The Manson family murders: 45 years later

HLN/August 8, 2014

By Michael Christian

One of the most horrifying crimes of the 1960s - and one of the most notorious of the entire twentieth century - occurred exactly 45 years ago.  Saturday, August 9, 1969 was the date when actress Sharon Tate and four others were savagely murdered by a group that came to be known and feared around the world as “the Manson Family.”

Tate, 26, had starred in several Hollywood films, including “Don’t Make Waves” with Tony Curtis, “The Wrecking Crew” with Dean Martin, and the 1967 smash “Valley of the Dolls.”  The actress was married to director Roman Polanski, whom she met when he directed her in the 1967 horror spoof “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”  With her that night in the rented house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon, just north of Beverly Hills, were celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35, writer Wojciech Frykowski, 32, and coffee heiress Abigail Folger, 25, who was Frykowski’s girlfriend.

On the night she died, Sharon Tate was 8-1/2 months pregnant.  Polanski was out of the country, working on a project in England.  Reportedly, he planned to return to Los Angeles on August 12, three days later.

The origins of “the Manson Family”

By the time he moved to the San Francisco area during 1967’s so-called “Summer of Love,” 32-year-old Charles Manson had spent two decades in and out of reform schools, jails, and prisons.  Borrowing bits and pieces from various religious theologies (including Satanism), he began to establish himself as the guru of a new spiritual community.  He started to attract a number of followers, and he and his new acolytes - all young, mostly female - began to form themselves into a tight-knit commune or “Family,” a counter-culture community held together by free love, copious amounts of recreational drugs, and complete devotion to the cult’s charismatic leader.

Eventually, Manson led his followers from the Bay Area south to Los Angeles.  He began to believe that racial tension between blacks and whites was about to explode, a theory fueled by the civil rights riots of the mid-1960s and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968.  Manson predicted that blacks would soon rise up in rebellion in American cities.  Around the same time, he also became fascinated with “The White Album,” the latest record from The Beatles, telling his followers that the song lyrics were aimed directly at the Family, although in a code that only he could understand.  According to Manson, “The White Album” - and, in particular, the song “Helter Skelter” - was instructing the Family to prepare for the upcoming racial chaos.   

Manson’s prediction was that the gruesome murders of whites by blacks would cause a split between racist and non-racist whites.  He believed this would eventually lead to white self-annihilation.  Black victory, however, would prove hollow - as blacks would soon realize they needed his followers to rule them.  During the conflict, Manson and the Family would safely retreat to a secret city somewhere beneath Death Valley.

Manson hopes to trigger a race war

In the summer of 1969, Charles Mason began to tell the Family that they might have to show blacks how to start the upcoming race war - in effect, to commit a crime so horrific that it would terrify whites and be blamed on blacks.  By the first week of August, Manson was ready to put his scheme into action.  He announced to his followers on August 8, “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.”

As his first target, Manson chose a location with which he was familiar.  He ordered Family members Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian to go to 10050 Cielo Drive, a residence he had visited when it was occupied by its previous tenant, record producer Terry Melcher.  Manson’s instructions to his followers were to “totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can,” according to Rolling Stone.     

The selected quartet arrived just around midnight on August 8-9.  Tex Watson climbed a telephone pole near the front gate to the property and cut the phone line.  Watson and the three women then climbed an embankment and entered the grounds.  Their first victim was 18-year-old Steven Parent, who had been visiting a friend who worked as the estate’s caretaker and lived in a guest house some distance from the main dwelling.  Stopped in his car as he was leaving the property, Parent was slashed with a knife by Watson, who then shot him four times in the chest and abdomen.  

Kasabian was told to stay by the front gate to keep watch.  Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel then walked to the main house.  After removing a window screen, Watson entered the dwelling and let Atkins and Krenwinkel in through a door.

Wojciech Frykowski was asleep on the living room couch.  He woke up after hearing Watson whisper to Atkins, after which Watson kicked him in the head.  When asked by Frykowski who he was, Watson reportedly replied, “I’m the Devil.  And I’m here to do the Devil’s business.”  Atkins and Krenwinkel then rounded up the other three victims and brought them to the living room.

Watson shot Jay Sebring after the latter complained of the rough way the pregnant Tate was being treated.  Watson subsequently stabbed Sebring seven times.

Frykowski, whose hands had been bound, was eventually able to free himself.  Despite being stabbed in the legs by Atkins, he managed to fight his way past the front door and out onto the porch.  Watson then joined the fight, stabbing Frykowski repeatedly, shooting him twice, and striking him over the head so forcefully that he broke the grip of the gun he was using as a club.

