For his last and final interview, retired CHP officer Jim Pursell gives his detailed account of spearheading the 1969 Barker Ranch raid that led to the arrest of the most notorious criminal in American history.
“The valley of death and I’ll find you…”
-The Manson Family, “Always is Always Forever”
What often gets lost in the hysteria (even after half a century) surrounding Charles Manson and the so-called Family are the unsung heroes that emerged during that time. Heroes like Jim Pursell, the CHP arresting officer who found Manson hiding in a cupboard when authorities raided Barker Ranch in Death Valley in October 1969, marking the last moments of freedom Manson would ever have.
Pursell would go on to testify in the highly-publicized Manson Family trial in a Los Angeles forever transformed by mystified fear. As a third generation Angeleno, the Manson mythos was certainly my cultural dowry. Tinseltown folklore, as it were. And the monsters in the story were very much real. My mother was a junior at John Marshall High at the time, the same school as the son and daughter of murder victims Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. She and my grandparents lived just a few streets away from Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, and there was a feeling of “it could have been us” that permeated the city, from quiet suburbia to the upper echelons of Hollywood.
Fast forward to the time of this interview, February 2017, and Manson’s health is quickly deteriorating. Family members like Susan Atkins and many of the witnesses from those days are long dead. Soon enough, the summer of 1969 and the criminal exploits of the Manson Family will be only as tangible as pages in history, alongside those of Billy the Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Bugsy Siegel. Firsthand witnesses, though, are still out there. I hold a special interest in lending them my ear.
My girlfriend, Hannah, and I drive north up the 5 freeway from Los Angeles and into the desert shadows of the Owens Valley. It’s a different California than most Angelenos know (never mind that it’s the forsaken land from which L.A. steals its water), where ghosts aren’t so easily swept under big money developments. Abandoned mines, ghost towns, schizophrenic sky, living canyons that swallow up naive tourists, and the ominously defunct Manzanar Internment Camp, where Japanese-Americans were detained in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The Sierra Nevada is a perfect display of nature — esoteric horror layered with an overwhelming beauty.
Hannah’s father had worked as a corrections officer at the Independence county jail where, on October 11–14, 1969 members of the Family, (including Manson himself and core members like Bruce Davis, Steve “Clem” Krogan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) were booked after the exhaustive Barker Ranch raid. Jim Pursell knew Hannah’s father for years, and it was the only reason Pursell decided to entertain us at all.
We enter Jim’s quaint, two-story home he shares with his wife in Bishop, California, an old mule town just 30 miles south of the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, and 90 miles west of Death Valley National Park, the backdrop of his long career in law enforcement.
He’s a tall guy, quarterback height, but not some beast of a man you would picture when meeting the man who captured the Devil himself.
Doilies on the armrests of furniture and on tabletops, commemorative plates hang on the walls along with big clocks you can hear tick. At 82, he’s hard of hearing and dedicates his mornings to reading the paper. Local news and ticking clocks. He motions to his dated answering machine on the counter that separates the kitchen from the small living room, and mentions how he recently got a call from Dateline NBC about doing another interview. “At this point, I’m done talking about it. If it wasn’t for Hannah’s dad, we wouldn’t be talking either.”
Jim wasn’t confident he would be able to recall the minutiae after all these years. But, like an elder in front of a campfire, he settled into his lazy chair and dug into the recesses of his memory. We could see his eyes come to life as he began to relive the day he hadn’t thought about in a long time: the day he came face-to-face and put the cuffs on America’s boogieman.
How old were you at the time?
Honey! [yelling to his wife in the next room] How old was I in 1969?
Mrs. Pursell: I can’t do the numbers in my head right now, but we moved to Death Valley in ’68!
How long had you been on the force?
I came on the patrol in ’57. I was 24. So, in ’69, that would make me about 36.
That’s about how old Manson was too. You were on the CHP?
Correct. Death Valley Resident Officer.
For how long?
I had 31 years when I retired.
We know this all went down at Barker Ranch [and Myers Ranch], where the family was holed up deep in Death Valley. Tell us about getting the call, and the events leading up to the raid.
