Will California Ever Release Manson “Family” Member Leslie Van Houten?

50 years after the Tate-LaBianca Murders, antipathy toward the surviving participants remains as potent as ever

For almost five decades, Leslie Louise Van Houten (prisoner W-I3378 at the California Institution for Women in Chino) has appeared, with relentless regularity, before the California parole board in pursuit of her freedom. Along with Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, Van Houten was convicted of murder in the two-day killing spree orchestrated by Charles Manson 50 years ago this month. In thrall to Manson and his Family—and at the direction of Charles “Tex” Watson, whom Manson had instructed to make certain that Van Houten and Krenwinkel directly participated in the killings—Van Houten plunged a carving knife 16 times into Rosemary LaBianca, the wife of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca, who was also murdered, after Manson broke into the LaBiancas’s Los Feliz bungalow, subdued the couple, and ordered Van Houten, Krenwinkel, and Watson inside.

Van Houten was originally sentenced to die in the San Quentin gas chamber after her conviction in the sensational trial, which I covered as a British newspaper correspondent, that began in July 1970 and ended almost a year later. But when the death penalty was abolished by the California Supreme Court in April 1972, her sentence—along with those of Atkins and Krenwinkel—was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

In 1976 a state appellate court overturned Van Houten’s 1971 conviction and ordered her to be retried largely because of the disappearance of Ronald Hughes, her lawyer, whose body was later discovered in a remote wash in Sespe Hot Springs in Los Padres National Forest. Some members of the Family, as well as Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who had tried the Manson murder cases, believed that other Family members had actually bumped off Hughes. (Though the autopsy ruled out foul play, to this day, many still believe it was homicide.)

Van Houten’s second trial, in 1977, ended in a split verdict, with the judge declaring a mistrial. She was released on $200,000 bail—the funds pulled together by family friends—and during her six months on the outside quietly worked as a legal secretary and even wangled an invitation to the Oscars through an acquaintance. Elegantly attired, she attended the ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion unrecognized except, somehow inevitably, by the director John Waters. After Van Houten’s third trial ended in conviction, and she was sentenced to seven years to life, the two of them became friends, and Waters regularly visits her in prison. “Leslie is a good friend and someone who has taken full responsibility for the terrible crime she participated in,” he wrote in 2009. Every year on the morning of the Oscars, Waters goes to see Van Houten. “Then I go from prison to Elton John’s post-Oscar party.”

For years, whenever Van Houten came up for parole, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay, Bugliosi’s second chair in the 1970 Manson trial, would appear before the parole board to argue vehemently to keep Van Houten and the rest of the Manson Family incarcerated.

More recently Van Houten found sympathy with the board—on three occasions it recommended that she be paroled, but each time the sitting California governor refused. First it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Jerry Brown, who declared, as he had consistently ruled whenever other Manson Family members came up for parole, “Van Houten has failed to adequately explain to the panel how a model teenager from a privileged Southern California family, who had once been a homecoming princess, could have turned into a ruthless killer by age 19.”

In June Gavin Newsom became the latest governor to deny Van Houten’s parole, noting that despite her productive time in prison—she has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees—“the negative factors of her involvement in the murders outweighed the positive factors.”

Now on the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders, it’s worthwhile to revisit how indeed a homecoming princess became the willing disciple of a psychopath and so devoted to his paranoid worldview that she murdered on command—then refused to surrender her fealty even when it could have saved her from a life in prison.

charles manson leslie van houten
Charles Manson goes to court

Vernon Meritt III/The Life Pictures Collection/Getty Images

Leslie Louise Van Houten was born August 23, 1949, in Altadena. The family moved ten miles east to Monrovia, a pleasant but humdrum suburb shrouded in dense smog during the summer and known chiefly outside Southern California as the home of muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair.

From all appearances, Van Houten lived contentedly with her mother, Jane, a schoolteacher, and father, Paul, a used-car auctioneer, in a tree-lined working-class neighborhood. In the early ’60s the small tract homes, comfortable but not lavish and featuring a backyard pool, sold for $18,000.

Tony Strauss, now a top California employment lawyer, grew up across the street from Van Houten. He and his wife, Michelle, both graduated from Monrovia High School two years after Van Houten and remember her as “very much the pretty girl-next-door type. Monrovia had an Our Town innocence to it,” Tony told me. “Everybody knew everybody else, and we’d hang out at Steve’s Ice Cream Parlor or Shakey’s Pizza. For excitement we’d cruise down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on Saturday.”