Kasabian, who had been standing guard down the lane, was drawn to the house by “horrifying sounds.”  In an unsuccessful attempt to stop the carnage, she lied to Atkins, saying that she thought someone was coming. 

Abigail Folger also briefly escaped and fled the home through a bedroom door.  Krenwinkel followed, stabbed, and tackled her - after which Watson joined the frenzy.  By the time she died, Folger had been stabbed 51 times.

Sharon Tate was the last victim to die.  She begged her attackers to let her live long enough to deliver her baby - but found no mercy.  Either Atkins or Watson (or both) stabbed her a total of 16 times.

Before they started off on their deadly mission, Manson had instructed his followers to “leave a sign . . . something witchy” at the crime scene, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi told Los Angeles Magazine.  So, using Tate’s blood, Atkins wrote “pig” on the front door before the group left the residence.

The victims’ bodies were discovered around 8:00 on the morning of August 9, when Tate’s housekeeper arrived for work.  News of the crime - and the savagery with which it was carried out - terrified America (particularly the residents of Southern California).

A second night of carnage

Hours later, on the night of August 9 - reportedly displeased with the way things had gone at the Tate home - Manson decided to strike again.  This time he personally led a group of Family members that included Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Kasabian, as well as Leslie Van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan.  After driving around for several hours and considering a number of properties, Mason led his followers to 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.  Like the Tate house, it was an address with which Manson had a minor connection, as the year before he and other Family members had attended a party at the residence next door.

Manson headed up the driveway and cased the house.  After he returned, he reportedly led Watson back to the residence.  After entering the home through an unlocked back door, they found 44-year-old supermarket executive Leno LaBianca asleep on a living room couch.  LaBianca was reportedly awakened at gunpoint, and his hands were tied.  His wife, Rosemary, 39, was then taken from the couple’s bedroom into the living room, their heads were covered with pillowcases, and they were bound with lamp cords.

At this point, Manson left the house.  But on his way out, he sent Krenwinkel and Van Houten into the home, ordering them to kill the LaBiancas.  Watson began the bloodbath by stabbing Leno LaBianca 12 times with a chrome-plated bayonet (the first blows were to LaBianca's throat).  LaBianca was then stabbed by Krenwinkel an additional 14 times with a carving fork that she left sticking out of his stomach.  Krenwinkel also stuck a steak knife in LaBianca's neck, and the word "war" was carved into his abdomen.

At the same time, Rosemary LaBianca was holding off the others by swinging a lamp that was still attached to the cord used to bind her.  Watson subdued her by stabbing her several times with the bayonet, after which Krenwinkel and Van Houten continued to stab her with a kitchen knife.  In total, Mrs. LaBianca was stabbed 41 times (although many of those wounds were apparently inflicted post-mortem).

Before leaving the premises, Krenwinkel used blood from the scene to write “rise” and “death to pigs” on the walls.  She also wrote “Healter [sic] Skelter” in blood on the refrigerator door.

Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Steve “Clem” Grogan did not directly participate in the LaBianca murders.

The bodies of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were not discovered until 10:30 on the evening of August 10, 1969 - approximately 19 hours after the murders.

The investigation goes nowhere

At first, the Los Angeles Police Department failed to recognize any link between the Tate and LaBianca killings.  In fact, on August 12, L.A.P.D. officers told reporters that there was no connection between the two incidents, and the separate investigations into both sets of murders seemed to be going nowhere.  But somewhere around the end of August, the younger (and hipper) team of detectives working on the second crime noted the potential connection between The Beatles and the bloody messages left behind at the LaBianca home.

By mid-October, Manson and his followers had relocated to the desert, where they were apparently searching for an entrance to the “bottomless pit,” the location of the underground city in which they would sit out the upcoming race war.  It was during this time that Manson and some two dozen Family members were arrested after authorities discovered several stolen dune buggies and other vehicles in their vicinity.

Approximately a month later - while Manson and most of his followers were still in jail - investigators were informed by members of a local motorcycle gang of a possible connection between the Family and the LaBianca murders.  At roughly the same time, the jailed Susan Atkins had begun bragging to cellmates that she had murdered Sharon Tate.  According to a fellow inmate, Atkins said she killed Tate “because we wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and notice.”

The Family goes on trial

On December 1, 1969 the Los Angeles Police Department announced arrest warrants for Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian in connection with the Sharon Tate murders.  Then, on December 8 - after evidence had been presented to a grand jury - indictments were issued for Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Kasabian for that crime.  The same five suspects - plus Leslie Van Houten - were also indicted for the LaBianca murders. The charges included multiple counts of first-degree murder, along with one count each of conspiracy to commit murder.

