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

III. TERROR

On August 11 the police released William Garretson, who had passed a lie detector test. Garretson hadn’t heard anything, says lawyer Barry Tarlow, who represented him. “The killers had no idea he was in the guest house.” With seven people dead and the lone suspect cleared, fear consumed Los Angeles. A Beverly Hills sporting goods store sold 200 firearms in two days. The price of guard dogs rose from $500 to $1,500.

WARREN BEATTY, actor and director. He helped fund a $25,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the Tate killers. He is 72. This hit the movie community very deeply. On a 10-point scale it disturbed me at around a 27. Jay Sebring, Sharon, Abigail, and Voytek were friends of mine. It was something that happened, and no one knew why. Everybody was trying to come up with a reason. The collective response to these killings was what you might expect if a small nuclear device had gone off.

MARTIN RANSOHOFF, producer. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski fell in love on the set of The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), which was produced by Ransohoff, directed by Polanski, and starred Tate. He is 82. It was hideous. It was a terrifying experience for everyone who lived here.

McGANN People in Hollywood were petrified. They didn’t know what was going on. Everybody we talked to on the street was just afraid. They’d ask, “Are you making progress?”

News coverage was frenzied, much of it riddled with innuendo and inaccuracies. No one stumbled worse than Time. On August 22 it reported: “Theories of sex, drug and witchcraft cults spread quickly in Hollywood, fed by the fact that Sharon and Polanski circulated in one of the film world’s more offbeat crowds.… Polanski, who was in London at the time of the murders, is noted for his macabre movies.” The magazine also claimed: “Sharon’s body was found nude…Sebring had been sexually mutilated…[and Frykowski’s] trousers were down around his ankles.”

BEATTY In their rush to assess what had happened, some of the mainstream press brought the nature of Roman Polanski’s movies into the nature of the crime and held the movies responsible. Roman was a total innocent. Neither his life nor his movies had anything to do with this. But because he’d made Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby he was made to seem responsible.

ANTHONY DiMARIA, Jay Sebring’s nephew. Forty-three years old, he is an actor. The media were reaching and speculating. There were some really salacious things written about my uncle, Sharon, and Voytek. The press was practically butchering these people even as they were fresh in their graves.

IV. THE INVESTIGATIONS

McGANN My initial thought was the drug angle. Sharon didn’t use drugs. Abigail had done a little experimentation but not much. Jay Sebring smoked pot, but everybody in Los Angeles did at that point. Voytek, however, was involved in narcotics. He was a buddy of a Pan American airlines pilot. We thought the Pan Am pilot was flying in dope. In our first report, which I wrote over Labor Day weekend, I proposed several theories. One had a group going to the Cielo house to rob the occupants of drugs. They didn’t intend to kill them, but they were seen either entering or leaving the residence by Steven Parent. They killed him, then they had to kill the others. Another theory was that a dope deal went bad, and a fight ensued. My report went to the chief of detectives, the chief of police, and my captain. On Tuesday we all got together and determined we had to eliminate each of these theories.

We went to Washington, D.C., interviewing people, and then all the way across Massachusetts. We flew to New York. We were eliminating suspects. Finally we told my boss that we needed to go to Jamaica. The Pan Am pilot spent a lot of time there. So we flew to Kingston, where we eliminated the pilot. We were back at square one.

Leno LaBianca was a heavy gambler. Initially detectives explored the possibility that loan sharks had ordered the murders. Then they looked into LaBianca’s brief service on the board of a bank allegedly backed by mob money. They got nowhere. But they noted in one report: “Investigation revealed that the singing group the Beatles’ most recent album, No. SWBO 101, has songs titled ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Piggies’ and ‘Blackbird.’ The words in the song ‘Blackbird’ frequently say ‘Arise, arise,’ which might be the meaning of ‘Rise’ near the front door.”

We had all the help from LAPD that we needed. Organized Crime did interviews for us. Intelligence did interviews for us. SID did interviews for us. There were hundreds of them. We were frustrated.

V. MISSED OPPORTUNITY

At 6 a.m. on August 16, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies descended on the 200-acre Spahn movie ranch in Chatsworth and arrested 27 people. For 40 years shoot-’em-ups like The Lone Ranger had been filmed there, though by the mid-’60s, the blind and aging owner, George Spahn, was making his living from city folks who drove up Topanga Canyon Boulevard to ride horses.

JUAN FLYNN, Spahn ranch hand. Sixty-five years old, he is retired after a career as a miner and heavy-equipment operator. I came back from serving in the infantry in Vietnam and in 1968 went to work at Spahn Ranch for $2.50 a week. I loved the place. It had the most beautiful trails. It had horses, ponies, and a goat. There were red foxes, red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons. Marvin Gaye, Lou Rawls, and Jerry Garcia came to ride there. And there were beautiful girls. For $1.50 an hour you could climb mountain trails and look out over the San Fernando Valley. I was Mr. Spahn’s right-hand man. I cleaned 16 stalls a day and handled the horses. It was a joy. Then Charles Manson and his people came and trashed the place.

Some members and hangers-on of the Manson Family at the Spahn Ranch: (back row, from left) Danny DeCarlo, Jennifer Gentry, Catherine Gillies, Mary Theresa Brunner, Charles Lovett, and Catherine Share; (front row, from left) Sandra Good, Ruth Ann Moorehouse, and Lynette Fromme.
Some members and hangers-on of the Manson Family at the Spahn Ranch: (back row, from left) Danny DeCarlo, Jennifer Gentry, Catherine Gillies, Mary Theresa Brunner, Charles Lovett, and Catherine Share; (front row, from left) Sandra Good, Ruth Ann Moorehouse, and Lynette Fromme.

