Monday, September 4, 2017

Ruby Pearl, Barbara Hoyt, and the Murder of Shorty Shea (Again)

Don't worry about this turning into the Donald Shea Blog. Yes, we have recently published this story and this one about the doomed would-be stuntman, but since we have just passed the 48th anniversary of Shea’s demise it would be appropriate to post just one more.

Two of the main witnesses against the defendants in the trials for the murder of Donald Jerome “Shorty” Shea (People v. Manson, People v. David, and People v. Grogan) were women, Ruby Pearl and Barbara Hoyt. Both women’s testimonies were of great assistance to the prosecution’s efforts to obtain murder convictions in a daunting case where no body of the victim had been found. Ruby Pearl’s testimony was important in buttressing the argument that Shea's unexpected and prolonged absence from Spahn's Ranch indicated that he had likely fallen victim to sinister circumstances. She also gave details about an ominous conversation she’d had with Shea on the night before he disappeared. Barbara Hoyt's testimony was also important, but it was much more precise: she claimed to have heard the actual death screams of Shea while he was being murdered.

The testimony that Ruby Pearl gave painted a vivid picture of some of the events of the night before Shea vanished. But much of Pearl’s background testimony was equally valuable in that it is a great help in gaining a more realistic perspective of life at Span's Movie Ranch in the summer of 1969.

Barbara Hoyt’s testimony was also very vivid. Her unequivocal recollections of having heard Shea being slain were quite impressive to the jury and were a considerable factor in convincing them that the absent Shea had indeed been murdered.

Ruby Pearl —

In1969 Ruby Pearl had worked for George Spahn for almost twenty years. As Spahn's "right hand woman" she was his immediate subordinate and oversaw all of the practical aspects of running the ranch, including renting out horses, arranging jobs with other business concerns, hiring and firing workers, taking care of the horses and other livestock, and maintaining whatever supplies and equipment were necessary for the successful running of a movie set and horseback riding business. By the summer of 1969 Pearl was working at the ranch every day, seven days a week, from about nine in the morning until ten or twelve in the evening. As such she was well positioned to give accurate accountings as to what went on there. And those accountings are not only accurate, but they are also very interesting.

Ruby Pearl

Of general interest is that Pearl deflated one of the many myths of the Manson saga with the revelation that the famous ”there were no calendars or clocks at Spahn's Ranch" scenario was not an insidious plan on the part of Charles Manson to keep his "followers" disoriented as to dates and time but was rather the way the situation always existed at the ranch, even before Manson and his friends got there. Repeatedly in her testimony Pearl recalled that the life at the ranch was one of timeless routine where the only chronological landmark she had that summer was the massive police raid that was carried out on August 16, 1969; she could only remember events as having occurred before or after that remarkable and highly memorable event.

At Bruce Davis’ trial for Shea’s murder L.A. Deputy District Attorney Anthony Manzella asked Pearl, “Miss Pearl, you said that you didn’t have anything to base your dates on. What did you mean by that?”

Pearl responded, “Until we got it in our heads about the time of the raid, we didn’t have anything to base our time on.”

Manzella: “To you — at the ranch, you worked almost every day at the ranch, didn’t you? Seven days a week?”

Pearl: “Yes.” ….

Manzella: “Did you pay much attention to particular dates?”

Pearl: “Not unless something particularly happened.”

Later, she said, “Well, time, a day or two, isn’t important in our memories. We never kept track of the days, of time. Every day was a working day.”

And yet again, "Well, we didn't center dates around any particular thing, until the raid. That determined a lot of conversation and dates. Before that time, we didn't [know]."

Despite this lack of any accurate time measuring system Pearl could, however, recall sequences of events as far as they related to each other. Thus, she remembered the time after which she didn't see Shea anymore, and she remembered the events that immediately preceded that time.

Although she couldn’t recall the exact date, Pearl clearly remembered the last time she saw Donald Shea. It was on a moonlit night near the end of August. Shea had recently been hired by Frank Retz to work as a sort of night watchman, with the added duty of keeping Charles Manson and his associates away from the “back ranch” area, which Retz claimed was on his property.

It was late at night, probably around midnight. Pearl was in her black Rambler pulling out of the parking lot at Spahn’s after a typical long day of work when she was approached by Donald Shea. Shea was fearful, and he was drunk. As Pearl later recalled in her testimony, Shea asked her, “Pearl, can I stay over at your house tonight? It’s kind of weird here.”

