Inside the house at Barker Ranch, situated high in the Panamint Mountains above Death Valley some twenty miles from any sign of civilization, Paul Crockett sat at the little table near the kitchen, smoking a Pall Mall down to the nub. Next to him, Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins, his proteges, sat in their chairs, their eyes fixed on the front door, anxiously awaiting their fate.
The front door busted open and wild-eyed Charles Manson, all 5'2" of him, stood in the doorway, breathing heavy, intense, his glazed fixed on the old prospector. “So, you’re the man who’s been turning my people against me,” he said as he moved closer to Crockett, sticking his neck out in his direction as he spoke. “The thing I want to know is how you been doin’ that?”
Crockett looked up at him. “I haven’t turned anyone against you, Charlie.”
Charlie chuckled. “Really? Then what’s all this crap about them asking to be released from their agreements with me?”
Crockett dabbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. “If they asked for that, it wasn’t because I told them to.”
“They ain’t never said nothin’ about agreements before they met you,” Charlie continued. “They don’t do nothin’ without asking me first, dig? They know better than that.”
In March of 1969, when two ambitious gold prospectors arrived in Golar Canyon, a desolate, almost impassable stretch of earth carved deep into the Panamint Mountains in the southern-most section of Death Valley, they had no idea they were about to cross paths with one of America’s most notorious criminals.
By that time, Paul Crockett, the expedition leader, had already lived many lives. Now in his mid-40’s, he’d flown combat missions as a flight navigator over the Pacific during World War II, operated his own bicycle repair shop in his native Carlsbad, New Mexico, and taken up gold prospecting as both a personal hobby and a potential revenue generating operation. Most importantly, he’d studied metaphysics under the tutelage of his mentor, Doc Bailey, a “new age” doctor of sorts and devotee of the Russian philosopher George Gurdjieff, who’d invented a way to heel people of their physical pain using a electro-magnet device he’d built. Crockett would say later that it wasn’t so much the box that healed his patients, but the fact that Doc Bailey was able to get them to want to be healed. For Crockett, personal achievement was always tied to intention and the power of the human mind to focus on a goal by directing attention to it.
Bob Berry, Crockett’s prospecting partner, was shorter in stature, a few years younger than him, and by all accounts, more interested in a good time than anything overtly spiritual, at least at that stage of his life. Berry had visited the Golar Canyon area in the winter of 1968, where he’d passed through Barker Ranch, a former vacation property that had long since been abandoned and converted into an encampment for transient prospectors passing through the area, staking claims in the mines scattered throughout the mountain range.
At Barker Ranch, he encountered a group of hippies who spent the majority of their time wandering around the desert searching for a “bottomless pit”, playing music, and absorbing the teachings of their self-appointed leader, a charismatic guy named “Charlie” who would preach to them about the end of days, a forthcoming race war between whites and blacks, and the importance of giving up your ego for your brother. It was in Death Valley where they would find a hole in the ground that would lead them to an underground city where they would hide out and await the end of the race war, then emerge to help the black man run the new world.
At the time, Berry chalked it up to drug-induced fantasy and didn’t give it a second thought, more focused on the scantily-clad teenage girls who seemed to live without restraint and what he might be able to get from them. Crockett, on the other hand, had heard from Berry and others about the potential of the Golar Canyon area to yield large quantities of “yellow metal” that could be smelted from ore and sold at a significant profit. They both had their reasons for returning to the area in the spring of ‘69.
They arrived at Barker Ranch in a red Dodge power wagon that had proved capable at passing over the difficult terrain that lined the winding, boulder-strewn dirt road about ten miles up from the valley down below. There, they were greeted by Juanita Wildebush, 23, and Brooks Poston, 19, two members of the hippie clan that had been left behind to “keep an eye on the place” while the rest of the group went back to Los Angeles to make their final arrangements to permanently relocate to the desert. Juanita, an earthy blond woman a few years older than most of the members of the “Family Jams” (the name the group had given themselves), had hooked up with them only recently after picking up hitchhikers in San Jose on her way to Mexico to meet up with her fiancé, a Mexican citizen she’d met while studying abroad. The hitchhikers, which included long-time Family member Susan “Sadie” Atkins, invited her to stay with them at Spahn Ranch, their base of operations in the far northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood but close enough for Charlie to pursue his ambition as a professional singer/songwriter. There, Juanita found sanctuary, the epitome of the communal lifestyle she would later say she had been looking for all of her life.