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

BILL GLEASON, Los Angeles County deputy sheriff assigned to probe auto thefts. He is 77 and retired. Charles Manson and some of his group just showed up at the Spahn Ranch and started living in the movie sets. Most of the buildings were false fronts, but they made them into rooms. I thought they were just a bunch of hippies, but we started getting reports that members of the Straight Satans, a motorcycle gang from Venice, were going to the ranch on weekends and partying. The word was that they were trading drugs for sex with the women there. Some of the women were runaway juveniles who provided Manson with cash and credit cards stolen from their homes. We also had reports that members of the group were shooting a machine gun. The Manson people were also stealing and building dune buggies and driving them onto adjoining properties, creating a nuisance. A couple of nights before the raid, we hiked into the ranch and found a stolen, brand-new 1969 Ford and a stolen Volkswagen. That was the main basis for our search warrant—to recover these vehicles and try to identify who stole them.

I really didn’t pay much attention to Manson. We’d already taken most of the adults out, and everyone was saying, “Where’s Charlie?” He was hiding under one of the buildings. The deputies had to go in and forcibly remove him. I arrested them one week after the Tate murders, but none of them said anything. Everybody just sat there.

Because Gleason couldn’t determine which member of Manson’s group stole the vehicles, the district attorney did not file charges. Within two weeks Manson and most of his followers had departed for a hideout in Death Valley.

Barker Ranch was just another place out in the desert. It had been nice at one time. It’s stone and stucco, and there’s a fence around it. It sits up on a hill, and you can look down into Death Valley. But by 1969, it was abandoned and pretty run-down. A grandmother of one of the girls in Manson’s group owned the adjoining property, Myers Ranch. The girl told Manson, “There’s this place where we might be able to stay.” That’s why Manson settled there.

The tiny bathroom sink cabinet where Manson tried to hide at Barker Ranch. When a lawman ordered him out, he opened the door and politely said, "Hi."
The tiny bathroom sink cabinet where Manson tried to hide at Barker Ranch. When a lawman ordered him out, he opened the door and politely said, “Hi.”

Photograph courtesy Vernon Meritt III/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

VI. CAPTURED

JAMES PURSELL, California Highway Patrol officer. In 1969, he was assigned to Death Valley. Seventy-three years old, he is retired. Manson and his “Family” pioneered a road into the Death Valley National Monument. They were driving up in there, and the National Park Service didn’t want that. The park service took an earthmoving machine to the western edge of the valley to remove Manson’s tracks. They left it up there to block the road. That pissed Charlie off. He and his group set fire to the machine.

The park service discovered the burned earthmover in early September. On the 29th, Pursell, accompanied by Ranger Dick Powell, visited Barker Ranch.

We drove down Goler Wash. About halfway we met an old army truck coming uphill. The driver was a miner named Paul Crockett. The passenger was a teenager named Brooks Poston. They indicated that some odd things were going on. They said the leader of this group staying at the ranch would put on a robe and preach. They said there were a large number of females there and that they had orgies and used drugs. They said the group had a fleet of dune buggies and that during the night they traveled the valleys up there as if they were re-creating the days of Rommel and the Afrika Korps.

So we backtracked. I went to the right, Dick to the left. He ran into a group of females. Some were nude. I saw what looked to be a camp. When I inquired as to who these gals were and what they were doing, Lynette Fromme, who was the spokesperson and was buck naked, said, “We’re a Girl Scout troop from the Bay Area. Would you and the ranger like to be our scoutmasters?” We saw a couple of vehicles. One was a rail dune buggy, the other a Toyota Land Cruiser. Each had a gun scabbard holding a rifle. We got the VIN numbers. The vehicles came back stolen.

On October 10 authorities raided the Barker and Myers ranches, taking ten women  and three men into custody. Among those arrested were Susan Atkins (aka Sadie Mae Glutz), Patricia Krenwinkel (aka Katie), Leslie Van Houten (aka Leslie Sankston), Lynette Fromme (aka Squeaky), Catherine Share (aka Gypsy), Sandra Good (aka Sandy), and Steve Grogan (aka Clem). Officers discovered more dune buggies and evidence tying the group to the burning of the park service earthmover.

We piled all the stuff in a wash so we wouldn’t forget to pick it up on the way out—which is exactly what we did. On October 12 Powell and I and another ranger went back to get it. On the way in, we saw a Chevrolet truck loaded with 55-gallon drums of gasoline. We figured more people were there, so we called for backup. I sat on a knoll overlooking Barker Ranch while the rangers went to the other side. It was beginning to get dusk, so I decided we’d better make a move. I went to the back door and shoved it open. There was a group of people. I announced who I was and ordered them to put their hands on their heads. I ordered them out. Then I entered the house. It was totally dark. On the table was a candle in a glass mug.

With the mug in one hand and my Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum in the other, I went into a tiny bathroom. No one was there. But as I lowered my candle to a little cabinet beneath the sink, I saw long hair hanging out of the door. All of a sudden fingers began wiggling and the door began to open and this figure emerged. I said, “If you make one false move, I’ll blow your head off.” So this figure slowly uncoils himself and in a very friendly voice says, “Hi.” I asked who he was, and he identified himself as Charles Manson. He was as polite as he could be. Over the years I’ve had a lot of people, including a judge, ask, “Why didn’t you just shoot him?” But I always answer, “How can you shoot a guy whose first word to you is ‘Hi’?”

We rode down Goler Wash in a pickup. The girls we arrested began whispering and giggling. Charlie just stared at the backs of their heads the way a parent does with unruly kids. The girls felt it. They turned around and all of a sudden were silent.

Charlie told us that his group was out there looking for a place to hide because there was an impending race war. He told us that the blacks were going to win. He told us that because we were number one, cops, and number two, white, we should stop right there, let them loose, and flee for our lives. That, of course, didn’t happen.

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