The San Francisco Witch Cult Killers

We’ll start off the month of lovers with one of the craziest killer couples: Suzan and James/Michael “Bear” Carson, the psycho “Witch Killer Cult” who terrorized San Francisco in the early 1980s.

Susan Barnes had been a seemingly normal suburban housewife in 1960s Scottsdale, Arizona. Her husband made good money, enabling her to be a stereotypical spoiled housewife. But she wanted more than that.

She began taking hallucinogens like LSD, mescaline, and peyote while she was hanging out with her sons’ high-school classmates. She also regularly seduced and slept with them – according to the rumor mill, she slept with 150 young men and boys.

When she turned 35, she began to have delusions and hallucinations – or as she called them, “visions” – even when she wasn’t on drugs. This was actually nothing new; since she was a child, she believed she was psychic.

Needless to say the infidelity, drug use, and budding psychosis shattered her marriage. She reinvented herself, and started spelling her name with a “z” instead of an “s.” She had visions telling her she needed to find a soulmate, a partner, a loyal disciple. That’s when she James Carson.

Originally from Oklahoma, Carson was also another non-conformist, middle-class dropout. Always bookish, he took a special interest in history, religions, and philosophy. He earned a degree from University of Iowa, where he met his wife. After graduation, they had a daughter and moved to Arizona. While his wife supported him, he was a stay-at-home dad and pot dealer. Things seem to work out that way for quite a while – by his daughter’s account, he was a loving and attentive father.

But as time went on, he began to get more antisocial and prone to angry outbursts. Due to his growing unstable behavior and his inability (or unwillingness) to get a job, his wife divorced him in 1977. Shortly thereafter, he met Suzan.

When they met, it was instant attraction. The first thing she said to him when they met was that his name was Michael. He said, “No, my name is James.” To which she responded, “No, you are Michael, an angel of God.” From then on, James went by the name Michael.

It was a match made in hell; James was looking for God, and Suzan was looking for a disciple. After they married, they tripped around Europe a while, and Susan developed her own religion from her drug- and psychosis-induced visions: a twisted, radical interpretation of Islam. Upon returning to the US, they began going by the surname “Bear” and described themselves as “vegetarian Moslem warriors.”

However, their religion was not all tofu and white light. For one thing, they believed insulting a woman was tantamount to assault, and deserving of death. For another, they believed there were witches surrounding them, using their mental powers to control others. And they believed it was their duty to kill all witches.

This kind of shared madness is called folie á deux, or, more clinically, shared psychotic disorder. It is a rare delusional disorder shared by two or, sometimes, more people with unusually close emotional ties. The delusions are usually induced in the passive partner – in this case, Michael – by the active one – Suzan.

Up until now their cult had consisted of only two members. So they began looking for recruits in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. In 1980, Haight-Ashbury was still a major epicenter of the counter-culture and drug culture. There they met Keryn Barnes at a party. Though most people were repulsed by the Bears’ odd and even hostile behavior, Keryn, an open-minded spiritual seeker, found them fascinating.

She invited them to come live with her, where they continued nearly non-stop tripping, drinking, and getting high. Before long, Suzan began to see Keryn as a witch. Maybe she felt threatened by the pretty younger woman, or maybe she really did believe Keryn had evil psychic powers. Either way, she and Michael murdered her as she lay sleeping on the kitchen floor, beating her to death with an iron skillet and stabbing her over a dozen times.

When the police found Keryn’s bloody body, they also found a scene straight out of Helter Skelter: the walls were covered in strange religious symbols and one word: “Suzan.” Through their investigation, they discovered that Michael and Suzan had been living with Keryn, and were likely suspects in her murder. However, the Bears were long gone.

They fled north and stayed an abandoned cabin in the Oregon woods Suzan called “Allah’s mountain,” until they were kicked out by a park ranger. Later, another good Samaritan let them stay in his treehouse. But their weird, combative behavior soon grated on the owner, and he kicked them out. Suzan, however, was not going to take this lying down. She instructed Michael to take revenge on the owner. So they robbed his house, taking, among other things, a handgun, and then set it on fire.

So they headed back to California, getting jobs as caretakers of a marijuana plantation in Humboldt County. However, when a friend of the owner, Clark Stevens, came up to work on the operation, he and the Bears butted heads quickly. They argued, and when things got heated, Clark said something that offended Suzan. For this offense, she ordered Michael to kill Clark. Ever her faithful disciple, Michael shot him dead with the stolen gun. They poured kerosene over his body, set it on fire, then covered it with chicken litter.

Now the Bears were on the run again. A man named Jon Hellyar picked them up hitchhiking near Bakersfield. Suzan told Michael as soon as she saw Jon, she knew he was a witch and they would have to kill him. Sure enough, they began arguing as soon as the Bears got in his truck. Apparently his leg touched Suzan’s, and this was a death sentence. They struggled, and Jon was able to pull over and get out of his truck. The Bears followed him. They stabbed and shot him right on the side of the highway, in full view of passing drivers, who called the police. Suzan and Michael drove off in Jon’s truck, which was quickly spotted by police. After a high-speed chase, the couple was arrested.

While they were in custody, they arranged a rambling, six-hour press conference where they laid out their twisted beliefs and reasoning for the murders. They showed no remorse, and in fact, thought they should be heroes for killing witches.

Regardless, they were tried and found guilty and sentenced to 75 years to life. They came up for parole in 2015; Michael declined parole, and Suzan was denied because she was still unrepentant for the murders. Their earliest official release date won’t be until 2059.

But that is not the end of the strange story of the Witch Killer Cult. Authorities think they may be responsible for nearly a dozen other murders in Europe and the United States, but don’t have enough evidence to bring charges.

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