LOS ANGELES—Charles Manson should have died a long time before today.
That’s according to one of the prosecutors who sent Manson and his murderous followers to death row, only to see their sentences later commuted to life in prison.
Manson, 83, died Sunday at Kern County hospital in California, corrections officials said.
Manson’s death spells “the end of a very evil man,” Stephen R. Kay told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview earlier this year prior to Manson’s death.
Kay was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who worked with fellow deputy Vincent Bugliosi to secure guilty verdicts for Manson and his flock of killers, who came to be known as “The Family.” Manson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles “Tex” Watson, Steve “Clem” Grogan, and Bruce Davis were convicted in all or some of the 1969 murders of nine people, including actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant with director Roman Polanski’s child.
In back-office huddles, Kay said he and Bugliosi much debated asking for the gas chamber.
“No, that was a pretty easy decision based on the gruesomeness of the crimes and the motives: wanting to start a race war,” Kay said. “I think there are some crimes that are so heinous that in order for us to exist as a society that we have to say we will absolutely not accept this type of behavior and the person will have to suffer the ultimate penalty.
“It’s not that we’re giving Charles Manson the death penalty; it’s that he earned it.”
Manson was asked if he was “scared to die” after being granted clemency in a 1981 jailhouse interview.
“Sometimes I feel I am scared to live,” he said at the time. “Living is what scares me. Dying is easy. Getting up every day and going through this again and again is hard…”
Manson ordered Atkins, Krenwinkel, Watson, and Linda Kasabian to begin “Helter Skelter,” his term for an end-of-days battle he hoped to start between whites and blacks (loosely inspired by the Beatles song of the same name). They would murder whites and frame blacks to start the race war, which blacks would win at first. After black people took over the world, Manson believed, his family would hide out in the desert and eventually overtake them to rule the Earth.
The first killings took place at Polanski’s home in the Los Angeles neighborhood Benedict Canyon while he was away on the evening of Aug. 9, 1969.
The first victim was teenager Steven Parent, who was killed in his car while trying to leave the property. Parent was stabbed and also shot in the face.
The assassins then made their way into the rented home, where they repeatedly bludgeoned and stabbed the guests inside. Victims included hairstylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring, writer Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend Abigail Folger (an heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune).
The most gruesome slaying was that of Tate, who was in the third trimester of her pregnancy. According to a Family member’s testimony, Tate begged the killers to spare her unborn child.
“Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you. You’re going to die, and you’d better get used to it,” Susan Atkins barked to Tate, before she and Watson repeatedly stabbed her to death. They then scrawled “pig” on the front door with Tate’s blood.
The next evening, around midnight, Manson led the same four killers plus Van Houten and Grogan to the home of grocery-store executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, to “show them how to do it.” Manson tied up the LaBiancas before leaving his minions to finish them off.
The murders failed to incite the prophesied race war Manson predicted, but they signified a violent end to the ’60s dreams of the hippies that the Family seemed to emerge out of.
“[Manson] has no redeeming values,” Kay said. “And wanting to commit these murders and blame them on blacks to start a race war, I mean, that’s one of the worst motives that I ever came across in all my 37 years as an L.A. prosecutor.”
At 73, and now retired, Kay said he can still hear the sinister threats on his life made by Manson and his disciples.
“Squeaky [Fromme] and Sandy Good snuck up behind me and said they’re going to do to my house what was done at the Tate house,” Kay said. Fromme and Good faithfully appeared at court every day to support the Manson Family.
“He’s threatened to kill me three times,” Kay said of Manson. “He made the threats directly each time to me… I guess that’s squaring off with him, if you will. He didn’t like me at all.”
The threats motivated Kay, only 27 at the time, to request extra security. But unlike the late Bugliosi (whom he warmly referred to as “Vince”), Kay went unguarded at home.
“Vince lived in a home and he had a bodyguard sleep in the front room and everything,” Kay remembered. “My wife and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment so there was no room for a bodyguard.”
Instead, the prosecutor says he dispatched a bodyguard to meet him at the courthouse each day while they were trying the infamous case that spooked and captivated the nation.
“That person would be with me—but not in a one-bedroom apartment.”
But no bodyguard could stop Manson’s slew of threats.
The first came during the trial, when Manson allegedly told Kay he would bring “murder and bloodshed down on you.”
During one of Manson’s many parole hearings, the death-cult leader detailed how he was going to take out Kay.
“The most direct one was after the parole hearing—he told me he was going to have me killed out in the parking lot on the way to my car,” he said. “I mean, that to me was the most memorable one. It was so direct.”
Kay acknowledged even with protection, he was merely testing fate if he felt like he was immune to becoming another Manson victim.
“When Manson says something like that after what he’s done, you have to take it seriously,” he said.
It’s the kind of power wielded by Manson that the former prosecutor feels was lorded over Fromme, who was caught with a pistol trying to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975.
