In August 1969, the followers of Charles Manson committed some of the most horrific murders in American history. The series of crimes, collectively known as the Tate-LaBianca Murders, provided a wide-ranging aura of intrigue that involved psychedelic drugs, sex orgies, ritualistic killings, celebrities — and all centered around a diminutive, failed musician named “Charlie.”
The cult consisted primarily of young, disaffected women, who inexplicably fell under Manson’s hypnotic spell. He then convinced his charges to believe that The Beatles song “Helter Skelter” contained a coded message to unleash a violent race war (the name actually refers to an amusement ride in England). Nonetheless, the vehement racist hoped to instigate an impending social apocalypse by framing the Black Panthers for his own misdeeds. Afterward, Manson envisioned ushering his brethren into an idyllic New World order as the messianic figurehead — in other words, Intro To Cult 101.
The 5-foot-2 habitual criminal would spend most of his adult life in prison before dying in 2017 at the Corcoran maximum security prison. It’s imperative, however, to note the vilified felon didn’t actually commit any of the notorious homicides forever tied to his name. Instead, he convinced members of his ‘Family‘ to carry out the massacre, producing a haunting legacy which still lingers 50 years later.
10. Summer of Blood
On a typical warm, summer evening in Southern California, actress Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls, The Beverly Hillbillies), who was eight months and a half pregnant, rested at her Beverly Hills home along with friends Abigail Folger (heiress to the Folger coffee fortune), her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski, and hair-stylist-to-the-stars, Jay Sebring. Tate’s husband, acclaimed director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) was away on business, preparing for his next project, a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But over 5,000 miles away, a much more sinister, blood-soaked tragedy was unfolding that would soon make headlines worldwide.
Shortly after midnight, “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian descended upon on the gated property at 10500 Cielo Drive in an exclusive Benedict Canyon enclave. The French-Normandy style mansion was believed to be the home of music producer, Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day), who Manson believed had snubbed him regarding a fizzled record deal.
To prevent any outside intervention, Watson scaled a nearby telephone pole, cutting the wires to the house. Stephen Parent, an 18-year-old friend of the house caretaker, became the night’s first victim after encountering the intruders while exiting the grounds in his car. Watson shot the teenager dead with a .22 revolver, then led the group towards the house for more carnage.
Meanwhile, Kasabian kept a lookout at the bottom of the driveway as Watson, Krenwinkel, and Atkins quickly dispatched the occupants in the house. Tate had desperately pleaded for the life of her unborn child, to which Atkins responded, “Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you. You’re going to die, and you’d better get used to it.” The cold-blooded assassin, also known as “Sexy Sadie” used Tate’s blood to write the word “pig” on the front door, heeding Manson’s instructions to leave behind “something witchy.”
The next day, an expanded Manson-led posse broke into a house near Hollywood, where supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were brutally killed. In a span of fewer than 24 hours, the killers inflicted 169 stab wounds and seven gunshot wounds while leaving behind more blood-stained messages.
9. Circus Trial
The People v. Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten began on July 24, 1970, in downtown Los Angeles (Tex” Watson, conspicuously absent from the proceedings, had fled back to Texas but would be eventually arrested, tried and convicted).
Right from the start, the case produced a chaotic scene in and out of the courtroom as an army of reporters clamored to cover the dramatic spectacle. Always the showman, Manson carved an “X” into his forehead (he eventually turned it into a swastika) to symbolize having been being X-ed out of society. Fellow defendants Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten followed suit, burning the same mark with heated bobby pins; they soon generated headlines of their own by acting out in the courtroom, laughing and chanting in Latin while the prosecutors presented the gruesome evidence.
Linda Kasabian chose to cut a deal and became the prosecution’s star witness in exchange for immunity. She also incurred the wrath of the main attraction, who made a throat-cutting gesture towards her. Other highlights included witness tampering by various Family members, the disappearance of Van Houten’s lawyer (authorities later him found dead) and an acrobatic Manson jumping over the defense table towards Judge Charles Older, and shouting, “In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.” At the risk of nitpicking, Charlie also threatened to kill his lawyer, Irv Kanarek.
