Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017, but the infamous murderer and cult leader remained frozen in the Kern County morgue until March 2018 as a bizarre dispute over his remains unfolded in court. The coroner’s office determined that a 2002 will presented by Michael Channels, a memorabilia collector and Manson pen pal, was “inherently suspicious.” The office then petitioned the court for direction on who should receive Manson’s remains. A separate court case to determine who will receive Manson’s estate is still underway in Los Angeles County, which also involves Channels’ suspect will. In the absence of a will, most states have statutory provisions that dictate who has the legal right to receive and dispose of an individual’s remains—generally, it is the surviving spouse and next-of-kin.
The two cases proceeded in different locations because under California law, a person’s remains and his estate can fall within different jurisdictions. According to the California Health and Safety Code, a person’s remains are under the jurisdiction of the county in which the person resides at the time of death—Manson died in a Bakersfield hospital, which is located in Kern County. In California, the last place in which a person willingly resides determines jurisdiction over his or her estate. The last place Manson willfully resided was deemed to be Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles County.
A Kern County judge ruled in March that Manson’s grandson, Jason Freeman, was the rightful heir to the cult leader’s remains. The 41-year-old former mixed martial arts fighter claimed to have corresponded by mail with Manson during the last years of his life. Freeman told Rolling Stone magazine, "I've always known who my grandfather was, from as far back as I can remember…It's always been there. I've known all my life. I never imagined I would be on such a big stage that God built before I was born."
The two other men who claimed the rights to Manson’s remains were Michael Brunner, Manson’s son with former “family” member Mary Brunner, and Channels, Manson's friend of 30 years, who is also named as the beneficiary in the 2002 will. Brunner, who has not spoken to the media since being interviewed in 1993, told the court that he sought possession of Manson’s body in order to "cremate the remains and scatter the ashes in a dignified and private manner.” After his mother was arrested for credit card fraud in August 1969, Brunner was adopted by his mother’s parents, which Freeman successfully argued should disqualify his claim on Manson’s body. Channels denied that he was looking to profit from Manson’s remains, and said he desired only to carry out his friend’s wish to have his ashes scattered in the desert.
The 2002 will in Channels’ possession specifically leaves out all of Manson’s relatives and names Channels as the sole beneficiary and executor of Manson’s estate. Manson’s signature is on the will, but it appears that the final page was taken from a separate handwritten letter, which raised questions about its validity.
The case was further complicated by a second will, allegedly signed in 2017 by Manson. Its sole beneficiary is 49-year-old Matthew Lentz, a Los Angeles musician who claims that Manson is his biological father. Lentz, like Brunner, was adopted. When Lentz tracked down his biological mother, she told him that Manson was his father. Paternity tests have so far been inconclusive. The will designated an Illinois memorabilia collector, Benjamin Gurecki, as executor. It provided instructions for the disbursement of the estate, but none for the disposal of Manson’s remains. The court found the will to be insufficient because it lacked the signatures of two disinterested witnesses required by California law.
There have been significant developments in the fight over Manson’s estate recently: Brunner has renounced his claim as an alleged heir, and Lentz missed a probate hearing and has been given until July 13, 2018, to show why he should not be dismissed from the case. If Lentz is dropped, Channels and Freeman will still vie for control of the estate. What’s at stake? At the moment there is said to be nothing tangible beyond two guitars, art, writing, and music, but potentially there are royalties to be collected from old songs that were primarily written by Manson and were commercially recorded by bands like The Beach Boys and Guns N’ Roses. Manson’s victims might be entitled to any money that is recovered should they not be precluded from pursuing royalty rights. Although few, Manson’s possessions could fetch high prices among collectors too. There are also Manson’s image and publishing rights, which were left to Channels in the 2002 will.