A Hell of a Hoax! Part 4: The Missing Attorney and More Murders


The many faces of Charlie Manson, down through the decades…

This series started with a hoax, a credible-looking news release that said Manson had been granted parole.  That ticked me off tremendously, and then, when I started to scratch around, looking into it, I discovered there had been a Manson Family murder in my home town – Lauren “Reni” Willett was shot in the head the day after her husband’s decomposed headless body was discovered in the woods near Guerneville.

I’ve been exploring the reasons the killers gave for committing these two murders – basically, that he wanted out and was threatening to rat out the male members for the armed robberies they’d been pulling.  But there are other possibilities.  One arose from the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Ronald W. Hughes.

Who the heck was Ronald Hughes?

Kanarek & Hughes  That’s Hughes, on the right, doing the fist pump.

He was Manson’s public defender up until a couple of weeks before Charlie went on trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders.  Then he switched clients.  Irving Kanarek took over Charlie’s case, and stayed with him through his conviction on the first six counts of murder adorning Charlie’s rap sheet.

Irving Kanarak

In this later pic, Mr. Kanarek does not look like he’s enjoying himself nearly as much.

Kanarek was an experienced attorney with a well-earned rep for obstructionism.  He is believed to have set a record for the number of objections raised during Manson’s first trial, although it’s hard to say for sure without going through the entire transcript.  The press quit counting at 2oo, which occurred on Day 3.  He raised nine of them during the prosecution’s opening statement alone, and was himself found guilty of contempt of court four times during the trial.

Despite his efforts, Kanarek didn’t impress his client.  Manson offered to fire him at one point during the trial. Word has it, Kanarek went down  on his knees and begged for his job.  At other times, Manson threatened to have him killed.  Even so, Kanarek saw the case through, and wound it up with a seven-day-long closing argument that basically accused the three women charged with him of having committed the murders out of their love for Tex Watson, not Charlie.

Judge Older wasn’t impressed either.  He told Kanarek that he was totally without scruples, and said the lawyer’s summation was not an “argument but a filibuster.”

Hard guy to impress, I guess.

Then again, Judge Older was no Lance Ito.

Older was a Flying Tiger.


judge older and his tiger

Charles Herman “Chuck” Older wasn’t just a pilot in the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who fought the Japanese in China before Pearl Harbor.  He was an Ace.  He shot down 18 enemy planes and held the third highest score for the entire group.

Older also fought in World War II and in the Korean War.  Not the kind of guy you can buffalo.

Kanarek tried.  He managed to drag the trial out for a whole ten months, which was the longest in American history, at that point.  Charlie did his part, too.  Along with instigating bizarre behavior by his co-defendants, Charlie acted up on a regular basis, and wound up being removed from the courtroom on several occasions.  Charlie threatened his own attorney, as mentioned, as well as the prosecutor (Vincent Bugliosi) and Judge Older.

Then he tried to attack the judge.

I think Manson was lucky the bailiffs stopped him.  I know that in response to the death threats, Bugliosi got a bodyguard.  Older started carrying a loaded .38, and he certainly knew how to shoot much larger guns than that!

While all this was going on, Ronald Hughes was there, but he was representing Leslie Van Houten.

the threesome

Leslie Van Houten (left), Patricia Krenwinkel (center), and Susan Atkins (right) being transported to the courthouse in 1970 after carving Xs into their own foreheads in imitation of Charlie’s move.

Charlie didn’t like that either.

You see, Hughes was actually doing his job.  He took on the state’s witness, Linda Kasabian, and put on a show of his own in trying to discredit her.  His pointed questions led to a detailed discussion with Kasabian about the finer points of preparing magic mushrooms for a “trip.”  Then he got into her belief in ESP.  Hughes even got her to admit her own idea that she might be a witch because she had experienced what she called “vibrations” emanating from Charlie.

That part was fine with Manson, but then Hughes tried to show that his client, Van Houten, wasn’t acting independently, but was completely under Manson’s control. This strategy ran directly counter to Manson’s plan.  Charlie was going to allow his girls to implicate themselves in the crimes and clear him of all involvement.

So, yeah, maybe it did take the guy four tries to pass the Bar Exam.  Maybe Hughes didn’t have that much experience on the job.  Yes.  The Public Defender’s Office was his first job as a lawyer, and yes, the Manson trial was, in fact, his very first trial in front of a jury.

In fact, you have to wonder what the Public Defender’s Office was thinking, handing this guy a big splashy death penalty case.  What some would call the Trial of the Century (up until O.J.’s, at least).

You’d think they were trying to set Charlie up with an automatic appeal on the grounds of ineffective counsel.  But Hughes surprised nearly everyone.  He did a decent job.  Even the chief prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, thought so.

ron hughes

Ron Hughes was nervous at first, but he took to reporters and mikes in no time.

