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|
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.and:
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.and:
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".
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."
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.