This whole thing took place over the course of, about, ten days. I had been in Sacramento, just returned home, and Gina and I and our young son were heading into Lone Pine to go grocery shopping. I was using the patrol car, so I had radio contact with the park service up in the extreme northwest corner of Death Valley National Monument, as it was called then. It is now a Park. There’s an area called the Racetrack [Playa], and there’s a natural canyon which runs from Racetrack through the Panamint Mountains, down to Eureka Valley. They discovered someone had pioneered a road through that canyon, and they were driving around on the Racetrack, making marks out there, which is illegal. I hear, over the frequency, maintenance people talking about a big piece of equipment — a Michigan front-end loader that they were using to erase the tracks — was burning at the job site. Rangers had mobilized, and they went into the Racetrack area from the Death Valley side. They were asking for assistance to come in from the west side. I told my wife Gina, ‘I’ll drop you and Jimmy off at Panamint Springs and go see if I can help.’
What did you come across?
We found a ’69 Ford sedan that turned out to be a rental abandoned up there, and nothing else. I arranged to have the car stored by the CHP out of Lone Pine. It wasn’t reported as stolen by, I think it was Avis, who just didn’t know where it was.
You’ve got a lead.
That was our first contact.
What’s the next move?
Chief ranger of Death Valley National Monument started sending his rangers on routine patrol, beheading all the canyons that came into Death Valley and on the other side into Panamint Valley.
What were you doing?
Dick Powell, a ranger and good friend of mine, came to me and said he was going to go up to Butte Valley, which is southwest corner of the Monument, and go over and out the canyon called Goler Wash. As we crossed the Mengel Pass, there were a couple of draws beside the road, and we saw tire tracks going up them. We followed them up to Barker Ranch.
Not knowing what you were walking into...
‘Ranch’ is kind of a misnomer, it was more of a just a small, rock-built cabin.
What’d you find?
There was one young female standing on the porch. We talked to her but she wasn’t giving us any information at all. I asked her, ‘Who occupies this place?’ She said, ‘Well, he is down Panamint Valley.’ So the ranger and I started that way, westbound, down Goler Wash. Pretty soon we met an old military 4x4 Dodge truck coming up the canyon. We stopped them. The driver was a middle-aged fella, and he had a teenage boy riding shotgun. We looked in the back of the pickup, and there was a whole lot of automotive parts, ignition parts, engine oil, and a big commercial movie camera. So I talked to the driver, and he said there was a group up there filming something. I asked if he was part of it. He said no. I then asked why he was doing the hulling for them. You’ve heard of the pregnant pause? There was a long pause, and he said, ‘I think my life might depend on it.’
Got your attention?
I told him to turn the truck off, and let’s have a talk. He asked if we could go back to the cabin because the truck wouldn’t start again if he turned it off. I asked what’s with the female up there at the cabin. He was adamant that there was no female at the house. So we drive back, and there was a smaller outbuilding next to the cabin itself. We sat inside and started questioning them.
Who were they?
The young kid, Brooks Poston, had been a member of what would later be known as ‘The Family.’ This old miner, Paul Crockett, was kind of a weird fella himself. He was up there prospecting. Trying to find the motherlode. And they just moved in on him. But he was kind of a mind-bender himself. He had pulled Brooks Poston from the Family, and they had been paling around together. They were telling us some wild stories about what this group does at night, and the leader dresses all in white and leads the chants. Real far out stuff. Dick and I got as much information out of them as we could, and we noticed, just like any old mining camp, they had a pile of old rusty cans. We could tell there was a chassis of a Volkswagon under the cans. We dug it out and got the VIN number.
Going back out down Goler Wash to where these draws were, we parked in one. I got out of the passenger side, Dick got out the driver side, and we started walking up the hill on either side of this draw. Suddenly, I hear Dick whistling and waving me over. I dashed down and back up to his side of the draw, and I’m suddenly within a mass of young females, only a few males. Some are nude, some are dressed, and everything in between. They were trying to hide behind sage bushes, but you can’t hide too well behind a sage bush. I could see further up the draw what looked like a dry camp. Dick took off running, and he disappeared. I said, ‘Come on out!’ I gathered them all together.