“I happen to believe that there’s no way Squeaky Fromme on her own would have thought up the idea of trying to assassinate President Ford in the park in Sacramento,” he said. “I believe Manson put her up to that.”
In 1970, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Watson (in a separate trial later) were convicted of murder and conspiracy for the Tate-LaBianca killings and were all sentenced to death. Sealing their fates was fellow Family member Linda Kasabian, who testified against them in exchange for immunity.
In a 1971 trial, Manson was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1969 murders of Donald “Shorty” Shea and Gary Hinman. When Shea, who was a ranch hand and stuntman on Wild Western films returned to Spahn Ranch with a black wife, it allegedly set Manson off.
Manson was also convinced that Shea had “snitched” on the group, having tipped off cops on a boosted car, which led to an Aug. 16, 1969, raid at dawn on their compound by police.
And just days after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and on Manson’s instructions, Watson, Grogan, and Bruce Davis tortured and stabbed Shea. Grogan and Davis were convicted and sentenced to life in prison; Grogan was released and Davis remains incarcerated.
Hinman had been taken hostage just before the Tate-LaBianca murders by Family members Mary Brunner and Bobby Beausoleil, who wanted money they believed he inherited. When Hinman didn’t meet their demands, Manson ordered him killed.
Brunner testified against Manson and Beausoleil, who was sentenced to death but is now serving life in prison. Brunner hasn’t been seen since 1977.
All of the Family members who were sentenced to death, including Manson, were spared when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty back in 1972 and commuted their sentences to life in prison. The state would later bring back the death penalty, but the life sentences for Manson and his killer kin stuck.
“It would be ex post facto violation of the Constitution to go back and reinstate it because you can only be prosecuted with what the law was when you committed the crime, and these laws were committed in 1969,” Kay said. “And the death penalty that was in effect in ’69 was held to be unconstitutional.”
Manson was given nine concurrent life sentences and was scheduled to be up for parole in 2027.
Ironically, most of Manson’s former followers have outlived him, save for Susan Atkins, who died in prison from brain cancer back in 2009.
Leslie Van Houten, now 68, held Rosemary Labianca down and covered her face with a pillowcase while another Family member carved “War” into her husband’s stomach after stabbing him in the couple’s home. (Then they helped themselves to chocolate milk in the fridge.) Van Houten was also the one who scribbled missives on the house walls using their victims’ blood.
“I don’t let myself off the hook,” Van Houten told a parole panel. “I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”
Van Houten was granted parole in September, but Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to reverse the decision as he did last spring.
Charles “Tex” Watson, now 72, did a stint in Atascadero State Mental Hospital and said he has since found God while serving his life sentence as a chaplain at Mule Creek Prison in Ione. Watson failed more than a dozen times to convince a parole board to free him for his part in being Manson’s hitman; his was the last face so many victims saw before they were tortured and slain with a wrench, knife, or pistol.
Patricia “Krenny” Krenwinkel, 70, remains California’s oldest female inmate and has been serving life at California Institution for Women in Corona. She has since renounced Manson and The Family. “What a coward that I found myself to be when I look at the situation,” Krenwinkel said during a 2014 interview with The New York Times.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, 61, was granted parole back in 2009 after serving 34 years hard time for the attempt on President Ford’s life. She has reportedly relocated to upstate New York, where she lives in isolation.
Kay has little doubt that there are more Manson victims beyond than the nine between the Tate-Labianca and Hinman-Shea murders that authorities could prove he either ordered or committed.
He pointed to hours of taped conversations with Manson’s muscle, Watson, who confessed the Family’s kill count could rise to 35 people. (Some may be buried around Barker Ranch, where the Family kept a hideout in addition to their home at Spahn Ranch.)
“I don’t think they really killed 35 people,” Kay insisted. “Did they kill others? Well, I don’t have any evidence to that, but anything is possible.”
That Manson managed to hold on for this long was like an open wound for so many families.
“It made the case go on forever,” Kay said. “If the penalty was put into effect then the case would have been done in the 1970s. There’s never really any closure.”
In 2005, Kay left the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and took an overdue year-long break. He became Redondo Beach city prosecutor for two years and then worked cold cases with detectives in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. He then headed to a prominent L.A. civil law firm to school counselors on trial-law practices.
When Sharon Tate’s mother, Doris, and sister Patty passed away, Kay delivered their respective eulogies.
“I often said that the good thing that came out of the Tate-LaBianca murders was Doris Tate,” he said.
Tate’s mother, who died in 1992, became an outspoken crusader for justice.
“I think at one time she was the most powerful woman for victims rights in California,” Kay said, adding that if you were a politician worth your salt in California you sought out Tate’s endorsement. “She really started the victims’ rights movement that is still so powerful even today.”
Kay isn’t blind to the irony that had the sentence gone forward Manson wouldn’t have become quite the diabolical deity that has haunted popular culture for decades.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kay said.