It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and I am standing in front of an apartment door in the middle of a barren complex which sits four miles from Corcoran State Prison. I hesitate to knock, because there is a sign asking me not to. And because inside is the woman who is about to marry Charles Manson.
The door is unassuming, except for two things: there is a small star made out of tiny mirrors, pasted just below the peephole, and diagonal from that, a note: “Hello, no media please. Contact my publishing agent… This is the only way to get something started.”
It seems a lot of media have been to the tan colored complex in the last few days, since Star Burton, the 26-year-old woman inside, announced her engagement to notorious killer Charles Manson, age 80. But I’m at this door for something else: Burton’s apartment is also the official headquarters of ATWA, a nonprofit that she and others co-founded to share Charles Manson’s philosophies — environmentalist philosophies, they say. It is paid for by taxpayers, and as a taxpayer myself, I am there to ask what exactly the nonprofit does. But I see the note, so I don’t knock. I look at the peephole and feebly wave hello. No reply.
Star Burton moved to Corcoran, California in 2007. She left behind her family and her name (she was born Afton Elaine Burton), and moved here, to this desolate square of dead brush. A sign on the way into town boasts “Corcoran: Farming Capital of California,” and behind the sign sit several abandoned acres of dead grass. As I drive the long road into town, I feel the prison looming ahead, a shadow draping the tiny city. A gas station attendant confirms my suspicions when I ask him what there is in Corcoran.
“Well…” he says, his eyes drifting off in the general direction of the prison.
“The prison?” I ask, letting him off the hook.
“Yeah,” he says, “There’s no other reason to be here.”
Corcoran’s official population is 23,154, and 51% are prisoners. Since it’s an all-male prison, that means women make up somewhere around a quarter of the town, and the waves of this imbalance are felt throughout the county. While California’s female population is 50%, Kings County is 42% female.
I ask the attendant if he’s ever met Burton, Manson’s wife-to-be.
“Aww, yeah!” he says, lighting up, “I saw her in town once. She has the X on her forehead, and everything. But she doesn’t say much. Listen,” he went on, “if you want something to do, you gotta go north. About 30 miles north.”
One has to wonder what would bring a 19 year old girl to this dismal place to play companion to a convicted killer, seven years ago. And it appears Burton isn’t the only one. Craig Hammond, a 64 year old retiree, has been listed at the same address as Burton. He goes by the names Gray Wolf or Black Wolf, names which, like Star, were gifted by Manson himself. Last year, Hammond was found smuggling a cell phone to Manson in prison, according to the LA Times. But Hammond is someone else, to me: he’s one of the co-founders of ATWA. Which makes ATWA a singular nonprofit in that it is the only one to name as their sole staff Manson’s fiancé, and someone who risked his freedom for Manson.
If you were looking to support an environmental charity, ATWA would be an easy one to turn to. The acronym stands for Air, Trees, Water and Animals (or All the Way Alive, depending on the day you ask them). Sometimes they add an “R” for revolution, giving the organization the threatening acronym “ATWAR.” According to ATWA’s founding documents (accessed through the Attorney General of California), the organization exists “to educate the general public on ecological and environmental issues[,] and to provide environmental and ecological volunteer opportunities across the country.” In fact, ATWA was founded twice, once in 1997 by another die-hard Manson devotee, George Stimson, and again in 2011, by Hammond and Burton.
But after its more recent founding, ATWA virtually disappeared. GuideStar, which lists nonprofits’ tax filings, has no record of ATWA turning in their government-required 990s, and the Attorney General’s charity registry lists the charity as delinquent [Editor’s note: ATWA claims that they have in fact filed their 990s, and have receipts. We have requested these receipts]. The only hint of the organization existing is their web presence: a website, a rarely-used Twitter account, and a Facebook page. Over 7,000 people subscribe to the Facebook page, which often shares pro-vegetarian or environmental messages, but also intersperses announcements about Charles Manson and his alleged innocence, as well as posts about Squeaky Fromme and other Manson Family members.
On any given day on ATWA’s Facebook page, you might see a picture of a panda with a swastika on her forehead, a poem by Charles Manson wherein he addresses air, warning it, “ I can crush your heart with a thought,” updates from Manson, chastising fans for wanting him to write back, or creepy videos to show your least-favorite child as they fall asleep.
“Love for ATWA -Love 4 Air-Love 4 Charlie who is all,” writes one adoring fan.
In all of this online activity, there is very little to be seen of the organization’s mission to provide environmental volunteer opportunities, save promise of a future project called “The Savior Project” which centers around “a seed gun invented by Charles Manson… to help renew and restore degraded land areas.” Yet, the seed gun is not available on the site, and there are no blueprints or instructions on how to assemble one, even though the announcement of the new project went up over a year ago. In fact, on ATWAEarth.com, the single instructional page for volunteers appears to be one half-page recipe for home made seedballs, the main ingredients to which might be guessed: seeds, dirt, clay, and water.
