During the week of May 19-21, 2008, the Inyo County Sheriff led a multiagency excavation at the Barker Ranch site, in Sourdough Canyon off Goler Wash in the Southern Panamint Mountains in Death Valley National Park. The junction of decades old myth and the newest forensic techniques and equipment led to enough evidence to bring about a dig for graves for what were alleged to be undiscovered victims of the Manson gang's killing spree, which ended with their capture at Barker Ranch on October 12, 1969.
The story, which was the darling of America's press wires for months, was originally broke in the Mammoth Times Weekly by Lara Kirkner. I had the pleasure of meeting Lara during my visit to the scene. Back in January 2008 she wrote about a Mammoth Lakes police officer and his K-9 partner that was trained in advanced, modern techniques for locating old and decayed graves rather than fresh cadavers.
For decades stories about additional Manson family victims at the Barker Ranch have circulated and been kept alive. Several visits by this specially trained dog, backed up by state-of-the-art soil tests by the nation's finest crime labs, yielded inconclusive evidence. After a couple of months of stewing over the matter, Inyo County decided to conduct an excavation of the suspected grave sites.
In the week leading up to the dig, the national news was a-buzz with the story. CNN claimed to have conducted the first live broadcast from the Barker Ranch, quite an achievement given the difficulty in reaching the site. Ballarat, however, hadn't seen such attention from the media since the legendary Great Race passed through almost exactly 100 years ago.
George was covering the store for his son Rocky. Observing the media zoo that had taken up residency on the store's front porch, I asked how his cash box was doing, He remarked that he hadn't sold so much as a soda or a t-shirt, let alone had any of the dozens of media trucks paid a parking or camping fee for bunking down on the private property there in Ballarat.
The night before I had printed up a fancy press pass badge with my photo and everything -- very impressive, I thought. But not the Inyo County Sheriff public affairs specialist. She was not impressed and stated firmly that the press pool was closed, but had I made the unpublished deadline the week prior, I might have actually received a credential. Good to know for the next time they dig for bodies in Death Valley.
In the end, the week long excavation was canceled after only two days. One or more of the sites did contain Native American artifacts, but, by and large, the sites all came up empty of any possible Manson era human remains.
By the end of the day Wednesday, everyone was gone, and things in Ballarat were all back to normal.