What did they say?
You remember the name Squeaky Fromme? She was kind of the spokesperson. Dick comes huffing and puffing back. He had been chasing a male subject. I ask, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ And she said, buck naked, ‘We’re a scout troop from San Francisco. Do you want to be our leader?’
What’d you get out of them?
We got what we could, none of them had I.D. I noticed two motor vehicles, one was a VW dune buggy, covered by a purple nylon parachute, and the other, a Toyota Landcruiser, by a tarp. I got the VIN off those vehicles too. We also found a shotgun shoved in a scabbard. Got the number off that. All we had for communication was a little 2.5-watt handy talky on park service frequency. Down in the canyon, we couldn’t get out to anybody.
No arrests happened then?
No, we left, going clear out into the Panamint Valley and about halfway to the road that goes to Trona before we could contact the park service. I gave them the numbers to the vehicles and the shotgun to run. They come back, and all three vehicles are stolen, no record of the shotgun. I had no communication with my office, so I had to go through the sheriff’s office. I told them to call my sergeant, tell him what we’ve got, and what are we supposed to do? Word comes back: stay at the mouth of Goler Wash tonight, and we’ll have a group of guys meet you before dawn the next day. They also arranged for the deputy sheriff on the east side to sit on the road that comes into Death Valley, and another team was going to meet with him.
So you were staring down the barrel of an all-nighter. How’d you manage?
Dick and I got a bite to eat at the store in Ballerat [a virtual ghost town today], and I’ll never forget all they had was just a chunk of ground beef and some re-re-re-refried beans [laughs]. After, we went back down the highway to the mouth of the wash. We sat in a little old Jeep that belonged to the USGS. It was half cab, two seats made of fiberglass. Neither of us thought much about lying on the ground to try to get a few winks. We didn’t know what was creeping around. So I got on the roof of the jeep, and the fiberglass popped and snapped every time I moved. Dick stretched across the two seats. We tried to get some sleep, but it didn’t work very well.
Finally, before dawn, a crew of CHP officers meets us. We drive back up the wash, got pretty near the cabin. Dick and I hiked into the cabin, as to be quiet. No one around — silent. We crept up near the outbuilding where we had done our interviewing, and beat on the door. Brooks and Paul were in there sleeping. We asked, ‘Where is everybody?’ They said, ‘We don’t know. They took off after you guys left yesterday.’ The whole team searched around, never did find anybody, but we called for a tow truck, which was a tremendous feat to get it in there and haul these stolen vehicles out. Then we all resumed our daily tasks while arrangements were being made at headquarters.
Was local PD still helping out?
At that time, the county sheriff had little law enforcement experience. He thought we — the CHP and Park Service — were a bunch of fools running around out there chasing a bunch of hippies. And that’s what we thought we had: a bunch of hippies with a stolen car ring. He would not allow his people to become involved in this. So my office got approval from the next higher level, which was in Fresno at that time, to go in there with as many officers as the area could use. And they sent over an experienced auto theft investigator, Dave Stieber, neat guy.
In the evening, we went in, sat around all night, and before day break, teams hiked in from both sides. Dave Steiber and I came in from the east, from Butte Valley, and a team came up Goler Wash from the west. The only thing they had for four-wheel drive was one of the officers’ personal Toyota Land Cruisers. Dave and I, along with another officer named Jack O’Neil, now deceased, sat on top of a vantage point, high up and behind the cabin, where you could look down on the ranch and the route coming in. As it began to get light, Jack looks across the swale to a little rise on the other side and says, ‘There’s a hole over there. A cave!’ I suggested that maybe it was a shadow. He says, ‘No, that’s a cave. I’m going to hike up and around and come back down on top of that.’ I can barely see the notepad and pencil that Dave, a tremendous interrogator, is writing with. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask. He says, ‘making notes.’
