Former Manson follower may have hope for parole

Kansas City Star/April 7, 2004
By Patrick S. Pemerton

San Luis Obispo, Calif. -- When he talks about the past, Bruce Davis will often shake his head and roll his eyes, a gesture that says, "I don't know how it all happened."

His hair is gray and slicked back, his sunken eyes surrounded by crow's feet. The solemn-faced expression he once displayed during his double murder trial is now replaced by a grandfatherly grin.

According to those who prosecuted him, Davis, 62, was a key figure in Charles Manson's so-called family - a drug-induced cult of hippies who killed at least nine people in Southern California during the summer of 1969.

Thursday, for the 22nd time, he will ask the parole board to recommend his release from prison - an action that would allow him to move to Grover Beach with his wife and 10-year-old daughter.

While freedom is a long shot, Davis came within a vote of a parole recommendation in 2000. And he does have influential support - including backing from a former state Supreme Court justice living in Shandon, Calif.

Furthermore, a new governor and recent court cases offer a glimmer of hope for the inmate at California Men¹s Colony in San Luis Obispo.

Davis was born in Louisiana, attended the University of Tennessee for two years and eventually wandered to Southern California.

In 1965, he started taking LSD. In the spring of 1968, he met Charles Manson.

Manson, who was about 10 years older than Davis, treated him well and welcomed him into his commune. "I sort of adopted Manson as my father."

Living on the Spahn Ranch, an old movie set in the Los Angeles area, Davis said he immersed himself in drugs and women.

The 30 or so members of the group - mostly women - lived in tents and old buildings used in movies. To get by, they helped maintain the ranch and care for its aging owner, George Spahn, and ate food discarded by grocery stores.

Eventually, prosecutors said, Manson persuaded his followers to prompt a race war - what he called Helter Skelter - by committing murders that could be pinned on African-Americans. Once the war began, he told his followers, they would be safe in the desert. And because they were smarter, they would eventually take over.

The murders they committed in July and August of 1969 were vicious. Some of the victims were stabbed dozens of times. Others were hanged after death. In three homes, the killers smeared the victims' blood on the walls.

Davis was not involved in the infamous Tate-LaBianca crimes, a gruesome two-day rampage that claimed the lives of seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate.

Davis was convicted of the deaths of musician Gary Hinman and stagehand Donald "Shorty" Shea. Though he didn't perform the killings himself, prosecutors say his presence at the crime scenes made him guilty.

When the killings occurred, Davis said, he knew it was wrong. But he did nothing to stop them.

"I was never a vicious person, but I was indifferent," he said. "I wanted the immediate approval of the people I was with, and I didn't care what they did."

After lengthy jury deliberations, Davis was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison.

Though names like Tex Watson and Susan Atkins are synonymous with the Manson clan, many people don't know who Davis is.

Even the Doris Tate Foundation - the victims' rights group established by Sharon Tate's mother - isn't familiar with him.

But Davis ran the ranch when Manson was away, said Stephen Kay, who helped prosecute Davis and Manson.

"A lot of people think Tex Watson was his chief lieutenant because Tex Watson was the main killer on the night of the Tate-LaBianca murders," Kay said. "But that's not true. Watson was much lower on the totem pole."

Former Manson follower Barbara Hoyt agreed in a recent letter to the state parole board, saying Davis wanted to be a leader.

George Denny, Davis' attorney, said Hoyt has no credibility. And, he added, Davis lacked the personality to be a leader. "The psychiatrists and psychologists who have examined and written reports about Bruce say that he was a follower," Denny said.

After his conviction, Davis wound up in Folsom State Prison, where, he said, he found God in 1974.

In 1984, four years after he'd been transferred to CMC, he met his future wife through the prison ministry.

Beth Davis had read "Helter Skelter" - the book that chronicled the Manson murders - but she didn't recognize Davis from his photo in the book. The second time they met, Bruce Davis said, "You need to know my story."

"So he sat me down and told me his story," his wife recalled. "It was a shocker. I was nauseated. I drove away thinking: This is too big. I can't do this. What would my family and friends say?" After hearing a sermon on forgiveness, she decided they could be friends.

"I believe in `you do the crime, you do the time,' " said the airline attendant. "But I also believe in redemption. A soul is not just thrown away. A person is not just trashed because of what they did."

After they met, they would pray together, read the Bible, laugh and cry.

She found him to be intelligent, tender and protective. And a year after they met, they were married.

"I basically lost my family during that time," she said, crying at the memory. When the two married, Beth Davis' sister was the only relative to attend.

Her grandmother disowned her, and her father cursed her.

Today Beth Davis does talk to her father, but he refuses to discuss his son-in-law, whom he has never met. After initial disappointment, she said, her mother eventually grew to like Bruce Davis.

In 1985, the state still permitted inmates with life terms to have conjugal visits, allowing women from the outside to spend a night with their spouses.

