She Almost Killed Charles Manson

Nearly 50 years after testifying against him, Windy Bucklee is telling her story for the first time of meeting the murder mastermind in the years leading up to Helter Skelter.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Charles Manson introduced himself with a closed fist.

It was 1968 when the ex-convict drifter barged into Windy Bucklee’s house in Canoga Park, just north of Los Angeles, and hit the 26-year-old woman so hard in the face that she slid across the kitchen’s freshly waxed floor, past the sink where her roommate Frances stood clutching a butcher knife.

Though bleeding and seeing stars, Bucklee made it to the bedroom where a loaded Luger pistol was resting on top of a highboy dresser. Her cousin Rusty had brought it back from Europe and warned her: “Watch it, cousin, because it’s loaded.”

Bucklee felt for the steel and grabbed it with both hands as she ran back to the kitchen, thinking, “I’m going to shoot this motherfucker.”

Manson was in her sights; she aimed “down low, where it would hurt.”

But when Bucklee squeezed the trigger, nothing happened. The former cowgirl, no stranger to handling any variety of shotguns or handguns, couldn’t negotiate the German pistol’s unorthodox safety.

It was enough to scare him away, though not before saying:

“This isn’t over by a longshot, you bitch.”

Nearly 50 years later, Bucklee can’t help but think of what might have been.

“It’s a shame, a real shame that I never bothered to learn how to use that pistol,” she said.

“Just think how much better the world would have been — all those people might still be alive,” she lamented. “The Family would never existed, because I had him point blank and I would have shot him dead.

“And I really tried.”

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Bucklee testified in the murder trials of Manson and his follower Steven Grogan under her legal name, but has asked to be referred to in this story by the name she adopted in the 1960s and maintains to this day out of fear of reprisal. She has never come forward with her full story until now.

Bucklee worked on the ranch where Manson and his followers known as the Family launched their race war called “Helter Skelter” by murdering nine people in the summer of 1969. Bucklee’s husband testified before his death that he gifted Manson two weapons that were later used in the murder spree. The last victim of the bloodshed is the only killing Manson was ever accused of having a hand in: Bucklee’s cousin, Donald “Shorty” Shea.

Last month, the 82-year-old murder mastermind was rushed to Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield, California in January reportedly to be treated for gastrointestinal bleeding. He’s since returned to his cell.


Just before coming to blows, a bikini-clad Bucklee pulled her Ford truck to the side of the road after spotting the a cop car’s siren flashing in the rearview mirror.

“This truck’s been used for four different gas station and convenient store stickups,” an officer told her.

The cops checked Bucklee’s alibi after reaching her employer at New Art Publishing where she worked as a printing apprentice. They verified she’d punched her time card during the nights in question.

Bucklee remained mum, but she knew whodunit: Bill Vance, a neighbor whom she regularly offered her truck and who obliged by returning it gassed and washed.

The cops checked Bucklee’s alibi after reaching her employer at New Art Publishing where she worked as a printing apprentice. They verified she’d punched her time card during the nights in question.

Vance’s real name was David Lee Hamic, a master forger ex-con who lived a few doors from Bucklee on Gresham Street, in a home later dubbed “The Yellow Submarine.” Vance met Manson when he was in prison and let him and several girls crash there. (Vance lived with Harvey Williams, who was a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and toured carnivals with a 900-pound, four-horned, three-eyed Swiss bull named Elmer.)

Bucklee says she was “madder than a wet hen” and undressed Vance.

“I know it was you. Give me my goddamn keys,” she erupted. “Don’t you ever come near me. Anything else wouldn't have mattered but you endangered my damn kid. I go to jail and who’s going to take care of her? She’s got nobody.”

Keys in hand, Bucklee then arrived home to her 5-year-old daughter. Some time passed before she saw a “scrubby bastard” barging through the backdoor.

“I’m Charles Manson and I want those keys back,” he said.

“I don't give a damn who the fuck you think you are,” she said. “Get the hell out of my fucking house.”

Three days since Manson punched her, Bucklee was released from the hospital with her jaw wired shut. Unable to talk, her roommate Frances explained what happened to Shea.

But he knew all he needed from one look at Bucklee’s face.

“Shorty” actually stood about six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. The scruffy, 25-year-old wrangler from Massachusetts was a blue-eyed brawler and movie stuntman. Bucklee said he had a heart of gold, but he could play every bit the bad guy part in real life.

Shea darted to Vance’s place to get vengeance. Williams asked him to calm down, but Shea swatted him away. Vance came out next.

