One of the so-called San Francisco “witch killers”—a husband and wife accused in a murderous spree in the 1980s—is up for parole today.
Michael Bear Carson, now 69 and incarcerated at California’s Mule Creek State Prison, will have the chance to face the parole board for the first time. (His spouse and fellow convicted murderer, 77-year-old Suzan Carson, was denied early release in 2015.)
But even Michael Carson’s estranged daughter is joining victims’ families in demanding the deranged killer stays locked behind penitentiary walls.
“I truly believe that just because he’s old does not make him safe,” Jenn Carson, Michael’s only child, told The Daily Beast. “With his lack of regret and his views and the hate he’s filled with and his demented mind—I think in a year or less someone else will be dead.”
Michael canceled a parole hearing scheduled for June 2015, according to one Orange County Register report, telling prison officials: “I know this is absurd. No one is going to parole me because I will not and have not renounced my beliefs.”
Those “beliefs” included the couple’s own warped, drug-addled version of Islam. At one point, they claimed they were Muslim vegetarian “religious warriors involved in a holy war against witches” and created a hit list that included former President Ronald Reagan, ex-California Gov. Jerry Brown and TV personality Johnny Carson.
In 1983, they even held a jail-house press conference, wherein Michael claimed his victims were murdered for “religious reasons” to protect America’s future. He said “witchcraft, homosexuality and abortion are causes for death.”
Michael described Susan, who allegedly ordered each murder, as “a yogi and a mystic with knowledge of past, present and future events.”
As part of their sickening crusade, the publicity-hungry pair murdered at least three people, including 23-year-old aspiring actress Karen Barnes (who went by “Keryn” and is of no relation to Suzan), 26-year-old cannabis farmer Clark Stephens, and a 30-year-old hippie named Jon Hellyar, who’d given the couple a ride.
Michael and Suzan were each sentenced to a total of 75 years to life behind bars for the three killings. Relatives of the victims say, at the time, police believed the couple were involved in at least nine other slayings.
The Carsons’ latest parole hearings stem from a 2014 federal court order aimed at combating overcrowding in California prisons by permitting hearings for prisoners age 60 and older who’ve served 25 consecutive years.
Lisa Long, Karen’s sister, told The Daily Beast she plans to speak out at Michael’s hearing, which will be conducted via Skype due to COVID-19.
“I’m just going to say what I have to say: how dangerous these people are and that they have promised to kill more people when they get out,” Long said. “They’re extremely dangerous, it doesn’t matter how old they get.
“They show no remorse,” added Long, who lives in Georgia and traveled to the Golden State five years ago for Suzan’s parole hearing. “Neither one has done anything in prison to better themselves.”
Long said it’s unfair for victims’ families to have to go through these hearings. “They’ve killed several other people in other states and over in Europe,” Long claimed, adding that authorities elsewhere didn’t pursue charges back then, believing the couple would spend life in prison anyway.
“Now California is reneging on the decisions they made,” Long fumed.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Jenn Carson added, “You don’t address mass incarceration by releasing the less than 1 percent of prisoners who are serial killers. My father, Michael Bear Carson, hunted humans—young beautiful innocent victims. He is a predator who will kill again. I oppose my father’s parole.”
Maggie Fleming, district attorney for Humboldt County, where Stephens was killed, said in an email: “We treat all parole hearings very seriously—we cannot assume particular outcomes in advance.” She added, “In this case, the Deputy District Attorney will argue that [Michael] Carson’s release would pose an unreasonable risk to society and of course we hope the parole board agrees.”
Michael was a pot-dealing, stay-at-home dad when he met Susan Thornell Barnes, an older divorcée with two kids, at a party in the late 1970s. “He was gasoline, she was a match,” Jenn Carson said.
Born James Clifford Carson, the future killer got his moniker from Susan, who called him “Michael” in homage to the biblical archangel who defeated Satan. Susan, meanwhile, had replaced one “s” in her name with a “z.” (Jenn Carson previously told The Daily Beast that Susan, the daughter of a publishing executive, had schizophrenia and “was living this posh, country club lifestyle before she started using LSD and got involved with my father.”)
