Out at the Barker Ranch, in a wash above the Panamint Valley, the noses of dogs have stirred up unanswered questions in the famous case of the Charles Manson Family. On his days off, Mammoth Police Sergeant Paul Dosti has been training his dog Buster to seek out long buried human remains. After running his dog out at the one-time Manson Family compound, he believes that Buster has hit on four spots likely to contain human remains. Other authorities are not so sure.
Following the string of murders in 1969, that included five people at the house of actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski, along with the separate murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, the Manson Family headed for the ranch they had staked out in Inyo County.
Filled with drug-fueled paranoia, the Manson Family waited for Charlies prophecy of race war Armageddon to be fulfilled. In the meantime, the family raised the ire of Death Valley Park Rangers, after Charlie and company lit a government loader, used for road repairs, on fire. The rangers followed tire tracks from the burned loader in the Saline Valley area all the way to the Goler Wash in the Panamint Valley. There Law enforcement surrounded the Barker Ranch and arrested a slew of family members for arson of the loader plus possession of numerous stolen vehicles. It took a jail house confession by family member Susan Atkins to tie the car thieving Mansons to the murders down south.
Over the years many have thought there might be more Manson Family victims out at the Barker Ranch, but despite past digs, no bodies have turned up. Sgt. Dostie believes that historical grave dogs might be the tool that officers have been missing all these years.
We drove out to the Goler Wash with Dostie last spring to watch Buster in action. Finding graves is a game for the dog. Buster runs through the brush, searching for scent. When he finds what hes looking for, he lets out a bark and lays down to mark the spot. When Buster alerts, Sgt. Dostie gives him a favorite toy to play with.
While its a game to the dog, the work could be significant. A group called the Institute for Canine Forensics works to train dogs to help both anthropologists and law enforcement. Their dogs worked to help define the boundaries of a Native American cemetery near Olancha last year. Sgt. Dostie has used the institutes methods to train Buster to detect only historical graves that many believe to be buried at the Barker Ranch.
Dostie says he was very fortunate to interview a former Family man arrested at the Barker Ranch. He reports that the former Manson Family member said that all Charlie used to talk about was killing and that they all had knives. Charlie instructed his followers on slitting throats.
Others have tried to find victims at the Barker Ranch. The Inyo District Attorney at the time, Frank Fowels, dug a trench by the fire pit looking for human remains in 1969, according to Dostie. Until the dogs, Dostie says that investigators could only spot a grave by looking for disturbed soil.
If there are graves at the Barker Ranch, who would they belong to? So far, no one has tied any missing person reports to the Manson Family, but there are stories out there.
Dostie explained that the Family members were paranoid after the Tate-La Bianca killings, and didnt want anyone to leave and turn them into the police. A story attributed to Family member Susan Atkins, is that Charlie and Tex (Watson) took one young woman for a walk toward the nearby Meyers Ranch, came back an hour later without her. Dostie explained that one of the spots that Buster hit on is in the sandy wash between the Barker Ranch and the Meyers ranch.
Along with the initial hits by Buster, other historical grave dogs have worked the Barker Ranch. Dostie reports that in February of last year, five other dogs alerted on one of the spots that Buster hit and four alerted on another spot. This gives Dostie high confidence in two possible sites.
The best way to prove if these dogs are really finding human remains, of course, is to dig. As an off duty Mammoth Police Officer, Sgt. Dostie presented his findings to the Inyo Sheriffs Department. Bringing in trained personnel to dig a potential crime scene would take time and money and the Inyo Sheriffs Department had been burned at the Barker before. In 1998, a man named White Rabbit, claimed to know where bodies were buried at the ranch. When deputies dug they found nothing. Dostie says White Rabbit, was a fraud, but the Inyo Sheriffs Department did not dismiss these new leads.
Inyo Sheriff Bill Lutze explained that on Dosties recommendation, his department brought in the Institute for Canine Forensics dogs to work the Barker Ranch. When the dog teams returned in November, they showed interest in the sites but did not alert. The group did not recommend digging.
With some dogs that say yes, some that say no, some indications of maybe, Sheriff Lutze says that until better evidence comes to light, his department is in a holding pattern.
Sgt. Dostie says he agrees with the decision to wait for good results, but he is tough to deter. He reports that low humidity levels may have affected the ability of the dogs to find scent when they came out for the Inyo Sheriffs Department. Dostie is currently in contact with a scent expert at the Oakridge National Laboratory and has sent out soil samples to other historic grave dog handlers across the country. If and when better evidence does come to light, authorities will consider digging.
Law enforcement are not the only people interested in these new developments. Debra Tate, sister of Manson murder victim, Sharon Tate, is aware of Dostie’s work and waiting for more conclusive developments before she goes to work on recruitment of volunteers to dig. The death of her sister haunts Tate and feeds her interest in the full story of Manson.