On June 15, 1970, at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, jury selection began in the trial of Charles Manson and his three female co-defendants:  Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten.  From the outset, the trial was a media sensation - with demonstrations from other Family members on the sidewalks outside the courthouse, and hijinks from those on trial inside the courtroom.

Family member Linda Kasabian was the star witness against Manson and his followers.  Because she freely admitted her involvement in the incidents but had never taken part in the actual killings, had tried to stop the bloodbath at the Tate residence, and was the only participant to express any remorse for what she had done, the State of California granted Kasabian immunity in exchange for her testimony.

On July 24 - the first day of testimony - Manson showed up in court with an “X” carved into his forehead.  According to the defendant, it represented the fact that he had “X’d himself from the establishment’s world.”  Days later, his “girls” had carved Xs into their foreheads as well - and other Family members on the outside quickly followed suit.  (Sometime later, through another act of self-mutilation, Manson altered his original marking, so that what used to be an “X” is now a swastika.)

At one point during the prosecution’s case - angered because he was not allowed to personally cross-examine a witness - Manson leaped from his seat and attempted to attack the judge.  After he was wrestled to the ground by court officers, his co-defendants stood up and began to chant in Latin. All four defendants were then removed from the courtroom.

In November, following the completion of the prosecution's case, the court was stunned when the defense decided to rest without calling a single witness.  Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten immediately began shouting their disapproval and demanding their right to testify; the women's attorneys told the judge they believed Manson was manipulating the protests, in an attempt to have his co-defendants clear him by assuming all guilt for the crimes.

Eventually, the only defendant to take the stand during the trial was Manson himself.  In rambling testimony – given outside the jury's presence, so they never heard it – he denied any involvement in the killings, insisting, "the music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment . . . Why blame it on me?  I didn't write the music."

On January 25, 1971, after a guilt phase that lasted nearly 5 months, jurors convicted the defendants of all of the charges against them.  Then, on March 29, 1971, Charles Manson and his three female co-defendants were all sentenced to death.

Tex Watson - who had been tried separately from the other defendants because he fought extradition from Texas - was convicted on October 12, 1971.  He received his death sentence on October 21.

At the time the defendants were sentenced, the method of execution in California was the gas chamber.  However, in 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s use of capital punishment was unconstitutional, therefore overturning any death sentences previously imposed.  As a result, the Manson Family death sentences were invalidated and automatically replaced with life in prison.  California voters responded by amending the state constitution, which paved the way for the return of capital punishment - but the new law could not be applied retroactively.

Where are they now?

Charles Manson, now 79, remains behind bars; he is currently being held at California’s Corcoran State Prison.  Over the decades since his incarceration began, Manson has had 12 parole hearings - and been denied release every time.  According to the California Parole Board, he has accrued over 100 serious disciplinary violations in prison since his conviction, and he has never shown or expressed any remorse for the murders.

Manson’s most recent parole hearing was April 11, 2012.  At that time, the parole board determined that he would not be reconsidered for parole until 2027 - by which time Manson would be 92 years old.

Charles “Tex” Watson, now 68, is currently being held at California’s Mule Creek State Prison.  Watson claims to have converted to Christianity in 1975, and he subsequently became an ordained minister.  During his incarceration, he has fathered four children with his wife through conjugal visits.  On November 16, 2011, he was denied parole for the 16th time.

On September 24, 2009, Susan Atkins died at age 61 of brain cancer while a prisoner in the Central Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.  Once described as “the scariest of the Manson girls,” Atkins was twice married behind bars.  Her request for compassionate release due to her terminal illness was denied shortly before her death.  According to her husband, her last word was a whispered “Amen.”  Over the decades, Atkins was denied parole 18 times.

Patricia Krenwinkel, now 66, is being held at the California Institution for Women in Chino.  She is currently the longest-held female inmate in the California penal system (a dubious honor previously belonging to Susan Atkins prior to her death).  On January 20, 2011, Krenwinkel was denied parole for the 13th time.

In 1977, Leslie Van Houten’s conviction was overturned, based on the grounds that she should have been granted a mistrial after her original defense attorney mysteriously disappeared during the trial (he was eventually found dead, the apparent victim of a flash flood).  Her second trial began in March 1977 and resulted in a hung jury.  Van Houten was then tried a third time.  On July 5, 1978, she was once again convicted.

Now 64, Van Houten is also incarcerated at the California Institution for Women.  Briefly married behind bars, she has been a model prisoner since she was first imprisoned - earning two college degrees, actively participating in recovery groups, aiding elderly female inmates, and teaching others how to read.  But on June 6, 2013, she was denied parole for the 20th time.

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