They abandoned their families, adopted the surname Bear, and traveled Europe before they settled in San Francisco, in the Haight-Ashbury district. It was there, in 1981, that Michael and Suzan met Karen at a party and later bunked at her apartment.
“Karen was a beautiful person, inside and outside,” Long told The Daily Beast. “She would help anybody she could, and that’s how she met these people. They didn’t have a place to stay and she allowed them to stay with her for two weeks. They were not her roommates.”
After their sojourn, the duo broke into Karen’s apartment, bludgeoned her with a frying pan and stabbed her 13 times. Suzan had claimed the victim was a “psychic vampire” who was draining her of her health, beauty and powers.
Long says her sister—as well as her mother, another sibling, and herself—have psychic abilities and ESP, or extrasensory perception.
She recited a 1980 letter she received from Karen, who said she was studying under theater director Lee Sankowich. “He has an enlightened mind which makes him clearer to see through,” Karen wrote, in what Long says is a reference to her ESP.
A 1984 San Francisco Examiner article underscored Karen’s “psychic powers” and quoted Karen’s mother, Barbara Miller, who claimed her daughter had predicted she’d die before the age of 30. Karen wasn’t a witch, Miller said, but a psychic. “She could dream something, and it happened. It never failed,” Miller stated.
A friend of the victim told the newspaper that the Carsons “mesmerized” Karen, who “always went for the underdog.”
The Carsons’ killing spree continued in 1982 with the slaying of Clark Stephens, who was shot to death before being burned and buried in chicken manure. The couple had been working on his Humboldt County marijuana farm, which was mentioned in the Netflix true-crime documentary series Murder Mountain.
Michael and Suzan told cops that Clark was a “demon” and “petty witch” who “wanted to live off [Suzan’s] life.” At trial, defense lawyers unsuccessfully argued that Michael shot Clark because he sexually attacked Suzan.
In 1983, the killers attacked 30-year-old Jon Hellyar of San Diego, who’d spotted the couple hitchhiking near Bakersfield, California. The victim had been driving north to Santa Rosa to visit friends, according to press reports at the time.
“He had always hitchhiked ever since he was 16,” Hellyar’s brother, Danny, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “Anytime he saw a hitchhiker he felt compelled to give them a ride, because he always did it.”
Danny Hellyar said his brother left home to join the movement of “free-loving hippies,” rejecting authority and the establishment. Jon was turning his life around and had gotten off drugs when the Carsons killed him, Danny Hellyar added.
“It’s a travesty they even have a parole hearing given the nature of the murders,” he said.
The fiendish pair spent the night with Jon and his pals, and Jon drove them outside of town the following day so they could continue their journey. Before they parted ways, Michael shot Jon twice in the head and fled in his pickup truck.
A 1985 article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat indicated the couple claimed they “plotted the death of Hellyar because he was a witch, triple Scorpio who was making sexual advances toward Suzan Carson, punishable by death under their faith.”
While Jenn Carson has recirculated a petition demanding the California parole board deny her father’s release, Long bristled at her involvement.
“We family members of the actual victims are tired of Jenn Carson capitalizing off of the murders her daddy committed,” Long said.
Carson, who runs a suicide-prevention program, said she was hurt by Long’s claims. The two have appeared on TV shows together, including the canceled Crime Watch Daily, to discuss the serial killings. “It’s a shame she’s angry with me,” Carson said. “I’ll respect her space and grieving.”
“I just want pressure on the parole board,” Carson said. “His last letters scared me shitless.”
Carson said her father has bragged about his murders and “talked about himself as though he was a political prisoner.”
Her childhood memories of Michael and Suzan include her stepmother feverishly clawing her and drawing blood when she asked for a back rub.
“She tried to kill me,” Carson said of Suzan. “She wanted me dead.”