From loving father to serial killer: James Clifford Carson aka Michael Bear Carson (pictured) confessed to three murders
The daughter of a notorious serial killer has spoken out about the agony of growing up with his infamy, her mental health struggles as a young child and how she attempted suicide aged just 10.
Jenn Carson was just eight-years-old when she found out about her father, James Clifford Carson, and his girlfriend Suzan Barnes’ horrific murderous rampage that ended with at least three people brutally murdered.
Jenn penned an emotional essay for the Huffington Post, in which she detailed how her earlier childhood was by all appearances a happy one, with her hippie-father and her mother, Lynn Carson. Everything changed, including her father’s name, when he met his girlfriend.
‘The night they met at a party in 1978, they pushed away from their families, moved in together and became inseparable until their arrest for multiple murders five years later,’ Jenn writes.
‘My father immediately became a different person with Suzan. He had a new name, a new personality and new life. Abandoning the name James Clifford Carson for the name Michael Bear Carson, he was no longer the attentive and caring stay-at-home father that I remembered. My father had braided my hair and read me books. Michael Bear would barely look at me.’
Jenn Carson (pictured) holds a photo of her and her father before he had become dangerously enmeshed with his girlfriend Suzan Barnes
A list, and a plan: Carson (left) and his girlfriend Suzan Barnes (right) would drop acid, frequently. One day, while high, she had a vision that they needed to kill people together, and named who were their targets. They started formulating a plan to kill
Jenn says she was beaten and starved when she visited her father who was living with Barnes in her home. She describes the creepy, bare bones decor of the house, filled almost exclusively with potted plants. She would sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor, with the only furniture to be found was a waterbed in the bedroom.
‘Weekends at my stepmother’s home were like a horror film.’
‘I tried to find food by climbing the kitchen drawers like a ladder to get on the counter. Mostly, I tried to wake up my father and Suzan, who were both passed out cold after dropping acid all night and lying naked on the only piece of furniture in the entire house: a king-size water bed in their bedroom.’
She eventually got up the courage to tell her mother what weekends were like at her dad’s.
‘I told her Suzan scratched my back hard, very hard, with her jagged fingernails when I asked my father to rub my back before bed. I told her that Suzan had called me ‘a demon’ and said that I needed to die. My mother then lifted my shirt and gasped. She saw five bloody scratches down my back. She promised me I would never see Suzan ever again.’
‘San Francisco Witch Killers’ victims
Suzan Barnes and Michael Bear Carson confessed to three murders:
-Karen Barnes’ head was bashed in with a frying pan and stabbed 13 times in her San Francisco apartment in 1981
– Clark Stephens was shot to death and his body was burned in Humboldt County
-John Hillyar was stabbed by Suzan, then Michael shot the hitchhiker point-blank in the back, killing him
Police were called during Hillyar’s murder, and they were arrested on the spot.
The murderous couple would become suspects in nine other killings
Sometime after, Jenn says, her father and Barnes would sell her home and go travel to Israel, India, France and the UK, and her mother would take the opportunity of time to leave town and go into hiding.
Jenn says she and her mother Lynn were ‘Trying to get lost in the urban sprawl of Southern California, near my mother’s uncle, the only person who truly believed her when she said, ”My ex and his new wife might kill us.” He was a former cop who believed frightened women.’
Jenn says during that time, Lynn barely scraped by. The two would often sleep on friend’s couches.
‘All the while, my mom battled severe depression but carried on to protect me, her only child.’
After the soon-to-be notorious serial killers returned from their hiatus abroad, Barnes had an LSD-induced ‘vision’ in a motel room.
‘An apparition of a prophet supposedly revealed to her a comprehensive list of witches around the world that God wanted her and my father to kill. The list included President Ronald Reagan and Gov. Jerry Brown, among others. My father wrote the list down as Suzan described it to him, along with a detailed plan to kill Reagan.’
Not long after, a hiker found the scrawled out murderous rampage plan in the forest near where Barnes and Carson were camping.
‘My mother and I first learned of the threats when the Secret Service showed up at our door in 1982.’
And then, a year later, Barnes and Carson were caught killing a stranger on the side of the freeway in Napa County, California.
‘After their arrest, the San Francisco Chronicle published a jailhouse letter my father had written, offering to confess to ‘the ones in California’ he and Suzan had killed if they were granted a news conference. The media dubbed the two the ”San Francisco Witch Killers.”