Poston, on the other hand, had joined the group while working as a ranch hand at Spahn, a former Western-themed movie set now functioning as a horse-rental facility. A skilled guitar player and songwriter in his own right, Poston quickly befriended Paul “Little Paul” Watkins, Charlie’s right hand man and lead recruiter, and the two bonded over their shared passion for music. Like so many others who crossed into his orbit, Poston soon found himself enamored of Charlie, this 33-year-old ex con turned guru, and agreed to put a hold on his own pursuits in favor of helping the collective achieve theirs: a utopian lifestyle free from the constraints of modern society.
By the time he’d landed at Barker Ranch, Poston was a shell of his former self, and would later say that he’d resolved himself to death, spending his days awaiting whatever form that would take. Juanita, on the other hand, still held out hope for the future, despite being duped by the Family who’d agreed to return within 10 days of leaving her and Brooks behind to drop off more supplies. By March, it had been close to three months without word from any of them, so when Crockett and Berry arrived at Barker that spring day, she was a mixed bag of emotions: elated to see other people but skeptical about their reasons for being there.
Crockett informed her and Brooks of their plans: they needed to use Barker Ranch as a home base for their mining expeditions in the Panamints. They would stay in the smaller bunkhouse while Brooks and Juanita would continue to live in the main house, a one-story structure with a porch, kitchen, bathroom and running water piped in from a well on the property. Juanita made it clear to the gritty prospector with thick grey hair, blue eyes and fingers gnarled from years of hard labor, that he wasn’t welcome there, in fact he may be in danger if he stayed. Crockett took a long drag of the ever-present Pall Mall cigarette dangling from his lips, smiled and said, “we’ll take our chances.” With that, he and Berry collected their things from the power wagon and began settling into the accessory dwelling unit.
Meanwhile, Brooks and Juanita evaluated their options. Should they hike down to Ballarat, the small ghost town some twenty miles from the ranch, and call Charlie to make him aware of the visitors? Neither had the strength or motivation to make that kind of hike. They opted for the lesser of all evils — they would try to run the men of the property by making life miserable for them, starting that night, when they invited them to dinner in the main house, with the direct intention of serving a meal so undesirable it would turn the men off and force them to reconsider whether or not they even wanted to stick around.
Sure enough, that plan failed, as the next morning Juanita and Brooks watched the men haul their mining gear away from the ranch, up the trail out of the property leading into the mountains. With that, Brooks settled his frail, lanky frame into a chair on the porch, as he did most days, and Juanita tending to her makeshift garden on the side of the house, fighting off the oppressive heat to will something to grow that would break up the pattern of rice and beans for dinner each night.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Crockett and Berry made daily trips to the mines with exotic names like Lotus, Keystone, and January Jones, long-since abandoned digging sites that welcomed any comers to try their hand at the carbonite rock that formed the walls surrounding them. With the sun behind them, they’d hike back down to the ranch at dusk carrying potato sacks filled with large chunks of ore. Then, they’d attempt to melt down their samples to investigate their properties, hopeful they’d find traces of something valuable.
At night, meals in the main house with Brooks and Juanita became a regular occurrence. When it became obvious the prospectors weren’t going anywhere, slowly but surely, the seemingly dazed and confused youngsters began to open up about their reasons for being at the ranch and the extended family they were a part of. Crockett and Berry listened in amazement as they spoke about “Helter Skelter”, the race war their leader Charlie predicted, and the influence the Beatles’ “White Album” had on his ideology. They talked about drug-induced orgies, petty crime, and the Svengali-like hold Charlie seemed to have over his young followers. Most importantly, they iterated to the prospectors their deep-seeded fear of the man and what he was capable of, told of the times they’d seen him strike other members of the family and their belief that he was capable of great harm, even murder. When it became clear to Crockett that these otherwise trusting and idealistic young adults’ minds had been overtaken by an opportunistic swindler through a strict regimen of drugs, emotional abuse and outright lying, he knew he had to do something to save them from further harm. He began a “reconditioning” campaign that, at the time, didn’t have a formal name, but has since come to be known as “deprogramming”.
