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

A look back at a story from our October 1969 issue that stoked fear about youth culture, drugs, and copycat crimes

Fifty years ago, the followers of Charles Manson murdered seven people and forever changed the character of the City of Los Angeles. When the October 1969 issue of Los Angeles magazine went to press (just a few weeks after the crimes), the perpetrators were still unknown and on the loose. It took four months before Manson’s name made headlines, and the city was gripped with fear of additional “copycat” killers all that summer and fall.

Our first story on the crime attempted to wrap drugs, youth culture, Woodstock, the Black Panthers, and Rosemary’s Baby into the same package—and blame that for a wave of so-called “freaky” crimes. We immediately declared it the crime that described a generation. I wonder how much our spotlight on private guards in Beverly Hills, new tract housing in Palmdale, and a run on attack dogs at the city’s “plusher pet shops” contributed to the fear and flight from urban L.A. amongst our “plush” readers of the next few decades?

It turns out Manson was a crazy person and that he and his followers were not hiding around every corner. But our coverage from 1969 might still leave you double-checking the deadbolts, and crossing the street when you smell the demon marijuana. (The author, Myron Roberts, passed away in 1992.)

The New Violence: An Age of “Freaky” Crime?
By Myron Roberts

October, 1969

Some murders, like some men, are singled out for fame because they are peculiarly symbolic of their times. In the ’20s it was the Leopold–Loeb case, with its trappings of flaming youth and the New Rich produced by a runaway stock market. In the ’40s it was the Black Dahlia. The label, affixed to a then anonymous young woman found mutilated in Los Angeles, somehow suggested all those millions of young girls who had left home and family to seek wartime jobs and adventure in the big city, just like in the Betty Grable movies, only with a different ending. In the ’50s it was the Finch-Tregoff case in West Covina, with its cast and setting of the wealthy dentist, and aging, expensive, and unwanted wife, the country club, the suburban ranch home with a new station wagon parked in the driveway, and weekends in Las Vegas with a pretty young nurse.

And now we have the Sharon Tate case, surrounded by a dazzling array of exquisite symbols of our time: drugs, strange sex games, a bizarre new culture, “rich hippies, “ ritual murder, and a poor dumb kid from El Monte who wandered into the midst of this freaky scene to die.

Why, among the thousands of “cheap murders“ which occur every year in this country (the current rate is one every 43 minutes) were these crimes pounced upon by the press and the public? Clearly the “celebrated“ murder tells us something about where the public’s head and heart are at a given moment. Homicides very much like the Black Dahlia case occur with depressing regularity these days, for example, and hardly anyone but the police and those close to the victim bothers to regard the event.

Clearly, too, the Sharon Tate case would have been a spectacular event in any era. But it seems to belong to this time and this place. Somehow people identified with it, in the way people seem to identify these days with strange movies like Rosemary’s Baby. Within days there was another, similar murder in Los Angeles, which police believe to have been the work of a “copycat killer.“

A kind of fear ran through the city that was almost palpable. One overheard women standing in line at the supermarket comparing, not hairstyles or washing powders, but door locks. Tract salesman in places as far away as Palmdale reported that they were getting inquiries and actual sales from people who said they’ve had it with living in the city, where they were afraid not only to walk the streets at night, but to stay at home as well. On a nationally televised talk show, originating in New York, Peter Fonda, himself a sometimes symbol of the “freak“ culture, casually remarked that he was going home to his family in Los Angeles – if they were “still alive “ by the time he got there.

Peter Fonda, himself a sometimes symbol of the “freak“ culture, casually remarked that he was going home to his family in Los Angeles – if they were “still alive “ by the time he got there.

In the days following the Tate case residents of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air rushed to hire guards and install expensive alarm systems. Most of the city’s plusher pet shops were cleaned out of guard dogs. A studio city kennel had to airlift German Shepherds in from Iowa to meet the demand. Even so they sold every dog they can supply at prices ranging up to $1250 for a full-grown, attack – trained German Shepherd.

What seems to be most frightening to people in Los Angeles and elsewhere is the unpredictability of so much contemporary crime. Note some of the crimes which have happened in Southern California recently: a woman was trying to cross the street when a car swerved out of its lane, deliberately struck her and knocked her down. The driver stopped, saw her trying to crawl back to the sidewalk, listened to her moaning with pain, then backed up and ran over her again, killing her. He then got out of the car, grabbed her purse and fled. A couple stopped to give a ride to two young men. The man raped and beat the woman to death, knocked the man out and robbed him.

A man was stalled on the freeway. Somebody stopped to help him. After trying for several minutes to get the car started, the benefactor turned in disgust upon the stranded motorist, slugged him, robbed him and drove off.

