The Hughes Mystery…High Sierra Intrigue…
In modern-day PS3 and Xbox video games, there are “cheats”, aren’t there? Little keys, that if you know them, allow you to beat the game and come out a winner ahead of all other players that don’t know of those crafty little “helpers”, right?
Flash back 41 years and there were “cheats” available to figure out the Manson Family Murder Game too, you know…only in 1969, you had to pay closer attention and that attention to detail had to last for years before you could out-win the Family con-artists at their own game by getting them eventually incarcerated for their sloppy tongue-wagging and evidence trails they left from their own dirty deeds…
But, if you’re patient and a good listener/observer, there ARE Family “cheats” available to you in all the mysteries surrounding Manson and his cohorts, if you have the patience to look for them. I’ll give’em to ya one at a time, over time…don’t want you to win the game over me ya know!
IF the Family keeps mum on an act of murder, one can be fairly certain that the murder was executed by the Family.
IF the Family shouted about a murder or murders from the rooftops, or in this case, from the corner of Temple & Broadway, there’s every indication that the deed was imagined, fantasized even propagandized for intimidation and fear-mongering, but never actually committed by them, ever.
Case in point: The death of Leslie van Houten’s lawyer,
You can start at the end to know the beginning, in this case, with just a one-word synoptic of the determination of the cause of death by the Ventura County coroner, Merle Peters:
And that was simply because at the time of the discovery of the body, there just wasn’t enough of the body left to make a sound determination of “Accidental” or “Homicide”.
And there is where this case should have stayed.
But no, because any death that occurs, that has any link to the Family whatsoever, has to be considered suspicious in nature, or at least well did during those heady trial days. Players within the Family, principals close to this case and even the interested public alike have chalked up Hughes’ death as just another one on Charlie Manson’s slag heap of destruction.
And hey, why not? It’s not like Manson and the Girls didn’t sit on the right hand side of the Devil, ‘cause they did, but you can’t just heap murders on to the Pile of Vile just because you’d like to, when no real evidence to the validity of such a claim exists.
We, of course, will never be able to put a “Case Closed” stamp on the open case in the death of Ronald Hughes, but for the information we have now, all points lead NOT to Manson or any member of the Family, but to a very unfortunate set of circumstances within the framework of a very unfortunate set of crimes.
Here now is MY list that I go by to settle this mystery in my own mind, and yes, for me, it IS a mystery solved. Until someone comes clean on their deathbed stating the opposite, I rest easy at night knowing that at least ONE death which could have been easily attributable to Manson, was not.
You be the Judge…
1) The Manson Defence team had rested their case, despite the insistence of the Girls to testify, to undoubtedly place all blame on themselves in order to free Manson, and so on Friday, November 19, 1970, Judge Older recessed the court for ten days to give both sides time to prepare Jury instructions and any outstanding motions with regards to arguments concerning those instructions.
At this point in the trial proceedings, the Defence could NOT normally reopen their side regardless of whatever extenuating circumstances may occur after they have rested their case. After the lawyers’ final instructions and arguments, the case would be handed down to the Jury and and then, and only then, the fate of Manson and his Girls would be in the hands of twelve citizens of California, their peers.
What good would it have done to murder ANY of the Defence lawyers at this point?
And although a verdict of Not Guilty was never really expected by the end of this trial, the case was NOT yet at the deliberation stage, so do you really think that it would have been wise for Manson to “off” a lawyer at this point in the game, when the risk of being found involved in such a transparent act of revenge would be so great?
Yes, Hughes was the only “Hippie” lawyer of the bunch, but he WAS the first lawyer to come and talk to Manson. He was the first to offer his services to that little dude where none had done before. And he was the only one, I suspect, that could have understood where Manson was coming from in any kind of cultural way…seems odd to let go of the one man who had been there from Day One…Manson rarely, if ever, did that to anyone that had stood by him from the start, Family members or otherwise.