Most historians attribute the concept to Ted Patrick, often labeled the “father of deprogramming”, who introduced the practice in response to the uptick in new religious movements in the United States in the 1970s. Typically commissioned by relatives, often parents of adult offspring who object to their child’s membership in an organization or group, deprogramming has been compared to the act of exorcism and has been performed thousands of times over the years, often with the support of law enforcement officials. The explicit goal of a deprogramming campaign is to undue the mind control, or brainwashing, that the leader of a fringe sect or group has implemented on a subject over the course of time. The process is not without its critics; in 1977, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a statement opposing “the use of mental incompetency proceedings, temporary conservatorship, or denial of government protection as a method of depriving people of the free exercise of religion, at least with respect to people who have reached the age of majority.”
Crockett, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to leverage some of what he’d learned from his mentor, “Doc” Bailey, to keep these clearly misguided kids from throwing their lives away by maintaining their loyalty to a dangerous charlatan. Up until the time he met Doc, Crockett had suffered tremendous physical pain as a result of years of hard labor. According to him, he’d tried just about everything, including hypnosis, but nothing seemed to work to dull the pain.
Crockett had grown up the son of a minister, a child of the book who started having doubts about organized religion as soon as he could think for himself. Never one to conform to “common wisdom”, Crockett set out on his own spiritual path, ultimately becoming a student of Scientology, the new-age, metaphysical movement started by science fiction author and scholar L. Ron Hubbard. Through Scientology, Crockett met Doc, who had studied directly under Hubbard on his path to “theta clear”. Initially Crockett was drawn to the ideology of the new religion, the concept of attaining personal achievement through the practice of inner-reflection. Auditing sessions, in which a subject is hooked up to an E-meter (not unlike the device Doc toted around) and challenged to confront difficult moments from his past, held special significance for Crockett, affording him major breakthroughs and transformations of his own.
After years of study, Crockett soon grew tired of the limitations of Scientology as an organized religion, specifically the defined structure and bureaucracy of the movement, so he took what he wanted from it and left the rest behind, a path not dissimilar to that of one Charles Manson, who did pretty much the same thing. Perhaps it was this rooting in the fundamentals of Scientology that ultimately drew Crockett and Manson to each other, a Yin to the other’s Yang. And while Crockett never again practiced formally as a Scientologist, he never drifted too far away from the movement’s teachings; years later he would still be using the same auditing techniques he’d learned as a student of Hubbard on his own students in his work as a spiritual teacher.
At Barker Ranch, Crockett felt a natural kinship with Poston, and soon the young upstart found himself escorting Crockett and Berry on their mining expeditions in the Panamints. A few times, Juanita joined too. Crockett believed the physical exercise would help Poston build back up his mind and body, exactly what was needed to severe ties with the dark energies inflicted on him by Charlie. At night, back at the house, Crockett would initiate mind exercises for Brooks and Juanita, such as the formation of “energy balls” they would pass around the room to each other, and attention games, in which they’d have to maintain their focus entirely on a single inanimate object over an extended period of time. After a few weeks of this reconditioning effort, Brooks and Juanita began to reflect on the things that were important to them that they’d lost sight of, and vowed never again to allow their thinking to be clouded by Charlie’s judgement.
Eventually, Little Paul Watkins and another member of the Family, Barbara “Bo” Hoyt, arrived at Barker Ranch, dispatched by Charlie to check in on Brooks and Juanita. Upon arrival, they were startled by the transformation in Brooks, having last seen him in the zombie-like state Crockett had found him in. Catching up with their old friends, Brooks and Juanita shared their enthusiasm for Crockett and his unique perspective on the world: where Charlie saw dark, he saw light. Watkins took it upon himself to challenge Crockett and question his philosophy with the sole purpose of demonstrating to Brooks that the miner’s interest in him was self-serving: with Brooks in good physical shape and loyal to him, Crockett’s prospecting venture stood to benefit from the free labor provided by Brooks. Crockett could see that Watkins was both enamored of and terrified by Charlie, and as he’d done with Brooks and Juanita, began to use that against him. He invited Watkins to accompany him and Brooks up to the mines, where he initiated a game akin to “follow the leader”: the two younger men were instructed to mimic Crockett’s every move, and soon they were leaping from boulder to boulder at full speed, attempting to keep pace with the elusive, chain-smoking miner more than twice their age.