The excruciatingly long trial took over six months to complete, aided by the relentless stonewalling of Kanarek, who registered nine objections in the opening statement alone (there were 200 objections by Day 3 when the press stopped counting). Finally, on January 25, 1971, the jury found the defendants guilty of murder. All four received the death sentence but eventually reduced to life terms after the California Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972.
At her sentencing, the highly-spirited Atkins expressed her remorselessness by screaming, “You’d best lock your doors… and watch your own kids.”
Lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote about the trial in his the best-selling book Helter Skelter. “I couldn’t conceive of the jury coming back with a not-guilty verdict,” Bugliosi said. “But I did fear a hung jury. One juror, out of fear—because they all knew the Manson Family was still on the streets—could have balked. When the jury came in, I watched Manson. His hands were trembling. He’d convinced the Family members that death was beautiful. But that was all BS.”
8. Charles in Charge
In the months leading up to the deadly summer of ’69, the Family found refuge at Spahn Ranch, a derelict property northwest of L.A. named after the 80-year-old, half-blind owner. The sprawling 55-acre compound had been used as a TV and movie set for a number of shows, including Zorro, The Lone Ranger, and Bonanza. And it was there that Manson took center stage as director and star in his own bizarre production that could have only happened in the shadows of a city where the angels left a long time ago.
All the inhabitants squatting at the ranch were required to follow a strict set of rules — a rigid system that gave Manson complete control over his subjects. Items such as reading glasses, books, calendars, and clocks had been forbidden as part of an effort to build an insular bubble devoid of time or reality. Female members were instructed to maintain a slim figure by restricting their food intake, but were given a steady diet of alcohol and LSD; they were also coerced into having group sex and provide domestic chores for the men. For an unknown troubadour, Manson relished his exalted status; at the very least, he personified the life of a bona fide rock star, replete with long, shaggy hair and groovy buckskin threads.
The commune dwellers routinely listened to his rambling, incoherent sermons — made more palatable while under the influence of strong drink and hallucinogenics. The warped lessons stemmed from Manson’s hodgepodge philosophical views, ranging from Dale Carnegie to Adolf Hitler with a dose of the Biblical fire and brimstone for good measure. Additionally, the man who claimed to be both Jesus and Satan had spent 150 hours in a course on Scientology but reportedly deemed the teachings as “too crazy” even for him.
7. Creepy Crawling
Organized excursion raids dubbed “creepy crawling” served as a prelude to far more terrifying mayhem. The Family randomly infiltrated Los Angeles area neighborhoods, breaking into private homes while the occupants slept. Once inside, they engaged in mischievous shenanigans such as re-arranging the furniture and petty theft.
As a skilled manipulator, Manson used the exercises as a means of gradually normalizing home invasion. Moreover, the practice gave his loyal minions new found confidence to overcome any fears or apprehension towards future diabolical actions. Wearing all black clothing and hoods, the intruders saw the adventures as a lark — while unwittingly being groomed and conditioned for what Bugliosi referred to as “dress rehearsals for murder.”
For most rational people, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could be so easily hoodwinked by an unscrupulous con man. However, his rise and fall reflect a common fate experienced by other charlatans throughout history, in which a well-timed confluence of factors can provide fertile conditions for dissent to grow.
6. Dennis the Menace
It’s not surprising that Beach Boys’ drummer and established hellion, Dennis Wilson, would pick up a pair of young female hitchhikers and take them to his Sunset Boulevard abode. However, when the girls turned out to be Manson acolytes Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel, it was only a matter of time before the Good Vibrations ran out once their master showed up in the flesh.
Manson, along with 17 others of his congregation, soon moved into the posh Pacific Palisades party pad — setting the scene for Caligula-esque debauchery, featuring non-stop orgies and drug-fueled revelry. Expectedly, the neighbors were none too pleased.
Wilson, the time-keeper for the popular band known for posing with surfboards instead of riding them, provided his new acquaintance with coveted music industry connections such as The Byrds producer, Terry Melcher. In an interview with the Record Mirror in 1968, Wilson candidly expressed: “I told them [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who’d recently come out of jail after 12 years. He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now.”