As it starts to get lighter, we begin to hear noises coming from the cabin. So we knew someone was in there. At daylight, the team from the west side was going to be in position like we were, but they’re not showing. I get on the radio, and ask where they are. They responded, ‘We made a stop. We took two prisoners. We’re getting them secured down here, we’ll be there in not too long.’ Well, not too long went by and they still haven’t showed. I radio back again asking where they are. ‘Well we’ve got another prisoner.’ I’m wondering how they’re getting three prisoners in a Land Cruiser that already has four people in it? They finally arrive, and Jack, as he had hiked up and around, found a what I’d call a spike camp — dry camp where some people were sleeping. There were items there like food. One of them in that small spike camp had bolted, and ran like a gazelle, barefoot, and our guys couldn’t keep up with him.
When Jack got above the cave, three girls came out and just stood at its entrance, stretching, looking around at the scenery. Had they looked straight ahead, they would’ve seen Dave and I on the knoll, but they didn’t. Then they turned around and went back into the cave.
When Jack went into the cave, what did he find?
There was a hole they had dug out, with corrugated sheets of steel over it and then dirt and sagebrush. The three girls who came out of that cave were probably cramped as heck in that hole. When Jack saw we were closing in on the cabin, he took a big rock and heaved it over on top. To this day, they asked us, why did you shoot at us? There was never a shot fired, but the rock was so loud they thought they’d been shot at. ‘Come out of there!’ Jack ordered. And they did.
Why the cave? Why dig out that hole?
The Family’s plan was that hole was going to be a lookout. It was high enough to look down the wash quite a way. And they had old military field phones — crank, crank, crank, crank. One for the cave, and another down at the cabin. We caught them before they were able to put all their plans in place. Barker Ranch was going to be a stronghold.
Wow. Okay, getting back. You and Dave hit the cabin…
So, we hit the cabin and the little spike camp, and rounded everybody up. We had maybe twelve to fourteen of them, mostly young females.
I asked the officer, Ben Anderson, that came up from the west, what in the world they had going on down there. He explained how they pulled up over Rock Falls, and there were two guys, sound asleep, in the middle of the road. There was a big ore car beside the road, and he said they handcuffed them around its axle, and told them if they could carry that ore car, then they were free to go.
Driving farther, they go by this spring, where there’s about an inch and a half diameter water pipe that runs down the canyon into a mine site, called the Lotus Mine. As they’re climbing up the dirt road, he happened to glance over, and someone’s head pops up from behind a big rock. They stop and jump out again, and corral this guy. They handcuff him to the water pipe and tell him they’ll be back for him later.
So everyone’s rounded up, and the east side team hauls as many of them out that way that they can, and we went back out the west side. Now, going out the east side, in Butte Valley, are two old mining encampments; homes, really, of strange folk who just want to get away from everything. Two figures, one in front of the other, came running out of one of these encampments toward the officers. One of the officers drew [his gun] because he thought one of them might be bearing down on the other. But they were girls flagging the police down, and giving themselves up.
Must have been some sight back at the jail.
We had all these hippies, a dozen or more, and it blew the sheriff’s mind. We also had two infants. Dick’s wife was a nurse, and she had come in to take care of the infants. Dave began interrogating the two girls who gave themselves up. They acknowledged who they were, where they lived, and the phone numbers of their homes. Dave called both of their homes to talk to their parents. One of the parents told Dave, ‘Do you realize the L.A. county sheriff’s department is looking for our daughter as a witness to a homicide?’ With that, Dave calls L.A. county, a Malibu substation, where this homicide took place. He got a hold of a detective down there, and the detective said, ‘Hold. On. To. Them. My partner and I will be up as soon as we can.’ And they were.
This was when the [Tate and LaBianca] murders came to your attention?