Pearl said, “I haven’t got any place but the shed,” referring to a small structure with a bed in it behind her house.

Shea said, “Well, it’s kind of cold in there.”

Pearl suggested, “Why don’t you go over the the Fountain of the World?"  The Fountain was a religious retreat located in Box Canyon a few miles west of Spahn’s Ranch that took in people who had no place to stay. Shea said that he didn't want to go there either and decided to spend the night in his car at the ranch.

Prosecutor Anthony Manzella asked Pearl about Shea’s demeanor during this conversation. She answered, “He was very serious and he kept looking around, and he said, ‘It gives me the creeps to stay here.’”

Manzella: “Had you ever seen him like that before?”

Pearl: “No.”

Pearl allowed that an additional reason for discouraging Shea from staying at her house was because he had been drinking that night.

Bruce Davis defense attorney George Denny asked Pearl,  “All right. Then, you had this conversation with Shorty? And Shorty had been drinking somewhat; is that right?”

Pearl:  “Yes, he had.”

“And in fact, that’s one of the reasons that you were not too keen to have him come to your house that night; is that right?”

“For that reason; and it was late.”

After this encounter with Shea, Pearl recalled:

“Well, he turned and walked away towards the boardwalk. And I started slowly to pull off. And I saw a car come in real fast, into the driveway and park over there by the side of the road, towards the Simi Valley Road…. just on the edge. And all of these boys got out real quick and started over towards the boardwalk.”

Asked to identify “these boys” Pearl replied, “The Manson boys.”

How many boys were there?

“Four…. Charles Manson, Bruce Davis, Steve Grogan, and Tex Watson.”

Question (by Mr. Manzella): "Now, when they pulled in, did they pull in near you?"

Pearl: “Yes, they had to go almost in front of me. [After they got out of the car], they rushed towards the boardwalk…. where Shorty had just went…. The last I could see them, they was just fanning out…. just spreading out around…. around the spot where Shorty went…. I was slowly pulling out anyway, so I just kept going.”

That was the last time Pearl saw Donald Shea.

How soon after that event did Manson and “the Family” leave the ranch?

“Within a day or so.”

Did they ever return to the ranch to live?


Donald Shea, crouching, at left. The actor holding the gun on Shea is Bob Bickston. 
Shea was scheduled to do some movie work with Bickston at Spahn's Ranch 
starting on September 1, 1969, but by that date he had vanished.

Ruby Pearl's dramatic testimony was important because it set the stage for the prosecution's scenario of the crime, namely that Shea was murdered sometime later that night after Pearl saw "the Manson boys" surrounding him on the boardwalk. And to absolutely cement the certainty that Shea was murdered that night, the prosecution called Barbara Hoyt, a sometime inhabiter of Spahn's Ranch in the spring and summer of 1969. Hoyt's testimony was direct and damning: she claimed to have heard the death screams of Donald Shea as he was being murdered.

Barbara Hoyt --

Barbara Hoyt is often described as a "member of the Manson Family." ("Manson Family," I will say here, is a media-created term, a nebulous designation with no actual formal or legal criteria. No law enforcement agency has ever officially recognized any group as "The Manson Family" in the way that they have identified such criminally inclined groups as organized crime families or street gangs.) But is that true? What was Barbara Hoyt's real relationship to Charles Manson and the people around him?

According to various courtroom testimonies (Specific cites available on request!), Barbara Hoyt first became acquainted with Manson and some of his associates on April 1, 1969, when she met them at the house they were then staying in at 21019 Gresham Street in the Canoga Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The 17-year-old Hoyt had just run away from her parents' nearby home. Hoyt quickly became the girlfriend of another frequenter of the Gresham Street house, a fellow named David Baker, who sometimes surfaces in the TLB literature as "Karate Dave." Shortly after this meeting on April Fools Day, Hoyt says that the group went to stay at a house in the “Malibu mountains”  for a few days before going to Spahn's Ranch. She left the ranch in early May after being arrested for shoplifting a carton of cigarettes. As a result of this brush with the law she returned to her parents' house for a while before going back to the ranch in the last week in May. After the end of May she left California on a cross-country hitchhiking trip (she was chasing Karate Dave) and didn't return to the ranch until the middle of July (although she did call the ranch perhaps a half dozen times during this period, asking if anyone knew where the elusive Dave was). In mid-July, reunited with Dave at the ranch, she left with him (and with $100 given to the couple by Charles Manson) and drove in a bread truck to the ocean front at Belmont in Long Beach for, as Hoyt later recalled, "I guess it would be about a week and a half, two weeks." While the couple was on a pier in Long Beach they heard about the U.S. moon landing. After returning to Spahn's Ranch at the end of July or beginning of August, Dave Baker finally got away for good. Hoyt remained at Spahn's Ranch and stayed there through August and then went to the desert at the beginning of September when the rest of the people went there.

