top of page
  • Ednold

6 Degrees of Creepy

It was the first week of September and I was sitting with my brother in the back seat of our Mustang, with our parents up front. Dad was behind the wheel and we were towing a U-Haul trailer full of stuff for our move to Palo Alto, and a new residence in sunny California was awaiting us. I don’t remember a lot about that long-ago trip, but now I wish I had paid a little more attention. If I had, I may have noticed the distinctly unattractive automobile traveling by us in the opposite direction as we passed through southern Oregon, or maybe northern California. It was a new Buick Riviera, occupied by two escaped convicts and a young girl, all three headed to the Beaver State. If I would have seen something, I would have said something, but I didn’t.

August 24, 1966 was a Wednesday, and that’s when it all started. That’s the day Cliff and Al thought it would be a good idea to steal that brand new Riviera (a "tuned" car, the ad says, whatever that was supposed to mean) from a dealership in Hayward, California. The two ne'er do wells wanted to take a little road trip, and they needed some new wheels to take them where they were going. So, they stole that car right off the lot of the Western States Leasing Company and got on the San Mateo Bridge across the bay to collect their passenger before leaving town. Now, I’m guessing you’re thinking one of two things right about now, or maybe both of them. Either A) “They couldn’t have waited another month to make this trip? They couldn’t have waited for the new Chevy Camaros to hit the market for the first time in September of ‘66 and stole one of those instead of that ugly Riviera?”, or B) “Leaving town? They’re leaving the bay area? Five days before The Beatles will play their last concert ever, at Candlestick Park, and these knuckleheads are going away?”. I know. I don’t get it either. Either one of them. But if there’s anything I learned from Kerouac, it’s that when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

The third member of these three amigos would be a girl the two had met a few weeks earlier. She was an 18-year-old waitress in a cafe in downtown San Francisco, and she had been as smitten with the pair of 24-year-old losers as they had both been with her. Al had told her he loved her, and that they could get married, and that’s all she needed to hear to accept their invitation to accompany them when they left town. Cliff and Al headed north up the peninsula on Highway 101 and eventually pulled up outside of Burke’s Big Hamburger Drive-In on the corner of 14th and Market long enough for Susan to come out and hop in the back seat, then they were on their way, across the Bay Bridge to begin their three-week adventure.

The original destination of our three travelers is still up for debate. Years later, Susan would recall that the plan was to go to Lake Tahoe, but she never did know exactly what the two men had in mind. She didn’t ask too many questions, but she did understand, however, that the purpose of the rifle in the trunk was to help convince some of the people they would encounter to donate a little money toward their travel expenses; an early prototype of an ATM card, you might say. Apparently, somewhere between the bay and the mountains, Al changed his mind and the trio continued driving north toward the Oregon border, and right past me, probably too preoccupied trying to get my brother to stop pestering me to notice.

You may well wonder why in the world this young lady would leave her home and her job to spend a few weeks with these two older rogues, especially when it almost certainly meant missing the debut of Star Trek on September 8. You can blame Kerouac if you want, but it was less than a year before San Francisco’s Summer of Love and young people all over the place were doing strange things. Even by the new mid-60’s standards of non-conformity, though, to drop everything and fall in with Cliff and Al was a sign of desperation, and our girl Susan was certainly desperate.

Susan had been born in southern California and grew up in San Jose. Both of her parents were alcoholics and she had suffered more abuse of every kind in her young life than it’s healthy to even imagine. And that was before her mother died of cancer when she was 15. After that, her father was practically useless and she and her younger brother were shuttled from one relative’s home to another until finally, cracking under the stress of trying to hold down a job while attending school and caring for her brother, she ran away to San Francisco where she got a job as a telemarketer before being hired as a waitress at Burke’s Drive-In. She may have thought that things couldn’t possibly get any worse than what she’d already been through, but that first fateful encounter with Cliff and Al in early August of 1966 would be a turn for the worse, which is truly saying something.

But at the time, all that mattered was a promise from Al that they would eventually pull off one big heist and that would be it. They’d have enough money to buy a place in Oregon (near Ednold!) to settle down, get married, and live an honest life, which must have sounded pretty good. Between some petty shoplifting and the money they got from several armed robberies along the way, the three travelers had the resources to continue north until they arrived in Keizer, Oregon on September 4. Guessing that police were probably looking for the stolen Riviera by then, they held up a gas station on River Rd., getting away with enough money to buy a used Rambler sedan that would be a little less conspicuous. Then, having “procured” the requisite gear, they headed for the property of some of Cliff’s relatives who lived east of Salem, between Stayton and Mehama, to do a little camping and lay low along the Santiam River.

