Mar 6, 2018

Charles Manson: Inside the Fight Over the Cult Leader's Remains

Charles Manson died in November 2017, but his body remains the subject of a legal battle. Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Getty
Charles Manson
Following his death last fall, four different people laid claim to the notorious criminal's body – but it's still on ice in Kern County, California

Elizabeth Yuko
Rolling Stone
March 6, 2018

Even after his death, Charles Manson continues to cause turmoil. The career criminal and notorious cult leader died at the age of 83 on November 19th, 2017, but because multiple parties have attempted to claim his remains, his body has been on ice in Kern County, California ever since.

There are two separate legal cases involving Manson: one to decide who is entitled to his estate, and another to determine who gets his body. Though he died at a hospital in Bakersfield, court proceedings over his estate will take place in Los Angeles County. That's because, according to California law, the last place a person willingly resides is used to determine jurisdiction for their estate, says Bryan Walters, Deputy County Counsel for the County of Kern, who is representing the Kern County Coroner. For Manson, his last willing residence was Spahn Ranch, the former movie set used for Westerns where he lived with his followers in 1968 and 1969. At this point, what his estate includes is unclear. (Some say it's a couple items of clothing, others claim he deserves royalties to various songs.) The L.A. County Court will meet next on March 9th to attempt to move forward with the estate.

However, the California Health and Safety Code dictates that a person's remains are under the jurisdiction of the county in which they resided at the time of their death. This left two possibilities: Kings County, where Corcoran Prison is located, or Kern County, where he died. Walters says that the California Department of Corrections asked the Kern County Coroner to take possession of the body because they have facilities more suitable for this particular case, and Manson's body has remained there ever since.

A case management conference will take place in Kern County Court on March 7th to hear from the three parties that have filed claims to Manson's remains with the Kern County court: Jason Freeman, Manson's grandson; Michael Brunner, Manson's son with former Family member Mary Brunner; and Michael Channels, Manson's friend and pen pal of 30 years, who is also named as the beneficiary in a 2002 will.

Typically, a will would be the deciding factor in settling the question of who is entitled to the deceased's remains and estate, but Walters says that the 2002 will – as well as a separate 2017 version – are both problematic. The 2002 will, which names Channels as the sole beneficiary, does have Manson's signature, but Walters questions its validity because it appears as though the last page came from a separate handwritten letter. The 2017 will, which names Benjamin Gurecki as the executor and Matthew Robert Lentz – who claims to be Manson's son – as a beneficiary, wasn't witnessed by two people, so Walters says that it "won't be of any use or effect." In addition, the 2017 will contains no instructions regarding Manson's remains, and it focuses solely on the estate.

According to California law, the coroner is given the authority to consider any claims and determine which party is entitled to the remains. Because the 2002 will looks questionable, Walters says Kern County did not want to give it priority. As a result, the Kern County Coroner petitioned the court to instruct them in how to proceed.

"The [2002] will looks suspect," Walters explains. "It's not necessarily a valid document, but we can't just disregard it either."

At this stage, Freeman, Brunner and Channels have all filed claims for Manson's remains – but who's got the right to his body?

Jason Freeman
The grandson of Manson and his first wife Rosalie Willis, Freeman has filed claims for his grandfather's remains and estate. His father, Charles Manson Jr., died by suicide in 1993.

Freeman tells Rolling Stone he had a relationship with Manson for more than seven years at the end of Manson's life, during which time he says he "gained to understand some of my grandfather, as he came to understand his grandson." The former mixed martial arts professional looks back on his time with Manson as "priceless."

"I've always known who my grandfather was, from as far back as I can remember," he says. "It's always been there. I've known all my life. I never imagined I would be on such a big stage that God built before I was born."

In terms of Manson's body, Freeman thinks that it is a family matter. "The others parties that are not family, they are only taking up time and space in the existence of my grandfather's final remains resting place," he says. In his petition to the Kern County Court, Freeman indicates that because Brunner was adopted and the relationship between Manson and his son were severed, Brunner holds no claim to the remains.

Ultimately, Freeman, who is deeply religious, says that God has a plan for Manson.

"I am a grandson working to take the proper steps to show my respect to my grandfather and his true close friends. I'm not only doing this for me. It's for everyone who stands firm in the truth of life," he explains. "I'm just a tool walking this part of my journey out. It has brought a lot of hardship on my life and family at home. I prepare for battle daily. I am a frontline warrior and the Lord uses strong willed people."