Most people who knew her remembered Van Houten as a typical teenage girl with a fresh-faced smile posing in 1963 with five other freshman princesses at Monrovia High—a perfect student and accomplished archer. Off campus she was a member in good standing of Monrovia’s Job’s Daughters—the youth affiliate of the Masons. She sang in the church choir and was active in youth religious groups.

But she was in fact deeply troubled, even if friends never realized her smile masked an unhappy teen distraught by her parents’ split when she was 14. (The same fate befell her codefendant, Krenwinkel, when she was 17.) Two years after her parents divorced, 16-year-old Van Houten was already seriously into drugs. She was particularly fond of acid and admitted later she worked hard to put on a happy front.

“I could still live with going to school and living within the structure of society. But the more I dropped acid, the harder it was to relate,” she explained in a 1977 interview with Barbara Walters.

In the last two years of high school, she withdrew from all the groups in which she had once been active. She no longer danced, although it had been her passion, and began to embrace the blooming hippie movement while speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War.

leslie van houten parole

Bettman/Getty Images | AP Photo/Nick Ut

When she became pregnant at 17, Van Houten was forced by her mother to have an abortion, performed at the family’s home (the aborted fetus was reportedly buried in the backyard). After graduating from Monrovia High in 1968, Leslie drifted into a commune in Northern California before turning up in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, where she met and instantly bonded with Catherine “Gypsy” Share, a like-minded, emotionally battered soul.

Share was born in Paris in 1942. Her paternal grandparents died in concentration camps; her father, a Hungarian violinist, and German-born mother were members of the French Resistance and killed themselves when she was two rather than be taken prisoner by the Nazis. Prior to their suicides, Share’s father made arrangements through the French underground for his daughter to be adopted by a Frenchwoman, who subsequently married an American and immigrated to Hollywood.

Around the time Share met Van Houten in San Francisco, she also met Bobby Beausoleil, a handsome would-be musician-actor. While a student at Santa Barbara High School, Beausoleil earned the nickname “Cupid” because of his popularity with girls and the fact that he had, as a 16-year-old, played a walk-on as Cupid in the notorious 1967 documentary Mondo Hollywood. The film (“Outshocks any Mondo Picture Ever Made!!! Hollywood Laid Bare!” screamed the posters), also contained a brief scene introducing an up-and-coming hairstylist to the stars, Jay Sebring, who would later become a Manson victim.

Share and Beausoleil became romantically involved after starring in the 1969 soft-core porn Western The Ramrodder. The film was mostly shot on location at the Spahn Ranch, a decrepit movie set for hire in the Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth. Share, Beausoleil, and Van Houten in early 1969 moved back to Southern California, where they hooked up with an aspiring 35-year-old musician with piercing eyes and a flock of followers, who, unbeknownst to them, had already spent half of his life in prison. His name was Charles Manson.

It took only a matter of days for the gullible, damaged 19-year-old Van Houten to become a Manson convert. In mid-1969 she vanished from her family’s radar and no one heard a whisper about her until early December, when her old high school friends were stunned to see a mug shot of their former homecoming princess on the front page of newspapers across the country.

Paul Watkins, a Family member who did not participate in the murders, revealed to me in an extensive 1970 interview, just before Manson went on trial, how Charlie used the then-18-year-old Watkins to recruit potential disciples like Van Houten.

“I’d drive out to the Sunset Strip, hang around,” Watkins told me. “You could spot the runaways and lost souls. I’d tell them about Charlie, about living this great life, a paradise out at this wilderness. Charlie even suggested I enroll in the local high school, where there were lots of candidates. He even gave me a fake ID. It was my job to pull them in. But once I had snagged them, Charlie did the rest to clinch the deal.

“Charlie had this technique,” Watkins said. “I brought them to the Spahn ranch, and he was always there to greet us. He’d take them into another room and give them the Charlie treatment. It never took long. If the girl was plain, he’d tell her how beautiful she was. Within an hour he had their clothes off … screwing them or getting them to suck his cock. Even the shy ones, they’d do whatever he wanted. And what they were told to do. I was impressed because in half an hour, they were like his slaves. Eventually everyone wanted to satisfy Charlie.”

