Their twisted new age-ism and self-created Islamic beliefs, along with drug-induced paranoia, formed their strange moral code. They were on a mission from God to exterminate anyone they believed to be a witch, earning them the media nickname, the “San Francisco Witch Killers,” but they preferred to be known as “vegetarian Moslem warriors.”
James Clifford Carson, also known as Michael Bear Carson and Susan Barnes Carson, who adopted the name Suzan Bear Carson are two serial killers convicted for three murders between 1982 and 1983 in Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.
A married man, James Carson, who also had a master’s degree in Chinese studies, living with one child in Phoenix, Arizona in 1981 when his wife noticed severe behavior changes and left with their child. It was shortly afterwards that Carson began a relationship with Suzan Barnes, who had two teenage sons and who had also recently divorced.
At some point James Carson took the name of “Michael Bear Carson”, telling his daughter in a letter that God had given him the new name “Michael.” Susan also changed her name becoming known as “Suzan Bear.”
In 1979, the Carsons went to Europe. There, the two supposedly married one evening while visiting Stonehenge in England.
By 1980, they had returned to the U.S. and were living as Michael and Suzan Bear in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.They also continued their involvement with drugs and the counterculture.
By this time, Michael Bear Carson’s former wife had become afraid that he would harm her and try to abduct or gain custody of their child, so she took steps to hide herself and the child from him, including moving many times and cutting off contact with mutual acquaintances.
In March 1981, 22-year-old Keryn Barnes, an aspiring petite, redheaded actress from Georgia who had been the Carsons roommate in Haight-Ashbury, was found dead in their shared apartment. Her skull crushed and stabbed 13 times her body was found wrapped in a blanket and hidden in the basement.
Evidence showed that Keryn died at the hands of someone she knew, and the Carsons were the prime suspects, but they disappeared before the body was found.
The Carsons fled to a mountain hideout near Grants Pass, Oregon, where they remained until spring 1982. They then moved to Alderpoint, California, near Garberville in Humboldt County, California, where they lived and worked on a marijuana farm as caretakers and guards.
Some of their fellow workers on the farm said the Carsons were anarchists who advocated revolution and predicted that an apocalypse or nuclear war would soon occur. In May 1982, the Carsons’ had an ongoing dispute with another worker on the farm, Clark Stephens.
Eventually, Michael killed Stephens by shooting him, after which the Carsons’ attempted to dispose of his body by dragging it into the woods, dismembering it and burning it, then burying it under chicken fertilizer, before leaving the area. Two weeks later, friends of Clark reported his disappearance to the Humboldt County Sheriffs’ Office, who investigated and found his’ drivers’ license and burnt remains in the woods.
The Carsons, who at that point were known to their co-workers and law enforcement as the Bears, were suspects due to their dispute with Stephens. Upon searching belongings the Carsons had left behind, detectives found an anti-government manifesto written by the Carsons that called for the assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan and entertainer Johnny Carson.
Alderpoint is an area that’s been locally dubbed as “Murder Mountain.” This is near where my brother, Adam, became involved in the shooting death of Michael Clawson on September 23, 1989.
Detectives had trouble tracking down the Carsons because they had avoided any interactions with government authorities over the years – for example, obtaining drivers’ licenses. However that changed in November 1982, when police picked Michael up in Los Angeles after being reported by someone who saw him hitchhiking and knew the law wanted him for murder in Humboldt County.
Through a police error, Carson was quickly freed and disappeared again before Humboldt County detectives had a chance to question him. But detectives caught a lucky-break as Michael left evidence behind, including a mug shot, address information, and a gun in a police car, that caused investigators to realize that the Bear’s were actually the Carsons.
The Carsons’ so-called ‘witch-hunt’ finally came to an end in March 1983 as they were hitchhiking near Bakersfield, California and were given a ride by 30-year-old Jon Hellyar, who was driving to Santa Rosa, California. While Jon was driving on U.S. Route 101 near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, an argument and physical fight broke out between Jon and the Carsons, resulting in the car coming to a stop and all three exiting with Suzan stabbing Jon while he and Michael struggled over a gun.
Michael got control of the gun and shot Jon dead at point-blank range on the side of a busy U.S. 101 and in view of passing motorists, one of whom contacted police. A high-speed chase ensued as the Carsons attempted to flee police in Jon’s car, but they were both apprehended following a crash.
The Carsons called a press conference to confess to the murders of Jon, Clark, and Keryn. During the five-hour presser with KGO-TV, the San Francisco Chronicle, and homicide investigators, the Carsons claimed to be pacifists and vegetarian-yoga practitioners who converted to a form of Islam, and described themselves as “vegetarian Moslem warriors.” Michael described Suzan as “a yogi and a mystic with knowledge of past, present and future events.”
The Carsons expressed no remorse, explaining that they put Keryn to death for her transgressions of pretending to convert to Islam and “draining [Suzan] of her health and yogic powers.” Michael added that they knew the murder was necessary because, during a rainstorm, “Each time Suzan said it [that Keryn Barnes should be killed] the thunder would clap.”
Carson said he took a pan off the kitchen stove and hit Keryn over the head “as hard as I could, three times.” When she continued to make slight sounds, he stabbed her in the neck with a small paring knife, which he later buried along the roadside.
The couple went on to say that their ‘second victim,” Clark had sexually attacked Suzan, and that their final victim, Jon had called her a “witch” and sexually abused her as well. Shortly before their trial began, the pair withdrew their confessions, entering pleas of not guilty.
On June 12, 1984, a jury convicted the Carsons of Keryn’s murder, with a sentence of twenty-five years in prison. Later, they found themselves convicted of the murders of Clark and Jon, and for which they received sentences of fifty years to life and seventy-five years to life.
In 1989, the First District Court of Appeal, affirmed their third conviction as it had previously done on the other two convictions. Yet, 26-years later the Carsons became eligible for parole after a federal court ruling forced prison officials to consider them for parole due to prison overcrowding.
Fortunately, Suzan lost her bid and Michael canceled his hearing. Officials say they expect both receive another shot at parole in 2020.
In total, investigators suspect the Carsons in anywhere from nine to 12 murders, both in the western U.S. and in Europe. Meanwhile, James Carson remains incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, while Suzan is behind bars at Central California Women’s Facility, near Chowchilla, also in California.