UPDATE 9/28/2014: Gram Theft Burrito or Gram Theft Byrd – You Decide?

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UPDATE 9/28/2014

This particular blog about Gram Parsons has been interesting to say the least, intended to only be one story has now turned into three.  After I first wrote the first leg of this story about a year later I got the crime-scene-photo from a friend, then I updated this blog with the pixelated picture only to remove it later at the family’s request.  We found the exact same rock that was in the 1973 crime-scene photo in 2014, then somehow I ended up in contact with Phil Kaufman and had plans to meet him and give him a copy of the photo which my friend Brad was to give to him.  Tonight I had that meeting and I was thrilled to have met him but also moved by what I saw.

Mr. Kaufman was in touch with my friend Brad , after waiting all day for the call he called, he had arrived and was staying at the Joshua Tree Inn, the same place Gram had died over 40 years ago.  We were to have a change of plans, on the phone Phil said to meet him at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown instead of the Joshua Tree Inn, I was hoping to get pictures at the Inn so I was a bit disappointed but in the end what transpired was much more thought provoking.

We got to Pappy’s, Hank Williams III was performing that night and he was doing his sound check.  All of us, my wife Kerry, Brad and his wife Deb and I looking and waiting wondering if we would recognize him.  I walked around then there he was, when I saw his shirt with many name on the back of recording artists like Emmylou Harris I figured it was him. Wearing shorts I could see his iconic rooster tattoo on his leg, this was my verification that it was him.  I said Phil, he turned around and said “yes”, then quickly said “well only if you’re not a cop”.  He was graceful and kind and generous with his time. He sat at the table with us outside and we talked just like old friends.  Brad presented Phil with the photos of the crime scene and I could see Phil looking at it, I could almost imagine how those 40+ years ago must have felt like yesterday, I felt bad for him but I also know that he must be proud that he followed through with his friends wish, from all my research I came to the conclusion that this is what Gram would have wanted.  Gram did not want the normal funeral, he stated that, Gram always strived to be immortal in the sense of being famous and Phil helped him with his wishes.

The Hi-Desert has grown a lot, much of which was caused by stories like this, also many movies were filmed here and also being only 2 hours from Hollywood it became a quick getaway, all of these stories being a thread in the history of the area. Tonight Pappy and Harriet’s was booming all because of people like Phil.  One of the originators of the fame of our area, one of the oldest threads was sitting at Pappy and Harriet’s and no one recognized him, chatting with us gracefully, Hank Williams III playing in the background, young “hipsters” from the Los Angeles area wandering around, listening to Hank and none of them knew the importance of this man to Pappy’s, other local businesses and the culture of the area.  Countless Gram Festivals have been held here, a local home grown band, a favorite of this area is Gram Rabbit, in part named after Parsons.  I found it quite ironic.

Mr. Kaufman, you look great for being 79 years old, thanks for signing my book, I look forward to meeting you again and thank you for your kindness.  I think Gram would be proud of his buddy fulfilling his wish.  Gram’s fame will live forever thanks to his music and thanks to you, but not just Gram, you and Gram will live forever through local legend and lore.

Looking at Photo
Looking at Photo
Phil and I
Phil and I
Phil Kaufman "Road Mangler Deluxe"
Phil Kaufman “Road Mangler Deluxe”



Out of the blue a friend of mine told me that he had a old police photograph of the Gram Parsons crime scene in the Joshua Tree National Park from the day of the incident.  He soon emailed me a scanned copy of the 1973 photo which seems to be authentic and I have no reason to doubt.  We will not be showing you the crime scene photo out of respect for the family.

In Mr. Kaufman’s own words from his book “We looked up and the flame had caused a dust devil going up in the air. His ashes were actually going up into the air, into the desert night. The moon was shining, the stars were shining and Gram’s wish was coming true. His ashes were going into the desert”.  Mr. Kaufman also stated that even though they used to visit Joshua Tree National Monument (now a National Park) regularly, he was drunk when he did this and he just pulled off to a wide spot in the road, a place to turn around, so this spot, “Cap Rock” was chosen only by coincidence.