Pasadena police report finding jagged bits of broken bottles carefully but lightly covered by sand, at the bottom of children’s slides in parks throughout the city.

A semi-official document prepared by the LAPD estimates there are 700,000 paranoids in the U.S., according to the best psychiatric estimates. That means at least 70,000 in California, mostly in large cities. No one knows how many of these are potential or actual killers. As for the number of potentially homicidal drug addicts or users, the figure is probably astronomical.

Is the sense of public terror real or hoked-up to sell newspapers and magazines and elect politicians who prey on fantasy and fear? Bald figures alone do not tell the story, although the story they do you tell is grim enough. In brief, one American in every 22 committed a major crime last year (in Los Angeles 250,000 serious crimes were committed last year. This means that if you have lived here for five years or more and have not been a victim, statistically, you’re a lucky man). On the other hand your chance of being killed in a traffic accident are 15 times greater than the probability that you will be murdered. And there is no great hew and cry about auto safety, which even remotely compares to the uproar about law and order.

Former LAPD police chief Thad Brown, for 18 years Chief of Detectives, put it this way: when he was working homicide during the early ’40s, there were about 70 murders a year. (now there are over 400). In those days he was proud of the fact that 90 percent of the murders he investigated were solved within a year. The procedure was fairly simple: check out a victim’s family, friends and associates. Find someone with a motive for killing him and in most cases you have a killer. Today police are reluctant to divulge the proportion of solved to unsolved murders. But they admit it’s nothing like 90 percent. The problem is that so many of today’s murders seem “senseless.”

“Homicide used to be a fairly easy crime to solve,“ says LAPD Sergeant Don Ferguson. “But today you have so many cases like those Michigan college girl murders – we’ve had many similar cases here in California – where it’s almost impossible to tie the victim and a logical suspect together.“

In Thad Brown’s day, logic, reason, and careful detective work almost always brought results. He likes to tell, for example, about the case of a young woman homicide victim. The only clue was a pack of matches found in the room. He noticed that the match is on the left side of the pack had been used. Deduction: find a left-handed male acquaintance of the victim and he had his killer – and it worked. Or about how he carefully forged a chain of evidence that sent L. Ewing Scott to prison for the murder of his wife despite the absence of a corpus delicti. (He has a theory about where the late Mrs. Scott’s remains are stashed away which may be of interest to San Diego Freeway commuters.)

One difficulty with crime today is that we are beginning to know how little we know. The Victorians could pontificate with great certitude, for example, about “the criminal mind.“ But Beverly Hills police chief Joseph Paul Kimble, for one, believes “Most criminal acts today are committed by so-called normal people who react abnormally to a stress situation.“ To disabuse ourselves at the outset of some of the most enduring and least credible clichés held by partisans of the left and right about crime, consider these facts:

1. For many years, liberals and intellectuals have believed and preached that crime was the fruit of ignorance, poverty and social injustice.

Fact: crime in America seems to rise and fall during given periods for reasons no one really understands. The prosperous 20s, for example, were a period of soaring crime rates, as are the affluent 60s. The depression decade of the 30s was generally a time of falling crime rates, thus crime seems to rise and fall in inverse ratio to the general prosperity. Finally, in prosperous Sweden where there are almost no extremes of poverty or teeming slums, crime is rising even faster than here in America.

2. Sociologists, psychologists, etc. often argue the crime is the result of a “climate of violence.“

Fact: the violent World War II era saw the lowest crime rate of this century in America.

3. Policeman and other exponents of the hard line in America insist that the real source of much of today’s crime lies in the increasing “permissiveness“ shown to the young in this “Spock-marked generation.”

Fact: the most crime-ridden part of the US is the South, in states like George Wallace’s Alabama, where neither Dr. Spock nor the permissive liberal philosophy is in great vogue. The last time we had a great “crime wave” was in the 20s, a heyday of conservatism, hanging judges and of the KKK.

4. The ordinary citizen tends to believe the criminals are a class apart who prey on basically honest and decent folk “like ourselves.“

Fact: police have surveys, which demonstrate that, under the right conditions, 90% of the American people admit to having committed some offense for which they might have been jailed if caught. In an official publication, the LAPD agrees with Rapp Brown that indeed “violence is as American as cherry pie.“ And chief Kimble observes, “Crime is an American way of life. From the blue-collar worker to the white collar executive, it penetrates every strata of our society,” to which Thad Brown (now doing private detective work for business firms) ads, “Hell, I thought I knew something about crime during 42 years on the force. But most of that was penny ante compared to the capers these businessmen pull on each other every day. “

5. “Crime does not pay.” “Tell that,” says chief Kimble, to the slum kid who sees the rich pimps and dope pushers driving around town in Caddies and wearing silk shirts.”

