Crimes of the '80s

The Bizarre Case Of The California Witch Killers

These California killers went on a murderous rampage filled with witches, drugs and sex.

Oxygen Digital is kicking off its first-ever themed month in June with Crimes of the '80s. We'll explore big trends (drug cartels), sensational cases ("The Preppy Killer"), the decade's most lethal and infamous serial killers (The Night Stalker, The Grim Sleeper) and more. 

When Suzan Barnes met James Carson, things got... weird. Fast. Both were unsatisfied divorcees, and Suzan had been immersed in the ‘70s culture of free love and hallucinogens. After taking mescaline on one occasion in 1974, she had a vision that she would meet the man of her dreams. Three years later, when she finally saw James at a party, she said, “This is the man I’ve been searching for.” Indeed, James’ daughter, Jenn Carson, says that when the pair met “It was almost like two magnets just shooting across the room and joining. I think they had great sexual attraction.” It didn’t take long for the new couple to descend into a life of sex and hallucinogenic drug taking. But it wasn’t all fun and games.

The magnetic pair would end up starting their own twisted religion, which would incite them into killing three people they deemed to be witches. This case, known infamously as the “witch killer” case, is the subject of Oxygen’s weekly Martinis & Murder podcast, which is hosted by John Thrasher and Daryn Carp. Subscribe at iTunes or Google Play or listen below on Soundcloud.

Later, Jenn Carson would say of her father: “If he had fallen in love with a televangelist, he would become one. If she had joined ISIS, he would have. He was that much of a follower. He was drawn to extremists, people he found really exciting.” And Suzan certainly wasn’t boring. Shortly after they met Suzan told James she’d had a vision, and that his name was really Michael, after the angel who fought the devil. James was spellbound, and changed his name to Michael. In another vision Suzan said she saw that they should both change their last name to Bear, which they also did. But perhaps the most dangerous vision of all was one in which Suzan saw that they should become “Muslims” and kill witches. Unfortunately, Suzan and Michael missed the part of Islam that prohibits the taking of mind-altering drugs and murder, and created their own sick cult-like religion, dragging the name of Allah into it as justification.

In 1978, after a year of being together, Suzan and Michael travelled to Europe, preaching their religion. They also had a marriage ceremony (although not legally binding) by the moonlight at Stonehenge. Eventually they ran out of money, and were forced to return to the US, where they moved to San Francisco and into the apartment of Keryn Barnes, a 23-year-old wannabe starlet who had moved to California to find fame but instead found the hippie lifestyle of Haight-Ashbury. But Michael and Suzan wanted more from Keryn than just co-habitation. They wanted her to be Michael’s second wife, and enter into a polyamorous relationship with them. When Keryn balked at the idea, Suzan had a vision: that Keryn was a witch.

So Suzan and Michael plotted to kill Keryn.

On March 6, when Keryn got home from work, Suzan told Michael to kill her. To Michael followed their young roommate into the kitchen, where he beat her in the head with a cast iron frying pan, and then stabbed her 13 times around the face and neck to finish it. The couple then wrapped the body in a blanket, placed her head on a pillow, and did a series of bizarre, childlike drawings all over the walls before leaving.

Police found 23-year-old Keryn’s body on March 7, 1981, in her apartment with the skull bashed in and stabbed 13 times around the face, neck and mouth. Curiously, the drawings on the wall included the name “Suzan” written around the pictures. (Suzan had actually been born "Susan"—and changed the spelling of her name to "Suzan" after a drug trip.) One of Keryn’s friends rushed to the scene of the crime as word got around, and informed police about Keryn’s new roommates, and their strange beliefs.

It wasn’t until police questioned Keryn’s mother two days later that they got a full name: Suzan Carson, and her husband, Michael. But unfortunately, because Suzan and Michael Carson weren’t the couple’s real names, police weren’t able to track them down via their databases.

After a year of searching for the murderous roommates, the investigation stagnated. The Carsons hitchhiked north, and for a year lived in a secluded cabin--which they believed was a refuge provided to them by Allah--in the wilderness. But after a year they got bored, and decided to head back to southern California and started working on a marijuana farm as caretakers. Things were seemingly fine until the couple started having problems with a friend of the farm owner, 26-year-old Clark Stephens. Clark was loud and drank a lot, and the Carsons saw this as an affront to Allah. Suzan tried to block Clark from entering the farm one day, so Clark cussed her out, and so Suzan declared Clark a witch, and Michael was tasked as executioner. He shot Clark in the face.

On the lam again, the Carsons headed right back up to Northern California to hide out in the wilderness, and would go into civilization only for food and supplies. To get to town, the pair would hitchhike. Two years after the murder of Keryn Barnes, in January 1983 they caught a ride with a man named John Hillyer in his pickup truck. Suzan rode in the middle, and while driving, John’s leg touched Suzan’s leg. Suzan said she felt threatened, but more importantly, that she’d had a premonition about John, and that he was a witch. Again, Michael was tasked with killing him. However, John fought back, and what ensued was a wrestling match for the gun Michael was trying to use to kill him.

Police Santa Rosa, California, received a 911 call from a roadside fruit stand, from a witness who saw a pickup truck had pull up, and Suzan, John and Michael emerge. The three began fighting, until finally Michael got hold of the gun and shot John. 30-year-old John Hillyer later died in the hospital. Michael and Suzan attempted to drive off in the truck, but police caught up and a high speed chase ended with the truck spinning out of control and landing in a ditch.

The killer couple was taken in for questioning, but instead of talking about what led them to shoot John--who was being treated in hospital--only wanted to talk about ESP, witches and their DIY religion. In a jailhouse interview, Michael and Suzan described themselves as “religious warriors involved in a holy war against witches.” 

In another bizarre twist, Michael penned a letter in which he wrote that no one cared that he and Suzan had killed the biggest witch in San Francisco. The police were quick to link the confession in the letter with the murder of Keryn Barnes. When police tried to get an on-the-record confession from the Carsons, however, they said they would only do it with a press conference, and so on March 10, a press conference was held.

During the conference, the Carsons ranted about everything from George Orwell’s 1984, President Reagan being the devil, and why witches needed to be killed. Michael said that Suzan had the power to identify witches, via visions she got directly from Allah--which is how they realized they had to kill Keryn. So while Suzan went around identifying witches, Michael would kill them. They also admitted to killing Clark, and after 6 hours of ranting, were charged with multiple crimes, including three counts of first degree murder.

The Carsons’ trials began in May, 1984. Despite confessing to everything in the press conference, both Suzan and Michael entered “not guilty” pleas. But after three days of trial which Michael’s daughter described as a “zoo”, they were both found guilty and given 25 to life.

Hosts Daryn Carp and John Thrasher chat about creepy crimes and mysterious murders... while mixing up martinis! Each episode will focus on a new crime, the crazy details and the theories about how -- and why -- it all went down.

Hosts Daryn Carp and John Thrasher chat about creepy crimes and mysterious murders... while mixing up martinis! Each episode will focus on a new crime, the crazy details and the theories about how -- and why -- it all went down. 

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Crimes of the '80s