Monday, March 5, 2018

Ron Hughes: A Look Back at a Remarkable Man

Ronald William Hughes was born on March 16 1935 to John and Anita Hughes in Los Angeles. He spent most of his youth in New York City and was a graduate of Queens College.

Hughes served in the United States Army during the Korean conflict. He later graduated from UCLA Law School, passing the California Bar exam on attempt number four.

The portly and red-bearded Hughes was quirky sort of guy. He slept on a mattress on the floor of a friend's garage, his bar certificate hanging on the wall beside it. He often came to court in mismatched clothes with noticeable food stains. Known as the "hippy lawyer", he was selected from the public defender's office to defend Charles Manson (later he was replaced by Irving Kanarek and Hughes represented Leslie Van Houten) even though he had never tried a case. He had had some interaction with Manson from visiting him in the county jail, which may have played a part in his selection.

Trial Halloween party one month before Hughes' disappearance
During the trial Hughes would draw Manson's wrath (and Bugliosi's admiration) by questioning witnesses (especially Linda Kasabian) in a manner that portrayed Van Houten as being under Manson's control, rather than letting her take the fall for him as a free-willed murderer. For this reason Hughes refused to let her testify.

In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi said of Hughes:
Since Leslie Van Houten was not charged with the five Tate murders, Hughes did not question any of these witnesses. He did, however, make an interesting motion. He asked that he and his client be permitted to absent themselves from the courtroom while those murders were discussed. Though the motion was denied, his attempt to separate his client from these events ran directly counter to Manson's collective defense, and I wondered how Charlie was reacting to it.
Hughes' cross (of Sergeant Harold Dolan) was brief and to the point. Had the witness compared a fingerprint exemplar of Leslie Van Houten with the latents found at the Labianca residence? Yes. And none of those prints matched the prints of Leslie Van Houten, is that correct? Yes sir. No further questions.
Hughes was learning fast.
"The most effective cross-examination of Linda Kasabian was surprisingly that of Ronald Hughes. Though it was his first trial, and he frequently made procedural mistakes, Hughes was familiar with the hippie subculture, having been a part of it. He knew about drugs, misticism, karma, auras, vibrations, and when he questioned Linda about these things, he made her look just a little odd, just a wee bit zingy. He had her admitting that she believed in ESP, that there were times at Spahn when she actually felt she was a witch."
and later:
Hughes asked Linda so many questions about drugs that, had an unknowing spectator walked into court, he would have assumed Linda was on trial for possession.
So zealous and competent was Hughes that allegedly the last thing Manson said to Hughes was, "I don’t want to see you in the courtroom again".

He didn't.

Court went into a 10 day recess for Thanksgiving shortly after Hughes and the other defense attorneys shocked the court by announcing that they would not present a defense, sparking dramatic outbursts from Van Houten, Krenwinkel & Atkins that they committed the murders of their own free will with Manson having nothing to do with them.
"I refuse to take part in any proceeding where I am forced to push a client out the window"  
- Ron Hughes (explaining why he would not let Leslie Van Houten testify)
Hughes elected to go on a camping trip for the last weekend of the recess with two friends. The two friends were James Forsher and Lauren Elder, both aged 17. The trip coincided with a bad storm, one of the worst to hit southern California in 1970. The next day, November 28, the young couple reportedly decided to go back to LA while Hughes decided to stay and work on his trial summation. Elder's bus however became stuck in mud about a mile and a half from the hot springs. They decided to hike out of the park and hitchhike back to LA.

Work on his summation... in a fearsome rainstorm?

The Sespe Hot Springs area of Los Padres National Forest is approximately 130 miles away from LA. It's not unheard of, but it strikes me as very odd that he elected to stay in the remote area knowing he would have no ride back to Los Angeles and had to be in court Monday. Plus, at 250 pounds the guy wasn't exactly the model of fitness. 2018 hiking trail guidelines show the shortest trail to be the Alder Creek Trail - length 7.5 miles one way. I don't care what kind of shape someone is in, that's a long hike.

Two campers reported to authorities on November 25 that they had seen a body floating in the large pool at Sespe Hot Springs. They said that they had seen the victim swimming there earlier. The following day the body was removed by the Ventura County Coroner's office, but the intense heat had caused it to deteriorate so badly that it took several days to establish it's identity. It was eventually identified as that of Charles W. Guerin, an escaped convict from Soledad State Prison.

