The Bizarre Story of the San Francisco Witch Killers
In the 1970s, James Carson was a family man with a Master’s degree living in Phoenix, Arizona. His daughter, Jenn, remembers him being a wonderful father and admits to being a daddy’s girl.
But by the time Jenn was five years old, her mother noticed a significant change in James’ behavior. She became scared and left one night with her daughter. The pair moved every six months and cut off ties with mutual acquaintances to avoid being tracked down by James.
But James didn’t seem interested in tracking down his former family. Instead, he met Suzan Barnes, a recently divorced woman with two teenaged sons.
The two married and traveled through Europe for a year or two. When they returned to the United States, they took up residence in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
Haight-Ashbury was the birthplace of hippie culture: drugs, art, mysticism, and all manner of counterculture activities. The Carsons were heavily involved in all of that.
For starters, James changed his name to Michael, and the pair adopted the surname of Bear. Suzan believed herself to be a “yogi and a mystic with knowledge of past, present, and future events.” The pair claimed to be “vegetarian Muslim warriors” who believed that “witchcraft, homosexuality, and abortion” were reasons enough to kill people. They believed their “higher power” called on them to kill these enemies for their own protection and for “the sake of the country’s future.”
Their first confirmed murder was in March 1981. It was their roommate, Keryn Barnes, an aspiring actress. While on a hitchhiking trip during a rainstorm, Suzan believed she “got orders” to kill Barnes, and every time she said it, thunder would clap.
The couple killed Barnes upon their return home. Barnes was stabbed 13 times and her skull was crushed. The couple later admitted they used a frying pan on her head. Suzan believed Barnes, having faked a conversion to their brand of Muslimism, was actually a witch and was stealing her “yogic powers.” Before the body was found, Michael and Suzan fled the area.
The Bears next showed up at a Northern California marijuana farm, where they worked as farmhands and guards. Coworkers at the farm described the Bears as anarchists who advocated a revolution and believed a nuclear apocalypse was imminent.
An ongoing fight with fellow farmhand, Clark Stephens, led to Michael shooting him twice in the head in May 1982. Michael would later say that Stephens was a “demon” who had sexually abused his wife. The Bears attempted to burn the body in the woods before leaving. Two weeks later, Stephens was reported missing, and investigators found his partially burned remains in the woods.
The Bears were the prime suspects. Among the belongings they left behind was an anti-government manifesto written by the Bears, that included a list of celebrities and politicians that they wanted to assassinate, including Johnny Carson and then-president Ronald Regan.
A manhunt was on for the Bear-Carsons. Being anti-government types, they stayed off the grid and were difficult to track down. A break came in November 1982 when an acquaintance saw Michael hitchhiking. He was arrested, but due to a police error, he was freed before anyone had the chance to question him.
In March 1983, Jon Charles Hellyar picked up a hitchhiking couple around Bakersfield, California: the Bears. At some point during the ride north, Suzan decided Hellyar was a witch and needed to die. After over 300 miles together, an argument and physical altercation broke out amongst Hellyar and the Bears which caused Hellyar to stop the car. The three got out of the car, where the altercation continued.
Suzan started stabbing Hellyar until Michael got control of his gun and shot Hellyar dead. This all happened on the side of the 101 freeway, in full sight of the heavy California traffic. A passerby called the police, and a brief high-speed chase ensued. Michael and Suzan Bear/Carson were caught and arrested.
Initially, the Bear/Carsons agreed to plead guilty to the three murders, in exchange for a televised press conference. At the press conference, they admitted to their murders, describing their victims as witches who needed to die. They also espoused their strange combination of hippie-spirituality and Muslim beliefs, claiming their murders were done according to the teachings of the Koran. Just before trial, the couple recanted their confessions and entered a plea of not guilty.
Eventually, Michael and Suzan were convicted on all three murder charges and each received sentences that totaled 75 years-to-life in prison. Dubbed the “San Francisco Witch Killers” in the press, the pair were suspects in at least a dozen other murders in the United States as well as in Europe, but there was never enough evidence to bring the pair to trial.
In 2015, both convicts came up for parole. Michael canceled his parole hearing because, thirty years after his conviction, his beliefs had not changed and he refused to show remorse for the murders. Suzan, who similarly would not show remorse for what she did and refused to help her attorney prepare her case, was denied parole. She will next be eligible for parole in 2030.
Jenn Carson is relieved that her father will not be released. She believes both Michael and Suzan are still dangerous. When she was 19 years old (about a decade after her father had been arrested), she went to visit Michael in prison, her first face-to-face meeting with him since she was a child. “It was like looking into the eyes of someone with no soul,” Jenn said in a 2006 interview. She considers her dad to be “pure evil.”