Wilson even enlisted the help of his older brothers Brian and Carl to finance and produce a recording session with the charismatic singer/songwriter. One of those songs, the eerily-named “Cease To Exist,” was later re-titled “Never Learn Not To Love” and released on the Beach Boys 20/20 album in February 1969 — less than six months before the grisly atrocities.
Ultimately, success as a musician eluded Manson. He experienced a heated fallout with Wilson, who claimed the ex-con owed him over $100,000 (and the expense of multiple doctor visits to treat his raging gonorrhea); for his troubles, the drummer took sole credit as the song’s composer, leaving the pint-sized prophet to seek fame elsewhere.
5. Hollywood Hunting Season
Manson became increasingly obsessed with the power of celebrity and hellbent on becoming famous himself. In spite of all his ranting about spiritual freedom and love, he frequently boasted that someday his own star would eclipse that of The Beatles. To be fair, a lack of talent isn’t always a disqualifying strike in the fame game, but fate clearly had other plans for the aspiring performer.
At some point in his quest for adoration, the unsigned crooner figured if he couldn’t achieve stardom, he would kill those who had. According to Susan Atkins, the Family created a select hit list of prominent figures in the world of entertainment, including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Tom Jones, and Steve McQueen.
The attention-grabbing scheme also fed Manson’s delusional desires to further incite racial tensions and create a modern-day Armageddon. Fortunately, the plan failed to materialize — and none of the targeted celebs were ever harmed. However, McQueen, a friend of both Tate and Sebring, began carrying a gun full-time following their deaths. He wasn’t alone. Most Angelenos, whether famous or not, shared a common anxiety-driven fear, blanketing the city like its infamous brown smog.
4. Body Count
The well-documented Tate-LaBianca incidents produced a total of eight deaths (including Tate’s unborn child), but some reports suggest the Manson clan committed as many as 35 fatalities spanning several years. But after the lengthy, emotionally exhausting litigation concluded and the main perpetrators were punished, public outcry and demand for justice had waned.
However, one particularly lurid case that tends to be overlooked involved the torture and murder of a music teacher named Gary Hinman in July of 1969. Moreover, the event may very well have triggered the bloody rampage that soon shocked the nation. As the murky story goes (there are two conflicting versions), Manson sent Bobby Beausoleil, a talented young actor/musician, along with Family members Susan Atkins and Mary Bruner to Hinman’s home in Topanga Canyon. The alleged motive was said to be money Hinman had stashed at the house. Another version asserts that Hinman had produced a bad batch of LSD which Beausoleil subsequently sold to a gang of pissed off bikers who demanded a refund.
At some point, (there’s actually a consensus here) Manson arrived on the scene wielding a sword; he then slashed Hinman’s face and hacked off part of his ear because apparently, that’s how swashbuckling cult leaders take care of business. A few days later, as Hinman repeated Buddhist mantras, Beausoleil stabbed him to death and used the victim’s blood to smear “political piggy” on the wall along with a panther paw, a Black Panther symbol. The 21-year-old guitarist would be caught shortly afterward in Hinman’s car — two days before the Cielo Drive bloodbath.
Among Manson’s many loyal devotees, Lynnette Fromme earned the distinction of being the only Family member (and first female in U.S. history) to attempt the assassination of a sitting President. Fortunately, her .45 caliber pistol misfired while taking aim at Gerald Ford in September 1975, an outlandish escapade that served as just one of many in the life of a woman best known as “Squeaky.”
“She was the main gal in the Family,” said Vincent Bugliosi. “Once Manson left the ranch, if he was anywhere else, she was in charge.”
Fromme grew up in Southern California and performed in a popular youth dance troupe, appearing at Disneyland, The Lawrence Welk Show and (coincidentally) the White House. She eventually drifted away from the trappings of middle-class suburbia and found herself homeless in Venice Beach where she first met Manson. The runaway soon joined his flock at Spahn Ranch, taking care of octogenarian, George Spahn, who nicknamed her because of the sound she made when he touched her.
