On the night of August 9, 1969, three women and one man entered the Bel Air, California, house rented by film director Roman Polanski and savagely murdered his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and four other people. One night later, in nearby Los Feliz, a small group invaded another luxury home and killed businessman Leno LaBianca and his wife. In both crimes, as well in as the earlier murder of a local music teacher named Gary Hinman, the killers used their victims’ blood to mark the crime scene with slogans such as PIG, DEATH TO PIGS, and HEALTER SKELTER.
The Tate and LaBianca murders, coming so close together, in such exclusive neighborhoods, gripped Los Angeles with fear and paranoia. It took more than two months for authorities to link the crimes and trace them to a group called The Family, which had been living on a rundown ranch in Death Valley lorded over by a tiny, 34-year-old man named Charles Manson. The group consisted mostly of young women, and a few men, who, through an indoctrination of sex, drugs, and messianic rants about the Beatles and the Bible, had become so deeply in thrall to Manson that they were willing to kill for him.
They wanted to take out the eyes of the people and squash them against the walls and cut off their fingers. “We were going to mutilate them, but we didn’t have a chance to.”
Joan Didion would later write that the ’60s ended the night of the Tate murders, which put the lie to the counterculture’s message of peace and love and exposed the dark side of unlimited sex and drugs. The victims–Tate, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her lover, Voytek Frykowski (along with a passerby, Steve Parent)–were young and privileged enough to dabble in the pleasures of that culture. The Manson family was its most grotesque and dangerous permutation.
The definitive book on Manson’s life and crimes was written by Vincent Bugliosi, then a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, who prosecuted the case. His 636-page bestseller, Helter Skelter, details the murders and the investigation and also excavates Manson’s troubled early life. Rejected by a drug-addicted mother, Manson spent fully half of his life in juvenile facilities and adult detention. On the eve of his release from prison in 1967, at the age of 32, he asked to remain behind bars because he didn’t think he could make it in the outside world. Request denied, Manson soon found a hospitable environment for his increasingly delusional world view in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury.
On the 40th anniversary of the Manson murders, here are three excerpts from Bugliosi’s book.
The Crime: Susan Atkins was one of the four members of The Family who carried out Manson’s orders to kill Sharon Tate and her friends. Jailed on charges stemming from the earlier Hinman murder, she made this confession to a fellow inmate, which was eventually passed on to authorities. Still under Manson’s influence, she recanted before the case went to trial, but by then the prosecution had been able to amass other evidence. She is serving a life sentence.
Susan had walked over to Virginia Graham’s bed and sat down. She began rapping about the LSD trips she had taken, karma, good and bad vibrations. Virginia cautioned her that she shouldn’t be talking so much; she knew a man who had been convicted just on what he told a cellmate.
Susan replied she wasn’t worried about the police. They weren’t all that good. “You know, there’s a case right now, they are so far off the track they don’t even know what’s happening. That one on Benedict Canyon.”
“Benedict Canyon? You don’t mean Sharon Tate?”
“Yeah.” With this Susan seemed to get very excited. The words came out in a rush. “You know who did it, don’t you?”
“Well, you’re looking at her.”
Why? Because, Susan replied, we “wanted to do a crime that would shock the world.” But why the Tate house? Susan’s answer was chilling in its simplicity: “It is isolated.” The place had been picked at random. They had known the owner, Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son, from about a year back, but they didn’t know who would be there, and it didn’t matter; one person or 10, they had gone there prepared to do everybody in.
Virginia told Susan she wanted to know exactly how it had come down. Susan obliged. Before leaving the ranch, Charlie had given them instructions. They had worn dark clothing. They also brought along a change of clothes in the car. They drove up to the gate, then drove back down to the bottom of the hill, parked the car, and walked back up. In addition to herself, there were two other girls and a man.
On entering the house—Susan didn’t say how they got in—they saw a man on the couch in the living room, and a girl, whom Susan identified as “Ann Folger,” sitting in a chair reading a book. She didn’t look up.
Virginia asked her how she knew their names. “We didn’t,” Susan replied, “not until the next day.”
At some point the group apparently split up, Susan going on to the bedroom, while the others stayed in the living room.
“Sharon was sitting up in bed. Jay was sitting on the edge of the bed talking to Sharon. She had on a bikini bra and panties.”
“You’re kidding. And she was pregnant?”
“Yeah. And they looked up, and were they surprised!”
Susan skipped on. It was as if she was “tripping out,” jumping abruptly from one subject to another. Suddenly they were in the living room and Sharon and Jay were strung up with nooses around their necks so if they tried to move they would choke.
Then [Frykowski] broke and ran for the door. “He was full of blood,” Susan said, and she stabbed him three or four times. “He was bleeding and he ran to the front part,” out the door and onto the lawn, "and would you believe that he was there hollering ‘Help, help, somebody please help me,’ and nobody came?”