After looking at the photograph I saw the rather unique rock sat right next to the burnt casket and body.  I called my buddy and we set out to find this one rock, only about a half-hour from our homes.  From 1973 to 2014 much has changed in the area, roads have been widened and paved, areas that you could drive your car close to “Cap Rock” have been blocked and previously paved areas have been abandoned and gone back to nature.  We still wanted to try to find it, after searching the area for quite a while we had a few suspect rocks but none were an exact match until we started walking back to the car.  I saw a rock that had the distinctive right angles, we walked over expecting it to be similar but not exact just as the other rocks we had seen.  We rolled it over my buddy saw it first, all the notches in the rock in the photograph were on this rock exactly.  WE FOUND IT!

We could not find the other two rocks but I will now leave you to examine the evidence, we just happened to find the rock by chance and I do believe it was moved from the original location by a few hundred feet or even yards due to changes in the area and construction.  I will not reveal the location of this rock but I do ask that if anyone else finds this rock please leave it in place, it is a Federal Crime to remove anything from our National Parks, please leave it for others to ponder in the future.

Take It Easy – Mojave

This is the Rock from the site in 2014 and 1973
This is the Rock from the site in 2014 and 1973

The Strange Tale of Gram Parson’s Funeral in Joshua Tree

Gram Parsons was considered a pioneer of the country rock movement of the late 1960’s into the 1970’s until his death on September 19, 1973 at the age of 26.  Though Gram achieved some success in his lifetime, he was never a superstar — but he did influence many bands including The Eagles and The Rolling Stones.  He was a member of two country rock bands, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers; he later became a solo artist, and often performed with Emmylou Harris. In the years after his death he has become a legend.  You may ask, why is this a DesertUSA blog and what does Gram Parsons have to do with the Mojave Desert?  Keep reading to find out a small part of the interesting life story of a Byrd and a Burrito named Gram Parsons and how it is related to the Mojave Desert.

In the late 1960’s, the Joshua Tree National Monument, later to become a National Park, became the hangout for many celebrities and musicians because this out of the way haven was only a few hours drive from Los Angeles.  Gram Parsons was introduced to the Mojave Desert around this time and would frequent the Joshua Tree area on the weekends, often accompanied by his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones; in-fact, some of Gram’s country influence can be heard in music of The Rolling Stones at that time, in the early 1970’s.  Gram loved the Hi-Desert and did many photo shoots in it. He used to hang out at local bars and would often stay at the Joshua Tree Inn.  He would visit the National Monument at night looking at the stars and searching the heavens for UFOs.

During a friend’s funeral in 1973, a few months before Parsons’ own death, it was discussed between Parsons and Kaufman that if either of them were to die prematurely, they wanted their body taken to the desert at Joshua Tree. They were to have one last drink with the corpse and then burn the body in the desert.  This was the pact that led to the events I will now describe.

A few months after this pact had been discussed Gram checked into room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn on September 17th, 1973 for a couple days with a few friends.  During this visit Gram consumed alot of drugs and alcohol. Kaufman was not there on this trip, and  after two days of heavy partying, on the 19th Gram overdosed on both morphine and alcohol.  As Kaufman was Parsons’ road manager and good friend, he was immediately called but by the time he got to the Inn, Gram’s body was already removed and was in the morgue of the hospital in Yucca Valley.  Kaufman gathered up Gram’s belongings, cleaned up any drug evidence and headed back home to Los Angeles.  After a day of drinking and thinking about their pact and remembering Gram’s dislike for his step-father in Louisiana and also thinking of his words at the friend’s funeral a few months earlier that he had not wanted a long, depressing, religious service with family and friends, Kaufman went into action.