“I don’t want you but I’ll take you,” Shea warned. Vance booked it.

Then Manson, allegedly brandishing a blade, strutted out on the street but Shea unloaded on him.

“No one touches my sister, no one does them dirt,” he seethed before leaving Manson beat up on the asphalt.

“Even though he was my cousin, he called me his sister,” Bucklee proudly proclaimed.

She’d tasted sweet vigilante justice, but it was short-lived —payback in the worst way lurked ahead.

“The fact that Shea beat the shit out of Manson was the reason, I’m quite sure, that Shea always remained on Manson’s bad side,” Bucklee said. “I know he never forgot that.”


Bucklee had come to California a decade earlier. “I was technically running from the law,” she confided.

At 16, she hopped a Greyhound from Indian Hill, Ohio, thinking she murdered her stepmother after fighting back against an abusive woman who had once clobbered her with a two-by-four. It was 1956, and Bucklee said it was comeuppance for years of physical abuse.

“I just blew up and I took her apart,” she said. “I thought I killed her so I took my clothes and left.”

The woman lived.

Once Bucklee made it to California she fibbed her age to earn under-the-table wages and was cast as a stagecoach driver on various Old Western shows and then bounced around to different ranches from Catalina Island to Palm Desert before laying down roots at Spahn’s Movie Ranch.

The converted film set nested along the sprawling hills of the Santa Susana Pass outside L.A.

Spahn’s was a kind of nest for vagabonds like Bucklee and later Manson. She considered the ranch home and the gritty booted men and women hands were her family. They tended to the horses like Old Diamond, Dolly, Dell, Betsy and Chips as well as “Francis the Talking Mule” and a donkey named Buttercup. When film crews weren’t setting up shots, families from across L.A. congregated to watch their kids play mini cowboys and cowgirls trotting on the stable of horses.

Rustic life offered few frills. When there was hot water (a rarity at Spahn’s because the water heater was always on the fritz) someone would yell “Hot water!” and “everybody would run for a towel and come and shower.”

Every Christmas Eve Bucklee gave haircuts to the ranch hands and trimmed their beards. The holidays are when Spahn splurged for turkey and provided each of his staff with new duds.

Shea was an infrequent presence at Spahn’s, bouncing between odd jobs like managing a strip club, running a couple adult bookstores in Las Vegas, and working as a salt miner and truck driver.

The coming and going made it easy to avoid showdowns with Manson and his followers at first.

“We were family,” Bucklee said. “We lived together and ate together; any one of them had a room wherever they wanted.”

In 1961, Bucklee married a fellow ranch hand and stuntman named Randy Starr in a Native American ceremony on the 27.5-acre mountainous hideaway. They would endure the loss of their infant daughter Starlina Lee Star back in 1965, and Starr himself would go on to suffer additional grief following a severe car accident while traveling back east.

By 1968, Manson arrived in Los Angeles from the Bay Area. The next year, he came to Spahn’s Ranch with a small band of followers.

“At first there was, like, five of them, and George was OK with that,” Bucklee said. “But then they kind of moved into the whole place.”

Like desperadoes in a Western film, the Manson Family gradually turned the ranch upside down.

“We gave guided rides and watched the children and made sure nobody got hurt,” she said. “It was a nice family affair.

“And you can't have a family affair with people running around half-naked.”

Horse riding gave way to horse play.

“You see these girls one day and the were pretty and then you see them another day and they all got red eyes and staggering all over.

“I seen them have sex in the open. You got to be taking something to screw up your inhibitions.”

Spahn himself was dispatched his own personal play things.

“The girls were spending the night two and three at a time with George,” she said. Spahn nicknamed Lynette Fromme “Squeaky” for the sound she made, and referred to Ruth Ann Moorehouse as “Ouisch,” and Susan Atkins was “Sadie Mae.”

However hard and renegade Bucklee or Shea’s ilk were, they couldn’t contend with this new breed of sinister.

“The cowboys were never the spick and span but they were always clean,” she said of the dusty booted and buckskin adorned cowboys. Meantime, the growing Manson’s Family members could have easily been mistaken for peace-loving hippies, though he loathed flower power and hippies. (Manson sardonically dubbed his clan “slippies.”)

Bucklee figures Manson must have forgotten who he’d slugged back Gresham Street thanks in part to prodigious drug use, including LSD. On numerous occasions Manson offered her marijuana (Bucklee “didn’t use the stuff”) and repeatedly tried to recruit Bucklee to join his flock.