2) Hughes was a regular visitor to Sespe Hot Springs, 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and now that the Defence side had rested their case, Hughes probably needed a get-a-way, God wouldn’t we all, having spent that many fearful and frustrating months baby-sitting four childish, selfish, lazy no-good sociopaths as one’s clients!
Going up there for the weekend, especially once Judge Older had recessed the court until November 30th, really wasn’t something out of the ordinary for Hughes. After all, Hughes had taken with him the trial transcripts and Leslie’s secret psychiatric report to study, in the hopes of still severing her case from the others in a motion or two before the Judge handed over the case to the Jury.
Hughes knew Sespe well, knew it had started raining hard well before he had set up camp. Hughes was smart enough to camp on very high ground that Friday and was seen by visitors the next day, Saturday November 20, to be “neither ill nor in danger”. He stated to these folks that he was headed back to the mired VW to only retrieve transcripts to read in his car or bring back to his campsite. The rain was the heaviest that afternoon, culminating in “twelve inches in just eighteen hours”.
When eventually located, everything in and around the VW was normal, no signs of foul play, the only two things missing were a tent and Leslie’s shrink report, suggesting that Hughes had indeed come back down from his lofty campsite to retrieve the reading material, used the tent to protect his papers as he left the vehicle and then was most likely was caught up in a flash flood that overtook him in
Several views of Sespe Creek, wet and dry river bed
Sespe Creek, a highly unpredictable river that flowed in between the many high-walled mini-canyons that were all over Sespe, often the only way in and out of the high country. Hughes undoubtedly would have had to cross over that river to return to his campsite.
3) Hughes was NOT the only Defence attorney who balked at allowing their client to testify, or shall we say, sacrifice herself on the stand in order to exonerate Manson. They ALL thought this would be client suicide. Hughes went down on the record as stating “I refuse to take part in any proceeding where I am forced to push a client out the window.” but his opinion represented all of the defence lawyers’ opinion on this matter, not just his own.
Regardless, Manson got his time in the chair and vented all of his Slippie rhetoric to the point that even he was no longer vehement about the girls testifying so the argument of whether or not it was legally right to rest the Defence was eventually moot.
- Manson was no longer miffed.
- The Defence lawyers were no longer forced to see their clients lie under oath to protect Manson.
- Judge Older no longer had to enforce the judgement that the right to testify must supersede any and all other rights.
4) ALL the Defence lawyers, at one time or another, had been fired, replaced, re-assigned and/or threatened by someone in the Family. Fitzgerald being so often threatened that a week didn’t go by that such utterances weren’t heard by him. Hughes was no different than the rest. Older had bodyguards, so did the Prosecutorial lawyers, heck, everybody who was anybody in the Hall of Justice in those months, who said or did anything the Family didn’t like, got insulted and/or threatened…it was par for the course. Fun! (sigh)
Hughes was no more threatened or had any more fear of Manson than the rest. You couldn’t be that close to this gang and not watch your back, which is why tongues wagged when Hughes disappeared, even Bugliosi thought the worse for a while, heck, who wouldn’t?!
Alas, and thankfully, ALL the threats were empty in those torturous trial days, allot of bark and gratefully no bite. What made Hughes’s death seem all the more sinister is that it occurred at the right time for the Family, obviously a boon to their ability to wrestle psychological power from law enforcement back to the Family, in a very public way, that if they say they will “retaliate” they will. Sandy Good uttering said to Lawrence Merrick as he filmed the now iconic docudrama, “Manson”, to seal this phony deal.
Just very bad timing lead to very bad conclusions to a very sad tale of the just burgeoning legal career of one Ronald Hughes.
5) The accompanying “friends” fiasco has never helped the situation either. It’s amazing what same names can do to the clarity of a case, but when it comes to the Manson Family, nothing has ever been too out of the ordinary, huh?
I start to itch every time I have to reference Ed Sanders BUT he did have entree into those trials better than any researcher of his time and at least got to know quite well all the principal players in this case. You can’t knock the guy for being a first rate budinski! And in his rather colourful, if not altogether corroborative book “The Family”, he states that all the attorneys for the Defence, at one time or another, would have volunteer investigators/assistants, to assist in their case development, that the mere public defender remuneration was never enough to cover the cost of professional help.
