Spahn Ranch, also known as Spahn Movie Ranch, was the home of the Manson family during the Tate/LaBianca murders. In late 1969, Robert Hendrickson filmed the Manson family at Spahn Ranch for his Oscar-nominated documentary.
By 1968, when Charles Manson and his family arrived at the ranch, George Spahn was 80 years old and nearly blind. Spahn allowed out-of-work stuntmen and ranch hands to live on the property in return for labor. Manson and his group fit right in and did chores and helped run the horse-rental business.
But at the ranch several ranch hands disapproved of the new tenants, repeatedly warning Spahn about Manson and his group. A ranch hand named Donald “Shorty” Shea would eventually be killed by members of the family.
On August 16, 1969, around 6:00 am, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department raided Spahn Ranch. They were looking for stolen cars not knowing they had the Tate/LaBianca killers in reach.
The sheriff’s report states they found Manson hiding beneath the building marked “Saloon”. Manson was laying face down in the dirt between the foundation timbers.
As he crawled out and stood up, a stolen credit card fell out of his pocket. Manson and most of the family members were arrested and booked at the Malibu police station.
The police also seized and impounded vehicles at the property, mostly VW dune buggies, a couple of motorcycles and, most importantly, a 1959 Ford. The Ford had provided transportation for the Tate and LaBianca murders.
Donald Shea Murder
Donald “Shorty” Shea was a stuntman and ranch worker who was murdered by members of the Manson Family. “Shorty” actually stood about six feet 4 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds.
Shea moved to California to pursue a career in acting, but mostly worked as a horse wrangler at Spahn Ranch and as a bouncer at a topless bar. When Charles Manson and the family first moved to Spahn’s Movie Ranch, Shea initially co-existed with them peacefully, but, in time, Charles Manson began to look down on Shea because Shea married a black woman.
Shea began to complain about Manson and the family to George Spahn. Eventually, Shea planned to help George Spahn remove the family from the Spahn Ranch when their brushes with the law grew out of control.
In late August, 1969, Charles Manson, Tex Watson, Steve Grogan and Bruce Davis asked Shea to come with them to get some auto parts.
After Watson gave a sign, Grogan hit Shea over the head with a pipe wrench, and Watson stabbed Shea several times. Shea managed to get out of the car. He then was surrounded by the gang, and they brutally stabbed him to death. Grogan later said that Shea was so strong it took all of them to kill him.
According to Bruce Davis, and Steve Grogan, both Bill Vance and Larry Bailey were participants in Shea’s murder. However, Vance and Bailey were never prosecuted for Shea’s death.
Several motives are given for Shea’s murder. On August 16, 1969, the sheriff’s department raided Spahn Ranch. They were looking for stolen cars not knowing they had the Tate/LaBianca killers in reach. Manson was convinced that Shea ratted on the family and Manson blamed Shea for the raid.
Another suggested motive for Shea’s death was “bad blood” which existed between Shea and Manson. According to Windy Bucklee, Shea’s cousin, Manson never got over a beating he got from Shea.
“The fact that Shea beat the shit out of Manson was the reason, I’m quite sure, that Shea always remained on Manson’s bad side,” Bucklee said. “I know he never forgot that.” And Manson reportedly resented the fact that Shea was married to a black woman.
Barbara Hoyt testified that Manson told the family that Shea was responsible for the sheriff’s raid and that Shea was trying to get the Manson family kicked off of the Spahn Ranch.
Shea’s remains were discovered in December 1977 when Steve Grogan agreed to tell authorities the location of the body. Grogan was granted parole after the discovery of Shea’s remains in exchange for his cooperation.
In September 1970, a wildfire destroyed all of Spahn Movie Ranch’s sets and structures. After the fire, George Spahn moved back to North Hollywood to live with the wife he left years before. Today the site is part of California’s Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.