We knew very little about this news with Tate and LaBianca. Those occurred in the city of L.A., and at the same time, L.A. county sheriff of Malibu also had two other individual homicides. Guys named Shorty Shea and another Gary Hinman. Dave got a hold of the deputy sheriff, a detective who was working the Shorty Shea homicide. The sheriff’s office had raided the Spahn movie ranch where the mass of Family had been living prior to coming to Death Valley, so they had the cast of characters, all the names of these people. And the detectives from L.A. county told Dave, ‘If you promise not to tell anybody, your supervisors, or anybody, what’s going on with our investigation, we’ll take you on every step of the way, and let you know what we’re doing, and how your arrests have fit in to our case.’
A lot of chaos. Especially with different departments converging when they otherwise wouldn’t have to.
Sheriff of Shoshone, Don Ward, just about lost his job. In the middle of all this, Brooks Poston and Paul Crockett decided things were getting pretty hot for them. There’s a talc mine about halfway between Barker Ranch and Death Valley. They hiked out there and got a ride into Shoshone. Don Ward interviewed them on a wire recorder, that’s before tape recorders came out. He then drove to Independence, so the sheriff there could hear what these witnesses were telling us about the strangeness going on out there. Don told me the sheriff listened for about a minute, jumped up, grabbed the reels off the machine, and threw them across the room. He ordered Don back to his resident post, and that he was not to be involved in this at all.
So, Manson wasn’t among those you arrested?
There were a couple of males, but not Manson. We didn’t know who Manson was at that point. Again, we had very little knowledge of the homicides because of lack of T.V., and the only newspaper came out of San Bernadino. We really had no idea what we had besides a bunch of hippies stealing cars. Although some strange goings-on were coming out of L.A., and we briefly spoke about how it echoed some of the things Brooks Poston and Paul Crockett told us when we questioned them.
What prompted you to go back and ultimately arrest Manson?
In that initial raid, we had gotten our hands on a bunch of evidence, a couple of items from the Park Service loader that was set ablaze, like a grease gun with ‘USNPS’ engraved in it, the spare tire of the ’69 Ford rental car, the movie camera, and other things. We had piled them in the middle of the wash by the road, so we wouldn’t forget it. But, of course, in herding all these suspects out, we forgot about it! The next day my sergeant calls me and tells me to get the Park Service to go back in and gather all the stuff we left behind.
You and who else?
It was me and three park rangers. We headed back up the valley again toward Barker Ranch, and here come two dune buggies. At this point, any dune buggy is suspect. It turned out to be just two middle-age couples out for a good time in the desert. But they told us about a stake bed truck up the road that was stuck in the sand. Sure enough, there was this Chevy truck that was loaded with drums of gasoline and a lot of cold weather gear. It was October, and starting to get cold at night. Along with lots of dried food that could be reconstituted with water, and lots of candy bars. We helped ourselves to a few. We figured some of the others have returned, and they’re bringing this stuff in for supplies. I knew we hadn’t gotten all of them. I called in for backup.
Nobody was with the truck, so you moved on the cabin.
There were two doors to the cabin, and two of the rangers were hiding in positions where they could rush to either door. I had a ranger with me back up on that high vantage point behind the cabin. And here come four guys on foot hiking in toward the cabin. All of them were dressed in clothes out of some grab bag…but one guy had a pretty nifty outfit, like deerskin shirt and pants, with fringe on the legs and the sleeves. Obviously dressed much better than everyone else. We were in perfect of view of them, if they were to look up. We figured if they spot us, they spot us, and then we can act. We remained very still, and they didn’t look up, and proceeded into the cabin. I decided, then, it was time to move.
How did you approach?
The ranger and I came down to the back door, or the west entrance. The other two rangers blocked the south entrance. I threw the door open, and ordered everybody sitting around a table to put their hands on their head. And… everybody ignored me [laughs]. I thought, ‘This isn’t how it’s done in the movies.’ I repeated it a second time. They all complied. A guy stood right beside the door, if he had been any closer the door would’ve hit him. He was holding an old, beautiful, brass spyglass, like what a captain of a ship would have. I took it out of his hand, pulled him out and passed him to the rangers. Then, ordered the rest out one at a time. There were seven, male and female.
Was the ‘better-dressed one’ among them?