If you’d like to hear the man speak for himself, try this link:


So what was the outcome of all this, after 22 weeks of hijinks and outbursts, of chanting, scarred foreheads, and death threats?  Another big courtroom surprise.  The prosecution rested its case, and five minutes later, the defense did likewise, without having called a single witness.

The courtroom exploded.

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten all jumped up and shouted about how they wanted to testify.  Even when order had been restored, the threesome insisted they wanted to take the stand, to tell the jury they’d killed Sharon Tate and the others on their own, that Charlie had nothing to do with the killings.

That’s when Hughes stood up and told Judge Older, “I refuse to take part in any proceeding where I am forced to push a client out the window.”

After that, Manson was allowed to make his own statement to the court, but Hughes repeated his objections and advised his client and the other two women not to testify.  Older halted proceedings there, and ordered a ten-day recess so the opposing teams of attorneys could prepare their closing arguments. Hughes later told a reporter that he was confident he could win an acquittal for Van Houten, but when the ten days were up, Hughes no-showed.

That was on November 30, 1970.  Police found that Hughes had gone camping during the recess.  Reportedly, he’d asked two friends to drive him up to Sespe Springs, in Ventura County.  Hughes himself was living in a friend’s garage at the time, and he couldn’t drive his own car.   He’d been pulled over by the CHP on October 30th and slapped with a number of fix-it tickets over problems with his brakes, turn signals, stop lights, and horn. Until it was all repaired and signed off, he’d be liable to arrest if he were caught driving it again.

The two friends were James Forsher and Lauren Elder, both supposedly 17 at the time and possessed of a Volkswagen bus.

Now what was Hughes doing, hanging out with a pair of teenagers?  He was 35 by then.  “Hippy lawyer” or not, this seems odd to me.  And it’s odder yet that Forsher and Elder came back, but Hughes didn’t.

sespe springs

Sespe Springs, shown here, lies in the hills above Ojai.

It rained an awful lot that weekend.  It was, in fact, the biggest storm of the year.  So many roads in the hills were flooded or washed out that it was another two days before the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office could even mount a search for Hughes.  His companions, James Forsher and Lauren Elder, told the Sheriff their VW bus got stuck in the mud.  They decided to abandon the bus and hitch-hike their way home, but Hughes preferred to stay put, and work on his closing arguments.

If so, why didn’t he leave when the wilderness area was evacuated?

We don’t know, but Hughes was last seen alive by three other campers on the morning of November 28, 1970 (the day after the two teens left). The other campers later told investigators that Hughes was alone at the time and had stopped for a brief chat. Hughes, they said, appeared to be in good condition, and was well clear of the flood waters.  All of these people then underwent a lie detector test on these questions, and all of them passed with flying colors, including Forsher and Elder.

Nevertheless, no Hughes.

By December 2, Hughes had been missing for nearly two weeks.  Judge Older gave up.  He appointed a new attorney, Maxwell Keith, for Leslie Van Houten and ordered the proceedings to continue. The women threw a fit and demanded the judge let them fire all their lawyers, and then reopen their defense.

The judge had had a bellyful by then.  He denied the request. So when court reconvened, all four defendants pitched another fit.  They accused Older of doing away with Ronald Hughes.  So the judge booted all of them out of the courtroom and carried on regardless.

judge older

Like Queen Victoria, Judge Older was not amused by irregularities.

Hughes didn’t turn up again until March 29, 1971.  A couple of fishermen found his body wedged between rocks in a gorge-like section of Sespe Creek.  After four months in the water and weather, his remains were in such a state, they had to be identified by means of dental X-rays.  The autopsy couldn’t determine the cause of death.  It was ultimately ruled ‘Undetermined’ and the Sheriff decided to call it an accidental drowning – something he defended to the bitter end, by the way.

In yet another coincidence (the Manson chronicles are littered with them), Ronald Hughes’s body was found on the very same day the jury slammed Charlie and all three of his winsome co-defendants with the death penalty.

Leslie Van Houten eventually won a new trial on the grounds that losing her attorney like that had compromised her defense.  She even managed to hang the jury, the first time out.  But the state came back for another shot, and this time she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  This is ironic, since by that time, at least two Family members were claiming that Hughes was murdered by the Family, and that it was done on Manson’s orders.

One of them was Sandra Goode.

sandra good during trial  Sandra “Blue” Good imitated Charlie when he Xed himself out of society by carving that X into his own forehead.  When he shaved his head, she followed suit (as did many others in the Family).  During the trial, Blue was one of those demonstrating on the street, outside the court house.

Squeaky and Sandra Good  Squeaky Fromme and Blue (Sandra Good) in happier times.

In his book Helter Skelter, the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said Sandra Good told him the Family had killed Ronald Hughes.  She called it “the first of the retaliation murders.”  Then she claimed that Manson family members had killed “35 to 40 people.”

This total would appear to include Jim and Lauren Willett, since they were killed about a year and a half after Hughes disappeared in November of 1970, and the book came out in 1974.