Bluntly, without elaboration, “Then we finished him off.”
There was no mention of what had happened to Abigail Folger or Jay Sebring, only that “Sharon was the last to die.” On saying this, Susan laughed.
Susan said that she had held Sharon’s arms behind her, and that Sharon looked at her and was crying and begging, “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me. I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to have my baby. I want to have my baby.”
Susan said she looked Sharon straight in the eye and said, “Look, bitch, I don’t care about you. I don’t care if you’re going to have a baby. You had better be ready. You’re going to die, and I don’t feel anything about it.”
Then Susan said, “In a few minutes I killed her, and she was dead.”
After killing Sharon, Susan noticed there was blood on her hand. She tasted it.
“Wow, what a trip!” she told Virginia. “I thought ‘To taste death, and yet give life.’” Had she ever tasted blood? she asked Virginia. “It’s warm and sticky and nice.”
Virginia managed to ask a question. Hadn’t it bothered her to kill Sharon Tate, with her pregnant?
Susan looked at Virginia quizzically and said, “Well, I thought you understood. I loved her, and in order for me to kill her I was killing part of myself when I killed her.”
She had wanted to cut out the baby, Susan said, but there hadn’t been time. They wanted to take out the eyes of the people, and squash them against the walls, and cut off their fingers. “We were going to mutilate them, but we didn’t have a chance to.”
Virginia asked her how she felt after the murders. Susan replied, “I felt so elated; tired, but at peace with myself. I knew this was just the beginning of helter skelter. Now the world would listen.”
The Motive: Manson progressed through several levels of Scientology training during his early prison stints, but his true obsessions were the Bible and the Beatles. He considered Paul, John, Ringo, and George the “four angels” in the Book of Revelation, and when their "White Album" was released in December 1968, he found hidden meaning in its lyrics about “revolution,” “piggies,” and “Helter Skelter.” In his demented view, the album’s message was that Armageddon was nigh, and Manson sought to hasten it by provoking a race war.
The prosecution does not have the legal burden of proving motive. But a jury wants to know why. Just as showing that a defendant has a motive for committing a crime is circumstantial evidence of guilt, so is the absence of motive circumstantial evidence of innocence.
In this case, even more than in most others, proving motive was important, since these murders appeared completely senseless. It was doubly important in Manson’s case, since he was not present when the murders took place. If we could prove to the jury that Manson, and Manson alone, had a motive for these murders, then this would be very powerful circumstantial evidence that he also ordered them.
[Fellow prosecutor Aaron Stovitz] thought that we should argue that the motive was robbery. I told him quite frankly his theory was ridiculous. What had they stolen? Seventy-some dollars from Abigail Folger, Rosemary LaBianca’s wallet (which they ditched, money intact), possibly a sack of coins, and a carton of chocolate milk. That was it. Items worth thousands of dollars, though in plain view, were left behind.
As an alternative motive, Aaron suggested that maybe Manson was trying to get enough money to bail out Mary Brunner, the mother of his child, who had been arrested on the afternoon of August 8 for using a stolen credit card. Again I played the Devil’s advocate. Seven murders, five one night, two the next; 169 separate stab wounds; words written in the victims’ own blood; a knife stuck in the throat of one victim, a fork in his stomach, the word ‘war’ carved on his stomach—all this to raise $625 bail?
It wasn’t that we lacked a motive. Though Aaron and LAPD disagreed with me, I felt we had one. It was just that it was almost unbelievably bizarre.
When I interviewed Susan Atkins, she told me, “The whole thing was done to instill fear in the establishment and cause paranoia. Also to show the black man how to take over the white man.” This, she said, would be the start of “Helter Skelter,” which, when I questioned her before the grand jury the next day, she defined as “the last war on the face of the earth.”
Judgment Day, Armageddon, Helter Skelter—to Manson they were one and the same, a racial holocaust which would see the black man emerge triumphant. “The karma is turning, it’s blackie’s turn to be on top.” Danny DeCarlo said Manson preached this incessantly.
That Manson foresaw a war between the blacks and the whites was not fantastic. Many people believe that such a war may someday occur. What was fantastic was that he was convinced he could personally start that war himself—that by making it look as if blacks had murdered the seven Caucasian victims he could turn the white community against the black community.
It was admittedly bizarre, but from the first moment I was assigned to the case, I’d felt that for murders as bizarre as these the motive itself would have to be almost equally strange, not something you’d find within the pages of a textbook on police science.
The jury would never buy Helter Skelter, Aaron said. We were missing far too many bits and pieces, and one all-important link. Presuming that Manson actually believed that he could start a race war with these acts, what would he, Charlie Manson, personally gain by it?
To this I had no answer.