No, and we were losing sunlight. It was dark in the cabin. There was a big dining room table, and on it was a homemade candle in a glass mug. That was the only illumination. Since we had gone out that day not knowing we’d be working in darkness, nobody had a flashlight. I picked the candle up, holding my .357 revolver in my right hand and the candle in my left. There were two little side rooms, one would’ve been the lavatory, and the other was a bedroom. The candle isn’t making much light. I go into the bathroom, and there’s a sink and little cupboard. The door of the cupboard was ajar, with long hairs sticking out of it.
You knew someone was hiding in there?
Well, in our first raid, we found a bunch of wigs the girls would use when they went into town. I thought it was just a wig… until fingers started wiggling inside, and the cupboard began to open. I put the candle way down, and this figure starts unwinding and coming out. How he got into that cupboard, I’ll never know. He’s not big. I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Why didn’t you shoot the son of a bitch?’ But again, we really didn’t know what we had, and you can’t just shoot somebody that climbs out of a little cupboard, and says [cheerily], ‘Hi!’
What’d you do next?
I was pointing the gun at him and told him exactly what I wanted him to do, and what not to do. ‘Make one wrong move and I’ll blow your head off.’ I ask his name, and he said, simply, ‘Charlie Manson.’ Right off. I led him out to the guys outside. I went back in to check in the bedroom, and here’s this big guy [Steve Grogan aka ‘Clem’] standing there in the small door frame. I then realized I had my back to him the entire time I was pulling Charlie out. But, as we learned later, nobody would do anything without the order from Charlie.
Good thing for you.
I get him outside to where we have six males, and three females. We had enough cuffs where we cuffed the males together in one line, but that wasn’t working because Charlie was the shortest one and he was up on his tip-toes in the middle. So, we broke them down into groups of three, cuffed together.
And everyone was out of the cabin for sure?
After I pulled Charlie [and Steve Grogan] out of the cabin, I took the same candle, and Don Ward came with me to make sure no one else was left inside. We were searching every corner, and keep in mind it was still dark except for the glow of the candle. Don was cradling his 12-gauge shotgun in his right arm. We’re headed for the back door, and he runs into the table. He’s got his finger on the trigger, and he squeezes off a round into the floor. The thought goes through my mind, did you do that? But it wasn’t my revolver. The guys outside were about ready to panic, not knowing what happened. After the blast, stuff was raining down on top of us. We catch our breath and go back outside, and one of the girls asked, ‘Well, did you get him?’ Later, we find out there was a broom leaning against the wall by the door. The nine shots of 00 buck went through the bristles of the broom, making a beautiful hole, then the shot gouged out a bunch of concrete in the floor that went up the wall and off the ceiling and that’s what was raining down on us. Later, we retrieved the broom. We found a big picture frame that would hold the broom, and we put CHP, park service, and Inyo County sheriff shoulder patches in the frame, and presented the broom to Don. From that time on, he was known as the Broom Slayer.
That’s great — how something so funny could happen in a situation so intense. Must have seemed surreal. So you have them all cuffed together outside. Then what?
The backup rangers came in with a pickup. The bed had a toolbox toward the front, and we loaded Charlie and two other males up on that, one of which was his lieutenant [‘Clem’], I would say. The other six, the females and some of the younger males, were sitting in the bed. Everybody’s facing backward. The deputy sheriff from Shoshone sat in the left rear corner of the pickup bed, and I sat in the right, so we could watch them. Another park service pickup followed us with its headlights shining on us.
Any funny business?
This I’ll never forget. It happened twice. The young kids sitting in the bed had their backs to Charlie. They started whispering to each other and giggling. And all of a sudden, they would shut up. One of them would turn around too see Charlie looking down at them, giving them the evil eye. And doggone if they didn’t understand it, like they felt his look. It happened twice. When they began to get a little chatty, they would turn around and look to see him glaring at them.
Did Charlie say anything?
