In the summer of 1969, my cousin, a San Fernando Valley native, met a couple of hippies down in Reseda. They started chatting and they invited her out to the ranch where they were staying to smoke some weed, maybe do a little acid.
Being a teenager in the 60s, my cousin, of course, went with them. Teenagers are so dumb.
It wasn’t long after arriving at the 200-acre defunct movie set out in the hills of Chatsworth that the girls’ demeanor changed.
They started going on and on about some guy named Charlie, and how my cousin needed to meet him. Fawning would be putting a gentle spin on it.
So now my cousin’s stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a group of creepy young hippies, all ranting about this Charlie dude, trying to get her to take pills and drink, while she’s trying not to freak out.
Luckily, and I do mean this in the greatest sense of the word, luckily a couple of reporters were up there doing a story on The Family as they called themselves. They saw my cousin, and immediately latched onto her, I don’t belong here vibe, and offered her a ride home.
My cousin snatched up the offer, and the three of them left for civilization. She absolutely stayed sexy, and didn’t get murdered, or raped, or pimped out, or God knows what other horrible things might have happened.
A couple of weeks rolled by, and my cousin’s uncle, William “Bill” Gleason comes over for dinner to talk shop with his cop brother (my cousin’s dad). Bill, a Sargent with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), starts in about these crazy people living up at the Spahn movie ranch out in Chatsworth who’ve been hanging out with the Straight Satans motorcycle gang from Venice.
Bill had been investigating the Straight Satan for several months and found they’d been hanging out at the ranch to trade drugs for sex with the young girls, mostly underage runaways, living out there.
My cousin listened with growing terror. This had to be the same ranch she’d been to. Sure, the Valley was filled with old western movie sets, but how many of them had groups of creepy hippies squatting on them with a leader named Charlie, calling themselves The Family?
On August 9 and 10 of that year, all hell broke loose in Southern California with the Tate and LaBianca murders. On August 16, the LASD obtained a search warrant to hunt for stolen vehicles on Spahn Ranch. They arrested the 24-member group, but no one would talk so those responsible for the auto thefts went unnamed. The group’s silence forced the police to let everyone go.
Within two weeks of their arrests for the stolen vehicles, most of the group had run off to Death Valley and set up shop in Barker Ranch.
On August 26, Manson ordered the murder of Donald “Shorty” Shea, a ranch hand and aspiring stuntman working up at Spahn. Convinced Shorty had snitched to the cops about the stolen cars, Manson had him tortured and killed. Shorty’s remains were recovered in December 1977. Sgt. Bill Gleason was present.
The LAPD and LASD made no connection between the murders and the Manson Family.
When the Inyo Police Department went to Barker Ranch to investigate the destruction of a bulldozer, they called out Bill Gleason to help identify the group as being the same as the Spahn Ranch hippies.
There are only a few men in this world I wish I had a blood relationship to. Tim Gunn, Sir Patrick Stewart, and Sir Ian McKellen top that list, but I’d be a fool if I didn’t wish the badass Sgt. William “Bill” Gleason wasn’t one of them. I mean, how cool is this guy?
My cousin never had the heart to tell Bill she’d up to the ranch and hung out with members of The Family. He died never knowing how close his niece came to becoming some horrible statistic.
If you’d like to delve into the Manson history, check out Los Angeles Magazine’s oral history piece on Manson, and the part my cousin’s uncle played in bringing him in.