Charlie hoped the authorities would think the murder had been committed by the Black Panthers, ushering in Manson’s predicted race war. 

There was no race war, but more murder was on the horizon, because Manson planned to amp up the ante with a bloody, gruesome massacre. 

Before midnight on Friday, August 8th, 1969, Charlie asked one of his men, Tex Watson, to take three of the girls, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian, to Terry Melcher’s house, on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon.

Five people were brutally murdered that night with a gun, multiple knives and hangings; six if you include Sharon’s unborn son. None of the victims were Melcher. He’d moved out of the house months before. 

As Manson predicted, the murders stunned the nation. He’d orchestrated the killing of a houseful of Hollywood elite: Steven Parent (a visitor of the property’s caretaker, discovered by the murders in the driveway); Jay Sebring (a famous Hollywood hairstylist); Abigail Folger (of Folger’s Coffee fame); Wojciech Frykowski (an actor and writer, and a good friend of Roman Polanski--the film director who was renting the property); and Sharon Tate (an emerging starlet, who was eight and a half months pregnant, and the wife of Roman Polanski); Roman Polanski was spared. He was filming in Europe when the murders were committed.

Earlier in the day, Sharon had declined a request from her sisters to spend the night (unknowingly saving both their lives.) The evening of the murders, Sharon, Jay, Abigail and Wojciech, went to El Coyote (a famous Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles) for dinner, returning to the house around 10:30. The authorities believe the Manson Family arrived about an hour later.

Before Tex Watson and the girls left they wrote “pig” with their victim’s blood on the front door. They returned to the ranch and reported to Charlie. Apparently he went to the Benedict Canyon residence to view the slaughter. Dissatisfied...or not, the next time Charlie decided to manage the action in person.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 10, 1969, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca returned from a trip to Lake Isabella, California, and arrived at their Los Feliz home on Waverly Drive. Leno settled with his newspaper in the living room, while Rosemary went to bed. Some time later, Leno was awoken at gunpoint by Charlie and Tex. Manson brought Rosemary into the living room, assuring the couple they wouldn’t be harmed, they were only being robbed.  After collecting all the cash in the house, Charlie left and sent Leslie Van Houten (a new murderous recruit) and Patricia Krenwrinkel inside, instructing them to follow Watson’s orders. The three unleashed a frenzy of carnage on the couple; stabbing Rosemary and Leno dozens of times. Afterwards, the trio carved the word “War” into Leno’s stomach, leaving the carving fork protruding there, along with a knife in his throat.  The girls left messages in Leno’s blood around the house: “Rise” and “Death to Pigs” were written on the living room walls; and “Healter Skelter” was smeared across the refrigerator door. (Apparently Patricia Krenwinkel didn’t know how to spell.)

After the murders, Watson, Van Houten and Krenwinkel stayed in the house. They showered, ate the LaBianca’s food, and played with the LaBiancia’s dogs, before hitchhiking back to the ranch.

A week later, on August 16, 1969 Spahn Ranch was raided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. They were looking for stolen cars and illegal guns. Due to a technicality with the warrant, nobody was arrested. The police had made no connection between the Manson Family and the murders. 

After the raid, Manson decided Shorty Shea, a stuntman who lived on the ranch, was a snitch. Charlie also didn’t like it that Shea was married to a black woman, who liked to bring her black friends around. Around ten o’clock on the evening of August 26th, 1969, Charlie, and some of the men in the family, lured Shea into his car and hit him with a wrench. They tortured him for hours, finally stabbing him to death, and burying his body on the ranch.

In November of 1969, the city was still buzzing with terror. But Susan Atkins was in jail on another charge. She was the one who broke the case open, bragging about the Tate/LaBianca murders to a fellow inmate. On January 25, 1971, after a bizarre trail, Manson and his co-defendants were convicted and sentenced to death. However, in 1972 California temporarily overturned the Death Penalty and the convictions were commuted to life imprisonment.

Spouting love and peace, the Manson Family spread murder and terror throughout Southern California. The summer of slaughter marked the decline of the Hippie Revolution.

Back in Box Canyon, near the Krishna Venta property, is a boulder with “Helter Skelter” vaguely sketched into the rock. It’s said to be visible from the road.

In the early 1970's a brush fire began in the Newhall area and burned all the way to the sea, destroying the Spahn ranch. Maybe its God’s way of “cleansing” the property?

Ghost sightings: The lack of ghost stories in Santa Susanna/Box Canyon makes me wonder if the people who live in the area don’t report sightings because they don’t want any more publicity. Or could it be the area is so tragic and creepy even ghosts avoid it? 

Whichever, one curious photographer exploring the grounds of the Spahn ranch heard the sound of footsteps following her as she explored a lonely, brushy path. Expecting to find somebody, she never discovered the source. 

At Cielo Drive, it is said the ghosts of Sharon Tate and the others brutally murdered that hot summer evening still roam grounds. After the murders people reported hearing moaning, footsteps, and a woman’s voice saying, “Take...intelligible.” The voice has been recorded and there have been different interpretations of the rest of the words. Some believe Sharon is begging for the killers to take the baby boy from her body, in the hope that his life would be saved.

Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame), eventually moved onto the property. I didn’t read any reports of him seeing ghosts, but he exploited the property until he had an encounter with Sharon Tate’s sister, acquired a conscience, and decided to move out. (Reznor still took the blood stained front door with him, and installed it in his New Orleans studio.) Keeping his creepy, Goth Rock Star persona, Reznor told people there was just too much history in the house for him to stay. (I actually love some of his music, but I wonder if the resident ghosts just might have been a bit frightened of him.)

The address has changed and the property was sold to Hollywood producer, David Oman. He razed the house and grounds, but the hauntings still exist. During construction of the new house, workmen noted phantom footsteps, and temperature changes in specific spots. One day a workman felt a cold blast of air coming from nowhere, and left the job for six weeks.

One guest to Oman’s new home reported a frightening incident one evening; she heard footsteps come into the bedroom and felt someone sit on the bed. No one was there. In his bedroom, Oman has also seen apparitions of Jay Sebring.


(Leaving Box Canyon)

North on Box Canyon (towards the Santa Susanna Pass)

Right on Santa Susanna Pass

Address: 22422 Santa Susanna Pass Road, Canoga Park, California

      1200 Santa Susanna Pass Road, Canoga Park, California

      (Two addresses, same Location)

The ranch site looks like it has been divided.

For an overview, you can park in the lot at the Church on Rocky Peak if it's open. The ranch was located on the properties south and southwest below the parking lot.  

There’s a turn-out/driveway at 22422 Santa Susanna Pass Road. Don’t go onto the property. There are “No Trespassing” signs. Closer to Box Canyon, before you get to the 22422 address, there is a baseball diamond/park. This property looks like part of the original Spahn ranch as well. There are remnants of an old sign there, similar to railroad ties. Looking at old pictures that might have been the old entrance to the ranch. It’s flat enough and close to the road. There is a place to pull over there too.

Look for Part Five, our last stop, posting soon.