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Manson: An Oral History

Forty years ago Charles Manson, a psychopath passing himself off as a hippie guru, sent members of his "Family" on one of the bloodiest killing sprees in L.A. history. Those involved in the murders and their aftermath speak out

 

Photograph by Lisa Romerein

 

Rugged and eerily beautiful, the property at the High Western end of the San Fernando valley, where the killers launched their bloody attacks, now stands empty and unmarked. The old Spahn movie ranch burned down in the 1970s, and the land remains undeveloped. Gone, too, is the Benedict Canyon house where the first night of slaughter occurred. Those who look for 10050 Cielo Drive—and many do—look in vain. It was demolished in the 1990s, and the Mediterranean villa that replaced it bears a different address. The hillside residence at 3301 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, where the madness continued on the second night, is intact, but it also has a new street number. As for Barker Ranch, the desert hideaway to which the murderers fled, it burned this spring.

Still, the events that transpired at these places have left an indelible scar on Los Angeles’s psyche. The murders, so bizarre, so arbitrary, could have happened only here. For 40 years the city has been haunted by the names of the victims, usually run together as Tate-LaBianca. It is important, though, to remember them as individuals. On the first night: actress Sharon Tate, 26, who had starred in Valley of the Dolls and was married to director Roman Polanski; hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35; Voytek Frykowski, 32, an old friend of Polanski’s from Poland; and Abigail Folger, 25, Frykowski’s sweetheart and heiress to the coffee fortune. Steven Parent, an 18-year-old delivery boy, simply happened to be there. On the second night: Leno LaBianca, 44, president of Gateway Markets, a small grocery store chain, and his wife, Rosemary, 38, who ran the clothing shop Boutique Carriage.

There is also, of course, another name, one that will likely outlast those of the dead. Charles Manson. There had been mass murderers before, and there have been since, but Manson is an enduring symbol of unfathomable evil. He transformed seemingly peaceful hippies—sons and daughters of the middle class—into heartless killers. Then he set them loose in Los Angeles’s most privileged neighborhoods. 

Even after all this time, mention of Manson frightens many who lived through the months of terror. Attempts to solicit information conclude, as often as not, with slammed-down phones. The senseless and intimate nature of the violation—men and women butchered in their own homes—is still too upsetting. Yet those who would talk (and many ultimately did) give voice to one of the most horrific events in Los Angeles history. The Manson case matters not only because of the magnitude of the crime but because it revealed the violent, predatory side of the 1960s. When Winifred Chapman, who kept house at Cielo, discovered the bodies just after 8 a.m. on August 9, 1969, any hope that the counterculture would be immune was shattered. The 1960s ended by degrees, but it was here that the ending began.

I. TATE

MICHAEL McGANN, Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. Seventy-three years old, he is retired. I arrived at the Tate property at 1:45 or 1:50 on the afternoon of August 9. There was a large gate that protected the driveway. There was a car parked in the middle of the driveway, and there was a body in the car. That was Steven Parent. He was slumped over to the side on the front seat. He’d been shot. As I approached the house I noticed that the word “PIG” was written in what appeared to be blood on the front door. Then I went inside. Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were lying on the living room floor, both with multiple stab wounds. A rope was tied around Sharon’s neck and draped over a rafter. The other end of the same rope was affixed to Jay Sebring’s neck. They were probably about four feet apart. Sharon was in a bikini-style nightie. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and I could tell she had been stabbed 15-plus times. Sebring had been stabbed and beaten over the head. There was blood everywhere. I went through the house and down a long hallway leading out to the back door where the pool was, and I went out into the lawn and found Abigail Folger. She was in a nightgown, and she’d been stabbed numerous times. Her gown was soaked in blood. Then a little bit farther on was Voytek Frykowski. He had numerous head wounds, like he’d been hit with some kind of object. He also had many stab wounds and had been shot several times. He was fully clothed, and he was covered in blood. In the space of ten minutes I saw all five bodies. I’d worked homicide for five years and seen a lot of violence. This was the worst.

DANNY GALINDO, Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. He is 88 and retired. When I arrived, there was a perimeter all the way around to keep the media out. They had their own camp and so much equipment. It was a circus. Reporters were cluttering the entry to Cielo Drive all the way to the street below.

McGANN The whole crime scene was grotesque, totally weird. Steven Parent, the kid in the car—that made no sense at all. He obviously had nothing to do with the people in the house. But there was some promising evidence, and we tried to collect it immediately. We collected broken pieces of a pistol grip. We found a knife. I collected some phone wire. The killers had cut the line into the house, so I saved the piece they’d cut. We had our people from SID [Scientific Investigation Division] collecting blood. We collected fingerprints. Before we got there, the uniform officers had made an arrest. There was a single-story guest house in the back, and William Garretson was hiding in there.

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