PANAMINT SPRINGS, CALIF. — It didn't take long Tuesday for a posse of Inyo County sheriff's deputies and forensics experts to mark their first find while searching for buried human remains at a remote, sun-scorched ranch once used as a hangout by the notorious Charles Manson family.
Just 2 inches beneath the surface of a 3-by-6-foot plot lay a .38-caliber bullet casing.
A forensic investigator stuck a little yellow flag with the word "evidence" on it, then photographed the corroded metal shell labeled "No. 1."
Given that nearly every chunk of metal, wood and corrugated tin siding on the isolated property at the southwestern end of Death Valley National Park is riddled with bullet holes, old and new, the find seemed minor. But they continued to dig, in the forbidding heat and scouring gusts of wind.
"It may be good evidence, or it may not," said Arpad Vass, a scientist from a research facility at the University of Tennessee who specializes in the study of the decay of human remains. "But everything we find here must be considered evidence."
Vass surveyed the work from beneath a portable shelter that was repeatedly uprooted by the wind. "I think there is something decomposed there," Vass said. "But I don't know if an animal died here, or a Native American or a dinosaur way back when."
Manson and his followers holed up at the ranch in 1969 after the massacre of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others in the Los Angeles area. A member of the Manson family later suggested that there were bodies buried at Barker Ranch.
The Manson gang roamed the barren Death Valley landscape in dune buggies and prepared for Helter Skelter, a race war Manson was trying to spark. The phrase was taken from a Beatles song, which Manson believed was encoded with predictions that the conflict would destroy modern civilization. Manson and his followers planned to survive by living in a tunnel, later emerging as leaders of some new world order.
Manson was arrested by law enforcement authorities who discovered him hiding beneath a sink in the ranch house.
On Tuesday, the 20-member team arrived at the Barker Ranch in a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles about 8:30 a.m. and quickly set to work with a goal of sifting out every piece of evidence they could from the sandy soil. They began with a grave-sized plot in one of five areas where a cadaver dog had apparently responded to the smell of decay. Sensitive high-tech devices also had detected chemical compounds of a kind emitted by decaying bone and tissue and an area of disturbed soil 18 to 27 inches underground.
As one group of investigators spilled the contents of their shovels onto a blue tarp, others poked and pushed at the growing mounds to try to tease out possible bits of bone, clothing or hair.
"If it's a Native American, I'll know right away," Vass said. "My biggest fear is that we'll find bone fragments, which will take quite a while to analyze."
The search at the ranch, 90 miles southeast of Independence, the Inyo County seat, was expected to continue through Thursday.
Among the team members was Mammoth Lakes Police Department Sgt. Paul Dostie and his cadaver dog Buster, who triggered the investigation when the animal apparently picked up the scent of a buried body in February.
Dostie, a 20-year veteran of the force who has enlisted scientists and their cutting-edge tools and skills to his cases, clung to hope that the team was on the verge of a breakthrough. Sitting on the stone steps of the Barker Ranch house with the big black Labrador at his side, Dostie said, "We're going to be working here until nightfall."
But he expressed mixed feelings about Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze's decision to authorize what he described as a "limited exploratory excavation."
"If this was a fill excavation it'd be a 10-foot by 10-foot site instead of 3 by 6 feet," he said. "But it's not up to me. It's up to the Inyo County sheriff's office."
In any case, everything about the effort was difficult. The team members were spending the night in pup tents staked beneath the willows surrounding the ranch house, and feasting on scrambled eggs and sandwiches prepared in a field kitchen.
Then there were the natural challenges that could be confusing the readings of sensitive scientific equipment: magnetic rocks, root structures, ant hills and wind.
"You're living like a coyote out here is the best way to describe it," said Inyo County Sheriff's Sgt. Paul Bedell.