Meanwhile, Crockett’s partner Bob Berry began to spend his nights in the abandoned school bus Charlie had left behind on the property, rifle in hand, as he staked out a cougar he’d seen make multiple visits to the ranch. He invited Juanita to join him, and soon, their relationship became intimate. Watkins and Bo stayed for a few days, and it became apparent to Watkins that Crockett possessed a power that potentially transcended what he’d seen in Charlie, and he began to question his own line of thinking. Brooks encouraged Watkins to stay with him at the ranch, and he wanted to, but had already committed to return to Spahn Ranch, and feared retribution from Charlie if he didn’t. He promised to return soon, and before he and Bo left, Brooks and Juanita asked him to do something for them, at the suggestion of Crockett.
Crockett talked a lot about “agreements”: the idea that people enter into all manner of agreements with each other, and implied, but unspoken agreements, are often the most binding. Brooks and Juanita soon recognized the implied agreements they’d made with Charlie, and if they wanted out, they’d need to be “released” from them. The only way to do that was to ask permission, so, at Crockett’s urging, they implored Watkins to confront Charlie and request him to release them from their agreements with him, and they would do the same for him. Watkins agreed and left Death Valley with Bo en route back to Los Angeles.
Around this time, a transient prospector nicknamed Heavy paid a visit to Barker Ranch and stayed for a few days. An ordained minister, he offered to marry Juanita and Bob Berry and file the paperwork on their behalf at the county seat of Independence, some 200 miles away. Juanita made a dress for herself from the drapes hanging inside the old school bus and Heavy conducted an informal marriage ceremony. Soon enough, with tension growing around Charlie’s eminent return to Death Valley, Bob and Juanita decided it was time to split, and opted to pursue a turquoise prospecting opportunity with Bob’s brother in Arizona, leaving Crockett and Poston behind at Barker Ranch. That was around June of ‘69, and for Juanita, it would be the last time she would see or hear anything about the Family, until a news bulletin on TV about a series of ritualistic murders in Los Angeles caught her attention in August of that year.
Charles Manson knew he had a nemesis, a man of obvious power standing between him and his safe haven in the desert. Worse, the man seemed to be swaying Manson’s people away from him, and putting out some kind of karma that was making it very difficult for Charlie to get back out there. After all, he’d already attempted to send a contingent of followers, led by Paul Watkins, but that expedition had come to an abrupt end after the truck Watkins and his crew were driving in was pulled over by highway patrol and found to be stolen, resulting in a few nights in jail for Watkins and others. Or the time Charlie tried to drive a bus over the pass separating the valley from the desert and the bus broke down on the way. Yes, something was keeping him from returning to Barker Ranch, which he believed to be rightly his. His suspicions would be confirmed as soon as Watkins returned to Spahn Ranch and told him all about Paul Crockett and the energy field he’d put over over Barker Ranch to keep anyone out that didn’t have true love in their hearts.
Crockett had done this as soon as he recognized the fear of Charlie in Brooks and Juanita. As Juanita would tell it years later, Crockett took her and Brooks to the top of Golar Wash, the end-point of a long trail up to Barker Ranch from the mouth of the wash down in the valley below. There, he had them visualize a sign post hanging over the entrance to the trail, with the words “all who pass through here must be prepared to face their karma”. With that, Brooks and Juanita convinced of Manson’s inability to make it through the energy field, and thus, assured of their own safety. That could also explain why it had been six months since Manson had shown his face at the ranch.
When Watkins asked Manson if he’d be willing to release Brooks and Juanita from their agreements with him, in front of a group of Manson’s most devoted followers, no less, Manson smelled a rat, and now had evidence that someone was testing the limits of his power. That only fueled his convictions, so he began looking for ways to generate income quickly to finance the permanent relocation of his group to Death Valley. Some of the more creative approaches he employed included opening a topless bar at Spahn Ranch called “Helter Skelter” (after the Beatles song of the same name), selling drugs to biker gangs, and shaking down friends of the Family, like music teacher Gary Hinman, who would be the first to perish in what would ultimately become a spree of mayhem and violence the likes of which had never before been seen.