Between April and August Hoyt characterized her time with "the Family" as "not that much." Even when she was in their proximity she often did not eat dinner with them. And unlike Manson and his associates, Hoyt ate meat. Sometime Hoyt wasn't even sure who "the Family" were. "There were people there [Spahn's Ranch] who were living in the saloon, but I am not sure that that was them ["the Family"], you know," she testified. "I can't say for sure, because I didn't know who they were then." (Emphasis added. Author's questions: When did she find out? And did anybody help her?)

Question (by Steve Grogan defense attorney Charles Weedman): "Well, you saw a group there, then that were, perhaps, similar in appearance, generally, to the Manson Family, but you can't say if they were the Manson Family? Is that correct?"


Hoyt's conception of  what it meant to be in "the Family" is also somewhat tenuous. Although she says she "joined the Family" on the first day she met them, April 1, 1969, she recalled no initiation into the group and when asked how she became a member she replied, "I just felt I was in. And I felt accepted, I guess." Later, Hoyt was unable to accurately gauge the depth of her rapport with "the Family" because, "I was not with them."

"Well, then, it's your state of mind that makes you a member or not of the Manson Family; is that right?" asked Bruce Davis defense attorney George Denny.

"Partly," answered Hoyt.

Hoyt said she ceased being a member of "the Family" when she fled Goler Wash in mid-September 1969.

During her scattered presence at this frenzied time she recalled staying at many dispersed places around Spahn's ("I slept in the saloon, in the trailer, in the parachute room, in the wickiup, in the bath house, in the outlaw shacks, in the ca -- you know, where there's a camp; all over the place.") and even took an excursion of several days duration after the raid of August 16 to the desert town of Olancha about 180 miles north of Chatsworth. After a few days in Olancha (where she stayed at the Hannum Ranch with Charles Watson, Nancy Pittman, Ruth Moorehouse, Sherry Cooper, and Diane Lake) she returned yet again to the ranch and remained with the group until after they went to Goler Wash, where she became fearful and disturbed and left to return to her parents’ house in Los Angeles. (Ed Sanders puts the time of her desert departure as September 14 or 15.)

By her own admission on the witness stand, then, Barbara Hoyt was a peripheral character (she never got a "Family" nickname) who only spent several weeks with the Spahn's Ranch people during the late spring and mid-summer of 1969. For most of that time, from April first until the beginning of August, she was apparently focused on her relationship with Dave Baker. After Baker left, Hoyt hung on with the Spahn's Ranch crowd not because of any commonality with them, but because she had nowhere else to go. Her time at the ranch, however, was long and convenient enough for her to be a crucial prosecution witness in the trials against Donald Shea's alleged killers.

Vincent Bugliosi with Barbara Hoyt. Assistant prosecutor Stephen Kay is behind Hoyt. 

Like Ruby Pearl, Barbara Hoyt testified in numerous trials against the three defendants in the Shea murder cases. Her most important testimony described what she claimed she heard on a night at the end of August as she was settling down to sleep behind the main ranch buildings in a little travel trailer known as "the parachute room."

"I had just gotten into bed, and I heard a scream, and I sat up. And for a minute, there wasn't any sound, and so I thought, well, maybe I imagined it. And I laid back down again. And then the screaming started again, and it kept going and going and going for a long time."

"And did you know who it was that was screaming?" asked prosecutor Stephen Kay.

"It was Shorty…. [The screams] sounded pretty far away."

"All right. Did you have any idea of which direction they were coming from?"

"Down the creek, toward the outlaw shacks. Just in that direction…. [The screaming] seemed like a really long time, so I couldn't accurately tell you [how long]. It probably wasn't a real long time, though, but it seemed like it…. [The screams] were loud. And they were painful, and they were the same kind that -- you know, those horror movies when the lady is screaming, that kind of scream? Well, it was like that…."

"Now, is there any doubt at all in your mind that it was Shorty Shea that you heard screaming?"


