In 1977, James Carson was in Phoenix, Arizona, when his first wife noticed severe behavioral changes and left with their child. He began a relationship with Suzan Barnes, a divorcee with two teenaged sons. The two married and became involved in illicit drugs and mysticism. At some point, Carson took the name of "Michael Bear", telling his daughter in a letter that God had given him the new name "Michael"; Suzan became known as "Suzan Bear."
By 1980, after a year-long trip to Europe, the Carsons returned to the U.S. and moved into the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, California, where they continued their involvement with drugs and the counterculture. By this time, Michael Bear Carson's former wife had become afraid that he would harm her and try to abduct their child, taking steps to hide herself and the child from him. She went so far as to move numerous times and cut off contact with mutual acquaintances.
In March 1981, 22-year-old Keryn Barnes, an aspiring actress from Georgia who had been the Carsons' roommate in San Francisco, was found dead in their shared apartment. She had been stabbed thirteen times and her skull crushed before being wrapped in a blanket and hidden in the basement. Evidence suggested that Keryn had been killed by someone she knew, and the Carsons became the prime suspects. However, the family disappeared before the body was found. The Carsons later confessed to killing Keryn after Suzan had decided she was a witch.
The Carsons fled to a mountain hideout near Grants Pass, Oregon, where they remained until Spring 1982. They then moved to Alderpoint, California, where they lived and worked on a marijuana farm. According to other workers on the farm, the Carsons were anarchists who advocated revolution and predicted that a nuclear apocalypse would soon occur. In May 1982, Michael shot and killed Clark Stephens, a worker on the farm with whom he had a dispute, and attempted to dispose of the body by burning it and burying it under chicken fertilizer in the woods. Two weeks later, Stephens was reported to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, leading to the discovery of his burnt remains. The Carsons, who by this point had fled, were again considered suspects. Upon searching the Carsons' abandoned belongings, detectives found a manifesto they had written which called for the assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan. However, authorities had difficulty tracking down the Carsons over the coming years.
In November 1982, Michael Bear Carson was picked up by police in Los Angeles after being seen hitchhiking by an acquaintance. However, through a police error, Carson was quickly freed and vanished before Humboldt County detectives had a chance to question him. He left evidence behind, including a mugshot, address information, and a gun left in a police car.
The following March, the Carsons were hitchhiking near Bakersfield and were given a ride by 30-year-old Jon Charles Hellyar, who was driving to Santa Rosa. Suzan Bear Carson reportedly decided that Hellyar was a witch and had to be killed. While Hellyar was driving on U.S. Route 101 in Sonoma County, an argument and physical fight broke out between Hellyar and the Carsons, resulting in the car coming to a stop. The fight escalated outside the vehicle, with Suzan stabbing Hellyar while he and Michael struggled over a gun. Michael got control of the gun and shot Hellyar dead in view of passing motorists, one of whom contacted police. A high-speed chase ensued as the Carsons attempted to flee in Hellyar's car, but they were both apprehended.
The Carsons initially called a press conference to confess to the murders of Hellyar, Stephens, and Keryn Barnes. Before trial, they withdrew their confessions and entered pleas of not guilty. On June 12, 1984, the Carsons were convicted first of Barnes' murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Later, they were convicted of the murders of Stephens and Hellyar, for which they received sentences of fifty years to life and seventy-five years to life. In 1989, the First District Court of Appeal, affirmed their third conviction as it had previously done on the other two convictions. James Carson is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison and Suzan Carson is incarcerated at Central California Women's Facility.
In a five-hour interview with KGO-TV and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as homicide investigators, the Carsons claimed to have been pacifists and vegetarian yoga practitioners who converted to a form of Islam, and described themselves as "vegetarian Moslem warriors." Their crimes emerged from a shared mission: to exterminate individuals they believed to be "witches". The press dubbed them "the San Francisco Witch Killers." They stated that they killed Barnes because they believed she had made a false conversion to their religion and was "draining Miss Carson of her health and yogic powers." Their justifications for the second and third killings were that Stephens had allegedly sexually assaulted Suzan, and that Hellyar had allegedly called her a "witch" and sexually abused her. From their conviction and through their incarceration up to 2017, they have shown no remorse for their crimes.
They claimed to have traveled through Europe and, back in the United States, through the American Southwest and parts of California. The pair said they kept a list of targeted individuals, including political figures and celebrities such as Reagan and Johnny Carson. According to Richard D. Reynolds, who wrote a book about the case, the Carsons were suspects in nearly a dozen other deaths in the U.S. and Europe.
Underground journalist Richard D. Reynolds wrote a nonfiction book about the murders entitled Cry For War (Squibob Press, 1987). The Carsons' story has also been included in several true crime anthologies.
The Carsons have been featured on episodes of several true crime documentary TV series, including Deadly Women (Season 6, Episode 1, "Hunting Humans");, Wicked Attraction (Season 2, Episode 1, "The Two Bears"); and The Devil You Know (Season 2, Episode 2, "A Serial Killer in the Family").Lane, Brian, Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Berkley, California, July 1, 1995.Lawson, Kristan and Rufus, Anneli, California Babylon, St. Martin's Griffin, Revised Edition, October 2000.Vronsky, Peter, Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters, Berkley Books, New York, 2007, p. 439.