Bruce Davis went from clean-cut youth in Roane County to murderer, member of Manson clan

From ET to notoriety

Knox 6, 2010

Kingston - When Bruce Davis graduated from Roane County High School in 1961, there was no reason to believe he would one day be serving a life sentence for killing two people as part of the most notorious series of mass murders in American history.

As a member of the infamous "Manson Family," which left a trail of butchered bodies in Southern California in 1969, the former Midtown resident and University of Tennessee student was ultimately sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars for his role in killing two of the Family's victims.

Officials in California, however, recently surprised many of the victims' families by granting Davis parole after more than two decades of rejecting his bids for an early release.

It remains uncertain whether Davis, who is now 67, will actually be allowed to leave prison; California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can overturn the parole board's decision.

But the possibility that Davis might someday return to his former home has his classmates talking.

Not for the first time, they are wondering: How did the neatly groomed, studious teenager they went to school with end up immersed in the cult headed by Charles Manson?

"It's disconcerting to know that you knew somebody who could do something like that," Pat Browder of Kingston said recently as she sat in her living room, thumbing through pictures in the 1961 yearbook that Davis edited. "How did he go from immaculate and clean to where he ended up? It just doesn't fit."

Terrorized at home

The Davis family - composed of Bruce Davis, his older sister Judith, and their parents - moved around a lot when the children were growing up. They lived at times in Louisiana, Alabama and Michigan before finally settling in the small Roane County community of Midtown when Bruce was about 10 years old.

According to Judy Orin Prater, who grew up next door to the Davis house, Bruce Davis was "a very nice, very polite person to me" but was in most other ways unremarkable. Prater, in fact, said she can remember no specific anecdotes about his childhood or teen years despite living in such close proximity.

"He kind of ran in different circles, I guess," she said. "He was a young boy, doing whatever young boys do."

Despite the wholesome, quiet appearance of the Davis home, what went on behind the walls was an often terrifying experience for the children who lived there, according to Davis' sister. In fact, if her account is accurate, her brother had become intimately familiar with violence at an early age.

"Daddy had a short temper that quickly turned to violence," Judith Davis recounted in a written statement given to California authorities last year for her younger brother's parole hearing. "He was mean sober and meaner drunk."

Judith Davis said their father, a welder at the Kingston Fossil Plant named Bert Davis, "kicked us across the room with his engineer boots, slapped us in the face and whipped us with his belt. As we got older, he pinched us with pliers as we passed him in a room at home."

As the children reached adolescence, Bert Davis focused most of his abuse on his son and even discouraged the boy's dream of going to college, she wrote.

"I recall Mama's voice saying, 'As long as I have a job and one dollar to my name, Bruce will go to school as long as he wants to. And you won't have one (expletive) thing to say about it,' " Judith Davis wrote.

'Angry young man'

In high school, none of Bruce Davis' friends suspected anything was amiss in his household. To all appearances, Davis was a serious-minded teen who seemed somewhat older than his peers, excelled in social sciences and edited his class yearbook.

The only outward indication that all wasn't well in the life of the young man who "acted like a preacher" may have been in the 1961 yearbook, when Davis chose the surprising phrase "Angry young man" to describe himself in a caption by his class picture, according to former classmates.

Frank Huggins, who also worked on the yearbook and who later went on to become a captain at a sheriff's department in northern Georgia, said that Davis was intensely interested in social and political issues.

That set him apart from other boys.

"For lack of a better word, Bruce was probably a little bit ahead of his time intellectually," Huggins said. "Because he was intellectually different, Bruce did not have a wide social network. I'm not saying he didn't have a lot of friends, but he did not have a wide social network like others have in high school."

After graduation, Davis enrolled at the University of Tennessee to study political science, a choice that came as no surprise to many of his friends. Despite what appeared to be a great deal of academic potential, Davis remained at best an indifferent student - he had ranked 89th out of his graduating class of 133 at Roane County High School and dropped out of college after only six quarters at UT, according to reports.

After leaving college, Davis apparently tried to put as much distance between himself and his old life - especially his estranged father - as possible. He ended up shuffling back and forth from California to Tennessee, working odd jobs and experimenting with drugs. He entered the hippie subculture.

"He was a drifter at that point," said Davis' attorney, Michael Beckman. "He left in search of a father, and he dropped out and drifted around."

Huggins said it was no surprise that Davis was drawn to the 1960s counterculture.

"Bruce was an early hippie," Huggins said. "With everything going on in Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco), I think Bruce just migrated toward that. ... I don't think anyone except Bruce will ever know how he ended up like he did. If I had to classify Bruce, even in the early 1960s, he was a forerunner of the hippie movement."