Hoyt's testimony regarding hearing the death cries of Donald Shea was compelling, unshakable, and certain. In all of her days and days of testimony, it is the one thing in her mind that she did not budge on. She heard those screams, and they were Donald Shea's screams. Period. But there is something amiss with Hoyt's definitive memories: they are completely at odds with the known facts of Shea's murder.

One problem is the time. Hoyt was absolutely certain that she heard the screams late at night. But in fact, Shea was killed in the morning. This different time is confirmed by two of the convicted killers, Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan, both of whom recall participating in Shea's murder in the morning. At Davis' 1993 hearing he recalled, "And we were at the ranch early in the morning. And Manson came down [and] said, 'We're going to kill Shorty.'

"I said, 'What for?'

"'Well, he's a snitch….'

"And so, we got in the car. Steve [sic] drove; we got in the back…. We started down the hill of the ranch, down towards the [San Fernando] valley, and, somebody -- probably, probably Watson -- tells Shorty to pull over. And Shorty said, 'What for?' At this point, Watson stabbed Shorty Shea in his eye."

Steve Grogan, at his 1981 parole hearing provided more detail, including a very detailed account of the physicality of the crime:

"Well, that morning I was awakened by Charles Manson and still, you know, half asleep, [and he] told me to get to the car and handed me like a pipe wrench. Told me to hit Shorty in the head as soon as Tex gave me the go ahead or gave me the signal.

"We proceeded down Santa Susana Pass toward San Fernando Valley. And about a quarter mile down from the ranch there was like a turnoff where cars, you know, like a rest area. And Tex mentioned that he had some [auto] parts over there that he had to get….

"Then we pulled off the road.  Tex got out….

"I was supposed to hit this guy in the back of the head. And like I never, you know, hit anybody or hurt anybody like that before, and it was hard, you know. I kept on hesitating in my mind, you know, looking at the cars on the highway hoping maybe because of the traffic I wouldn't have to hit him because it was just ten feet off the lane."

There was also a contemporary bit of evidence that corroborated these later parole hearing recollections of Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan, specifically the trial testimony of Frank Retz, the German entrepreneur who was in the process of buying Spahn's Ranch when Shea disappeared and who had arranged for the stuntman to act as a night watchman and keep Manson and his people away from the back ranch house. Retz recalled setting up a meeting with Shea one morning to discuss the responsibilities of the job.

Testifying about a telephone conversation that he had with Shea, which he said had occurred on Tuesday or Wednesday of the last week of August, Retz said, "I was waiting for Shorty, and he said he is going to be in, in half an hour, to my place…. He was supposed to be right out…. in the morning; half an hour after the telephone conversation…. he said 'I just going to be leaving now and be in a half hour down."

Question (by Grogan defense attorney Charles Weedman): "You are certain that Shorty did call you on the telephone in the morning, is that so?"


"And that on the telephone he agreed to see you within the next half hour or so?"


"Did Mr. Shea show up?"

"No, sir."

"Was that the last time you ever heard Mr. Shea?"

"Last time."

So Barbara Hoyt's adamant claims that she heard the murder of Donald Shea occurring at about midnight conflicts with the testimony of Retz and the uncontested parole hearing statements of two of Shea's convicted killers that the murder occurred in the morning.

So far, though, you could say that it was just a case of she said/he, he, and he said.

But there is another big problem with Hoyt's testimony, and that is the place.  Hoyt is not only positive -- and unshakably so -- that Shea was murdered at night, she is equally unequivocal that the screams came from the direction of the "outlaw shacks" which were west of the main buildings at Spahn's Ranch. The problem with this claim is that the outlaw shacks were located in the totally opposite direction from the place where Shea was actually murdered eight or so hours later.

Above and below: Two views of the Shea murder scene today

Shea's murder scene is the only death site related to the case that can easily be visited by students of the crimes, and it is certain that his murder occurred there because his body was located in virtually the same spot. The scene is located at a pull-off on the Santa Susana Pass Road (now directly opposite Red Mesa Drive) about a third of a mile east of Spahn's Ranch. The "back house" direction insisted on by Hoyt during her testimony is located to the west, 180 degrees off of the actual direction of the murder. Further, not only is the murder site so far away from the ranch that it would be extremely unlikely (if not impossible) that screams there could be heard in the parachute room behind the western set buildings, but there is also an arm of the mountain behind the ranch that would have considerably blocked any sound coming from that direction.

Above The red arrow on the left indicates the location of the parachute room. The right red arrow shows the spot where Shea was killed. The pale blue arrow in the center points to the hill that would block sounds coming from the murder scene towards the ranch.