Michael Brunner
Born Valentine Manson in April 1968, Brunner, also known as "Pooh Bear, lived with his mother Mary and the rest of the Family in Topanga Canyon and eventually Spahn Ranch before Mary was arrested for credit card fraud in August 1969. This meant that she wasn't present for the Tate/LaBianca murders, and that her parents ended up with custody of her son, which he discussed in a KCBS interview in 1993. That was his last major media appearance. Both Brunner and his mother – who is now 74 years old – deliberately remain out of the public eye.

According to his petition to the Kern County Court, Brunner is seeking control over Manson's body so he can "cremate the remains and scatter the ashes in a dignified and private manner." Attempts to contact Brunner through his attorney were unsuccessful.

Michael Channels
Through more than 50 letters over the course of 30 years, Channels had an inside look into Manson's prison life. The memorabilia collector from California says that over the course of their relationship, he visited Manson about 20 times and spent approximately 200 hours with him. Despite having plenty of material – and, he says, urging from Manson – Channels never wrote a book about his unlikely friendship with Manson, but instead, created a YouTube channel where he's uploaded their unedited conversations, which he says he did to give Manson a voice.

Channels stresses that he has never profited off Mason, didn't monetize his YouTube page and stopped uploading materials the day he died. "I could be making a lot of money off that right now," he says. "I stopped it. He's dead he don't got no voice no more. Everyone who wants to talk about that it's about money – it was never about money." In fact, he says that he has lost money because of Manson, paying for expenses like his glasses and false teeth over the years, on top of mounting court costs.

Though he is listed as the beneficiary in the 2002 will, Channels says this was not his choice. "I really wanted no involvement in the will," he explains. "I didn't ask for any of this stuff. I was a friend to a dude and am getting put on trial for it."

According to Channels, the only thing he hopes to gain from this court case is the ability to have Manson's body cremated and then scatter his ashes in the desert, which he says were his friend's wishes.

"I'm not the story, I'm the messenger," he adds. "And don't shoot the messenger."

Matthew Robert Lentz
There is also the 2017 will that names Gurecki as the executor, with Manson's estate being left to Lentz – a L.A. musician listed as Manson's son in the will. Lentz was adopted as an infant, but got in touch with his birth mother in 1998, who told him that she got pregnant at a 1967 orgy in San Francisco and believes that Manson is his father. Two DNA tests using Manson's genetic material were inconclusive because the samples were contaminated. Then in 2012, CNN compared the DNA of Lentz and Freeman which found that the men did not have shared common ancestry. Lentz did not respond to a request for comment.

"I don't believe anyone else will need to be involved at this point as long as Matthew and Michael Bruner continue to work together on a proper and prompt disposal of Charles," Gurecki explains. "This was all clearly spelled out in the will and this was to be Matthew's decision. I am personally much happier to know both sons will be handling his person and could care less what happens to his perceived estate. I have made it clear to everyone already that I would give whatever there is of an estate to [a victims' rights charity]."

Gurecki and Lentz have not filed a claim for Manson's remains with Kern County, consistent with the 2017 will which only refers to the estate.

And there is another potential Manson child: Rebecca Evans, who told The Daily Mail that she is his daughter and wants to try and stake a claim to his estate. She is not, however, listed as one of the parties who have filed claims in the L.A. County Court, and Walters confirms that she has also not filed a claim for Manson's remains in Kern County either.

As for the Kern County Coroner, Walters says that his client doesn't have a preference regarding who ultimately gets the remains. "We just want the right person to win, but we're not backing one person or another," Walters says.

What will happen on March 7th?
Given that this is a case management conference and not an official trial, Walters does not expect much to happen, other oral statements made by the attorneys for Freeman, Brunner and Channels. There is a possibility that an agreement could be reached among those involved, though Walters finds it unlikely. If no resolution is reached, a further case management conference may be set, or, potentially, a trial date.

"It's not until we get to a trial that the court would determine if this will is invalid," Walters explains. "So that's when all the competing claims would be determined and the court would ultimately give instructions to my client to release the body to party A, B or C."

At this stage, two of the three parties – Freeman and Brunner – have agreed to permit the coroner to cremate Manson's remains, so a further compromise may occur, according to Walters.

"Maybe we can all have a conference on the 7th and the competing parties will reach an agreement," he says. "If everyone agrees, I'm good with it as long as it's not going to create some kind of grotesque tourist attraction."

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