'Helter Skelter'

On March 21, 1967, however, an event took place that would radically alter Davis' path and ultimately cost the lives of at least nine other people: Charles Manson, a 32-year-old felon with a history of pimping, attempted rape and theft, was paroled from a federal prison in Los Angeles.

Manson headed north to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, where he began to assemble his Family from the hordes of dropouts and spiritual seekers who were drawn to the epicenter of the hippie movement.

A self-styled guru and aspiring musician with tremendous charisma, Manson strove to break into the music business but was never able to secure a recording contract.

One of Manson's earliest recruits was Davis, who soon traveled to England on Manson's behalf to study Scientology, according to former L.A. County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who co-wrote the bestselling book "Helter Skelter."

Davis was soon expelled from the Scientologists' ranks for drug use, however, and was back with the rest of the Family by the time they moved into the Spahn Ranch, an old movie set near Topanga Canyon, in 1969.

At that point, Davis' father had died from natural causes in Roane County and the Manson Family had grown to more than 30 people, mostly young women seduced by Manson's charm and psychologically manipulated to the point they would do anything he asked of them.

For a select few, their devotion to Manson would soon prove lethal.

In addition to a taste for hallucinogenic drugs, orgies and the Beatles' "White Album," Manson had by this time developed his own personal vision of a pending Armageddon and was plotting a string of slayings to bring it about.

In July and August of 1969, the group butchered at least nine people in the L.A. area as part of a bizarre master plan to ignite a race war that would leave Manson and his Family ruling over civilization's wreckage, a plot they dubbed "Helter Skelter" after the Beatles' song of the same name.

Using messages painted in their victims' blood, they castigated their victims as "piggies" and left evidence they hoped would lead police to conclude the murders were committed by black militants.

On the run in Roane

Once authorities tied the killings to Manson's clan, Davis fled California when it became obvious he was a suspect in two of the slayings. He spent the next year on the lam, traveling across the country and even dropping by Roane County at one point to visit loved ones.

Gary Humphrey, a former classmate who still lives near Kingston, recalls a day in late 1969 when Davis showed up at a grocery store run by Humphrey's father for a visit that lasted about half an hour.

"He was probably on the run then," Humphrey said. "He was different. He had a big X cut in his forehead, and he had long hair. He was not the neat Bruce he was in high school. ... I had no idea of anything. We just had a conversation, talked about what he'd been doing and where I was working."

Davis finally surrendered in 1970 during a staged media event outside the Los Angeles courthouse where Manson and several co-defendants were standing trial for the murders of actress Sharon Tate, businessman Leno LaBianca and five others.

Davis had already been indicted for his role in two other killings and had been the subject of an intense manhunt by state police and the FBI.

For several weeks, a group of female Family members had stood vigil on a street corner near the courthouse, recalls Sandi Gibbons, a former reporter who covered the trial and now works as a spokeswoman for the L.A. County District Attorney's Office.

They had tipped off one of the reporters covering the trial that Davis would be turning himself in, and by the time Davis was due to surrender on Dec. 2, a crowd of nearly 100 people had gathered to watch.

"The Manson girls stayed out on the corner every day and told people that Charlie was innocent," Gibbons said. "None of us had really seen Bruce other than his picture, so we didn't recognize him when he came across the street.

"The girls said, 'That's Bruce!' and he had a little news conference. ... Bruce was talking about 'hiding with your children' and 'hiding in your backyards' - it was typical Family gobbledygook. He was relaxed - he had long hair, he was pretty scruffy-looking, but he was articulate."

According to Gibbons, Davis' native intelligence and studious background made him stand out from the rest of Manson's followers, especially the handful of men who clustered around the cult leader.

"Some of them were so zonked out on drugs they couldn't string two words together," she said. "He was educated."

Davis' improvised news conference marked his last day as a free man. Along with Manson and other co-defendants, Davis was convicted in March 1972 of two counts of murder and ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison.

'Sorry for who I was'

Just under six months ago, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Board of Parole Hearings granted Davis parole after turning him down 25 consecutive times.

Prosecutors are opposing the parole board's decision and have asked Schwarzenegger - who has until June 27 to make a decision - to reverse the parole.

Davis couldn't be reached for an interview. Beckman said he has advised his client not to give any interviews until after the parole issue is decided.

Davis is now a born-again Christian, he's had no disciplinary infractions since 1980 and he has earned two college degrees while incarcerated at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, Beckman said.

He is also married to a former airline stewardess named Beth Davis, and - due to a now-defunct California prison rule that once allowed him conjugal visits - he has a teenage daughter named Taylor Davis, according to Beckman.

In a recent letter to the parole board, Davis promised to atone for his role in the slayings.

"I am sorry for who I was and what I did," he wrote. "I am now focused on compensating for the lives I destroyed by promoting life-enriching and violence-preventing lifestyles at every opportunity."

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