By Michael Ashcraft —
Dennis Rice had just stolen 160 guns to bust Charles Manson out of jail when the police pulled up. He and his partner blasted out the patrol car’s windshield with shotguns and sped away.
Cops filled his van with bullets in a wild chase lasting seven minutes. Shots even grazed his body. At the end, police from five police departments arrested Dennis, and he was never able to storm L.A. County Jail to free the mass murderer who had mesmerized him.
How Dennis fell in with the grisly Manson “family” who killed seven in a war against society is a story about drugs and the disaffected youth of the 1960s. How he came to Christ and became a pastor is the story of the forgiveness and power of God.
Born in Phoenix in the 1950s in the middle class, Dennis chose the path of a rebel. He was kicked out of school after school. He was attracted to “forbidden knowledge” and read Herman Hesse’s Siddartha and Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan, according to his self-published autobiographical pamphlet “Free Indeed.”
His self-styled philosophy justified reveling in sex, drugs and rock and roll with other hippies. He was deeply suspicious of any authority. After hitch-hiking in Mexico when he was 17, he wound up in San Francisco and fell in with the counter-culture Beatniks.
He also tried heroine and soon was addicted. To support his habit, he started committing burglaries. Eventually he got caught and went to jail.
Instead of it being a wake-up call, prison life only seemed like part of the adventure. He saw himself as an outsider, misunderstood and maligned by hypocritical society.
At a concert after his release, he introduced a girl to amphetamines. Eventually, she became his wife and mother to three children. With three children in the picture, Dennis decided to settle down and kick the drugs, but his wife could not.
The couple separated and Dennis found himself raising the kids on his own. He started working at an all-night bookstore in Hollywood. That’s when he first saw the headline in the early morning newspaper that actress Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered on Aug. 9, 1969.
While the homicide frightened him, there were signs of a “revolution” at the scene of the crime that resonated with him. The perpetrators had painted “pig” outside Tate’s door with her blood. The next night, there was another murder, a wealthy couple. Again, “Rise,” “Death to pigs” and “Helter Skelter” were etched in blood.
“I already believed that revolution was the only solution for America’s problems,” Dennis wrote. “I was an anarchist. I believed we needed to tear down the whole society and start over. Could this be the revolution?”
Eventually, police arrested Manson and some of “the family.”
On a Sunday with his three boys, Dennis decided to drive out to the Spahn Ranch where Manson’s group of outcasts became a psychotic cult that believed their leader was Jesus Christ.
While the boys rode horses under the care of some of the ladies at the ranch, Dennis talked with the men. Rolling Stone interviewed Manson in prison, and his humor came through in the article.
“I wondered how this man, who was accused of all these heinous crimes, could have a sense of humor,” Dennis said. “I was intrigued.”
He visited again. The boys finally had several ladies who acted as maternal figures. And Dennis enjoyed the discussions, the friendship and the sex he was getting at the ranch.
He visited Manson in prison, and the Monster of Mayhem began to exercise a Rasputin-like sway over Dennis.
“He spoke in parables,” Dennis said. “He named me ‘Fatherman’ probably because of all my kids. I was amazed at his ‘spiritual’ wisdom and insights. He seemed to pattern Jesus closely (or the Jesus of my understanding.) He was the focal point of universal life and time.”
Then Manson was sentenced to death.
“We joined in a plot to break him out of jail,” Dennis said.
But Manson had warned them to not even try unless they were heavily armed.
“Don’t come to me unless you can take out the whole jail,” Manson told them.
So Dennis and other “family” members held up an Army Surplus store in Hawthorne, CA. They stacked up 160 guns against their van parked behind the store. They didn’t realize the clerk had tripped a silent alarm.
Police pulled into the alley and got out of their car.
“We came out of the back of the store and blew out the front window of the police car with a shotgun,” Dennis recalled. “The police were hiding behind a wall on the other side of the alley. As we got into our van to escape, they opened fire on us. They put so many holes in that van, it looked like Swiss cheese. I felt bullets creasing my scalp and passing my body.”
The chase was on, and Dennis was under a constant hail of bullets.
“It seemed like an eternity of gunfire,” he said.
After seven minutes and a chase in which five police departments participated, Dennis and his cohorts were arrested.
Instead of freeing Manson from county jail, Dennis wound up in county jail himself.
After 17 months, he went to trial.
“Whatever I did was out of love for my brothers and sisters,” he said at his sentencing. “There is no wrong in love.”
The court saw otherwise and sent him to San Quentin, the “garbage can of California,” Dennis said. “This was where they sent all the killers, all the gangsters, all the worst criminals in the state.”
After two years, Dennis was released only to violate his parole conditions and wind up back behind bars. After another violation, he returned again.
But then God began to bring Christians into his life. Renny and Nancy, the godparents of his daughter, had become born-again Christians. He left his daughter off with them.
“That was the first time I heard Christians should be changed,” he confessed.
Back in jail, he received Christian literature from his mom, who was praying for him. An old girlfriend came to see him and tell him about becoming a “Jesus freak.” His cellmate constantly read the Bible. Prisoners kept coming up to him and sharing scriptures with him.
At first, Dennis resisted.
“They told me that Jesus Christ could change my life,” he said. “I’d say, ‘I already know Jesus. I know Charlie!’”
But the Christians persisted, and he eventually let himself read Scripture along with them.
“I knew these guys. They were killers, some of the most dangerous guys in the prison. But they were changed. I could feel it,” Dennis said.
Then another Manson family member got saved. Charles “Tex” Watson wrote about his conversion in the magazine “Prison Evangelism.”
“It was the first time I considered that we might be wrong,” Dennis said.
He prayed, “God if you’re real, show me.”
He hung out more and more with the Christian inmates. Finally he surrendered to the power of the Word and the Spirit. Dennis was born again.
He was baptized in freezing water outside the chapel. He began to write his ex-wife and
“We knew God was real when we saw Him change our dad,” they recalled.
When he was released, he wanted to find a radical church that would help him avoid a relapse. Eventually, he joined the street-preaching Door Christian Fellowship of Tempe, Arizona. He tried to reconcile with his wife when she was released from prison to no avail. She eventually died from a lifetime of abuse of alcohol and drugs.
He ultimately met and married a woman of God and became a pastor, as did two of his sons.
“I’m still a revolutionary,” he said. Dennis preached until his final days on Earth.
His son, Joe Rice, continues to pastor in San Diego, CA.
Michael Ashcraft pastors the Lighthouse Church in Van Nuys, CA.
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