We were approaching the rock falls where the pickups couldn’t go down, and where we’d walk them down to a group of officers waiting for us at the foot of Goler Wash. Charlie told us that on the hike in, he had put his guitar behind a rock. It was just getting too much to carry. He asked if we would let him loose so that he could retrieve it. We didn’t take that for a good thought, and we did not let him out. He gave us a little lecture on the fact that he and his group just wanted to get away from the turmoil that was going on in the world, and that they wouldn’t harm a fly or a snake or anything. Anyway, we walked them down, and the whole time we let the girls just walk separately, they weren’t cuffed. As time went on, we learned they were the ones doing the slicing and dicing.
All the heavy-hitters of the Manson Family were apprehended in these raids?
The whole batch. All the players that had been picked up during the Spahn Ranch raid down in Los Angeles [Except for Charles ‘Tex’ Watson]. Fortunately, for us, knives were the weapon of choice for the Family. We never did recover that shotgun Dick and I found in the dune buggy. The two guys who were cuffed to the ore car the day before had a revolver on them, because Charlie realized that the two girls had slipped out, and he sent the two guys after them. Good thing for the girls, they went east, and the guys went west. And they just got tired, so they lied down in the road where our officers found them.
I think it was a total of twenty-eight of them that we dumped off at the Independence sheriff’s jail, and he just went bonkers. News broke and LAPD started coming and taking suspects back a few at a time for interrogation. Most of them were just camp followers and teenagers. They didn’t have anything to do with the homicides, so they were released.
Did they really even know about the murders?
I imagine they maybe knew about them, but not like in that inner circle [i.e. Susan Atkins, Patricia Kremwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme]. You could say they were in training, but getting tired of the outlaw life.
In law enforcement circles, we knew nothing about it. Even LAPD didn’t know who they were looking for. LAPD back then was quite secretive. They swept in, grabbed evidence, and swept out. While the Malibu sheriff’s office, like I said, was open to sharing information with our guy, Dave, as long as he kept quiet, which he did. When the higher-ups heard about the Bishop area sending officers out into the boondocks to chase hippies, our chief got called to Sacramento and got chewed on like it never been chewed in his career. So, he asked Dave, ‘What the hell’s going on with this thing?’ Dave told him ‘Chief, you will have the last laugh.’
You had to show up to the trial in L.A.?
I was subpoenaed seven times for the trial itself. One day I was there, Charlie had gotten rambunctious and was in a locked room beside the courtroom. You could hear him banging and hollering. But it was pretty calm, because the others wouldn’t do anything without his approval. One of the times I was subpoenaed to L.A., there was a deputy sheriff who described the Spahn Ranch raid, and he asked me one day, “How many people did you have when you raided Barker Ranch?” I told him you could count us on two hands. We were scratching the bottom of the barrel since we weren’t getting help from Inyo County sheriff. He said, “My God. We had over a hundred!”
But you guys never got as much credit, or press, as the raid at Spahn Ranch.
This is just my take. We had a commissioner come to us from LAPD, he was retired deputy or assistant chief, but he never fit in with the blue and gold of the Highway Patrol. He was blue and silver of LAPD. As things finally came to a head, he did not want to take any bloom off LAPD.
Politics rears its ugly head. You still got your man, though, right?
Damned thing is, the Family was never charged for grand theft auto down in L.A. or up in Inyo county, nor were they federally charged for arson [for setting fire to the National Park’s front-end loader]. They were all shipped off for bigger and better things.
You really had no idea what you were walking into. Some real Cowboys-and-Indians stuff.
It was quite a time. Especially since CHP usually don’t get involved with things like that. We’re highway cops.
Mrs. Pursell [in the other room]: It’s our kids’ favorite story!
Jim simply shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “and that’s that.” I shook his hand a last time and we left his home in the sleepy neighborhood at the base of the snow-capped Sierra peaks; leaving Jim Pursell to rest in his twilight years. Nine months after this interview took place, Charles Manson died on November 2017. Manson outlived everybody, even his famed prosecutor (and author of the book Helter Skelter), Vincent Bugliosi. Like a lingering ghost of the 20th Century, Manson’s infamy kept haunting America for generations. I looked at Jim Pursell in a new light, a certain respect — the unassuming man who outlived the Devil.