6. “Education is the best means of preventing crime. “

Fact: most educators agree that this is the best-educated generation of young people in our history. It is also the most prone to crime. One in every six teenage boys was brought before juvenile authorities last year alone. Those peace-loving, gentle, idealistic Under Thirties are responsible for fully 70% of the crime in the country, Including an unprecedented number of rapes, armed robberies and mass slaughters. Both Kennedys were cut down by members of the Now Generation. It was a young man who killed 15 people and wounded 25 one afternoon in Texas. It is a young man who is charged with the murder of the Michigan coeds. This is not meant to indict an entire generation. But even the most violent partisan of the young can hardly deny that this is perhaps the bloodiest and most lawless generation of young people to come along since Hitler’s stormtroopers turned Europe into a graveyard. Incidentally, the Germans, too, were well educated.

It is practically impossible to travel anywhere in the urban US now without encountering forms of behavior which would have been considered unthinkable even five or six years ago. Girls as young as 14 and 15 hitchhiking alone at night as if they’ve never heard of rape. Attractive kids of apparently comfortable backgrounds begging on the street. Others, sitting hollow eyed on sidewalks or curbs looking like zombies.

Is there a connection between all this unconventional behavior and soaring crime rates? The police, among others, I think so. The common denominator, they believe, is drugs. Perhaps they are drawing an oversimplified picture of the situation, but recent research on the subject doesn’t exactly prove them wrong.

Is there a connection between all this unconventional behavior and soaring crime rates? The police, among others, I think so.

All of the kids’ rationalizations notwithstanding, the fact is, as Dr. Edward R: Bloomquist documents in his carefully researched recent study entitled Marijuana (Glencoe Press), that pot “releases inhibitions and impairs judgment with such predictability that a user with criminal tendencies will readily commit crimes.” As everything we know about history, psychology and human nature confirms, with certain rare and saintly exceptions, men, particularly young men, are seldom very far from violence. To maintain civilization at all, we usually need all the judgment we can get.

“I tend to be evangelistic about the drug scene” admits Lt. E. E. Kearney of the LAPD. “There simply is no question that there has been a tremendous fallout of violence as the result of widespread use of drugs.” Moreover Kearney believes that the violence associated with drug use is likely to grow a great deal worse in the immediate future because of two factors: relatively mild Mexican pot is being replaced by hashish, a form of marijuana made in the Middle East which is approximately 20 times stronger than the now familiar Mexican variety. Secondly, the increasing use of amphetamines, “speed,” by kids promises some charming new developments on the social landscape. In the words of Dr. Donald B. Louria of Cornell University (interviewed by Gail Sheehy in New York magazine), speed is a drug “taken solely for kicks by a subculture increasingly populated by thrill-seekers, psychopaths, angry sociopaths and young persons incapable of functioning in society.” After a few months of use, observes reporter Sheehy, it leads to “depression, weight loss, sexual deviations and finally paranoid psychosis. Speed simply makes people behave as if they were crazy.”

There is not much doubt that most young people in Southern California try some kind of drug at some point in the process of growing up today. Just as not every young man who gets loaded during his adolescence winds up a drunk, so not every youngster who tries pot winds up a heroin attic, a speed freak or a card-carrying member of the “drug culture.” That drugs have transformed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of the young into unpredictable and occasionally criminal personalities is also inescapable, however, in the face of current crime statistics and the expert testimony of virtually everyone, including those entirely sympathetic to the youth revolt. And yet our society remains curiously ambivalent in the face of such a threat. A good many respectable intellectuals, people who wouldn’t dream of shooting speed themselves, seem to regard the right to take drugs as one of our Civil Liberties and have confused the drug scene and the crime scene with political dissent, opposition to the Vietnam War, and improved race relations. The fact that young Negroes and Mexican-Americans were the first victims of the drug-pushers has led a number of people to confuse sympathy for the cause of civil rights to tolerance of drugs – when in fact, as even the most militant black leaders themselves testify, dope is the enemy of the black man’s struggle for liberation.

Of late we have even seen public drug festivals, such as the much-publicized Woodstock Festival, where hundreds of thousands of young people, most of them stoned out of their heads, sat listening for days to the drone of rock music. A number of commentators, including Life magazine (which rushed into print a few days later with a special $1.25 supplement devoted entirely to the festival), have described this as a cultural event of monumental import, just behind Genesis and the landing on the moon. The fact that these rock fans did not engage in the widespread violence which we have come to expect as more or less normal at such gatherings was also widely hailed by commentators in the press. No one stopped to ask why the absence of violence at a large, public gathering of the young should be considered any more remarkable and the fact that the fans who go to a football game every Saturday afternoon in the fall do not, customarily, tear up the stadium or attack one another.

