Many people kill for love, profit, or revenge. Yet Suzan and Michael “Bear” Carson shocked California in the early 1980s when they admitted they killed because they were on a “holy war against witches.”
The deadly duo met in the late 1970s while they were living in Phoenix, Arizona. Michael and Suzan were both divorced with children, and they shared an interest in drugs and mysticism. They fell in love, traveled Europe together, and returned to the U.S., ending up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the country’s famous counterculture enclave.
Michael and Suzan changed their last name to “Bear” and proclaimed themselves to be pacifist “vegetarian Moslem warriors”. Over time, the duo’s behavior became increasingly bizarre. Suzan began to believe she could see the future and the couple jointly concluded that “witchcraft, homosexuality, and abortion” should be punished by death. Michael’s ex-wife was alarmed enough by his strange behavior that she went to great lengths to hide herself and their child from him, including moving several times so Michael would not be able to contact them.
Michael and Suzan Bear’s odd tendencies took a lethal turn in March 1981. The couple lived with a 22-year-old woman named Keryn Barnes, an aspiring actress. In her drug-induced paranoia, Suzan became certain that Barnes was a witch. The couple attacked their young roommate, beating her with a frying pan before stabbing her 13 times. Barnes’s body was wrapped in a blanket and dumped in the basement of the house.
The pair fled to Oregon for a year, returning to California in the spring of 1982. They ended up in Humboldt County, working on a marijuana farm. Michael and Suzan’s ramblings about an impending nuclear war did not endear them to their fellow workers. Soon, Michael was outright feuding with a co-worker, Clark Stephens. As with Keryn Barnes, the Bears decided that Stephens was a witch. The dispute came to a head in May 1982, when Michael shot and killed Stephens, then burned and buried his body in the forest. Michael and Suzan Bear fled again, this time away from Humboldt County.
Police searched the belongings that the Bears had left behind and found an anti-government manifesto Michael had written. The proclamation called for the assassination of President Ronald Reagan and TV personality Johnny Carson. Bear believed both men were high-level witches who needed to be killed. Although police now knew who their suspects were, the Bears had disappeared.
In November 1982, Michael Bear was picked up by police in Los Angeles and brought in for questioning regarding the murder of Clark Stephens, but a clerical error released the killer before the police had an opportunity to talk to him. The Bears were gone once again.
In March 1983, Michael and Suzan Bear were hitchhiking near Bakersfield, California when 30-year-old Jon Charles Hellyer picked them up. At some point during the trip, Suzan became convinced that Hellyer, too, was a witch. A struggle began inside the car, and Hellyer pulled his vehicle to the side of busy Route 101 in broad daylight. The three exited the car and continued to fight alongside the highway. Suzan stabbed Hellyer, and Michael proceeded to shoot and kill the victim in full view of passing drivers, who alerted police.
A high-speed chase ensued, but the Bears were quickly captured; the witch hunt was over. In a bizarre turn of events, Michael and Suzan agreed to plead guilty to the murders of Barnes, Stephens, and Hellyer in exchange for a press conference where they would be allowed to talk about their beliefs. At the event, the couple discussed their warped sense of morality and the impulses that drove them to kill the victims they believed were witches. Michael even claimed that Suzan was “a yogi and a mystic with knowledge of past, present, and future events.”
In 1984, Michael and Suzan Bear were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, and both were denied parole in 2015. Although they were only charged with three murders, some believe that the couple may be responsible for up to a dozen murders in the United States and Europe.