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…