I don’t know if anyone has ever had a more loyal friend than Gram Parsons had in Phil Kaufman. Sometime in early 1973, Parsons told Kaufman that if he ever died he wanted to have his body cremated in Joshua Tree National Park.
Flash forward a few months later, and there Kaufman was, driving a hearse with Parson’s body in the back, on the way to Joshua Tree. Never mind the hearse was borrowed and the corpse stolen. Worried he was being followed, Kaufman dumped the coffin along the side of the road in Joshua Tree, tossed some gasoline on it, lit Parsons afire, and fled.
Gram Parsons was a country-rock musician hated that term “country-rock” and preferred to claim his sound his own, calling it “Cosmic American Music.” H played with Byrds, hung out on the road with Rolling Stones, and gained his own fame recording with his own band The Flying Burrito Brother and with singer Emmylou Harris on his post-humously released solo album, Grievous Angel.
On September 19, 1973, while staying in room #8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, Parsons died of an overdose of whiskey, cocaine, and morphine. He was 26 years old.
Parson’s father, via phone, arranged for his son’s body to be delivered to Los Angeles International Airport, and then flown to New Orleans for a private burial. By the time Kaufman, Parson’s road manager, learned of this, the body was in a truck on its way to LAX.
Kaufman borrowed a hearse from a friend who mainly used it for camping, and enlisted Parson’s assistant, Michael Martin, to help chase down Parson’s corpse. Lacking a proper suit to look like anything like a mortuary attendant, Kaufman and Martin put on their country best, including cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, tossed a couple bottles of Jack Daniels and a case of beer in the hearse, and hauled it down through Yucca Valley.
Parsons and his coffin were just about to be moved from a delivery truck onto a plane when Kaufman arrived with his hearse on the tarmac. A police officer watched as Kaufman, still loaded from liquor, told an airline employee that the Parsons family had a change of plans: the body was to be taken back to Joshua Tree for a funeral. Kaufman signed off on some paperwork, and, along with Martin and the police officer, moved the coffin into the hearse, and driving stopped only momentarily after hitting a wall. The police officer just laughed.
Kaufman and Martin drove back to Joshua Tree. Paranoid they were being followed, possibly due to the alcohol, or the plain fact they had just stolen a corpse, he constantly kept an eye on his rear view to see if he was being followed. (Technically and legally, though, it should be noted, there is no law against stealing a corpse.)
Stopping near Cap Rock in Joshua Tree, Kaufman dragged the coffin out of the hearse. He poured five gallons of gasoline on Parson’s naked corpse, and lit it, causing a giant fireball to burst into the air of desert park. Fearing they’d be spotted, Kaufman and Martin hopped into the hearse and barreled it back to town, so recklessly that oncoming traffic had to move off the road.
And, indeed, Kaufman and Martin were right to fear being caught. Several witnesses helped identify them, and within a week Kaufman was arrested at his home in Van Nuys. Martin turned himself in at a police station in Venice. Their crime: stealing a coffin. They were fined $300.
A makeshift memorial was placed at Cap Rock to commemorate Gram Parsons, which was later moved just outside his room at the Joshua Tree Inn. Regardless, fans still leave tributes at Cap Rock to this day, which park rangers routinely clean up.
The Joshua Tree Inn, however, has embraced this legend, renting out Gram Parson’s room #8 at $109 per night. Inside the lobby, several board games are available for guests to entertain themselves, and among them, a Ouija board.
Margo, a representative for the Joshua Tree Inn, tells us, “As for ghost sightings, our guests have many stories over the years. many have been recorded in our room #8 journals.” Among them, “The mirror moving on its own, or knocks at the door when no one is in sight are the most common.” She also says that staff have reported strange voices at the inn, and doors opening and locking mysteriously from time to time.
Phil Kaufman has written about this and his life as a road manager in an autobiography, Road Mangler Deluxe. In what could serve as a suiting CreepyLA coincidence, Kaufman claims that he used to party with Charles Manson at a friends home next to the LaBianca home, where Manson’s cult members (and possibly Manson himself) would later brutally murder the residents. Kaufman later spent time in prison with Manson, and produced one of his music albums.
We’ve reached out to Kaufman with one lingering question about his theft of Gram Parson’s body – what ever happened to the hearse? We’ll update this post if we find out. Alas, we were sad to hear that in 2015 he had suffered serious injuries in a motorcycle accident near his home in Nashville. We hope he’s doing well.