Kaufman called the mortuary in Yucca Valley and found out that the body would be driven to the Los Angeles International Airport and then flown on Continental Airlines to New Orleans.  He called the airline’s mortuary service and found out that the body would arrive that evening, then recruited several friends that knew about the pact and borrowed a hearse that was used for camping trips. It had no license plates and several broken windows, but he thought that it would do.  They tried on suits, but decided they looked so ridiculous that they changed into their tour clothes, Levi’s, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and jackets with “Sin City” stitched on the back.  They loaded the hearse up with beer and Jack Daniels and headed for the airport.

Kaufman and his friend Michael Martin arrived at the loading dock just as a flatbed truck rolled up with the Parsons casket.  A drunken Kaufman somehow persuaded an airline employee that the Parsons family had changed its plans and wanted to ship the body privately on a chartered flight.  While Kaufman was in the office signing the paperwork with a phony name a policeman pulled up blocking the hangar door.  Seeing this Kaufman was sure that he would be caught but the officer suspected nothing, he just sat there.  Kaufman walked over toward him and waved his copies of the paperwork and said, “hey, can you move that car”?  The officer apologized and moved the car and then actually helped him load the casket onto a gurney and into the back of the unlicensed, liquor filled hearse.  Martin got in the hearse and attempted to drive out of the hangar only to run into the wall on his way out.  The officer observed all this, and commented, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes now”, then he left.  The two drunk body snatchers left the airport with the body of their friend; they stopped at a gas station in Cabazon near the Interstate 10 dinosaurs in the years before Casino Morongo existed.  They filled a gas can and they headed back to Joshua Tree with the body of Gram Parsons.

They reached Joshua Tree and drove until they were too drunk to drive any farther.  They stopped at Cap Rock in The Joshua Tree National Monument, a landmark geological formation, and unloaded their friend’s coffin, then Kaufman saw car lights in the distance and concluded the police were coming.  He quickly opened the casket, played a personal joke on the dead Parsons that they used to do to each other in life, doused Gram with the gasoline and threw a match in the casket.  The two watched as a giant fireball rose from the coffin, the skin on Grams naked body began blistering, the ashes rising into the desert night.  As the headlights in the distance got closer the pair quickly drove off and headed for home in Los Angeles.

After a trip home filled with close calls, Kaufman and Martin laid low.  The morning after their return, the newspapers were full of the story of the rock star’s hijacked and burnt corpse, speculating that the amateur cremation may have been a satanic ritual.

Kaufman knew the police were looking for him, so after a few weeks, he and Martin just turned themselves in. They appeared in Court on Parsons’ 27th birthday, November 5, 1973.  At the time there was no law against stealing a corpse and since a corpse has no intrinsic value, the two were charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing the coffin and given a slap on the wrist, $708 in damages for the coffin, and a $300 fine for each of the body snatchers.  A few years after the incident, Kaufman ran into Keith Richards and Keith thanked him and said “I heard that you took care of our pal”.  Kaufman’s adventure has been legendary in rock and country music circles ever since.

Over the years there have been books, movies and many discussions of this incident that began in Joshua Tree, continued in Los Angeles and ended up back in Joshua Tree.  There are yearly concerts and have been many tribute albums to Gram Parsons.  People visit and intentionally stay in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, even holding seances in the room.  The cremation area at Cap Rock in Joshua Tree National Park still has people visit the spot but being a National Park all personal monuments to Gram are removed by the Park, so the site always looks different as fans make pilgrimages, leave items, paint on the boulders to leave some kind of remembrance, then they are removed by the Park and the cycle begins again.  What became of Gram’s famous rhinestone studded Nudie suit?  It resides in the country music hall of fame in Nashville Tennessee.  I suppose you can say that Gram became larger than life after his young life ended as happens to many musicians that die at a young age.

Now you know the story of the theft of a Burrito and the theft of a Byrd that are actually one and the same, about the theft of Gram Parsons in 1973.

Take It Easy – Mojave