“Charles Manson would say to me, ‘Why don't you throw away your bra and come up here and live with the beautiful people?’”

The leader tried training his hypnotic powers on Bucklee.

“He would make remarks like, ‘You need to watch my eyes,” she said of Manson’s deep stare. “You need to look at my eyes. And ‘You need to relax. Listen to me.’”

The trance failed on her but not on Family members like Steven Grogan, a teenager whose family had left him to get some work experience over the summer.

Bucklee knew Grogan as a high school burnout and remembered him having a knack with wild horses since he was 16. To hear Windy tell it, Grogan “had manners out the yin-yang.”

She trusted him so much she let him stay at her home and watch over her and Starr’s other daughter.

But under Manson’s manipulation, clean-cut Grogan was reborn as a shaggy, drug-addled assassin.

“I'm not Steven anymore. I’m Clem Roo,” he told Bucklee. Others also knew him as Clem Tufts and Scramblehead.

Grogan was like many of the kids that felt like society’s throwaways.

“They were ripe,” Bucklee said. “They wanted somebody to tell them they were wonderful. Somebody to tell them they were loved.”

Violence was also part of the cult. Charles “Tex” Watson testified in court about how in 1969 on the ranch Manson silenced an obnoxiously loud cat: Manson “would bring animals into the room and he would take an animal, like a cat, for instance, and he would start throwing it up in the air and squeezing it and pulling on it and the cat was crying at first, I remember, and then when he got through with it, the cat didn't even — never would make a noise again and it was still walking around alive.”

Bucklee said there was one instance with Manson and a pregnant bloodhound named Molly who she heard screaming one night.

“I went over and looked and they had the dog tied — she was on all four legs upside down on a bar table.”

She heard Manson blab to his followers: “Lookee here, I’m going to cut her open and show you how pups are carried in the bitch.”

On her own, the mother crept up toward Molly’s desperate screams and just as Manson had “cut open” the dog Bucklee raised her rifle and “shot her.”

She said the Family members scattered.

“They bailed out of there like bees from a hive,” she said. “By the time I got out the door they were coming after me.”

“I can see them right now cutting her open,” she admitted. “This is shit you want washed out of your brain but you never will.”

There was worse bloodshed to come.


Manson’s murder plan for race war was dubbed Helter Skelter (after the Beatles song) and unleashed upon Southern California on July 31, 1969.

Doing his bidding in the beginning of the killings was Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner, who went to the Malibu home of music teacher Gary Hinman after he allegedly sold the Family a bad batch of mescaline. They tortured him in hopes of getting his inheritance money.

A sword-wielding Manson, dropped by and sliced his left ear in two, which Brunner tried stitching back together with dental floss. Then Beausoleil fatally stabbed him to death using an eagle-handled Mexican Bowie knife Bucklee’s husband Starr had gifted Manson.

During grand jury testimony, Starr said that Manson frequented his trailer and “kept wanting this knife,” which was adorned on his wall beside a sword and two other blades.

“Take it and get out of here,” Starr told him. “You’re wearing a path in my trailer so you can get the knife, so you can have the knife, so take it.”

They wrote “Political Piggy” on Hinman’s wall using his blood as ink and included a paw print to frame the murder on the Black Panthers.

Beausoleil was nabbed in the morning on Aug. 6, 1969, in San Luis Obispo County while nodding off inside Hinman’s stolen 1965 yellow Fiat station wagon. Cops plucked the murder weapon from under the wheel well. After two trials Beausoleil was sent to serve out a commuted life sentence. He’d come up for parole; even as recently as 2016 but was denied release.

Three days later, “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel  traveled to 10050 Cielo Drive, the former home of Manson’s new nemesis, Beach Boys producer Terry Melcher and his girlfriend actress Candice Bergen. They slaughtered everyone inside.

Pregnant actress Sharon Tate, 26, was repeatedly stabbed and hung from the rafters. Hairstylist to the stars Jay Sebring, 35, had his face smashed with a gun butt and was shot. Film financier Wojciech “Voytek” Frykowski, 32, was stabbed and shot. His common-law wife, 25-year-old coffee heiress Abigail Folger, was also stabbed. Steven Parent, 18, was shot dead behind the wheel of his white Rambler as he was leaving.

Watson used a Hi-Standard Butline long-barrel revolver (a weapon also offered to Manson by Starr that was later used to kill Parent).

