'60s evil underside continues to haunt, draw interest on Net

Associated Press, August 9, 1999
By Linda Deutsch

LOS ANGELES -- The night of Aug. 9, 1969, was oppressively hot. Doors and windows were left open, but the sounds of screams and gunshots were no more than distant echoes in the hills around the sheltered Benedict Canyon estate.

No one heard Sharon Tate pleading for her unborn baby. No one but the killers.

The next morning, a maid coming to work ran screaming into the street after she found the actress and four others slaughtered in a grotesque scene marked by bloody scrawlings with messages including "Death to Pigs."

The next night, it happened again. Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, a wealthy couple who lived across town, were stabbed to death in their home.

Thirty years later, the ghosts of the Tate-LaBianca murders will not rest. The Charles Manson cult that carried them out haunts the Internet and a new generation is oddly fixated on a mass murder spree that remains the nation's most bizarre and notorious.

For those who were even peripherally involved in the case, the horror never ends, a spectacle relived in occasional parole hearings.

"I remember it as if it was yesterday," said real estate agent Elaine Young, who had leased the Benedict Canyon estate to Tate and her director husband, Roman Polanski.

"I cried for six weeks afterward, and it took me years to recover from it," Young said.

Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who wrote the book "Helter Skelter," calls the killings "probably the most bizarre mass murder case we've ever had in America."

Bodies were scattered about the lush green estate. Tate, who was 8 ½ months pregnant, was stabbed to death, then hanged from a rafter in the living room. Also slain were Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee fortune; Voityck Frykowski, a Polish filmmaker friend of Polanski's; Jay Sebring, hairdresser to the stars; and Steven Parent, a young man shot while leaving the cottage of his friend, the caretaker.

The victims' fame and status combined with the grisly nature of the crimes drew international attention, which intensified when police found the LaBiancas, slain in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Los Feliz amid the same bloody scrawlings.

The killers were at large, and Southern Californians were thrown into panic. People rushed to buy guns, and the market for guard dogs exploded.

"I grew up in Los Angeles, and I can't remember a time when people were more scared," said Stephen Kay, the trial co-prosecutor who has attended 53 parole hearings for the killers, lobbying for their continued incarceration.

Three months later, police arrested a ragtag band of cult members devoted to a charismatic ex-convict named Charles Manson. They called themselves the Manson Family, and the name still symbolizes the dark underside of the 1960s.

Cult members indulged in drugs, and popular culture may have inspired their acts. Bugliosi contends that Manson believed the Beatles were talking to him through songs including "Helter Skelter," which inspired his desire to foment a race war in America.

A trial as bizarre as any seen in American courts transfixed the nation. All that was missing was the TV coverage that surrounded the O.J. Simpson trial.

"It was like that old radio show, `Can You Top This?' It was so crazy and so interesting," recalled lead defense attorney Paul Fitzgerald.

In her memoir, "Headline Justice," reporter Theo Wilson recalled a 10-month trial with "testimony that went from horrifying to ludicrous . . . witnesses with names like Lotsapoppa, Snake and Ouish . . . threats of self-immolation and other destruction . . . a defense attorney disappearing, his drowned body undiscovered until many months later on the very day that the defendants received death sentences from the jury."

Manson's three female co-defendants, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, were convicted with him after taking the stand and attempting to absolve him by admitting their own deadly deeds. Another defendant, Charles "Tex" Watson, was found guilty in a separate trial. Their death sentences were commuted to life when the death penalty was briefly outlawed in America in 1972.

But it was Manson, now in California's Corcoran State Prison, who kidnapped the nation's imagination.

"It's sad, but Manson has become somewhat of a folk hero to young people. He gets four fan letters a day, more mail than any prisoner in the United States," Kay said.

An Internet search of the words "Charles Manson" comes up with more than 8.5 million references, including sites about Manson's recorded sayings, his music and reproductions of his scrawled notes and artwork. One Web site compares him to Jesus Christ. Another focuses on the influence of Beatles music on his murderous agenda.

One site, operated by Manson follower Sandra Good, offers arguments for Manson to receive a new trial and lengthy excerpts from Manson's "thoughts" as well as a "discography" of recordings made from his music.

"The name Manson has become a metaphor for evil," said Bugliosi, "and evil has its allure. Some people have the same fascination for Jack the Ripper and Hitler."

The phenomenon is perhaps best summed up by a former reporter. Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Gil Garcetti, covered the trial for City News Service.

"Charlie was always a con man," said Gibbons, "and now he's managed to con a whole new generation of people."

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