Although there were no phones in the entire area, someone claiming to be Hughes called Paul Fitzgerald's office at 1:33pm on Monday, November 30 to report that he and others were stranded in harsh weather at Sespe Hot Springs. The Telephone operator who took the call for Fitzgerald said that she could not be certain that the voice was Hughes'. She said the caller sounded much younger.

Could James Forsher have been the young sounding voice? It was plausible to think that the two young people killed their older acquaintance in a robbery attempt in the remote hot springs. However, the day after they said they left, Hughes was seen walking toward Elder's bus by three campers. Larry Anthony Bell, David Shroyer and Anthony Giffen, all 18, had a brief conversation with him. The three campers all took polygraphs and passed. Forsher and Elder were not considered suspects since they left the area a day before his encounter with the campers.

Ventura County began evacuating Sespe and began a helicopter search. Fourteen people were evacuated by air and another 10 persons hiked out. Perhaps a half dozen elected to stay behind. None of these people had seen Hughes.

In another strange development, a newsman who checked Hughes' garage apartment found a note to Hughes signed by a "Larry Dyer", whom Hughes had previously asked to accompany him to Sespe. He declined because his wife was pregnant. It read in part:
"I told the court you were stuck at Sespe. And according to the CHP (CA Highway Patrol) you're to be there two or three days at least. I also called Fitzgerald and let them know."
Larry Dyer
Dyer denied saying he was Hughes in the call to Fitzgerald's office. He passed away in 1995, so could not be reached for comment.

In Hughes' absence Maxwell Keith was appointed to represent Van Houten. He indicated that he would review the transcripts and tentatively indicated he could be ready to go by December 16. Paul Fitzgerald said the defense opposed any further delay and suggested that Van Houten's case be severed.

Meanwhile the search for Hughes continued by search teams from Ojai, Fillmore and Oxnard-Camarillo.

On March 22, 1971 based on an anonymous tip, authorities began a search of Barker Ranch. The caller told LASO deputies that Hughes was buried on the ranch. The search yielded nothing.

On Saturday March 28, in Sespe Creek at a steep-walled channel known as The Narrows, remains later identified as those of Ronald William Hughes were found by trout fishermen Don Chessman, 49, and John Wells, 47, wedged between two large boulders. The spot is over seven miles from where Hughes was last seen. The fishermen did not report what they had found until the next day because "we did not want to spoil our trip."

Deputy Coroner Merle Peters said the cold water of Sespe Creek had "done a remarkable job of preserving the body." Peters said there were no outward signs of foul play. However, he said, the head had been battered, apparently when the body washed down the rocky creek bed. The body was unclothed except for the fringe of a shirt that was around the neck. Contrary to the reports of the fishermen, the right arm was not missing. The angular positioning of the corpse likely misled them.

Paul Fitzgerald identified the body saying, "Hughes had a strange shaped head, sort of a majestic configuration, and the head is the same. Some of the beard is still there." Dental records supplied by a Beverly Hills dentist later confirmed Fitzgerald's ID.

The Ventura County sergeant who investigated Hughes’ case did not see any noticeable signs of foul play on his body and believed his death was accidental. From a 2012 NY Times article:
...Charlie Rudd, an 83-year-old retired Ventura County sheriff's sergeant, said Hughes' death probably had nothing to do with Manson. 
When Hughes disappeared, Rudd was assigned the investigation. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department heard a rumor that Hughes had been taken to the Barker Ranch, but no evidence was found there. 
Hughes' body was found near Sespe Hot Springs in the Los Padres National Forest, and Rudd said there was little evidence of foul play. 
Rudd believes Hughes had gone camping and got caught in a powerful rainstorm that nearly stranded other people. The creek swelled dangerously and Hughes died either because he drowned or because he was battered to death by debris and rocks, Rudd says.
"He was hit by some debris or lost consciousness and drowned and drifted down the river quite a ways," Rudd said. "There was nothing else to indicate otherwise and the medical examiner couldn't come to a conclusion of anything other than that." 
Three years before Hughes disappeared, Rudd met Manson after he had been arrested in Ventura County on a minor offense. It was there that Manson appeared in possibly his most iconic mug shot, his eyes as wild as his hair. Rudd, a court officer at the time, said he chatted amiably with Manson about his "harem" of women and his way of life. There was little hint of a Pied Piper who would lead his followers to murder. 
As time has passed, Rudd said he's not surprised that many still believe the Manson family's ledger of victims was longer. 
"Those people were capable of a lot of things," he said.
Interview with Sergeant Charlie Rudd:

Although Bugliosi states in Helter Skelter that Sandra Good bragged that Hughes' death was the first of the Family's "retaliation murders", there is no evidence that his demise was anything other than a tragic accident. Given that there was at least one more victim of the flooding (the convict, Guerin), this seems the most plausible explanation.

In speaking about the Merrick/Hendrickson documentary he states:
Off-camera, and unrecorded, Sandy made a number of of other admissions to Merrick. She told him, in the presence of one other witness, that to date the Family had killed "thirty-five to forty people". And that "Hughes was the first of the retaliation murders."
In the aftermath Bugliosi speculated that James Forsher and Lauren Elder might possibly have been James and Lauren Willett. The Willetts were murdered in Stockton in November of 1972 by a group that included some former Manson Family members because as the theory went, they knew too much about the murder of Ron Hughes. Forsher reappeared in 1979 and unsuccessfully sued Bugliosi for libel and invasion of privacy. Elder was not part of the suit.

According to this 2012 post by Panamint Patty ("dedicated" to the oft-missed Farflung) a different Lauren Elder was involved in a very newsworthy plane crash:
Apparently this Lauren Elder was flying in a light aircraft in 1976 which had crashed in the high mountains resulting in the death of the pilot and other passenger.  This Lauren manages to stumble, fall and crawl from the crash site and arrive in Independence, CA and rescue.  But that rescue was delayed because people refused to help her, out of fears that she was part of the Manson Family (insert that weird, sci-fi Theremin sound).

Thirty-six people attended Ron Hughes' funeral including his parents and sister. He was eulogized by Paul Fitzgerald who said Ron would be remembered "for what he wasn't, rather than for what he was. He wasn't materialistic. He wasn't vain. He wasn't punctual."

He is interred at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

His marker displays the date his remains were recovered by authorities rather than the day he went missing or when the trout fishermen first discovered him the day before. The four Manson Family defendants had been found guilty in January and in an ironic twist, received death sentences on the exact same day Hughes' body was removed from Sespe Creek by the Ventura coroner's office.

In Ventura County, the Ronald William Hughes case file remains open.


cielodrivecom said...

In the missing person report, it says Hughes went up with James Forsher and his wife, Yana Forsher. If I’ve learned anything from the Manson saga, it’s to never get in a car with someone going by the name Yana

Peter said...

Was there a connection between Hughes and Harold True prior to Hughes's appointment? Didn't True say in his interview with Stovitz that he had provided Manson with a list of attorneys.

starviego said...

"Deputy Coroner Merle Peters said the cold water of Sespe Creek had "done a remarkable job of preserving the body." "

So why were they unable to find the cause of death?


It should also be pointed out that Hughes was an associate of the Family before TLB:

Steven Kay: "(Manson) threatened Ronald Hughes, who knew Manson and the Family before the murders. He was a UCLA law student and he would go out to Spahn Ranch and do drugs with the Family."
(from "Manson Speaks: Inside the Mind of a Madman" History Channel)

Matt said...

starviego, I was unable to find any evidence that Hughes knew Manson before he visited him in Jail. The TV show you mentioned took many many liberties with facts so I wouldn't put much stock in it.

starviego said...

From another source, then:
Long Beach Press-Telegram, 3-29-71
Chessman: "Hughes knew the communal "family" of Charles Manson months before Manson and three female co-defendants were charged with murder and conspiracy."

Matt said...

Yes I read that article. To me that's hearsay.

Peter said...

I think Kay was mixing up Harold True with Hughes. That's why I asked if there was a connection.

Manson originally requested that Hughes be appointed as a private investigator by the Court in February 1970. But Judge Dell denied the motion. In March, when Judge Keene granted Manson's then-attorney Charles Hollopeter's motion for a psychiatric evaluation of Manson, Manson moved to have him dismissed. Manson first attempted to have Reiner appointed to help him re-obtain his pro-per status, but this was denied. Finally, Manson moved to substitute Hughes, which was granted. Hughes then immediately withdrew Hollopeter's motion. Hughes represented Manson until June, when Kanarek was substituted after Manson's habeas corpus petition on his pro-per status was denied. In July Van Houten substituted in Hughes for Ira Reiner.

Panamint Patty said...

Gosh Patty misses Farflung!

starviego said...

Is the autopsy report on Hughes available anywhere?

What about this guy Larry Dyer? How old was he? Was he friends with Hughes? Strange that he would interject himself in this case.

Robert C said...

Good to see Hughes getting some notice. When it happened everyone I was around at the time was convinced he was murdered by the MF. I suppose it's possible nature did him in too. I also think an autopsy should have settled cause of death. The media at the time didn't dwell on it though. There were so many other bigger fish to fry that hardly anyone paid much attention to Hughes. But in his brief time in court he wasn't the buffoon everyone thought he might be.

ColScott said...

Hughes died from a flash flood - his fat ass could not get out.

Nice profile tho

starviego said...

From the same History Channel source cited earlier:

Steven Kay: "He(Hughes) was last seen in Sespe Hot Springs, swimming in a natural pool after having taken LSD."

It sounds like Kay knows something we don't. Or do you believe he would just make this part up?

Like so many other things in the Manson saga, one gets the feeling one isn't getting the full story.

ColScott said...

You know what? If you read Leonard Maltin's entertaining book about the OUR GANG (Little Rascals) he makes a good point. Yes a lot of crazy shit happened with them, ALfalfa shot, Blake a killer, wartime accidents and weird deaths. But it is not a curse- if you followed what, 100 plus kids over 50 years you would have your share of weird shit.

With TLB there are all these nooks and crannies of weird shit. But you have to ascertain what matters. Hughes being unfit and unable to outrun water SUCKS but hey, it wasn't anyone associated with Charlie.

Otherwise you end up trying to see if PIC Dawson had his name written on the Cielo Drive house. Madness.

GreenWhite said...

"Like so many other things in the Manson saga, one gets the feeling one isn't getting the full story." Amen. Way solid writeup. Cielo's comment made me laugh.

starviego said...

Because Hughes' body was found in the river we assume he fell in or got swept away while attempting to cross it. But I think Ronald was there to bask in the hot springs, not go for a long hike, crossing rivers along the way. Did his companions or the other visitors report having to cross a particularly treacherous river?

Matt said...

Sespe Creek is rocky and shallow. Under normal circumstances there’s no way a man of his size gets washed 7 miles downstream. It happened quickly because of the sudden flash flood that took his life.

And no, he wasn’t there for the hike. I’m perplexed that he didn’t elect to go out in the VW with the two kids. Especially since he was 130 miles from home and the recess coming to a close.

Peter said...

Doesn't flash flooding out west often occur hundreds of miles down stream from where the rain actually falls and that's why it's so dangerous because it's so unexpected.

David said...

I've always wondered whether Hughes intended to return for the trial. Not as in end his life crap but I have always wondered if he took Manson's comment as either a threat (and thus was getting out of dodge- Sanders claims the lawyers were threatened)- or as a termination of his services.

I think it is highly unlikely he could work on his summation out there unless he took some amazing notes during the trial and I have to agree with Matt I can't imagine how he thought he could get back in time for court- or even to a phone.

Monica said...

Does it seem odd that 35 year old Hughes would go camping with two 17 year olds that aren't his relatives? Maybe back then, it was less creepy. Researching the area, I have found you do have to hike a fair bit (miles) to bask in the actual springs. If he wasn't a hiker, why did he go? I'm with David. Seems he wanted an excuse.

David said...


bucpaul sent me this link recently. If you happen to be in London in May you might want to check it out.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Matt said...

Hughes had gotten a handful of tickets because many safety features on his jalopy were broken. He risked jail if he were caught driving it. So, he asked Larry Dyer to go with him. Dyer declined due to his wife's pregnancy. He then turned to the kids, who lived close by. It wasn't weird. He just needed somebody with transportation to agree to go with him.

David said...

It actually appears he did plan on working on the case while up there as odd as that seems.