Did Blue know what she was talking about?  The odds are pretty good, since she was BFFs with Squeaky Fromme at that time, and she also seems to have been involved in the Willett affair.

Sandy_Lauren  That’s Lauren “Reni” Willett behind the refrigerator door in this pic, and that is Blue in the foreground, and this is the house on Flora Street, in Stockton, CA where Lauren Willet’s body turned up, buried in the basement.  This is also the house where Squeaky Fromme was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the Willetts’ murders.

The claim that Hughes was murdered has been repeated by at least one other well-placed Family member, but that has never bothered retired Ventura County Sheriff Charlie Rudd, now 85.  The former sheriff insists there was no sign of foul play, and says Hughes must have been caught up in a flash flood.  Either he drowned, or he was knocked out by debris or rocks in the water, and then he drowned.

Well, when I was taught forensic science, I learned a basic principle.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Having attended several hundred autopsies, I can also tell you that a body which has been in the water for four months is going to be mostly maggots.  Whatever evidence of foul play there might have been at the beginning is likely to be long gone.  Your only hope would be finding marks on the bones.  But 25% of fatal head injuries leave no detectable marks on the skull.  Nearly two thirds of lethal bullet wounds leave no mark on the bones.  And it’s perfectly possible to kill someone with a knife and leave no sign on the skeleton.  Or simply knock a guy over the head and let him fall into the flood.  So Rudd’s insistence that there was no evidence?  Holds no water at all with me.

There’s also the curious coincidence that Hughes went up to Sespe Springs with a young couple called James and Lauren.  There’s been a lot of argument about whether these two were actually Jim and Lauren Willett.  Bugliosi himself indulged in speculation about it, and found himself being sued by James Forsher about that.  Forsher lost his suit in the end (ca. 1980), because Bugliosi had done nothing more than speculate.  He’d never actively accused Jim Forsher of anything, and the mere fact that he was alive after 1972 proved he wasn’t Jim Willett.  As for Lauren Elder, no one seems to know what became of her, or who she was in the first place.

There’s a story about her being a passenger on a small plane that crashed in the mountains near Independence, CA in 1976.  She survived the crash and even managed to walk out to get help.  Was this the same Lauren Elder?

JP7T_SG_Plane_Crash  The plane did not survive the crash.  Courtesy of the Manson Family Blog at http://www.mansonblog.com/search/label/Lauren%20Elder.

Or had the original Lauren Elder been the girl who married Jim Willett?  The teenage mother who was hanging out with Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Good and Tuffy Cooper and Nancy “Brenda” Pitman in 1972?  Where was she in November of 1970?  Was she riding around in a “borrowed” VW?  The Manson Family had, after all, been arrested by the L.A. Sheriff’s Office the first time around for stealing VWs and setting up a chop shop where they could be converted into dune buggies and then sold to the clueless and credulous.

I don’t know.

James Willett would have been 24 in November of 1970, and Lauren Willett would indeed have been 17.  James Forsher was apparently 22 at the time – when he later sued Bugliosi, that’s what the papers reported.  The Lauren Elder involved in the plane crash would have been 21, not 17.  Much has been made of these disparities in thereported ages of the two Jameses and the two Laurens, but are the differences all that large?  How reliable can any calculations be if they’re based on the original “James” and “Lauren” really being 17?

Then there are other troubling questions.  Does it bother anyone else that when this “James” and “Lauren” got their VW stuck in the mud, they simply abandoned the bus?  So far as I can tell, they never did call a tow truck out to try and recover the vehicle.  Why?  Because it was stolen?

And if Brenda was, as he himself said, Charlie’s designated assassin, where was she that rainy weekend when Hughes disappeared?  Where was Blue?

nancy10  A rather fuzzy pic of “Brenda” much later in life.

Even if she did nothing, or maybe went no further than setting Hughes up for the kill, how much did Lauren Willett know about all this, and was that maybe why both the Willetts were killed?  Perhaps they had a lot more to spill than the beans on a bunch of robberies.

At this point, it might be that only Blue and Brenda know for sure.  But they’re both enjoying a happy retirement.  Blue’s in Florida.  Brenda’s in Oregon, selling ceramics by the seashore.

Sandra good old lady  Blue, I’m told, is still sending letters and money to Charlie. 

Perhaps we’ll never know the truth.

As for Hughes, his closed casket funeral was held on April 7, 1971, and he was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Ronald W Hughes Westwood Memorial Park LA  The Manson trial was his first and last, but Ron Hughes showed a lot more character than his fellows at the defense table.  The “hippy” lawyer was, for my money, the best of the bunch, if maybe not the wisest in terms of self-preservation.

The larger question, of course, is this:  If Hughes really was murdered, if his death truly was the “first of the retaliation murders,” then who were the other victims?

It sounds like there are lots of candidates.

Next time up:  Who Killed Cock Robin?











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