While Manson and his minions stayed around Spahn Ranch the rest of the summer stealing VW bugs from nearby neighborhoods and converting them into dune buggies to be used as part of their survivalist battalion in the desert, Watkins eventually made his way back to Barker Ranch where he took up with Crockett and Brooks Poston. The three continued their prospecting together and had some success, often taking side trips to Las Vegas to sell the gold they were generating to immigrants in the back of a Chinese restaurant, often at two or three times its market value — not enough to make anyone rich, but enough to make the venture worthwhile, at least for the time being.
Sometime in August, while enjoying a meal together in a diner, Crockett, Watkins and Brooks’ attention fell to a small TV, where a news reporter described the murder of Sharon Tate, a promising young actress and the wife of film director Roman Polanski, in her Bel Air home, along with three of her houseguests and a teenage boy who’d been shot at point blank range while sitting in his car in the driveway. Crockett watched the B-roll footage of bodies strewn across the lawn and the word “PIG” handwritten in blood on the front door of the house flash across the screen, and commented ominously to his proteges, “wouldn’t it be something if ole’ Charlie did that?”
One evening in early September, while Poston and Watkins were sitting at a small table inside the house at Barker Ranch watching Crockett chain smoke and play solitaire, as he often did, they heard a rumbling noise coming up from the valley down below. “Do you hear that?” Poston asked, the distinct sound of metal scraping across rock growing louder and louder as it moved closer towards them. Crockett, without so much as flinching, said “that’s Charlie.” Poston and Watkins turned to him. “How do you know?” they asked.
“Listen. Don’t sound too good, does it?”
A short while later, a dune buggy pulled up in front of the house. Crockett, Poston and Watkins came out to greet the visitors, and were confronted by Family member and Manson clone Bruce Davis, who looked, acted and sounded just like his guru, down to the high-pitched, squealy laugh that was Charlie’s signature. Davis, accompanied by two other members of the Family, had driven the vehicle up the wash to scope out the scene. Seeing Crockett, he affixed his gaze on him, doing his best to intimidate. “Charlie’s down at Sourdough Spring,” he said, his eyes locked on the prospector. “With your permission, he’ll come up.” Crockett looked at Poston and Watkins, then back at Davis. “Go ahead,” he said, and Davis turned, got back into the driver seat of the dune buggy, revved the engine, and speed off back down the way he’d come up.
A short while later, he was back, with Manson, in his own dune buggy in tow. Manson wasted no time confronting Crockett, busting through the front door of the small house and looking him square in the eye as he sat at the table over his deck of cards. “So, this is the man who’s taking my people away from me,” he said to Crockett, who could only chuckle at the assertion.
“I ain’t taking nobody from you, Charlie,” he said. Manson began to pace the room, the rage building in his dark eyes. “What’s all this about me releasing Brooks from his agreements with me?” he asked.
Crockett looked up at him. “Well, you’d have to ask Brooks about that,” he said. Manson paused for a moment, then lunged towards Brooks is his chair at the table, grabbed a hold of his head from behind and held a big hunting knife against his throat. “I can kill him right now,” Charlie said, grinning, as Bruce and the other members of his gang encouraged him, “and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
Crockett nodded in agreement with that assessment. Seeing no opportunity to escalate the situation, Manson slowly backed off, then launched into his race-war and end-of-days tirade, hopeful he could sway Crockett to his way of thinking. Seeing it take no effect on the stoic prospector, Manson agreed to take his flock up the road to nearby Myers Ranch, another abandoned vacation property turned miners encampment, and the larger of the two properties.