Jenn Carson’s mother Lynn Carson (left) with her father, and Jenn in an undated photo
Carson (right) and Barnes (left), were sentenced to 75 years to life in prison, after confessing to three murders Their relationship began when they met at a party in 1978, by 1983 they had been caught in the act of murder on a freeway in California
‘My father and his wife were officially serial killers. They confessed to three murders in California and were soon suspects in nine other deaths in the U.S. and Europe.’
‘Headlines with the phrase ‘The San Fran Witch Trial’ appeared in newspapers across the country. My father and Suzan were found guilty of three counts of murder and were each given three life sentences.’
Jenn’s mother decided to tell her what happened, so she wouldn’t find out about it in the news when the trial began.
On a walk home from school, her mother said to her: ‘Daddy hurt people, and now he needs to go to jail so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else.’
‘I asked her if the people he hurt were dead and if the dead people had mommies. She nodded after each question and then we walked home without saying another word. We just held hands and sobbed.’
There was no way for Jenn to escape the truth about her father, despite her mother’s attempts to shield her only daughter from the painful reality.
Months after the trial, Jenn found clippings about the trial in her mother’s room.
‘I remember reading that my father and his wife beat a young woman with a frying pan and burned the body of a young man.’
‘I remember trying to sound out words that I didn’t know like ”bludgeoned” and ”decapitated.” Soon after, my lifelong struggle with nightmares began.’
For Jenn, her fears manifested into something akin to a paranoid survival mode.
She became frightened for her own safety, despite Carson and Barnes’ incarceration.
‘If my father could kill people, then, I reasoned, anyone could be a killer. I began to barricade my bedroom door with furniture when I got home from school or before I went to bed at night. I also began to sleep with scissors and knives under my pillow.’
‘I was so traumatized that at one point I tried to drown myself in the bathtub and hoarded pills from our medicine cabinet with the intent of ending my life. Before I had even turned 10 years old, I was a suicidal kid with a homicidal father.’
And of course, she feared she would share the same fate as her serial killer father.
‘I began to wonder if I would snap and start killing people, too. I wondered if I had monster genes. I also struggled with external stigma.’
At just nine-years-old, one relative said to her: ‘Look what you brought to our lives, you selfish little b*****.’
Jenn says in her teens, dating was a serious challenge, with boyfriends making excuses about her absent dad to their families’.
‘A very serious boyfriend said he wanted to propose but decided he needed to break up with me instead because he didn’t want his children to have a serial killer as a grandfather.’
‘With time, I began to learn to weed out any individual who would take away my dignity. I fully understood why most children of serial murderers change their names and go into hiding, but I decided that hiding wasn’t something I would do anymore. I would not go away to comfort others.’
‘One of Charles Manson’s sons killed himself, and so have many other children of infamous murderers. I chose to live. I demanded treatment for my mental health in the same stigma-free manner that I would seek treatment of a chronic physical illness. I am not ashamed to have asthma ― why should I be ashamed to have depression and complex PTSD? I deserved help.’
Jenn described her father as a hippie, and said he used to brush her hair as a young girl
Victim Karen Barnes’ (pictured) head was bashed in with a frying pan and she was stabbed 13 times in her San Francisco apartment in 1981
Jenn managed to take the skills she learned for herself, and bring it to other children who could benefit from her own terrifying and tragic experience.
‘I also decided to help others. I worked with high-needs kids for nearly two decades in public schools as a teacher and counselor. Using my expertise and experience, I then became an advocate for the one in 40 kids who have a parent incarcerated in America.’
She has also helped families as well, she says, after she went ‘public’ with her story of being the ‘daughter of a serial killer’ in 2007,focusing on working with families of violent offenders and victims.
She also joined her father and girlfriend’s victims’ families to protest their parole consideration, and she says, she will continue to do so every time it comes up again.
Jenn adds: ‘This hasn’t been an easy life, but through helping others, I have found peace. Looking back, I realize that I originally sought to help others to fill in an invisible balance sheet with good deeds in hopes of making up for the terror and trauma my father and Suzan caused. But I now know that I cannot atone for the sins of my father and I can’t bring back those beautiful innocent victims. I can only live my life the best way I know how while trying to inject as much kindness into the world as possible.’