Behind the Scenes: Body hunt at Manson ranch

CNN/May 9, 2008

Death Valley, California - The Charles Manson murder spree of 1969 ended in a remote Death Valley, California, cabin called Barker Ranch. It's where Manson and members of his cult "family" hid after the seven murders, dubbed the "Helter Skelter" killings that terrified the country.

Now, thanks to a small-town detective and his cadaver dog, Manson's hideout might be searched for more murder victims.

About a year ago, Sgt. Paul Dostie of the Mammoth Lakes Police Department decided to test his dog, Buster, at the Barker Ranch. He heard rumors that Manson and his followers had killed more people and buried them behind their hideout.

After several visits, Buster, who was trained to find human remains, found five possible graves, Dostie says.

A few weeks ago, a CNN crew went with Dostie, Buster and gold prospector Emmett Harder to Barker Ranch. Harder knew Manson and his top lieutenant, Charles "Tex" Watson, and spent time with the Manson family in 1969. Harder says at that time he had no idea some of Manson's group of more than 30 men, women and children had just gone on a killing spree. Video Watch a report from the ranch »

Getting to the Barker Ranch requires a four-wheel drive to manage the steep, rocky terrain of the Golar Wash - a narrow passage separating the High Desert Mountains from the arid desert valley below. As we bounced around on the drive in, it was hard to imagine how Manson and his cult got a school bus up the same road 40 years ago. Photo See photos inside the Manson compound »

We finally arrived at the Barker Ranch about an hour after leaving the ghost town of Ballarat.

Before Buster, the dog, went to work - we went into the old cabin which was virtually unchanged since Manson and his crew was arrested here.

Dostie shows us the bathroom where Manson was hiding at the time of his arrest - crammed in a tiny cabinet.

"His hair was sticking out," Dostie said, as he explained how Manson was found while an officer was using the bathroom.

Emmett Harder, the gold prospector, showed us the old kitchen where he and the Manson girls ate pancakes.

"We rolled them up and dipped them in syrup," said Harder, who hired Watson and Manson to do some work - even thought he says he didn't trust them around his gold mine.

"Find Fred," Dostie shouts, a command used to send Buster looking for remains.

One by one, with our camera rolling, the 4-year-old black lab goes to five separate areas, which Dostie believes are the site of old graves.

"I don't know who's buried here, but I think there are bodies," Dostie says as he praises his dog.

"I think there were more," says Harder, recalling a story one of the Manson girls once told him.

"This one girl didn't get along with Manson or Watson at all," Harder recalls. "And they took her for a walk, and they came back in a short distance, and we never saw her again," he says, raising an eyebrow under his cowboy hat.

CNN sent letters to Manson and "Tex" Watson, asking if there were victims buried behind Barker Ranch.

Manson never replied, but Watson did.

In a letter, he told CNN: "I was the first family member to go to the desert after the murders and also the first to leave. I say this only to let you know that no one was killed while I was in the desert. But I don't know what took place after I left. I don't think there were any more killed, I hope not! I have absolutely nothing to hide." See the letters sent to CNN »

Police say they don't know of anyone associated with Manson who was reported missing after his arrest.

Barker Ranch is located on federal land but the decision whether to do a follow-up dig is up to the Inyo County Sheriff's Department, which wanted do more testing - including sonar readings - before spending the time and money to excavate.

After reviewing soil samples uncovered by Dostie, a team of Oak Ridge scientists recently traveled to the ranch for further testing. They found enough evidence to excavate - evidence of possible remains at three of the same places where his cadaver dog alerted, Dostie says.

"It seems very viable," he says. "I would say we have a tremendous amount of probable cause to look."

Even if bodies are found, there is no guarantee they would ever be identified, and even if the bodies were identified, prosecuting Manson or any of his followers for murder would be virtually impossible.

"Really that's not what we're interested in," Dostie says. "Many of these Manson family members are on one-year parole reviews, and there's a lot of movement out there to try to get them out."

A decision on a dig is expected this week. Without a search, we may never know whether Buster the dog was just barking, or whether his barks unlocked a Manson family secret.

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