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Family secrets: Book sheds light on murder by Manson

Charles Manson knew he would have to use underhanded tactics to kill Donald Shea, a Hollywood stuntman, horse wrangler and ranch hand.

During the filming of a television show, a tiger broke its chain and sprang onto a handler’s back. Shea jumped into action and single-handedly pulled the 600-pound animal off the man.

Shea was a powerful, athletic stuntman willing to fall off tall buildings into hay and be dragged by a running horse with his foot wedged in a stirrup. Nicknamed “Shorty,” he stood 6 feet tall and weighed nearly 200 pounds.

But by August of 1969, Shea had run afoul of Manson, the leader of a murderous cult known as the Family.

Shea wasn’t interested in joining the cult. He wanted the Family off the California ranch where he worked in-between jobs as a stuntman.

“Shorty just basically blew him off all the time. So I think what it all came down to was Manson killed Shorty because he could, and he had the ability to talk any of the Family members into whatever he wanted them to do — and they’d do it,” said author and Medford resident Edwin Colin.

Colin’s new book “Charles Manson and the Killing of Shorty Shea” chronicles the deadly collision course between the famous cult leader and one of his lesser-known victims. Colin wrote the book with mass murder researcher Deb Silva.

As a boy growing up on a nearby ranch that doubled as a movie set, Colin idolized Shea, who was like an older brother to him. Shea worked at both the Corriganville ranch movie set and the Spahn ranch, where Manson and his followers were squatting in the late 1960s.

“Through the years, Shorty Shea was portrayed as just a kind of low-life vagabond that was hanging around Spahn Ranch and trying to get into the movies with no success,” Colin said. “There was much more to him.”

Trapped with Charles Manson

While Manson’s power was peaking, Shea had fallen on hard times.

Shea was separated from his wife, had pawned his beloved revolvers and was sleeping in his car on the Spahn ranch — unable to scrape together enough money to gas up his car and leave.

Rogue River resident Lance Victor, a fellow stuntman who was friends with Shea, said Hollywood stunt work didn’t provide a steady paycheck.

“It was feast or famine," said Victor.

Colin said another stuntman from the time described being “in a perpetual state of broke.”

While stunt work in Hollywood had rarely paid well, careers for cowboy-style stuntmen were disappearing as the public lost its appetite for Westerns. California ranches that hosted tourists and put on Wild West shows had lost ground to attractions like Disneyland.

Shea was trapped at the ranch.

Unbeknownst to Shea, Manson sent Family members out on killing sprees Aug. 8 and 9, 1969.

Victims included pregnant actress Sharon Tate, writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring and supermarket executive Leno LaBianca.

The Family had been under surveillance by local law enforcement because of guns and stolen vehicles at the Spahn ranch. Authorities didn’t yet know Manson was responsible for a string of gruesome murders when they raided the ranch Aug. 16, 1969, and hauled many Family members away.

Manson and his followers were released, and Manson focused his wrath on Shea — spreading a rumor that he was a snitch who had triggered the raid.

Colin said another person was the actual informant.

He believes Manson targeted Shea because he was about to land a job as a night watchman for a developer who wanted to buy the Spahn ranch. Shea’s duties would have included helping push the Family off the ranch.

On Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1969, Victor, Shea’s stuntman friend, visited the ranch. Shea told Victor he feared Manson was trying to kill him. Manson already had thrown a knife at Shea, narrowly missing his head.

But Victor thought Shea was just feeling broke, trapped and paranoid.

Victor had met Manson many times, at one point enjoying a container of whipped cream the cult leader gave him. Another time the Family borrowed Victor’s car, which was on the verge of breaking down, and returned it with a newly installed transmission.

“He didn’t act dangerous. He was always laughing,” Victor said of Manson. “He would touch you on the arm and say, ‘I’ll see you later.’”

To calm Shea down, Victor promised to return that Friday — Aug. 29, 1969 — after he had been paid, and give Shorty $30.

“He was a very nice person,” Victor said of Shea. “He would do anything for you. If you was down and out, he would try to help you. And vice versa. We were both like that.”

The murder of Shorty Shea

Drawing from trial testimony, parole hearing statements, autopsy records, interviews and more, Colin pieced together what he believes were Shea’s final hours.

On Friday morning, Aug. 29, 1969, Shea got in a car with Manson and cult members Tex Watson, Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan. Manson told Shea they needed to go get car parts.

Shea was wedged in the middle of the front seat, between Manson, who was driving, and Watson.

Partway into the trip, Manson pulled to the side of the road. Grogan, who was sitting in the back, clubbed Shea in the head with a pipe wrench.

Watson dragged Shea, who was likely dazed and semi-conscious, from the car.

Colin believes the surprise blow to the head allowed the men to gain a crucial advantage over Shea.

“In an even fight, he would’ve probably taken all four of them,” Colin said.

The men then fell upon Shea with knives, a machete and a bayonet, stabbing and beating him to death.

Victor believes Shea was further weakened by blood loss from the multiple stab wounds, leaving him unable to fight off the attackers.

After killing Shea, the men buried his body in a shallow grave, finishing the job before 9 a.m.

That Friday afternoon, Victor returned as promised to Spahn ranch to give Shea $30.

He could not find his friend.

“I always figured maybe two hours would have made a difference — or even an hour,” Victor said. “And hindsight is always better than foresight. But I’ve always regretted that I didn’t get out there sooner. You have to live with that.”

Belated justice

Although Shea’s body was still missing, Manson, Davis and Grogan were convicted of his murder in 1972.

Grogan, who had hit Shea in the head with the pipe wrench, bragged that the Family had decapitated Shea and cut his body into nine pieces.

In 1977, Grogan told authorities where Shea’s body was buried. When they uncovered skeletal remains, at least one investigator thought it couldn’t be Shea’s body because it had not been cut into pieces.

Dental records showed the remains did in fact belong to the Hollywood stuntman with big dreams.

After all the research for his book, Colin said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that people just underestimated Manson. He was kind of a chameleon.”

During the many murder trials of Family members, witness after witness said Manson did not seem like a killer. Victor was among those called to testify.

From his own interactions with Manson, Victor said he did not detect the evil in the man who orchestrated brutal killings.

“He never gave any inkling that he was dangerous,” Victor said. “He was just like a normal person.”

Colin’s book “Charles Manson and the Killing of Shorty Shea” is available by emailing him at edcolin11@hotmail.com. The book is also available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Author Edwin Colin, left, and former stuntman Lance Victor reminisce about their friend who was killed by Charles Manson's cult. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch