Articles / California

Trona – The Charles Manson Connection

A debate going on between two of my readers has again thrown Trona into the spotlight on my blog/website. This is the first of two subjects being discussed. The second will follow in another post.

Two members of Manson’s clan actually had connections to the area, Catherine “Cappy” Gillies and Brooks Ramsey Poston.

Doris Bray, local correspondent with the Trona Argonaut, but in no way connected with the Manson clan, filed the first stories printed of Manson’s arrest in October 1969. In December 1969 she aided the San Bernardino County Sun reporters in accessing the locations of the Myers and Barker ranches.

The Myers and Barker ranches are approximately 22 miles northeast of Trona. The residents of Trona became familiar with the sight of Manson and his followers when they would make rare forays into the small town for gasoline and food. At other times they bought provisions at Ballarart, which was nearer, but probably offered less in the way of choice.

In mid-October 1968, Catherine “Cappy” Gillies, one of Manson’s dedicated devotees, mentioned to Manson that her grandmother, Barbara Weddle Myers, owned a ranch in the desert near Death Valley. Originally built in 1932 by Bill and Barbara (Weddle) Myers, by 1960 the small cabin had been abandoned as a family home, and instead was used about once a year for family vacations. Manson and about 15 members of his ‘family’ made the arduous journey through the desert to the 40 acre ranch, where they took up residence in the very cramped quarters. As much as the cult members were enjoying the new digs their stay became a short one when Catherine admitted that her grandmother had not given permission to stay and so they would have to leave.

The Barker Ranch was nearby, so Charles Manson offered owner Arlene Barker a gold Beach Boys record in exchange for permission to stay in her two cabins. By January of 1969 members of the ‘family’ started to move back to the Los Angeles area, many staying at Spahn Ranch near Chatsworth, CA. Charles Manson and his core group also headed back. Two members decided to stay at Barker Ranch and act as caretakers. Brooks Ramsey Poston and Juanita Wildebush (aka Joan Wildbush). While there they met a middle-aged miner named Paul Crockett, who was able to enlighten them about how Manson had brainwashed them, and convinced them to leave the cult. Crockett did the same with a few other Manson cult members who had wandered back to the area, including Paul Watkins, who had been Manson’s chief lieutenant. Some speculate that Crockett was also a cult leader.

That summer Manson’s followers, at his command, went on their horrific killing spree. Afterwards, they headed back to the desert and Barker Ranch to hide out. Twenty-seven men and women, and eight children (two babies) lived in the two small mining cabins at Barker Ranch. A few also took up residence at Myers Ranch.

The owners and family members of both ranches stated in newspaper accounts that they were dismayed with the presence of these squatters at their properties, but were too afraid to say or do anything. Miners in the area also reported that if they approached anywhere near the Barker Ranch they were threatened and chased off by knife wielding members of the cult.

Upon their return to Barker Ranch, Catherine “Cappy” Gillies made the offer to murder her grandmother so that she could inherit the Myers Ranch and provide a permanent hide away for the cult members. Manson agreed and a plan was put into place. Catherine and two other members headed out to so the dirty deed, but fortunately for Barbara Myers, one of the tires on the car went flat and they were unable to commit the premeditated murder.

In October of 1969 both ranches were raided by police and Charles Manson, along with his followers, was arrested. At the time nobody yet knew of their part in the Tate-LaBianca murders. The initial arrests were over an arson charge.

After the arrests, trials and imprisonment of Manson and some of his followers for the Tate-LaBianca murders, Catherine Gillies continued to be a loyal follower, and would remain so for the rest of her life. She continued to believe that the murders were justified. In 1973 she met and fell in love with a man named David ‘Coyote’ Barton. They made their home in Trona, where they had four children together. The marriage ended in divorce. Catherine never remarried. Eventually she made her way to Cave Junction, Oregon, where she died in 2018 from cancer.

Brooks Ramsey Poston and Paul Watkins testified in court against Manson for the prosecution. Afterwards, they formed a band together called Desert Sun and played in local venues for a few years. Watkins became a lecturer on substance abuse and cult psychology and also became the founder and first president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce. At the time of his death in 1990 from leukemia, Paul Watkins was the unofficial mayor of the small Death Valley town of Tecopa. When their band broke up Brooks continued to play music with Jane Boltinhouse. When their guru and manager, Paul Crockett, headed to north Washington the duo followed, where they played under the name Northern Lights. As far as can be determined Brooks is still living quietly somewhere in Washington.

Here are links to a couple of interesting websites to read further…

Catherine “Cappy” Gillies

Baker and Myers Ranches

Two documentaries with footage of Manson and his “family” at Myers and Barker ranches exist. You can view them below, be be warned that some of the content is graphic.

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