And Hughes was no different in this case.
There were kids who would vie to get into the courtroom as spectators and a couple such “fans” of the case finally got close enough to Hughes to get themselves in as his volunteer investigators/assistants. Their names were James Forsher and Lauren Elder, both of whom were seventeen at the time. These kids had NO involvement with Manson or the Family and were NOT the James (age 26) and Lauren (age19) of the Willett murders committed in Guerneville and Stockton in 1972.
Speculation from this name confusion further fuelled the idea that it was these kids who had killed Hughes and now needed to be permanently clammed up themselves, which lead to the possible motive for the Willetts’ to be murdered, which was anything but the truth.
Even The Bug confused the issue and because of it, had to fight a defamation lawsuit brought forth by James Forsher in 1980 for the wrongful accusation mentioned in “Helter Skelter” that it was he and Lauren who had killed Hughes (the lawsuit was thrown out for lack of evidence).
And you wonder why I think it’s SO important to stick to the facts in a case if even The Bug could get mired down in rumour and conjecture!
It was this James and Lauren who had driven Hughes out in their VW that Friday to Sespe and after the vehicle got stuck in the rain-soaked mud, they decided to hitchhike back to town, leaving Hughes to camp on his own, as he insisted that he wanted to do. They did not kill Hughes for Manson because if they had, they did an awful job of the deal leaving him alive and well, as evidenced by the sighting of him by other campers the following day, while James and Lauren hitched for a ride to save their own butts.
And these would-be Mansonite murder monsters even made a phone call to Fitzgerald’s answering service informing Paul that Ron was okay and to not worry. Geez…yep, scary Charlie killer-robots if I ever met some!
6) The autopsy on the decomposed body of Ronald Hughes, found some five months after that fateful storm, miles down from his campsite, in Sespe Creek, was of course, a difficult affair for Ventura County Coroner, Merle Peters.
Although when Fitzgerald was asked to come ID the body, and he stated he felt sure it was that of Hughes, it took dental x-rays to confirm the identification. The report contained the following;
“The decedent was observed faced down in a pool of water with the head and shoulder wedged under a large rock.” One arm was almost completely severed at the shoulder and there were large open areas in the chest and back, “no outward evidence of violence was noted” while “no evidence of foul play indicated by the X-rays”.
The above heavily qualified by the fact that the body was found in an advanced state of decomposition.
There was noted “medication residue” in the stomach contents but again was found to be of undetermined origin.
Because no obvious signs of foul play were evident, the case of Ronald Hughes was effectively dropped, yes, left open, but filed away as one of the many “unknown” deaths that swirled around the Manson Family.
But one must NOT dismiss what findings there were in that autopsy. The x-rays would have undoubtedly shown knife wounds in the bones or untoward skull fractures or bullet wounds if Ron was murdered by a weapon of some sort. No such evidence was found.
The fact that Hughes was a large man discounts to me strangulation, and like the Shorty Shea death, would have required a considerable amount of force in some respect, with multiple assailants and/or multiple weapons to bring down that man. No such weapons or confessions were ever revealed, unlike the Shea death that WAS a Manson murder and like the Family tongues that eventually wagged, was ripped wide open in court with all its dirty evidence revealed.
Until someone confesses to this being a murder, the evidence suggests quite otherwise, even if it is convenient and fits well with the gruesome vile behaviour of the Family, or it’s just plain exciting to consider as another Family “offing”. You can’t put mysterious deaths in the laps of the Charliemites just because you’d like to for revenge sake or because they happened to occur around the same general timeline or geography that encompassed the Family.
Stick to MsBurb’s “cheat” when dealing with the “unknowns” in this case. The Family was caught and was convicted of exactly the crimes they committed for the mere fact that they were just that stupid and just that strung-out when they committed them. The rest of the mysterious deaths surrounding Manson and his “kids” just make for colourful reading and little else at this point.
Until there is more, let Ron and the evidence rest in peace.