Of late we have even seen public drug festivals, such as the much-publicized Woodstock Festival, where hundreds of thousands of young people, most of them stoned out of their heads, sat listening for days to the drone of rock music.

Life‘s own house youth apologist, a young columnist named Barry Farrell, found himself somewhat confused by the mass acceptance of the rite. “The press and even the police seem content to write it off as a victory for peace and love,“ puzzles Farrell, who had undoubtedly expected to adopt that line himself. “In a way, it was. But I would have thought that the significance of a half-million young Americans spontaneously creating a society based on drugs would have caused some slight concern.”

He then proceeds to define his own “bad vibrations” to the event: “As one who has believed that the justification for using drugs lay somewhere in the zone of psychic freedom, I was disturbed by the bovine passivity they induced in this mass of free minds. For almost everyone present the freedom to get stoned together was more than freedom enough. “The Rubicon we felt ourselves crossing was the line of restraint between the old drug culture of the underground and some new authorized form, dangerously adaptable to the interests of packagers, promoters, the controllers of crowds. It was a groovy show, all right, but I fear it will grow groovier in memory, when this market in our madness leads on to show us we’d rather not see.” Farrell’s misgivings are quite understandable. Those with somewhat longer memories, in fact, tend to regard the Woodstock syndrome not so much as a new social phenomenon but as a contemporary variation of another youth festival – the Nuremberg Rallies – where Hitler, Goebbels & Co. were the featured group and the multitudes of fans were stoned on slogans instead of grass.

“Don’t put on a black jacket and dark glasses unless you are prepared to kill,” Stokely Carmichael is reported to have advised some of his young followers. It is sound advice. It demonstrates that Stokely understands symbols and their consequences. Carmichael is saying that those who wish to merely talk about “revolution” and to dress up as revolutionaries without being prepared for violence, death and prison, are fools or charlatans. So the educated middle-class youngster who plays at “freaking out“ has, consciously or not, set off along a certain path, and unless he is prepared to go all the way, he is simply a fool. The victims in the Tate massacre would seem to demonstrate how quickly and unexpectedly game-playing can turn into something more serious.

The price of membership in the “drug culture“ is firm and fixed: To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes’ description of the miserable conditions of factory workers in the 19th century, that life of the drug addict is “nasty, brutish and short.” This, of course, is hardly true of the occasional pot smoker, but even here some facts tell a much grimmer story than most young people believe. For example, the LAPD recently did a study of 229 juveniles arrested in 1961 for possession of marijuana. The department wanted to know what had happened to these people five years later, in 1966. They found: 38, or 16 percent, were subsequently arrested for possession of heroin. 76, or 38 percent, were arrested again for possession of marijuana. 46 or 20 percent, were arrested for robbery. 17 were arrested for rape. Of the entire group, almost four in five were re-arrested and 16 percent served time in a state penitentiary.

The irrationality, the mindless capriciousness of the New Violence, has inspired a new kind of fear among people, which in turn breeds it’s own alarming consequences. Because people suspect that criminals are often “dope fiends” who will behave unpredictably, they fear becoming involved in reporting a crime. Police find themselves embattled in an effort to protect themselves and a public which often behaved irrationally. Every policeman can tell stories of neighbors watching someone’s house being broken into, of armed robberies, assaults and even murders without anyone even going to the phone to call the police, let alone trying to help the victims. Vigilante groups and neighborhood “protective associations” often wind up shooting each other and their families. There are more guns in Los Angeles today than in Saigon. “Sportsmen’s” magazines suggest sub-machine guns, even anti-tank guns (just $99.50) as an “ideal Father’s Day gift.” Conservatives, such as Governor Reagan, militantly oppose all efforts to unilaterally disarm the public. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” read the bumper stickers on the pickup trucks and campers.

Somehow, when and if the Sharon Tate case is finally solved, we are likely to see it not simply as the mad act of one or more aberrant individuals, but as a symptom of the sickness of our time.

But gun nuts are only another kind of freak, and the same grim epitaphs could just as easily apply to them: Live violently, Die violently. Live freaky, Die freaky. Somehow, when and if the Sharon Tate case is finally solved, we are likely to see it not simply as the mad act of one or more aberrant individuals, but as a symptom of the sickness of our time – just as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for example, was not so much the act of cold-blooded killers, as the inevitable fruit of the way it was in Chicago in the 20s.

Whatever its short term benefits, the drug culture at its worst equals madness, crime, violence and early death. It seems a disproportionate price to pay for the pleasure of “freaking out.”

RELATED: Charles Manson’s Son Says His Father Was Misunderstood

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