Who Was Donald ‘Shorty’ Shea And How Was He Linked To Brad Pitt’s Character In ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood?’

Donald “Shorty” Shea and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth met very different ends.

By Jill Sederstrom

Brad Pitt’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” pays homage to old Hollywood stuntmen and becomes an unexpected hero in the alternate — and bloody — end to the fictional film that revisits the real-life murderous ambitions of the Manson Family cult in the summer of 1969. But while Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, was nothing more than a figment of the filmmaker’s imagination, one real-life stuntman who crossed paths with Charles Manson met a much more sinister end.

Weeks after Manson followers killed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and three others in the home on Cielo Drive — and after the savage murder of grocery chain owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary the following evening — another man was brutally killed at the hands of Manson and his followers.

Donald “Shorty” Shea, a ranch hand, aspiring actor, and stuntman, had lived among Manson and his followers on Spahn Ranch and was said to be a protector of elderly ranch owner, George Spahn, after the pair had struck up a friendship.

Spahn had agreed to let Manson and his followers stay on the ranch for free — in exchange for allowing some of the women to help care for the elderly property owner — but Shea was reportedly growing increasingly frustrated with the group’s presence on the ranch. 

Spahn had also negotiated to sell the property to Frank Retz, a man who had already purchased a portion of the property in 1967 or 1968, according to court records filed in California. But Retz didn’t want Manson and his followers on the property and later testified that he had “several conversations” with Spahn about kicking them off the ranch in the summer of 1969.

They agreed that Shea would be hired as a guard to protect the property, but before long Shea would be dead.

Spahn Ranch

Ranch Hand With His Sights On Hollywood

Shea was born in Massachusetts in 1933, but later made his way to California. He was hoping to seek fame and fortune as a Hollywood star, but got a job as a seasonal ranch hand at Spahn Ranch, where he wrangled horses. He would later also find the occasional job as an actor and stunt man.  

Shea And Manson Face Off In Violent Exchange

Despite his nickname, “Shorty” was more than 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was known as a fierce protector of those he loved.

Shea’s cousin Windy Bucklee told The Daily Beast in 2017 that it was that protective instinct that may have earned Shea a target on his back after she had a violent altercation with Manson in 1968.

She told the news outlet that she had confronted her neighbor Bill Vance, whose real name was David Lee Hamic, after police had told her that her truck had been used in a series of robberies. She had lent Vance her truck a number of times but demanded that he return the keys after being contacted by police.

Vance knew Manson from prison and frequently let the cult leader and his followers stay in his house, later dubbed “The Yellow Submarine.”

After taking the keys, Bucklee told The Daily Beast it was later Manson who barged through the back door of her home and demanded the keys back.

When she refused, she said Manson punched her in the face so hard that she had to have her jaw wired shut. News of the violent altercation eventually reached Shea — who confronted Vance and left Manson bloody on the pavement.

The fact that Shea beat the s--t out of Manson was the reason, I’m quite sure, that Shea always remained on Manson’s bad side,” Bucklee said. “I know he never forgot that.”

Tension At The Ranch

While the altercation may have created tension between the two men, it wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that tenuous relationship reached its breaking point.

Retz testified he had purchased a portion of Spahn Ranch and had reached an agreement in June 1969 with Spahn to purchase the remainder of the property.

After finding Manson and about 20 people lying in the farmhouse on Kelly Ranch, an adjoining property that Retz had also agreed to purchase, he called the sheriff.

“Retz saw Manson on the Kelly property frequently after June 30, 1969, and ordered him off the property,” court documents state.

He also had several conversations with Spahn about getting Manson and the Family off the property that were overheard by Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, according to the documents.

Retz testified that he and Spahn agreed to hire Shea as a guard to protect the property, another conversation that was allegedly overheard by Fromme shortly before Shea would disappear. He said in court that he never saw Shea again after he talked to Spahn about hiring him as a guard. 

Others would testify that not only did Shea pose a threat to the family’s current living arrangements, but Manson also believed that Shea was a snitch who was responsible for turning the Family into authorities.

Spahn Ranch was raided on August 16, 1969 by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies who believed the family was turning stolen cars into dune buggies.

Manson and 25 followers were booked on grand theft auto charges, according to The Daily Beast.

But just shortly after Manson was released, Shea disappeared.

A Violent End

His wife, Magdalene, last saw him on Aug. 16, when she said the couple decided to separate, court records indicate.