The Family: The Family was made up primarily of teenage girls, some as young as 13, who outnumbered the men at the Death Valley ranch by four to one. Some of these young women had been living on the street; others had run away from middle-class homes, following the siren song of the ‘60s. The lure of free sex ensured that there were always some men around, but only the women remained fiercely loyal through the murder trial and beyond, plotting to poison one turncoat witness, threatening others, and demonstrating outside the court house with shaved heads. With Charlie in jail, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of his earliest recruits, became the de facto head of the group and would later gain fame for trying to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975. Sentenced to life for that crime, she is scheduled to be paroled on August 16.
Exactly how did Manson “program” someone? I asked [former family member Brooks Poston]. He had various techniques, Poston said. With a girl, it would usually start with sex. Charlie might convince a plain girl that she was beautiful. Or, if she had a father fixation, have her imagine that he was her father. Or, if he felt she was looking for a leader, he might imply that he was Christ. Manson had a talent for sensing, and capitalizing on, a person’s hangups and/or desires.
When a man first joined the group, Charlie would usually take him on an LSD trip, ostensibly “to open his mind.” Then, while he was in a highly suggestible state, he would talk about love, how you had to surrender yourself to it, how only by ceasing to exist as an individual ego could you become one with all things.
I queried Poston as to the sources of Manson’s philosophy. Scientology, the Bible, and the Beatles. These three were the only ones he knew. A peculiar triumvirate. Yet by now I was beginning to suspect the existence of at least a fourth influence. Gregg’s mention that Charlie claimed to have read Nietzsche and that he believed in a master race, plus the emergence of a startling number of disturbing parallels between Manson and the leader of the Third Reich, led me to ask Poston: “Did Manson ever say anything about Hitler?”
Poston’s reply was short and incredibly chilling. “He said that Hitler was a tuned-in guy who had leveled the karma of the Jews.”
[Ex-family member] Paul Watkins described for me how Manson would send him out to recruit young girls. Watkins admitted that he liked his special role in the Family. The only problem was, after he’d located a likely candidate, Charlie would insist on sleeping with her first.
Why didn’t Manson pick up the girls himself? I asked. “He was too old for most of the girls,” the 19-year-old Watkins replied. “He frightened them. Also, I had a good line.” It was also obvious that Watkins was better looking than Charlie.
I asked Paul where he found the girls. He might go down to the Sunset Strip, where the teenyboppers hung out. Or drive the highways watching for girls who were hitchhiking. Once Charlie, through the connivance of an older woman who posed as Watkins’ mother, even had him arrange a phony registration at a Los Angeles high school so he could be closer to the action.
Watkins also described the orgies that took place at the Gresham Street house and at Spahn [Movie Ranch in Death Valley]. For a while there was one about every week. They would always start with drugs—grass, peyote, LSD, whatever was available—Manson rationing them out, deciding how much each person needed. “Everything was done at Charlie’s direction,” Paul said. Charlie might dance around, everyone else following, like a train. As he’d take off his clothes, all the rest would take off their clothes. Then, when everyone was naked, they’d lie on the floor, “and they’d play the game of taking 12 deep breaths and releasing them and close eyes and then rub against each other” until “eventually all were touching.”
Charlie would direct the orgy, arranging bodies, combinations, positions. “He’d set it all up in a beautiful way like he was creating a masterpiece in sculpture,” Watkins said, “but instead of clay he was using warm bodies.” Paul said that the usual objective during the orgies was for all the Family members to achieve a simultaneous orgasm, but they were never successful.
Manson often staged these events to impress outsiders. If there were guests who he felt could be of some use to him, he’d say to the Family, “Let’s get together and show these people how to make love.” Whatever the reaction, the impression was a lasting one. “It was like the Devil buying your soul,” Watkins said.
Manson also used these occasions to “eradicate hangups.” If a person indicated reluctance to engage in a certain act, Manson would force that person to commit it. Male-female, female-female, male-male, intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, sodomy—there could be no inhibitions of any kind.
Charlie used sex, Paul said. For example, when it became obvious that DeCarlo was making no effort to persuade his motorcycle gang to join the Family, Manson told the girls to withhold their favors from Danny. The fact that Manson directed even the sex lives of his followers was powerful evidence of his domination.
As with the others, I questioned Watkins about Manson’s programming techniques. He told me something very interesting, which apparently the other Family members didn’t know. He said that when Manson passed out the LSD, he always took a smaller dose than the others. Though Manson never told him why he did so, Paul presumed that during the “trip” Manson wanted to retain control over his own mental faculties. It is said that LSD is a mind-altering drug which tends to make the person ingesting it a little more vulnerable and susceptible to the influence of third parties. Manson used LSD “trips,” Paul said, to instill his philosophies, exploit weaknesses and fears, and extract promises and agreements from his followers.
Excerpted from Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry copyright (c) 1974 by Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Vincent Bugliosi successfully prosecuted 105 out of 106 felony jury trials as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, including the Charles Manson trial. He then published his account of the famous murders, Helter Skelter. He's written other true crime bestsellers, including And the Sea Will Tell and The Five Reasons O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder.