Monday, August 7, 2017

Get Shorty: The Tragic Tale of Don Shea

Donald Jerome Shea
On August 16, 1969, the police raided Spahn's Movie Ranch after receiving complaints about stolen tools and vehicles being used in a primitive dune buggy chop shop there. Twenty six members of The Family were arrested. Manson was convinced that it was ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea that helped the police set up the raid.

The likable part-time ranch hand worked at Spahn Ranch sporadically for up to fifteen years. Whether or not the raid was his doing, this was the event that likely sealed Shea’s death warrant.

Some time between Aug. 27 and Sept. 1, 1969, Tex Watson, Bruce Davis, Steve Grogan, Bill Vance, Larry Bailey, and Manson somehow got Shea into the back seat of their car.

Grogan hit Shea on the head with a pipe wrench and the fight was on. Watson stabbed Shea repeatedly. Shea fought hard but the group pulled him from the car and dragged him down a hill behind Spahn Ranch, where they overpowered him and stabbed him to death.

It wasn't until December 1977, that Shea's body was found. Steve Grogan was in prison when he drew a map of where Shea's body had been buried and gave it to the authorities. His motivation was to prove that, contrary to rumors, Donald Shea had not been cut into nine pieces and buried. Grogan was later paroled and he remains the only Manson family member convicted of murder that has ever been paroled.

The events described above are well documented. But who was Donald Jerome Shea? What do we REALLY know about him? I recently took a much closer look.

A good source is his friend Jerry Binder. Through Binder's trial testimony we can read a lot into who Shea was and see juxtaposed patterns both positive and troubling in his tragically short life.

Binder employed Shea off and on from 1965 until 1969. First as a helper with animals such as elephants and lions he kept for rental to movie studios and later as a helper in Binder's retail operations. Binder described Shea as a dependable employee that he could count on and trust. He showed up for work and no task was beneath him. Shea was all about "a day's work for a day's pay". He also said that when Shea was away he never went more than three or four weeks without calling.

Binder obviously had a sound trust in Shorty as an animal handler. From Binder's testimony:
Q: What was the nature of Shorty’s job at the time?
A: Taking care of animals and backing me up as the second man. 
There was one case where we did a show on Wild, Wild West at the CBS Studios, and there was a tiger we had to do a bit with that had to lunge at the star of the show, and he got past me and Shorty stopped him before he got to me with a pole. 
You always have to have somebody there you can really depend on. Otherwise, you can really get hurt if you are handling anything as dangerous as that. 
Q: In connection with that function, did you depend on Shorty quite a bit? 
A: With my life.
He consistently lent Shea money, but was always repaid either directly, through sweat equity or both. An example would be the prized pistols that Shorty owned.

They were obtained from Arch Hall via a $100 loan from Binder (only $25 of which went toward the pistols), plus a couple of cameras Binder gave him to help in purchasing the guns and money orders of an unknown amount. However, the money orders bounced. Arch could prove that Shorty never paid in full for the guns and had the documentation to prove it so the guns were returned to him. Arch Hall was the only person who was able to get any of the firearms confiscated at the raids back in his possession. That is how they were able to be put up for sale at that gun auction site mentioned in that post.

Some of the Spahn Ranch raid weapons

Reading the testimony shows that Shea was always borrowing and repaying. He never was able to get himself on solid financial ground.
Q: Now, over the years that you knew Don, that is between 1965 and 1969, had you advanced him on numerous occasions loans? 
A: Oh, all kinds of money. 
Q: Did he ever fail to pay you back? 
A: No. 
Q: Or work it out in employment? 
A: He would work it out, take out so much each week out of his pay or if he worked someplace else he could come and bring me the money before he went away to do another movie job or whatever. 
Q: But on those occasions he always paid you back or worked it out? Is that correct? 
A: Correct.
Shea worked fairly consistently for Jerry Binder from 1965 onward. That is, when Binder had work for him and Shea wasn't drifting. In Binder's testimony:
Q: Between the dates that you first met him in 1965 and 1969, say, using the date just after he was married July 1, 1969, how often would you generally see him? 
A: Generally it was every day unless he was working in and out on a job somewhere, and then he would get in touch with me, at least once a week, to find out what was happening, if we had anything else coming up.
Binder's friend and sometimes business partner Herb Bromberg owned several topless bars. When Binder didn't have work for Shea, Bromberg often employed him:
Q: And did you introduce Mr. Bromberg to Mr. Shea for a specific purpose? 
A: One of the times that I brought him to his office was to see if he could get him a job because I didn't have enough work for him to do. 
Q: And at your behest did Mr. Bromberg hire Mr. Shea? 
A: He had him first as a handyman, then he put him up as the manager in some of the different bars and clubs that he owned.
The topless bar work underscores a common theme in Shea's life. Rather than describe it I'll just let you read, first through Binder's own words in his testimony and second through records of Shea's relationships and marriages. In the following chunk of testimony Binder describes Shorty's duties in Binder's retail and mail order business:

So it appears from the testimony that Shea worked for Binder and Bromberg as a topless bar manager, bouncer and seller of pornography consistently but not necessarily full-time from 1965 to July 1 of 1969. So, during that period when did he have time in 1969 to work at Spahn Ranch?

The answer is... not much. According to George Spahn in the below article from the LA Times in Dec of 1969:
"He worked in pictures, driving teams and handling saddle horses, but he leaned more to beer joints. He was a bouncer."