From the trial transcript:

December 3, 1970: Stan Atkinson Channel 4 news appears in chambers. He went up to the hot springs to look for Hughes in a helicopter. He was unsuccessful. He also informs the court that at "Lums" on Thursday Hughes was very 'up' and 'optimistic about the case and looking forward to the final phases of the trial.

Then they bring in Van Houten to tell her they are appointing a Keith. She argues rather eloquently that a 'new man' can't speak for her because 'reading is not the same as hearing and seeing'. She wants to represent herself if not Hughes. Denied.

That P.M. Maxwell Keith is appointed.

December 4th the court reports that sheriff recovered 14 volumes of the trial transcript from a VW near the hot springs with Hughes' name on the covers.

December 7th Maxwell Keith starts talking about 'effective assistance of counsel'- how LVH's conviction was overturned.

December 21st the trial resumes with Keith's motion for a mistrial. LVH wants a new lawyer. A fracas ensues with the female defendants fighting with the female bailiffs. Manson throws a paper clip at the judge. Atkins hits a bailiff and In the course of this Krenwinkel screams: "We are going to remove you [judge] from the face of the earth."

Motion denied.

Peter said...

Early in the morning we'll be startin' out. Some hippies will be coming along.
We're loading up our woody with our transcripts inside. And headin' out singing our song.

Peter said...

Let's go draftin'. Draftin' our closing.

Robert C said...

Why doesn't his autopsy reveal his real cause of death ? Did he have a heart attacked while on drugs while bopping in the hot springs ? Did a flash flood really transport his heavy body that far and also mostly nude when found ? If he's going to blow some weed or more, why take all his case files with him ? So many questions and all the evidence doesn't line up for me regarding an easy simple answer given his involvement with the MF and trial. Occum's Razor ? Maybe he slipped and hit his head knocking him out while wearing his BVD's in the pool and the storm drowns and washes him away ?

penny lane said...

Did he have water in his lungs and shit?..Great read Matt..thanks

starviego said...

David said...
"He also informs the court that at "Lums" on Thursday Hughes was very 'up' and 'optimistic about the case and looking forward to the final phases of the trial."

Paul Fitzgerald was also reportedly very depressed by the guilty verdicts when they came in. Did these guys really think they were going to get an acquittal for Krenwinkle and Van Houten? On what evidence?

David said...

Starving said: "Did these guys really think they were going to get an acquittal for Krenwinkle and Van Houten? On what evidence?"

Krenwinkel: I can't imagine how he could believe that.

Van Houten: her conviction turns largely on Kasabian's testimony. Reading their cross examination and certain side bar comments I think they truly believed they impeached her testimony.

Bobby said...

Hi, if someone could tune in to Netflix for THE PUSH , supposedly they can do in 90 minutes what Manson did in months. Thanks. Bob.

Bobby said...

And my apology for using Matt's fine post on Hughs to bring that up.

Matt said...

David said...

Van Houten: her conviction turns largely on Kasabian's testimony. Reading their cross examination and certain side bar comments I think they truly believed they impeached her testimony.

Even the highly egocentric Bug was willing to admit Hughes had chinked his star witnesses' armor:

"He knew about drugs, misticism, karma, auras, vibrations, and when he questioned Linda about these things, he made her look just a little odd, just a wee bit zingy. He had her admitting that she believed in ESP, that there were times at Spahn when she actually felt she was a witch."

DebS said...

Blogger cielodrivecom said...
In the missing person report, it says Hughes went up with James Forsher and his wife, Yana Forsher. If I’ve learned anything from the Manson saga, it’s to never get in a car with someone going by the name Yana

That's weird.

Larry Dyer's wife was named Yana. Lawrence Stephen Dyer married Yana M Ferriera Oct. 27, 1970. Their child was born Dec. 14, 1970. That fits with Larry telling Ron Hughes he couldn't go to Sespe because his wife was pregnant.

Larry was born Oct. 27, 1950. It seems that Ron Hughes had a history of hanging out with younger people. Larry died Oct. 6, 1995.

beauders said...

For those interested there is a copy of "Death To Pigs" by Robert Hendrickson in like new condition starting bid $14.99 on ebay. No it is not mine, but just know it is hard to find so I thought I'd let everyone know. Where is Grim, has he given up on the Manson blogs?