3401 River Road, Keizer

The three set up camp near the river just south of Highway 22 at about milepost 18.5 (where overhead power lines cross above the highway) and were able to subsist for several days by stealing from local stores and nearby residents. Given that they had paid all of $65 for the Rambler, it shouldn’t have been too surprising when the battery died after just a few days and they needed to find a replacement. It’s not clear whether they walked or caught a ride, but somehow they made it into the town of Stayton and stole a battery from the Phillipi Ford dealership. They never were able to get the car running again, though, so apparently the problem was something other than the battery.

It may have been that Cliff’s cousin, who lived nearby, had alerted the police to his criminally inclined cousin and his friends, or it may have just been the cumulative thefts over the previous week that got the attention of the cops, but either way, by about the 10th of September the police were aware of the general vicinity of their camp, and they were looking for the trio of crooks. By the evening of the 11th Al, Cliff, and Susan saw the police closing in on their camp and fled on foot, leaving all their gear behind. They remained at large throughout the next day, but for some reason they never left the area and the next evening were apprehended about two miles east of Stayton while walking east along the westbound shoulder of Highway 22.

A quarter mile to the right (south) was the campground.

For his part in their criminal activities, Al, whose real name was Gust Sund Jr., was sentenced to two years in prison and Cliff, actually Clinton Talioferro, received a six month sentence. Susan received a six month suspended sentence with two years of probation. And for anyone who's still not convinced that crime doesn't pay, just consider that they all missed the very first episode of The Monkees, which premiered on September 12. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!

That's kind of an interesting story, but I wouldn't have bothered telling it if that was the end. For at least one of the amigos it was just the beginning. It seems that by the end of their short time together Susan had decided that maybe Gust Sund Jr. wasn’t the husband she was looking for, after all, and upon her release she made her way back to San Francisco and began a short career as a topless dancer. She moved into a communal boarding house in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city where she would soon be swept off her feet by an even bigger dud: A mister Charles Manson. This girl had some serious problems when it came to choosing men. The rest of her story is pretty well known, so I’ll skip the gorey details of how she joined Manson’s “family” and participated in several murders a few years later, most notoriously that of actress Sharon Tate.

At first glance it’s easy to be sickened by anyone who could brutally kill people in the manner Susan Atkins did and then, seemingly, have absolutely no remorse for it. But if you look closer her own story is very sad, and a perfect example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Out of all the Manson girls she was said to be the most violent, most dangerous, and most committed to Manson’s evil ideas. Yet, after reading a lot about her lately I’d say she was also, paradoxically, the one most entitled to be paroled for the last few years of her life. I’m not one to make excuses for serial killers, and she certainly had some serious consequences coming her way but, in a way, she had already served a horrendous sentence before she had ever committed a crime. With even a single adult in her life able to provide the resources and protection she needed it’s almost impossible to imagine all of the fateful twists and turns that led her into Manson’s orbit, turning her into the monster she became. Susan was sentenced to die, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972 and she died in prison in 2009 of natural causes, reportedly brain cancer.

Excuses or not, the story of Susan’s trip to Oregon in 1966 is disturbing. They say that nobody on earth is any more distant than 6 degrees of separation from anyone else: There are no more than five people in the chain of acquaintances between you and some anonymous peasant in Mongolia, or the Queen of Denmark, or the Mayor of Timbuktu. I’d always liked to think there were exceptions to that theory when it came to people like Charles Manson, but I guess there’s not, and it’s all thanks to Susan Atkins. We’ve all seen the pictures and videos of her and her co-defendants during their trial, singing Manson’s songs while sporting their newly-bald heads in solidarity with their psychotic leader. It’s pretty sick stuff, but none of it, to me, is quite as creepy as knowing that a few years earlier she had helped rob that gas station in Keizer, a place I stopped frequently when I worked just down the street. And she'd been camping at that spot along the Santiam River. And she’d been at Phillipi Ford when they stole that battery. I have been in the Phillipi house. I knew their kids and swam in their pool. And Susan Atkins had stolen a battery from him! It’s a tiny, tangential connection, to say the least, but a connection nonetheless, and if you know the details of the Manson murders it’s enough to give you the willies when you think that I, Ednold, was only a few degrees removed from practically being a member of the Manson family.

And if you didn't get those willies yet, here's some more to think about: Bruce Phillipi, apparently sensing that his business had been cursed by none other than Charles Manson, got out of the car business in 1981. He took up real estate development and sold his dealership to John Lucas, owner of John Lucas Chevrolet. Lucas was murdered in 1987 by a hired hitman from Lebanon, Chris Lange. Lange himself was then murdered in prison in 2011. I realize none of these things are related, (or are they ???) and that I was a thousand miles away when Susan Atkins made her appearance in our part of the world, but… Kinda creepy, though. Right??

24 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 comentario

06 feb 2023

Six Degrees of Separation......from God knows who!

Sounds like I ought to set my Family Tree project aside. I am guessing that my Ednold connection, to a near-member of the Manson Family, fits into that six degree range. Spooky.

Me gusta
bottom of page