- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) - Bone-white stretches of salt, leached up from the lifeless soil, lay like a shroud over the high desert where a paranoid Charles Manson holed up after an orgy of murder nearly four decades ago.

Now, as then, few venture into this alkaline wilderness — mostly gold diggers, outlaws, loners content to live and let live.

But a determined group of outsiders recently made the trek. They were leading forensic investigators searching for new evidence of death — clues pointing to possible decades-old clandestine graves.

And the results of just-completed follow-up tests suggest that bodies could indeed be lying beneath the parched ground. The test findings — described in detail to the Associated Press, which accompanied the site search — conclude that there are two likely clandestine grave sites at Barker Ranch, and one additional site that merits further investigation.

Next step, the ad hoc investigators urge: Dig.

For years, rumors have swirled about other possible Manson family victims — hitchhikers who visited them at the ranch and were not seen again, runaways who drifted into the camp then fell out of favor.

The same jailhouse confessions that helped investigators initially connect the band of misfits living in the Panamint Mountains to the gruesome killings that terrorized Los Angeles hinted at other deaths. Manson follower Susan Atkins boasted to her cellmate on Nov. 1, 1969, that there were “three people out in the desert that they done in.” Other stories surfaced. But in the absence of bodies, they were forgotten.

“We prosecuted Manson and the family for all the murders we could prove. But you know, could he have killed someone else? Possibly. Could another member of the family have killed someone? Sure,” said Steve Kay, a former deputy district attorney.

Last month, equipped with cutting-edge forensic technology, the investigators assembled in the ghost town of Ballarat for a 20-mile ride in all-terrain vehicles to the ranch.

The team included two national lab researchers carrying instruments to detect chemical markers of human decomposition, a police investigator with a cadaver-seeking dog, and an anthropologist armed with a magnetic resonance reader.

Also in the group were Debra Tate, whose life was forever marked by the cult’s brutal murder of her pregnant sister, actress Sharon Tate; and a gold prospector who was once Manson’s closest neighbor and remains intimate with the sharp creases of the Panamints.

Prospector Emmett Harder guided the expedition.

He had a claim on Manley peak, one of the jagged points looming over Barker Ranch, while the Manson family camped out there in the late 1960s. During one of these visits, he heard Manson say, “We’re not hippies; we’re here to get away from the troubles of the world.”

Later, Mr. Harder would learn more about the cult leader’s belief that the end of the world, which he called “Helter Skelter,” was near — and Manson’s conviction that through murder, he had a role to play in accelerating that chaotic time.

For the last few miles of the rugged gravel road from Ballarat, the route tilts sharply upward as it enters narrow Goler Wash.

“The family’s plan was to make this impassable — you can see how you could do that here,” said Sgt. Paul Dostie, a police detective and dog handler from the town of Mammoth Lakes, pointing to the boulders that protrude like bones from the canyon walls.

Barker Ranch was one of several hide-outs used by Manson and his followers.

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