Photos from the Vault

Manson Family murders began after Cuesta Grade arrest in SLO

A 1969 staff file photo of Charles Manson. The convicted mass murderer is reportedly seriously ill.
A 1969 staff file photo of Charles Manson. The convicted mass murderer is reportedly seriously ill. TNS

Routine police work can lead to the unraveling of infamous crimes.

On a Tuesday in early August 1969, a brutal heat wave was scorching San Luis Obispo County, with Avila Beach reaching 110 degrees.

The next morning CHP patrolman Joe Humphrey rolled up on a car parked on the shoulder of Highway 101, south of the Cuesta Grade summit.

A 21-year-old man was sleeping in the front seat of a Fiat station wagon. The occupant was described as a transient, and a check of the plates revealed the car had been stolen.

The car’s owner, Gary Hinman, 34, had been murdered. The music teacher’s body had been found a week earlier on July 31, 1969, at his Topanga Canyon home. Officers said a blood-stained knife was found in the station wagon on the Grade, and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies came to San Luis Obispo to collect the suspect, Robert Kenneth Beausoleil.

The story would have likely ended here for the then-Telegram-Tribune and most other news outlets if not for the bloody repercussions.

Instead, it became the first thread in the grisly string of murders carried out by the Manson Family, whose 83-year-old leader was reportedly rushed this week in grave condition from Corcoran State Prison to a Bakersfield hospital.

How it started

Suspect Beausoleil was a musician who had a friend, who sometimes went by the name Chuck Summers. Summers had up to 17 documented aliases and had been present for a time during the three days Hinman was held captive.

A news article from Aug. 8, 1969, documents the arrest of Robert Kenneth “Bobby” Beausoleil on Cuesta Grade, charged with murder. The Manson Family began a murder spree after this arrest. File Telegram-Tribune

Beausoleil would later insist that the murder was the result of a drug deal gone bad. Beausoleil said car owner Hinman had sold Beausoleil 1,000 hits of mescaline that he in turn resold to a motorcycle gang. When the gang complained that the drug was bad, he went to get his money back from Hinman.

In the version of the story told at trial, Chuck Summers had ordered Beausoleil and two women, Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins, to take a rumored $20,000 inheritance from Hinman. When the extortion attempt stalled, Summers showed up with Bruce Davis in tow.

Summers and Hinman argued, Summers pulled out a sword or bayonet and sliced Hinman’s ear off. He then left with Davis in one of Hinman’s cars after instructing the others not to let Hinman go until they had the money.

Beausoleil then stabbed Hinman, and he Brunner and Atkins took turns holding a pillow over the victim’s face until he died.

“Political Piggy” was written in Hinman’s blood on the wall in an attempt to deflect police. The wall was also marked with a bloody paw print, in an attempt to link the Black Panthers to the crime.

The Manson Family

Chuck Summers espoused a philosophy of racial hatred, and he had a loose collection of followers, sometimes called family. The family took their name from Summers’ given surname, Manson.

When word got out that Beausoleil had been arrested, Charles Manson assembled his trusted followers.

The plan was to free Beausoleil through a series of gruesome copycat murders. This would convince authorities the wrong man was in prison and incite a race war they called Helter Skelter.

On Aug. 8, 1969, the murder spree that defined the Manson Family began, with others to follow. Some remain unsolved to this day. The murders would be the focus of intense news coverage.

Gary Hinman’s death would be the first known murder linked to the the Manson Family. Beausoleil’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but the second trial returned a conviction on April 21, 1970, and Beausoleil was given a death sentence.

In a 1972 court ruling, however, the death penalty was overturned. Along with many other convicts, Beausoleil saw his sentence changed to life in prison.

On April 15, 1982, Beausoleil was stabbed by other prisoners, and the moment was cited as a turning point in his life. Bobby Beausoleil would later distance himself from Manson.

Transferred to CMC

By 1984 Beausoleil had been transferred to the California Men’s Colony, within a few miles of where he was arrested, and parole hearings became a regular story in the Telegram-Tribune. While in prison, he would get married and become involved in movie and music recording projects.

On Dec. 13, 1984, a Telegram-Tribune story was published showing a cheerful-looking Beausoleil playing a synthesizer/guitar invention he called the syntar. His circuit designs were featured in a nationally published electronic music magazine, “Polyphony.”

Bobby Beausoleil at a parole hearing win 1985 while he was at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. He was convicted of the murder of Gary Hinman and was an associate of Charles Manson. Mark Brown Telegram-Tribune

“I would give anything to someday be known as something other than a murderer, ” he said.

Prison reports from the 1980s described the convict as intelligent and having a good prison record, but the specter of Charles Manson is in the room at every parole hearing. In a Dec. 10, 1987, story, he said, “I feel like every time I come to one of these hearings, I have Mr. Manson sitting next to me,” he said.

“I despise what the man represents. … If I had known about what the man was about then, I wouldn’t have associated with him.”

Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jeff Jonas was quoted in a 1985 parole hearing story: “Is Mr. Beausoleil denying to this day that he was a member of the Manson Family? It’s ludicrous.”

When victim advocates protested that three Manson family members were in the same prison, transfers were made. Bruce Davis remains at CMC, while Charles “Tex” Watson and Bobby Beausoleil were relocated.

Davis was denied parole in June 2017 by Gov. Jerry Brown despite a release recommendation by the parole board.

Beausoleil was denied parole in 2016 while at California Medical Facility in Vacaville.

Watson was denied parole in 2016 at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.

The next time you see a CHP patrol car on the Cuesta Grade, remember the Manson Family crimes began to unravel there.

David Middlecamp: 805-781-7942, @DavidMiddlecamp

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