After three attempts, Ron Hughes finally passed the California Bar exam. He had never tried a case when he met with Charles Manson in December 1969, just after warrants had been issued and arrests had been made for the August 8 murders of five people at the home of actress Sharon Tate and the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next evening. Although Ron was contracted to represent Manson, he was replaced by defense attorney Irving Kanarek. Ron, however, went on to represent Manson “Family” member Leslie Van Houten.
Ron, who had earned the nickname “The Hippie Lawyer,” hoped to show that Van Houten’s actions were a result of complete mind control by Manson. This strategy infuriated Manson, as it contradicted his plan to have each “Family” member implicate themselves, thus clearing the cult leader of all involvement.
Twenty-two weeks into a trial that was regularly interrupted by bizarre outbursts, the prosecution rested. Surprisingly, the defense team that included Ron Hughes, rested as well. Leslie Van Houten, along with “Family” colleagues Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, shouted out in the courtroom for a chance to testify. They wanted to admit to committing murder of their own free will. Ron Hughes objected in defiance of Manson’s plan. Judge Charles Older called for a ten-day recess so both sides could prepare final arguments. Ron was confident he had secured an acquittal for Van Houten.
In November 1970, Ron Hughes decided to take a camping trip during the recess in the trial. He and two friends drove to a remote area of Ventura County, but their trip was marred by heavy rains and flooding. After unsuccessfully trying to convince Ron to abandon the idea of camping, Ron’s companions left, leaving Ron to brave the elements alone. When court reconvened on November 30, Ron did not show up. Ventura County authorities had to wait for two days until the rains subsided before a search could commence. In the meantime, a new attorney was appointed for Van Houten.
On March 29, 1971, the same day that a jury returned death penalty verdicts for Charles Manson, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, two fishermen discovered Ron Hughes decomposed body wedged between two boulders in a gorge in Ventura County. He was identified by dental records. Due to the state of his remains, Ron’s cause of death was undetermined. He was 35 years old.
Manson “Family” members Sandra “Blue” Good and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme claimed that Ron’s death was one is a series of “retaliation murders” ordered by Manson. Ventura County Sheriff Charlie Rudd, however, stated that Ron’s death was accidental, a result of being trapped and knocked unconscious by the raging flood waters.
Leslie Van Houten was retried after it was determined that she was denied proper representation due to Ron Hughes’ disappearance. In 1977, that trial ended in a hung jury. A subsequent trial in 1978 yielded a verdict of guilty of first degree murder of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Van Houten was sentenced to life in prison and, after twenty denials, she was granted parole in April 2016. The final word on her release remains in the hands of the Governor of California.