An arrest for shoplifting kept her in jail during the summer of 1969, but she would prove her unwavering support to the Family for decades. She frequently moved from town to town to be near wherever her beloved Charlie had been locked up. Along the way, she got herself mixed up with the Aryan Brotherhood, some of whom were later convicted for killing a former combat Marine and his wife.
Although Fromme’s bungled Coup d’etat resulted in a life sentence, she refused to let a minor setback like federal prison deter her lofty ambitions. Furthermore, the feisty redhead deserves credit for an accurate throwing arm, firing an apple at the lead prosecutor’s head and knocking off his glasses at her trial.
Unbelievably, there’s more: On December 23, 1987, she escaped from the pokey in West Virginia, attempting to see Manson, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Law enforcement officials found her two days later and added another 15 years to her sentence. In 2009, at age 60, she obtained parole and now lives quietly (for her anyway) in upstate New York.
2. Still Locked Up… For Now
In her book, The White Album, author Joan Didion wrote about how the Tate-LaBianca Murders closed out the turbulent decade and left many people feeling a pang of collective guilt from “too much sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Although Manson would die in prison, several of his most notorious accomplices have remained behind bars despite repeated legal maneuverings to let bygones be bygones. But that could soon change as Bobby Beausoleil and Leslie Van Houten were both recently recommended for early release by the California parole board.
According to the Department of Corrections, newly-elected Governor Gavin Newsom holds five options: uphold, reverse, modify or send it back for a full board review; he can also choose to take no action at all, resulting in Beausoleil and Van Houten gaining their freedom.
A former high school cheerleader, Van Houten was only a teenager when she took part in the butchering of the LaBiancas, using an ivory-handled carving fork and a steak knife. The assailants then scrawled “Rise,” “Death to Pigs” and “Healter (sic) Skelter” with the ample supply of fresh blood.
Attorneys for Van Houten, now 69, have attempted to re-brand their client as a model inmate, who earned college correspondence degrees while running self-help groups for other incarcerated women. Oddly, there’s been no mention of do-it-yourself cutlery seminars.
Beausoleil, 71, had been previously denied parole 18 times and currently resides in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco.
His attorney, Jason Campbell, believes his client has paid his debt to society in full and deserves to be freed. “As far as I’m concerned, he should have been recommended for parole decades ago,” Campbell said. “Under California standards, all that matters is whether they are currently dangerous. I don’t think that by any definition I can imagine, that he is currently dangerous.”
Not everyone agrees — especially Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra. She’s been a staunch opponent in both cases as well as a vocal critic of the upcoming Quentin Tarantino film about Manson, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The movie’s release is scheduled to coincide with the date of Tate’s murder, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
1. Family Affair
When you’re the head honcho of a free-love, hippie commune in the swinging 60s, chances are your dance card stayed full 24/7. Although accurate Family birth records are a bit spotty, it’s a fair assumption that Manson spread his seed far and wide. But here’s what we do know:
In 1955, Manson married his first wife, Rosalie Willis, who bore him a son, Charles Manson, Jr. The boy later changed his name to Charles Jay White, but could never escape the haunting link to his biological father and committed suicide in 1993. Next, Charlie’s second wife, a prostitute named Leona Stevens (aka “Candy”) spawned Charles Luther Manson. That offspring managed to disconnect completely from his deadbeat dad and his whereabouts remain unknown.
Mary Brunner, an actual Family member, gave birth to Manson’s third son, Valentine Michael Manson. Like his step-brother, he too dropped the cursed surname and opted for a life of anonymity.
Inevitably, countless alleged relatives have claimed to be kin of Papa/Uncle/Cousin Charlie; however, a recent stranger-than-fiction court case awarded a man named Jason Freeman as the legal beneficiary of Manson’s dead corpse (it had been stored on ice in a Bakersfield morgue) after proving to be the outlaw’s grandson and the legitimate heir to the bones. In a win-win result, the Kern County Coroner’s Office were relieved because other stiffs were “piling up” from the local methamphetamine and opioid epidemic.