The shaky employment Shea received from Binder and Bromberg had dried up. Shorty needed full-time work and returned to Spahn in July of 1969 hoping George could come through for him. The problem was the Manson Family's presence at the ranch. According to Danny Decarlo's questioning by LASO (Helter Skelter page 153):
"Shorty was telling old man Spahn that he should put him in charge and he would clean everybody up." He would, in short order, run off Manson and his Family. Shorty, however, made a fatal mistake: he forgot that little Squeaky was not only George's eyes, she was also Charlie's ears.

Donald Shea's Relationships:

May 15, 1959 Shorty married a girl named Phyllis Gaston. She was 19 years old and pregnant, Shorty was 25 years old. Not a big deal, plenty of people have shotgun weddings and Shorty and Phyllis more or less are age appropriate. Daughter Karen was born November 10, 1959.

Now it starts to get a little weird...

According to Shea's Wikipedia page, "There is anecdotal evidence that Donald had a son with a woman named Judith Ellen Lawson named either Ray or Roy who died in infancy in 1960 in Hood County, Texas."

Well folks, there's nothing anecdotal about it. Between the time that Shorty married Phyllis and Karen was born, Shorty went to Texas. It is not clear why. While there he he got 15 year old Judith Ellen Lawson pregnant. Mind you he was 25 years old, not so age appropriate, and likely illegal. Judith and her brother George Jesse Lawson were both born in Los Angeles but apparently went to live in Texas when they were young. Her brother was known to family as Jesse.

The child’s name was Roy William Shea. An official birth certificate is not possible to show you because in Texas you must be family to obtain one. You can get an informational copy in California (for example) which is stamped "informational copy" across the front but Texas does not have that option. But here is his line in the Texas Birth Index:

Little Roy Shea died of a brain hemorrhage at about 3 1/2 months of age. It is possible that the baby was shaken thus injuring his brain though he could have been dropped, too. There is a page for him at Find A Grave (FAG) where a younger half sister tells a little about his death, referring to head injuries so it's doubtful that some kind of illness was involved.

The FAG page doesn't indicate whether or not Shorty ever actually had any contact with the child but does say that Shorty had gone back to LA before Judith knew she was pregnant. However, Shorty went back to LA with Judith's brother Jesse so she certainly could have gotten word to Shorty, through her brother, of her pregnancy.

If you notice on the baby's death certificate it says the baby's father was "Roy". The informant for the information was Kelly Sawyer who the sister mentions on the FAG page as having tried to help Judith with the baby. It's possible that he did not know who the father was and just said Roy assuming that the baby was named after his father. Since there is an official Texas birth record stating the father was Donald Jerome Shea, it’s likely that Sawyer just didn't know. Also, the person, Dorothea Guinn, who wrote up the FAG page for little Roy Shea has a little problem with math even though she stated the dates of birth and death. Here is a baby picture of the child and his death certificate:

Judith is no longer living, you can access her FAG page by clicking on her name on Roy's page. Kelly Sawyer is listed on her page as a previous husband but a record of that marriage isn’t found. He has since passed away.

Judith's brother Jesse is still living. He has quite a criminal background dating back to crimes in LA in the early 60s. We have never seen criminal records go back that far on a background report!

February 21, 1961 Shorty married a pregnant 15 year old Sandra L Adams, he was 27 years old. The marriage record says she was 16 years old but Ancestry tends to treat people's birth dates like race horses, everyone turns a year older on January 1st. Their first child Elizabeth was born Sept. 6, 1961. The record shows her name without the H at the end but Ancestry sometimes truncates a name at 8 letters. (There is no rhyme or reason to Ancestry at times and it makes for difficult searching.)

If you are following the bouncing ball, this is the third teenage girl in this narrative, and the second fifteen year old that Shea knocked up. I'm no legal eagle but I'm pretty sure in 2017 he'd be doing a prison term and labeled a sex offender for this.

Shorty's next marriage was July 1, 1969 to topless dancer Magdalene "Nikki" Fuery. The marriage took place in Las Vegas only weeks after they first met in May of that year.

Magdalene "Nikki" Fuery Shea

Jerry Binder was a marriage witness as was another woman who worked for Binder as stated in his testimony. He didn't remember the woman's name in the testimony though.

The marriage to Nikki was short-lived and disintegrated very quickly. In the article below, Fuery says it was over Shea's inability to get a full-time job. This further reinforces the both the motivation and likelihood that Shea was behind the Spahn Ranch raid. He wanted to rid Spahn of the Manson Family so that he could be employed at his familiar old haunt on a full-time basis in an effort to keep Nikki from leaving him.

Shorty Shea was a man's man who dreamed of a big break in Hollywood that would make him a successful stuntman/character actor. When he was employed as an animal handler or as a ranch hand he was dependable and well-liked by his employers. But, Donald Jerome Shea also seems to have had his demons. In his final years he worked shady jobs in topless bars and adult bookstores, none of which was able to free him from the pattern of borrowing and repaying. His relationships tended to be with topless dancers and girls below the legal age of consent. When those relationships yielded children he wasn't able (or perhaps willing) to provide for them. At the end, in a hurried push for full-time employment to save his new marriage he rubbed a certain Charles Manson the wrong way... after eight bodies had already piled up.

Donald Jerome Shea's life was a complex and tragic tale, indeed.