Below: United States Geological Survey map (Oat Mountain, 1962) of the ranch area with the same features highlighted.  

The "parachute room" at Spahn's Ranch was situated behind the western end of the ranch buildings under some trees and between two other trailers occupied by ranch cowboys Larry Craven and Randy Starr. It was also fairly close to George Spahn's house and to another trailer on the other side of Spahn's house that was used by ranch hand John Schwartz. None of these other individuals in Hoyt's immediate vicinity (Craven, Starr, Spahn, or Schwartz) heard the screams that Hoyt claimed to have heard. And this is a safe ass-umption, since prosecutors wanting to corroborate Hoyt's testimony would certainly have called these individuals as witnesses if they had heard screams. But since none of them were called it can be fairly safely ass-umed that none of them heard the same screams that Hoyt claims to have heard, despite being in practically the same location at the same time. (Randy Starr died before any of the Shea-related murder trials took place.)

Hoyt's surety that she heard the death screams of Donald Shea is puzzling. In page after page of "I don't remember"s and "I don't know"s she is positively steadfast that the person she heard screaming was Shea. In her mind there is no doubt whatsoever. It happened the way she described it. Full stop.

Also puzzling is that Hoyt was unshakable in her claim that the screams she heard were absolutely coming from Donald Shea, and Donald Shea alone, even though she also testified that she barely ever spoke to Shea and couldn't remember any distinctive characteristic about his voice. (The Massachusetts born and raised Shea had a noticeable Boston accent.)

"I heard him -- most -- I think most of the times I heard his voice was when he would be talking to somebody else."

"I see. What did Shorty sound like when he was talking to somebody else?" asked George Denny.

"I don't remember."

"Well, can you help this jury just a little bit and tell them, as best you can, describe Shorty's voice? That voice that -- that you heard. Describe it to the jury, would you?"

"At which time? When he was screaming, or when he was talking?"

"When he -- his talking voice."

"I don't really remember…. I remember what it sounded like when he was screaming, but -- "

"Well, how about just when he was talking?"

"No, I can't -- no I cannot….  [But] they were Shorty's screams. There's no doubt in my mind. I knew it then and I know it now."

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Donald Shea was not murdered at Spahn's Ranch during the last days of August, 1969 or that the persons eventually convicted of his murder were not involved with his death. Rather, it goes to the overall credibility of Barbara Hoyt in recalling her time with "the Family" in the spring and summer of 1969. If Hoyt can be so adamant -- and so adamantly wrong -- about hearing the death screams of Donald Shea, what does it say about the rest of her recollections?

After Shea was killed his body was rolled down the hill alongside the pull-out. Later on in the evening after the murder Steve Grogan came back and buried the body by putting it into a depression in the hillside and caving in the dirt over it. The body would famously not be found until Grogan told authorities where is was as part of his successful strategy for being released on parole. Grogan revealed the location of the grave in 1977 and was paroled in 1985.

A recovery crew unearths Donald Shea's body in 1977.

Looking down at the overgrown location of Donald Shea's grave today

Ruby Pearl is long gone, but Barbara Hoyt is still around, and you can expect to see quite a bit of her in the next couple of years until August, 2019. She is, after all, just what the murder media wants, a "Manson Family member" who can graphically testify to the evil that was around her. But Barbara Hoyt wasn't really a "Manson Family member." She was a peripheral character who happened to be at Spahn's Ranch for a few weeks when important things happened. And her perception of some of those things is unquestionably incorrect.

So, as you see her in any upcoming TLB specials or other media appearances you might do well to remember the words of two of the defense attorneys during the Shea trials. "Barbara Hoyt will testify to anything," said Bruce Davis defense attorney George Denny. "I frankly don't believe 99 percent of her testimony," concurred Grogan defense attorney Charles Weedman.

Defense attorney hyperbole? Perhaps. But a closer look at Hoyt's claims in the past should be enough to call any claims she makes in the present into serious question. In fact, it should put her entire credibility into question.

Barbara Hoyt (seated) and Debra Tate

As for Donald Jerome "Shorty" Shea, after his body was exhumed and examined by authorities it lay unclaimed in the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Despite being sent notices to collect the remains none of Shea's family members retrieved his skeletal corpse. It was finally cremated, and the ashes were buried in a community grave plot in the Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, California.

Unanswered L.A. Coroner's letter to Donald Shea's wife requesting that she claim her husband's  body (Thank you, Manson's Backporch Tapes!)

Donald Shea's grave marker