Over the course of the next few weeks, law enforcement officials began to take notice of the comings and goings of the disheveled hippies in and out of Golar Canyon, specifically the young, scantily clad girls who seemed to linger around the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon in the desert outpost of Shoshone, on the east side of the Panamint Range where Jubilee Pass Road meets Highway 127. Deputy Sheriff Don Ward, a short, stocky man who made Shoshone his home and was known for being fair, despite his no-nonsense approach with local kids, thought it oddly coincidental that the marijuana trickling into the community seemed to coincide with the arrival of the long-haired outsiders who stood out like a sore thumb in his otherwise conservative jurisdiction. As it turned out, Ward had already come face-to-face with Manson back in the winter of 1968, when he pulled him over in a truck just outside of Shoshone after catching him panhandling outside the Crowbar, and threatened him to stay the hell away. It was a threat Manson didn’t take lightly, and from that moment on Ward became a marked man.
Crockett hatched a plan to “make himself useful” to Charlie, including helping the ambitious survivalist move supplies up to Myers Ranch from the mouth of the wash. One day, while hauling a bed full of used car parts in the back of his power wagon, Crockett was stopped by Sheriff Ward, who asked him about his movements and the activities of the hippies he had observed making their way around the desert at all hours of the day. Initially reluctant to share anything with Ward, Crockett soon agreed to tell him everything he knew about Manson and his plans for Armageddon, and Ward followed him back up to the house at Barker where they could discuss things privately.
Meanwhile, Manson had his sights set on winning Paul Watkins back into his fold by any means necessary. When attempts to lure him with the sexual favors of Snake, one of the more attractive young girls in his flock, didn’t take root, Charlie reverted to his old tactics of what Crockett liked to call “fear games”, including intimidation, and “creepy crawl” missions into the bunkhouse where Crockett, Poston, Watkins, and newly defected former Mansonite Juan Flynn, a tall, Panamanian ranch hand from Spahn, were sleeping at night. On one such occasion, Crockett approached Charlie as he squirmed along the floor in the dark. “Loose something, Charlie?” he asked, to which Charlie picked himself up off of the ground, dusted himself off and replied “one of these days” before leaving the bunkhouse and regrouping with Bruce Davis and Family member Clem Grogan who were outside waiting for him.
One night, Crockett awoke to the sound of a rifle being unloaded not from the house, and decided he’d had enough. Paul Watkins and Juan Flynn had already vacated the ranch at Crockett’s urging, seeking out temporary shelter for the defectors far from Golar Canyon. At dawn the next morning, Crockett and Brooks gathered their things and set out on foot over Mengle Pass, hiking the fifteen or so miles into Shoshone where they met up with Sheriff Ward, who took them into his home and committed their testimony to tape.
With tape in hand, Ward traveled north to the Inyo County seat of Independence, hopeful he’d be issued a search warrant giving him legal authority to conduct a raid on Barker Ranch and finally put an end to his troubles at the hands of the hippie misfits terrorizing his community.
After discovering a county-owned earth mover that had been set ablaze in the middle of the desert and following the tire tracks back to Barker Ranch, law enforcement officials finally had what they needed to make an arrest. It took them two attempts at rounding up the Family members at the ranch before Ward and his team, including Death Valley National Monument Park Rangers and members of the California Highway Patrol, finally came face to face with the diminutive, whirling dervish of a man who seemed to exert so much power and control over his flock. When they found him hiding in a tiny cabinet in the bathroom in the Barker Ranch house, Charlie folded himself out, looked up at the arresting officer and said, “Hi.” Little did any of them know that the man they’d arrested for arson would soon be linked to a series of murders so vicious, they would become known as the milestone event that brought an abrupt end to the 1960’s decade of peace and love.
With Manson and his followers locked up in jail, patiently awaiting trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders then-LA County Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi intended to prove they had committed, Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins now felt free to pursue their musical ambitions. They settled down in Shoshone and formed a band, Desert Sun, recruiting local musicians to perform their original compositions for them. When they decided it made sense to bring a manager on board to help them on the business side, they didn’t have to look far — Paul Crockett was there as he had been all along, ready to lend a helping hand.
Crockett eventually married and moved to Washington State, where he opened up his own teaching practice, offering classes, retreats and one-on-one counseling to those seeking spiritual enlightenment. Never once did he refer to himself as a “cult deprogrammer”, nor did he take any credit for helping to take down of one of America’s most notorious criminals. He simply heeded the call to help those who couldn’t help themselves, just as Doc Bailey had done for him many years before.
And that’s a legacy of a life worth living.