Thanks for Asking | Sept. 6, 2012

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

Years ago a man named George Brunner owned The Outdoor Sport Shop on North Barstow across from what is now the Pad Thai restaurant. He was a friend of my Grandpa’s. My Dad said Mr. Brunner had a daughter who moved out west, became a member of the Manson family, and bore a child of Charles Manson. Dad thinks they resided for a while in EC — and still may be in the area.

Thanks for asking. Your dad is substantially correct. George, who lived his whole life in Eau Claire as far as I know, co-owned that sporting goods store with L.L. Phillips. George retired in 1977 and died in 2004 at 94 years old. He and his wife Elsie (Baker) had four children: Kathleen, Ann, Michael, and the eldest, Mary Theresa.

On Wikipedia you can find an article about Mary Brunner and her role in the Manson family. You’ll also find Mary Brunner’s parents listed as John and Evelyn Brunner. I can’t tell you whether that’s an error or a bid to protect the family’s privacy. I also can’t be 100 percent sure that Wikipedia’s wrong....

However, I can tell you that there was no John nor Evelyn Brunner in the Eau Claire city directories of the time; that Mary’s aunt was named Mary T. Brunner (Mary Teresa?); that her grandmother was Teresa M. Brunner (Teresa Mary?); and that contemporaneous newspaper reports referred to Mary Brunner’s mother as Elsie, not Evelyn, and noted that her father operated “a sporting goods store in Eau Claire.” ... Well, I guess I can be 100 percent sure.

Mary Brunner graduated from Eau Claire Regis and went on to the University of Wisconsin (after maybe a few classes at Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire? I’ve heard that anyway). At Madison, she joined Phi Theta sorority and worked at the University Library. Degree in hand, she went west, got a job as a library assistant at UC Berkeley, and that’s where she met Charlie Manson, who was just out of prison. She quit her job, the two started to drift, and Mary Brunner became the first member of the Manson “Family.”

The Family grew, picking up lost souls, and finally set up in an abandoned house in Topanga Canyon. “Mother Mary,” as she came to be known, gave birth at the house to Valentine Michael in July 1968. (KCBS, Los Angeles, interviewed Michael about 20 years ago. You can find the interview on YouTube.)

In August 1969, a man named Gary Allen Hinman was found dead. Mary Brunner, Susan Atkins, and Bobby Beausoleil had tortured him for three days, then Beausoleil slit his throat, according to one version of the story. Not being a fanatic, I get the timeline a little confused after this, but the California court system sent Michael to live with George and Elsie, and by December of 1969, Mary Brunner was back in Eau Claire. There she met representatives of the Los Angeles County Sheriff and DA’s office. The DA offered her immunity for her testimony in the Hinman murder trial.

But by 1971 (maybe earlier), she’d rejoined the Family to support them after the Tate/LaBianca murders. She was arrested after a shootout in Hawthorn, Calif., in August 1971; served almost seven years in prison; and gained parole in 1977. She moved back to Wisconsin, regained custody of Michael, and changed her name. She will be 69 this December. Wikipedia suggests she lives in Eau Claire, but I don’t trust that either. I’ve also heard she lives in Madison.

Got a local question? Send it (205 N. Dewey St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.