Shea told her at the time that she would always be able to reach him through his longtime friends the Babcocks. In the following weeks, she’d call the Babcocks several times who, in turn, called the ranch but they were always told by a female who answered the phone that he wasn’t there.

Ruby Pearl, who worked on Spahn Ranch alongside Shea, testified that in the later weeks of August Shea had come to ask her whether he could stay at her home.

“He was very nervous,” court documents stated. “Pearl had no place for Shea to stay except in a shed. He did not want to stay there.”

After turning down the makeshift housing accommodations, Pearl would testify that she encountered an ominous sign as she drove away from the ranch.

She told the court that as she was driving away, she saw a car drive up “real suddenly” and saw Manson, Charles “Tex” Watson, Steve “Clem” Grogan, and Bruce Davis get out the car.

“When they were about five feet from Shea, Pearl drove out of site,” the records state. “Pearl never saw or heard from Shea again.”

Former Manson follower Barbara Hoyt would also testify that she heard Manson tell several people he believed Shea was trying to get the family kicked off the ranch and had been an informant for police.

She would also recall hearing loud screaming coming from a man she believed was Shea one night in August 1969 while she was going to sleep. She’d never see the ranch hand again — but would overhear Manson bragging about the crime the next day.

“Charlie said that they had killed Shorty. Uh, they cut him in nine pieces,” she said in her testimony.

According to Hoyt, the group told Shea they had something they wanted to show him and then hit him in the head with a pipe before stabbing him to death.

She said Charlie claimed Shea had asked “Why, Charlie, why?” as the brutal attack began and that Manson had responded, “Why? This is why,” and stabbed him again.

“He said that it was — it was very hard to kill him until they brought him to now. And when they brought him to now, he said that Clem (Grogan) cut his head off,” she claimed.

Family members Paul Watkins and Brooks Poston would testify to hearing similar accounts of the brutal murder.

“He said we had to kill Shorty,” Watkins said of a conversation with Manson at Barker Ranch. “He said Clem cut his head off. And he said that he’s been badmouthing the ranch and that he knew too much about the Fountain of the World and so — that he was messing things up, up there… He’s been calling the Man (police) on the ranch.”

Bucklee later told The Daily Beast she wasn’t surprised it had taken a group of men to kill her cousin.

“Shorty wasn’t a chicken,” she said. “He was the kind of man that would have fought back. There’s stories he was crying and all this s--t and it wouldn’t have been true. I’ve seen him in some rough places and he never cried or backed down from anybody.”

Family Members Sentenced For The Slaying

Manson, Grogan, and Davis would later be convicted of the murderWatson was never charged, although it is also suspected that he was involved in the murder.

Shea’s body wouldn’t be discovered until almost a decade later when Grogan agreed to give authorities the location in 1977. Although the body was badly decomposed, an autopsy revealed he died of “multiple stab and chop wounds.”

His cooperation would later help earn him parole in 1985. He remains the only member of the Manson Family convicted of any of the murders associated with the group to be released from prison.

Davis, who was also convicted of the murder of Gary Hinman, remains behind bars; however, a California parole board recommended his release earlier this summer.

Gov. Gavin Newsom will now have to decide whether to overrule the board’s recommendation or allow the release, according to The New York Post.

This is Davis’ sixth time to be granted parole — but the presiding governor at the time in previous recommendations has always stepped in to bar his release, according to The Daily Mail.

In a 2013 decision to reverse the state panel’s recommendation, Gov. Jerry Brown contended that Davis continued to pose a danger to society, citing the heinous nature of the crimes.

“He was also a part of the family’s discussions to kill Mr. Shea. Davis and the others surrounded and viciously attacked Mr. Shea. Davis now states he sliced Mr. Shea from his armpit to his collarbone while his crime partners repeatedly stabbed and clubbed Mr. Shea,” he said of the decision, according to the City News Service. “He later bragged about how Mr. Shea’s body had been dismembered and decapitated.”

Although Davis had bragged about decapitating Shea, when his body was found he was not actually decapitated.

Shea’s former wife and daughter also opposed his release at the time.

"I beg of you not to let this murderer back into society," Shea's daughter, Karen Arline Shea, wrote in a letter. "I strongly feel that he deserves to stay in prison until the day he dies as my father was a good man and was denied the chance to live his life out fully by being brutally murdered at the hands of Bruce Davis."

Davis has claimed during his parole hearings that the decision to kill Shea came from Manson.

Manson died in prison of natural causes in 2017.

Curious to learn more about the real-life story of the Manson Family? Tune into “Manson: The Women,” Saturday, Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. ET/PT only on Oxygen.

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