During his TV reporting career, Dave Barker saved some odd, even macabre souvenirs: crime scene tape from the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman murders, a brick thrown at him during a Los Angeles riot and a packet of letters from California prisoner 833920, known to the world as the wild-eyed mass murderer Charles Manson.
Manson was serving a life sentence when he died of natural causes Sunday at age 83 after being rushed from prison to a hospital.
In 1992, Barker, who lives in suburban Boynton Beach, was a reporter at KCBS in Los Angeles when his terrified assignment editor held up a letter mis-addressed to “D Baker.” The return address was a rubber stamp with Manson’s name, prisoner number and an iron cross, a traditional German symbol appropriated by the Nazis.
“Are you sure you want to open this?” he asked Barker.
At the time, 23 years had passed since the cult leader’s followers slaughtered seven people in and around Los Angeles, including actress Sharon Tate. During the trial, famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi argued that Manson, a white supremacist, hoped to incite a race war by pinning the murders on the Black Panthers.
“I didn’t want to open it,” said Barker, now an electronics journalism teacher at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton. “It really gave me the shivers.”
Inside the envelope, Barker found an assortment of letters other reporters had written to Manson, requesting interviews. Handwritten around the typed words, Manson included misspelled, rambling ravings about actors William Holden, Clark Gable and Cary Grant drinking “rattel” snake wine from France.
“Old wine jars of thunder & rolls of nickels,” he wrote in one letter. There are vague references to the FBI, CIA and “oil money.”
On another, he included a question: “Do you remember the story about the woman cop with no legs hanging in the tree at Santa Monica & Manson was the only one who knew what tree she was in.”
“I was freaked out; my brain went numb,” said Barker. “I had just finished a series on prison reform in California, which is probably how he knew my name and where I worked.”
Barker called the prison and was told Manson, who reveled in his celebrity, “was impressed” that Barker hadn’t contacted him for the story.
“Which I interpreted as Manson’s plea for me to interview him,” said Barker. He didn’t.
Barker immediately contacted Bugliosi, who wrote a book about the case called “Helter Skelter.”
“Bugliosi was very interested in the letters,” recalled Barker, who said the attorney pointed to Manson’s drawing of the rising sun, a Japanese symbol, near the name of a prison official whose Japanese last name he had circled.
“See, he’s still racist,” Bugliosi told Barker, adding, “I’m still trying to figure him out.”
In the letters, Manson also mentions Dennis Wilson, a member of the Beach Boys, who died in 1983. In the late 1960s, members of the Manson Family cult lived in Wilson’s Los Angeles-area home. Wilson introduced Manson, then a struggling musician, to his band’s other members, who recorded songs with Manson, until the day he reportedly pulled out a knife during an argument.
A song Manson wrote appears on the group’s 1969 album, “20/20,” called “Never Learn Not to Love,” re-titled from Manson’s original name, “Cease to Exist.” On the album, it’s credited to Dennis Wilson.
Some time later, Wilson discovered a bullet in his bed.
“I gave him a bullet,” Manson later said, “because he changed the words to my song.”
By the time Barker received Manson’s letter, the former cult leader was old news, said Barker, who covered the O.J. Simpson trial, Northridge earthquake and Michael Jackson’s first molestation trial.
“By that point, he was a freak show,” said Barker. “I was a serious investigative reporter, so maybe he thought he could trust me, but I didn’t want any part of Charles Manson.”