Seen in that context, Van Houten—shy, unhappy, estranged from her father and family, adrift and often wrecked on acid—was particularly vulnerable to the blandishments of a charismatic self-styled Christ figure.

Decades after the murders Van Houten was able to speak with heartbreaking clarity about falling under Manson’s sway—and how, with a narcissist’s ruthless instinct, he cleaved her so deftly from her old life that her crimes seemed not only perfectly plausible but inevitable.

“I wanted to please. I wanted for the first time to feel safe, feel like someone was going to care for me. I had never felt like that. And in giving up and moving on with Manson, I was basically just throwing away the rest of my life.” —Leslie Van Houten

“I never felt I fitted in; I never had that sense of belonging—and I was watching my family fall apart,” Van Houten recalled. “When my father left I seemed to want more living out of life than what was expected of young girls at that time: drugs, sex, breaking away from the norm. I was desperately seeking someone. I started losing contact with friends. … I started to drink, using hashish and marijuana—I thought there had to be more. I was looking for a way out, had never developed a sense of who I was. … I wanted to please. I wanted for the first time to feel safe, feel like someone was going to care for me. I had never felt like that. And in giving up and moving on with Manson, I was basically just throwing away the rest of my life.”

Van Houten described life at the ranch to her friend John Waters thus: “The place was set up and run the same way as a stable of hookers, although none of us realized it at the time.” She later clarified, “I didn’t ‘sleep with the devil.’ I slept with an ex-con who had an extensive record of pimping and abusing women. But at the time I didn’t know that.”

Years after Van Houten’s conviction, I attended a private dinner with Marvin Part, the second lawyer assigned to defend her, and he recalled how he fought unsuccessfully to separate his then-client from being tried with the other Family members. But more important, he was frustrated by not getting her to the nearest psychiatrist.

“I’ll never forget her words. She said she believed Charlie was Jesus Christ,” Part told me. “She worshipped and loved him deeply. And she said she truly believed some of the Beatles’ songs were warnings and messages to Charlie about a race riot and blood running in the streets of America. And she just mimicked the whole insane Manson propaganda: The Family would all escape to an underground city in the desert, although she wasn’t quite sure where this underground city was. She said Charlie’s girls were chattel, and whenever he told her to have sex—with men or women—she blindly obeyed. She said she took acid trips every day. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In my lifetime in law, I had never come across anything quite as unbelievable as what this young woman was telling me. And she was smiling and recounting it all so mundanely.

“It was so clear to me that Leslie was as nutty as a fruitcake. I would have been in grave neglect of my duty if I didn’t give the judge my opinion.”

Nutty as a fruitcake or not, within hours of asking for a psychiatric report, Part was shown the door. His strategy to save his client’s life ended.

“Leslie was quite apologetic,” he remembered. “When I visited her in jail the next day, she was so innocent and so stupid, and she said, ‘Charlie says I have to get another lawyer.’ ”

In the intervening decades of incarceration—and through multiple parole hearings—Van Houten has by all accounts been a model prisoner and textbook example of successful rehabilitation. Waters, campaigning for one of her attempts at parole, wrote:

“Leslie and I have shared good times and bad times … and, yes, Leslie does have good times. She’s taught illiterate women to read in prison classes, she’s stitched a portion of the AIDS quilt, made bedding for the homeless, recorded books on tape for the blind. She has clerked for the administrators, the nurses, the associate warden, the head of education, the kitchen, and the priest. She can be lighthearted, too. She even sang ‘Santa Baby’ at the prison Christmas show one year. But it all came to naught.”

At one of her parole hearings years before his death in 2017, Van Houten was asked yet again to assess her relationship with Manson and his impact on her life and the lives of others. “I feel he’s a very pitiful and pathetic human being, and I’m very sorry that people still continued to give him attention,” she declared. “If he were ignored, he would just die or fade away.”

The chance encounter with Manson at the most vulnerable moment in her life led Van Houten to a depravity and decline that, had circumstance favored light over dark, she conceivably could have led a life at least as full of purpose as she has created for herself behind bars—and possibly much more.

Waters, for one, thinks so. Had Van Houten not blundered into Manson’s orbit, “she could have ended up making movies with us,” the director lamented, “instead of running with the killer dune-buggy crowd.”

RELATED: After the Manson Murders, Los Angeles Blamed the “Age of ‘Freaky’ Crime”

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