The following evening, Manson joined Watson at 3301 Waverly Drive, Los Feliz, the home of grocery executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. The two tied them up before Manson left. Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten arrived afterward and fatally attacked them in a similar grisly fashion.

They all returned to the ranch, which was more like a Manson commune with LSD-tripping followers numbering almost 40.

On Aug. 15, 1969, Shea brought his new wife Magdalene Shea to Spahn’s.

Shea met the topless dancer, who was black, three months earlier while managing a bar in Carson, California where she performed. When Shea told Bucklee about eloping in Vegas to Magdalene, she gave him her blessing.

“I told him, ‘That’s fine with me if that’s what you wanted. It didn’t make any difference to me. Black girl, white girl — it don’t matter.’”

But the move may have slighted an already explosive Manson.

Bucklee suspects Shea’s effort to introduce his new wife set him off, since Manson had sermonized about a coming race war where whites would have to rise up and eradicate blacks, whom he allegedly referred to as “monkeys.”

The morning after the Shea showed up at the ranch, it was raided by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies to bring down a ring who were boosting Volkswagens and tricking them out into dune buggies.

Manson and 25 followers were booked on grand theft auto charges. A batch of credit cards belonging to a doctor fell out of Manson’s shirt pocket, according to the arrest report, which also said he went by the alias “Charles Summers.”

After getting released, Manson blamed Shea as the snitch.

Around the same time, Spahn agreed to sell much of the ranch to his new neighbor Frank Retz for $10,000 per acre. The only catch was that he wanted Manson and his weirdos gone, so Spahn hired Shea to kick them out or at least keep them on the straight and narrow.

Between August 26 and 28, Manson, Watson, Grogan, Vance and Bruce Davis asked Shea to come with them to fetch some auto parts. After Watson gave a sign, Grogan hit Shea over the head with a pipe wrench, according to Grogan and Davis’s subsequent parole hearing testimony.

Shea managed to spill out of the car from the front passenger’s seat, the rest of the men surrounded and repeatedly stabbed him repeatedly.

Magdalene, who had stormed out angry her husband wanted to stay at the ranch, called there looking for him but was told he had left for San Francisco. Bucklee and others had been told Shea went back to Las Vegas to chase after Magdalene.

Bucklee was summoned to testify during some of the last trials of the murders. On the witness stand, Bucklee recreated a conversation she overheard between her babysitter, Grogan, and Randy Mourglea. She testified that she overheard Grogan bragging about how he and a group of guys, including Manson himself, carved Shea up.

“[I] pulled back his head by his hair and cut his throat and blood came out,” Bucklee quoted Grogan saying. “And the whole time I was doing that Charlie was jacking him off.”

She also added on the witness stand how she overheard Grogan say how it took “all of us to kill him.”

Looking back now, Bucklee believes it would likely take several men to fell the brawn wrangler and even then he wouldn’t have shown weakness.

“Shorty wasn't a chicken,” she said. “He was the kind of man that would have fought back. There's stories he was crying and all this shit and it wouldn't have been true. I've seen him in some rough places and he never cried or backed down from anybody.”

It would be almost a decade later until the body was exhumed down a creek up at Spahn’s Ranch after Grogan divulged its precise location. The cooperation won his freedom back in 1985 after serving less than 15 years prison time.

An autopsy of Shea’s badly decomposed remains (a missing hand was believed to have been scavenged by animals) confirmed the cause of death to be “multiple stab and chop wounds.”


For decades, Bucklee has had to live each day fearing a Family member might track her down.

Haunted by the past, Bucklee said keeps loaded weapons at the ready at all times.

“Honey, I got a gun right now under my pillow,” she said, adding she has always put protecting her children as her greatest feat. “And I have a rifle in the closet and I would shoot anyone.”

Then just before the cult leader convict had been caught back in 2011 at Corcoran State Prison with contraband cell phones Bucklee said she received a call in the “middle of the night.”

Then just before the cult leader convict had been caught back in 2011 at Corcoran State Prison with contraband cell phones Bucklee said she received a call in the “middle of the night.”

The voice was unmistakable.

“This is Charlie, Windy. This is Charlie.”

“Charlie who,” she tried to play possum. “I don’t know any Charlie.”

“Yeah, you do. This is me.”

Without wasting a breath Bucklee held the receiver believing after all these years she was speaking to the same man who had suckerpunched, savagely attacked or killed countless souls and repeatedly tried to win her over.

As always, the brave Bucklee stuck to her guns.

“I hung up.”