By Brad Dison
Ronald Hughes was a novice California attorney whose first trial was approaching quickly. He was defending a woman named Leslie Van Houten in a multiple murder trial. Three other defendants had their own attorneys. Ronald needed a good suit for the trial. In May of 1970, Hollywood movie studio MGM decided to auction off movie props, many from the golden age of Hollywood, which they figured they would not need for future films. The props had been kept in climate-controlled storage for decades. Ronald watched as noteworthy items brought high prices and probably questioned whether he would be able to afford anything at all. Finally, the lone item he had been waiting for was on the auction block. It was a man’s suit worn by Spencer Tracy in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind. The auctioneer opened the bids on the suit and the room fell silent. As the auctioneer peered around the room, only one person in the audience seemed interested. Ronald bid $5.00 on the suit and won it. Ronald was uninterested that the suit was worn in a film, he was interested because the suit was cheap and in his size.
On July 15, 1970, the trial for which Ronald bought the $5 suit began. The trial was fraught with disruptions from members of Leslie’s family, many of whom were eventually banned from the courtroom. Due to Ronald’s flamboyant courtroom demeanor, his long hair, long beard, the admission of his squalid living conditions (Ronald lived in a garage with holes in the roof and slept on a mattress on the floor), admission that he wore a $5 suit he purchased at an auction, and his admission to having used hallucinogenic drugs in the past, the press nicknamed him the “Hippie Lawyer.” The trial dragged on for months. Finally, on November 16, 1970, after 23 weeks of presenting evidence, the State of California rested its case against Leslie. It was time for the defense attorneys to present their evidence.
On November 19, the defense attorneys filed motions for the acquittal of the defendants on the grounds that the state had not presented sufficient evidence to convict them. The state had presented more than 250 individual pieces of evidence, 73 photographs of the victims, and eyewitness testimony. The judge rejected the motions for acquittal. To everyone’s surprise, each of the defendant’s attorneys, including Ronald, stood in turn, and said, “the defense rests.” The attorneys rested their case without calling a single witness in their defense. Leslie and other members of her family yelled that they wanted to testify. The prosecution and defense agreed to recess over the week of Thanksgiving to give both sides a chance to prepare closing arguments. The trial was set to resume on Monday, November 30.
When the trial resumed on that Monday morning, Ronald failed to show up. After waiting an hour, the trial continued without Ronald. He had been late before because he lacked proper transportation and was once arrested for outstanding traffic tickets. When he failed to appear for court the following day, the judge ordered deputies to use all possible means to find Ronald and bring him to court. The trial continued without him. Deputies learned that Ronald had hitchhiked to the Los Padres National Forest for a Thanksgiving week camping trip. Search parties scoured the area but found no trace of Ronald. The defendants, including Ronald’s client Leslie, were eventually convicted of murder. On March 29, the jury returned death penalty verdicts against Leslie and the other defendants. On the same day, two trout fishermen found Ronald’s body in a knee-deep creek. His head was wedged between two large rocks. Conspiracy theorists and even some of Leslie’s family members concluded that the father of the family had Ronald killed although a cause of death was never determined. Investigators speculated that Ronald drowned during a rainstorm which caused flash flooding. However, the possibility that members of Leslie’s family had killed Ronald was not beyond the realm of belief. You see, the family who disrupted the courtroom proceedings was referred to as the Manson family. The father of the family was Charles Manson.
1. The Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1970, p.4.
2. The Sacramento Bee, November 17, 1970, p.6.
3. Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 18, 1970, p.7.
4. The Peninsula Times Tribune, November 19, 1970, p.1.
5. Concord Transcript, November 30, 1970, p.2.
6. The Hanford Sentinel, December 2, 1970, p.1.
7. The Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1971, p.3.
8. The Sacramento Bee, April 1, 1971, p.77.