Investigators have shoveled dirt back into the trenches they dug to look for bodies at Charles Manson's last hideout, but the ghosts haunting the case may not rest as easily.
Family members of victims, prosecutors and researchers - many of
them touched by the murders that shook Los Angeles in 1969 - were
disappointed that no bodies were found in the four holes dug this
past week at Barker Ranch on the fringes of Death Valley National
"I'm hoping they can figure out what went wrong with the calculations," said Patrick Sequeira, the Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney in charge of the Manson family parole hearings. "A body could be two feet from where they are. It's looking for a needle in a haystack. You can be digging within inches of your target."
Like any criminal investigation, this one was restricted by the resources available. The Inyo County Sheriff's Department, which has jurisdiction over the site, is a rural law enforcement agency with limited funds that were stretched by the expense of the two-day dig in the remote high desert wasteland.
It's still unclear how much money was spent on the excavation, but it needed to be done, Sheriff Bill Lutze said.
"It's the job. It's what we had to do," he said after declaring the investigation closed.
But for those whose lives and careers were deeply affected by this case, the thought that investigators might have missed evidence by a foot - even just a few inches - is unnerving.
"The real sin here, the crime, is to scratch the surface and not give it 100 percent, not let the scientists follow all options," said Debra Tate, the sister of Sharon Tate, an actress who was eight months pregnant when she was murdered by Manson's followers.
"The investigators needed to be more pliable because it is new science," she said. "They needed to dig deeper, wider... they needed to give the search a little more room."
Tate has followed the reexamination of the property closely, hoping that any other families who may have lost someone to the cult could find answers to their questions.
She came to Barker Ranch in February along with a police investigator with a cadaver-seeking dog, two scientists bearing instruments that detect the chemical markers of human decomposition, and an anthropologist armed with a magnetic resonance reader.
All of this expertise was put to work on the area around the ranch. At four sites, chemical analyses of the soil, underground anomalies and magnetic disturbances seemed to point to a possible grave site.
Later, more cutting edge technology was applied to the suspected
sites: ground penetrating radar, lasers that detect bone fragments,
and a three-dimensional mapping equipment that would allow
investigators to re-examine the pits, slice by slice.
The group of experts believed the evidence was strong enough to
merit an exploratory dig - advice followed by the local sheriff's
At the end of two days, frustrated by the lack of results,
exhausted from working in temperatures up to 105 degrees and winds
that whipped the dust into their eyes and every crevice of their
equipment, investigators closed the four gaping holes. Researchers
had found some animal bones, an ash pit and a rodent burrow - but
no clear explanation for exactly what led their equipment astray.
The sheriff closed the investigation, at least until the science or new evidence can point more exactly to any bodies left in the desert.
"Logistics was our biggest challenge here," said Mammoth Lakes Sgt. Paul Dostie, whose trained cadaver-seeking dog, Buster, alerted on the dig sites. "It was a limited dig, and our biggest fear was that we'd be a few feet off. There's no way of knowing."
Television shows in which detectives search large databases in
seconds and identify suspects based on a shred of clothing or a bit
of hair confuse the public about what's possible, researchers said.
"I don't care what CSI says, we're just not there yet," said Arpad Vass, one of two researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "We did the best we could, but this was an exploratory excavation. We're still developing the science, still trying to understand how to work in an environment like this."
The alkaline desert posed unexpected challenges, Vass said.
Plants exuded unexpected chemicals; certain rocks had magnetic
properties, which threw off radars and other instruments designed
to peer below the surface. The experience raised questions scientists can pour over, and in the process, develop the technology and their understanding of how to operate in different environments, Vass said.
From the perspective of scientific and law enforcement cooperation, the experience was fruitful - it led to an unusual collaboration and forged alliances that could help crack other cases, said Charles Illsley, a forensic consultant with the Utah Attorney General, who volunteered his expertise.
But for those who hoped this investigation would reveal a little more about a case that continues to intrigue the country, this doesn't feel like the end.
"I don't know that this really puts anything to rest," Sequeira said. "It becomes a matter of efficient use of resources. But as long as there are people willing to use new equipment, new techniques to locate bodies, the questions will continue."