As a result, the Davises' only child was conceived inside the CMC perimeter.

The well-spoken daughter sees Davis with her mother, who visits once a week.

"It gives me a feeling of great responsibility and a feeling of frustration that I can't do anything for her," Bruce Davis said.

The parents have told the girl why her dad is in prison, he said, but they have left out the "gory" details. "Every question she asks, we answer on the level she asked."

A few years after Davis became a father, Denny was visiting a relative in San Luis Obispo County when he drove by CMC and thought about his former client. He hadn't seen Davis in 20 years and was curious to know how he had changed, so he arranged to visit.

"I was very much impressed with how this young man had grown into a really first-rate citizen," Denny said.

Seeing that Davis had turned his life around, Denny said, he volunteered to represent him at parole hearings.

Denny, retired and living in Texas, keeps his law license current just so he can attend Davis' hearings, free of charge.

Each time Davis is up for parole, Denny notes the factors he thinks are favorable to his client: Davis' limited involvement in the crimes, his stable marriage, his doctorate in theology, his positive psychological reports, counseling sessions, good behavior in prison and employable vocational skills.

The prosecution notes the agonizing deaths, saying Davis needs prison to remind him of his contribution to evil.

The board commends Davis on his prison record each time, but then says he isn't ready - that the crimes were simply too heinous.

After 21 hearings, Davis said, sitting before the parole board can be numbing.

"Sometimes when I'm in there, I'm like, `Why am I here?' It's like they know that I know nothing's going to happen. But we sit there and make nice."

Davis said he no longer poses a threat to society and has done everything the board has asked.

Kay said a recommendation would lead to public outcry.

At each hearing, Davis receives letters of support from several people, including Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide who runs a national prison fellowship, and William Clark, a former state Supreme Court justice.

Clark decided to offer his support after meeting Beth Davis on a plane.

When asked about his backing, Clark declined to comment, saying he preferred to let his letters speak for him.

Davis' further incarceration would be a miscarriage of justice, Clark once wrote.

"If our parole provisions and processes have meaning and purpose - and they do - Mr. Davis should be returned to our open society," he wrote in 1998, "where he has much to offer our youth, as his file clearly reveals."

Clark's ongoing support carried some weight with the board in 2000, when one of three members voted to recommend release. But at Davis' next hearing, a different board voted unanimously to oppose.

"I argue with myself afterward," Denny said. "Do I really want to continue butting my head against a stone wall? But I do because I feel Bruce is the one person of all the parole stories I've heard who really deserves to be paroled."

Kay sees it differently.

"I worry about all these Manson family members that participated in murder," Kay said, noting that their crimes were carefully considered and committed while sober. "Something inside each one of them responded to the things that Manson was saying. He was saying stuff that if you or I heard it, we'd want to be a million miles away from the guy."

While the odds of any convicted murderer getting paroled in California are slim, they are improving.

When Gray Davis was governor, he appointed conservatives to the parole board, then used his authority to block recommendations on a regular basis.

Less than six months into his term, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already approved 16 parole recommendations - twice the number his predecessor approved during his five-year tenure.

In addition, the courts are now ruling that certain inmates who have been denied parole must be released. Bruce Davis is now considering taking his case to court.

In the meantime, Davis spends much of his free time playing gospel songs on guitar, reading theology books, watching television or working as a clerk in the protestant chapel.

He doesn't know yet whether he'll watch the remake of "Helter Skelter," a mini-series scheduled to air on CBS next month.

If he's paroled, his wife said, she would help him make the transition.

"You can't kid yourself - it's going to be tough," she said. "But I look forward to kissing him in the grocery store, having him sit next to me in church."

Though many inmates have difficulty staying out of trouble, friend Roger Keech thinks Davis would succeed.

"The average inmate is very immature, self-centered and naive," said Keech, a retired Cal Poly professor who first met Davis through the ministry 20 years ago. "Bruce is extremely mature."

Rick Ross, an international cult expert, said Manson followers like Davis were likely brainwashed through isolation and drugs. But years of separation from Manson, he added, would allow his followers to deprogram.

While Davis isn't the only Manson follower to find God - Watson, Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten have also claimed to be reborn - Ross said their spirituality can be considered genuine if their prison behavior is good.

Davis said New Life Community Church of the Nazarene in Pismo Beach has offered him a job as minister if he is ever released.

But he won't be able to forget his troubled days at Spahn Ranch. "It was a very satanic thing going on," he said. And though Manson's influence led him to prison, Davis said, "I don't hold anything against him. I wasn't a 9-year-old kid that got manipulated. I was just looking for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and to ride on a motorcycle."

Occasionally, someone will write Davis, asking about Manson. When he writes back, Davis said he tries to demystify the family.

"I say that was a very stupid time in my life," he said. "It was dangerous.

I tell them if you think there's any romance in this, you'd better check yourself."

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