As I stand in front of Burton’s apartment door, questioning whether to knock, I see another website listed in her note: mansondirect.com. I recognize it because ATWA has promoted it many times, on its website and Facebook page. The site claims Manson did not really mastermind the famous Tate-LaBianca murders for which he was imprisoned. Given the recent news that Burton is engaged to Manson, the site seems a reasonable place to send curious reporters and visitors. But for those, like me, who want to know more about the nonprofit headquartered here, behind this door, there is not a single mention of ATWA.
I leave the apartment and call the press agent listed on the note. James McGrath, a mysterious news and assignment editor at Polaris Images with very little online history, is the first and last stop in any attempt to reach Burton, Manson, or ATWA. I tell him I am writing a story on the nonprofit, and he says that Burton might be interested.
“I’m vegan!” I tell him, in an effort to validate my sincerity about animal and environmental issues. He doesn’t seem all that impressed.
But it’s true. I do care about environmental issues, and animal issues especially. And like most people, I want to know that the nonprofits that aren’t paying taxes on their income are trading that obligation in, in return for offering a public service. And what is ATWA’s?
I had asked that question via email to ATWA’s various email addresses, and received no reply. I asked Becki Ueno, an attorney who helped file ATWA’s application for nonprofit status, but she said that ATWA was no longer her client. She refused to tell me if she knew of any connection to Manson, saying it would violate the attorney-client privilege. In fact, she declined to answer nearly all of my questions. But she did tell me that it was neither her place, nor mine, to determine whether a nonprofit was successful in accomplishing their mission.
ATWA certainly has not been financially successful. The highest level of assets it has claimed were $5,727 in 2012, up from $400 in 2011. Yet, almost $6,000, tax-free, is enough to ask questions, especially given the organization’s propensity to
promote Charles Manson at least as much as their mission.
So I ask McGrath, this time via email, what programming ATWA provides that makes it deserve tax exempt status. I also asked him nine more questions, including “Are Craig Hammond and Star Burton still the principle acting agents? What is Mr. Hammond’s current incarceration status?” When he replies, it’s with a statement from Burton and Hammond, named as Secretary and Board Chair, respectively. They decline to comment on Hammond’s incarceration.
ATWA, they say, exists solely online, providing environmental insights through their website and Facebook page. The Savior Project, they explain, is a “new seed distribution method,” though as we’ve seen, it was announced over a year ago. They also claim that none of the other websites are ATWA-related (i.e. using ATWA funds), though MansonDirect.com is clearly listed on their site under ATWA sites.
When I ask why they were founded twice, they give no comment. When I point out that their Tumblr site advertised the Charles Manson Legal Trust, and ask if that might violate the federal requirement that nonprofits not benefit any one person, they reply, “Because of confusion regarding the intent of our informational posts, we have discontinued the ATWA Tumblr site,” and they remove it that day. However, the site remains cached at the Wayback Machine, including a request for donations to Manson’s legal fund.
Before leaving Corcoran, I stop at the prison to ask how many visitors come to see Charles Manson on an average day.
“I couldn’t say,” says the guard.
“You couldn’t say, like, you don’t know? Or you couldn’t say, like, you can’t tell me?”
He asks for my ID. Then he politely asks me to go.
My last stop is the post office. This tiny operation, closed for a two-hour lunch every day, has two staff and two visitors when I stop in. A few hundred P.O. boxes line the walls. Three of them are attached, in some way, to Manson.
P.O. Box 303 is ATWA’s official contact address.
P.O. Box 1000 is for Manson’s legal trust.
And the mail for Corcoran State Prison comes through here, too, in large bundles, “so big, I couldn’t even read all the names if I wanted to,” says the woman behind the counter.
And so, this tiny post office on Chase Street in Corcoran is perhaps the only doorway from the world to Charles Manson. And if the comments on Manson-affiliated sites are any hint, the letters are fawning, idol-worshipping, and written by the free. His supporters, it seems, will do anything for him. And a nonprofit devoted to his philosophies… Well, perhaps it should be watched closely.
When the AP asked Star Burton why she was marrying Manson, a man 54 years her senior, she said she wanted to exonerate the convict.
“There’s certain things next of kin can do,” she said.
As I drive back through the empty roads of Corcoran, filled with dead shrubbery, barrels of cotton, and grey landscapes that stretch into the horizon, I wonder who was on the other side of that peephole, and how long she stared back.
Thanks to Claire Knowlton, who contributed nonprofit expertise to this story.