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
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VII. SUSAN ATKINS

Pursell and the officers took the prisoners to Independence, the seat of Inyo County. The group was charged with auto theft, possession of stolen property, and arson. Its ringleader was booked as “Manson, Charles M. aka Jesus Christ, God.” During the second week of October, two frightened 17-year-olds emerged from the brush several miles from Barker Ranch. Kitty Lutesinger and Stephanie Schram told Inyo County officers that they were fleeing the Family. Lutesinger was the girlfriend of Bobby Beausoleil, who was being held in connection with the murder of musician Gary Hinman, the crime Jess Buckles had dismissed the day of the Tate autopsies. On learning she was in custody, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies drove to Independence to interview her. She told them that Beausoleil was a member of Charles Manson’s Family and had killed Hinman in a dispute over money. According to Lutesinger, Susan Atkins—one of the girls arrested at Barker Ranch—had participated in the murder. When the deputies interviewed Atkins, she confirmed most of what Lutesinger had said. Atkins was booked on suspicion of murder and transferred to the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Los Angeles.

VIRGINIA GRAHAM, Beverly Hills party girl. In 1969, she was jailed for a parole violation after passing a bad check. She is now a 76-year-old grandmother. Susan Atkins slept about five beds up from me. She was always singing. She was happy and joyous. I thought she was just a hippie kid in for possession of marijuana. But when I asked her what she was in for, she said, “187—murder.” She said she was in for killing Gary Hinman. She said the police were too stupid to prove it. A couple of days later, she sat on the side of my cot. She said, “Do you know about those murders up in Benedict Canyon?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Well, you know who did it, don’t you?” I said, “No.” She said, “You’re looking at her.” Which took me aback. But I was curious, and she gave me a blow-by-blow description as to how the crimes were committed.

She told me how they cut the phone wire and shot the young man in the car. She told me how they got onto the property. She told me she went to the bedroom in the rear and that Jay Sebring was sitting on the bed talking to Sharon Tate. She said she got them to come out. They thought it was a robbery. She said they put a rope around their necks and threw it over a beam. That got my attention. I’d been to that house several years before—I knew there were beams in the living room. She told me that Voytek Frykowski ran out on the lawn screaming, “Help, help!” Here she put her hands on her hips and said, “You know, nobody came, and I killed him.” She said Sharon Tate was crying and begging, “Please don’t kill me. I just want to have my baby.” She said, “I looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Bitch, I don’t care.’ Then I killed her.” She said they were going to pull out the victims’ eyeballs and smash them, but they ran out of time. She said, “We had to love them to kill them.” She said they released these people into the universe. She also told me how wonderful the feeling is when you stab someone and stick the knife in. This was thrilling to her. There was not a shred of sympathy on her part for the victims.

After about an hour, I said I had to take a shower. I couldn’t stand it. Later, as I was walking down the aisle, I saw Ronnie Howard, another inmate. I grabbed her and said, “This dizzy little bitch just told me she killed Sharon Tate. What am I going to do?”

A week or so afterward, I was transferred to the California Institute for Women. I had a terrible dream. I saw Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring covered in blood telling me, “You know what you have to do.” I went and sat outside in the yard and waited for a counselor. I said, “I have to talk to you. I have information regarding who killed Sharon Tate.” A detective came to take my statement.

The five victims at the Tate residence: (from left) Voytek Frykowski, a friend of Roman Polanski's; Sharon Tate; Steven Parent, a delivery boy who happened by; Jay Sebring, a hairstylist; and Abigail Folger, Frykowski's girlfriend
The five victims at the Tate residence: (from left) Voytek Frykowski, a friend of Roman Polanski’s; Sharon Tate; Steven Parent, a delivery boy who happened by; Jay Sebring, a hairstylist; and Abigail Folger, Frykowski’s girlfriend

Photograph courtesy AP

Atkins also confessed to Ronnie Howard, a convicted prostitute, adding details. She said she had dipped a towel into Sharon Tate’s blood to write “PIG” on the door and that Manson Family members had committed the LaBianca murders—a connection the LAPD still had not made. She said Family members Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Linda Kasabian had participated in the murders. She offered evidence known only to the killers and the police: “Healter Skelter” had been written on the LaBianca refrigerator. On November 17 Howard spoke to the authorities.

McGANN Virginia Graham and Ronnie Howard broke the case. We got a call from Sybil Brand, and they said that Susan Atkins had been talking to these two inmates. Another detective and I went there, and there was no question about it. Atkins had laid out the whole story. She knew everything—the position of the bodies, the kinds of stab wounds, the way the rope was thrown over the rafters. Atkins was cooperative. I talked to her for hours. We tape-recorded everything. We got what we wanted. She wrapped it all up for us.

The Spahn movie ranch in the West Valley, where Manson and his Famaily lived when they embarked on their raids
The Spahn movie ranch in the West Valley, where Manson and his Famaily lived when they embarked on their raids

Photograph courtesy AP

VIII. THE PROSECUTION

VINCENT BUGLIOSI, deputy district attorney. He is 74 and the author of several books, including Helter Skelter (cowritten with Curt Gentry), the definitive account of the case. I was walking out of court when Aaron Stovitz, who was head of the trial division, grabbed me by the arm and brought me into the office of Miller Leavy, who was above Aaron. Two LAPD detectives were there, and I hear the name “Tate.” They used to call it the Tate-LaBianca case before Manson showed up and upstaged the victims. I said to Aaron, “Are we handling this?” He said, “Yeah.”

On December 1 Los Angeles police chief Edward M. Davis called a news conference to announce that the Tate and LaBianca murders had been solved. Three of the alleged killers—Manson, Atkins, and Van Houten—were already in custody in Inyo County. Tex Watson was in custody in Texas and Patricia Krenwinkel in Alabama. Linda Kasabian had disappeared.

BUGLIOSI One of the problems was getting the physical evidence straight. Back in September, a ten-year-old kid, Steven Weiss, found the revolver that had been used in the Tate killings. The murderers had tossed it out the window on Beverly Glen as they were driving away. The boy’s family had turned it in to the Van Nuys division of the LAPD. The police already had the murder weapon, but they didn’t know they had it. They were looking all over the country for it, even in Canada.

McGANN We sent out bulletins, pictures, brochures. Somehow Van Nuys didn’t get the news. This was a screwup.

BUGLIOSI  There were two separate investigations—Tate and LaBianca—and they were going off on their own. They weren’t sharing information.

GALINDO My boss, Lieutenant Paul LePage, who ran the LaBianca team, trusted the people he worked with, and they trusted him. Bob Helder, who ran the Tate team, was feisty. This may not sound like much, but during meetings he’d throw his feet up on the captain’s desk. LePage and Helder bumped heads off the bat. When information came in, they didn’t share unless the captain called them in and said, “You guys have to talk.” Vince very quickly recognized the rift between the two units, and he brought them together.

BUGLIOSI This was considered to be a weak case. It was a circumstantial evidence case. The main guy—Manson—had not participated in the murders. People in my office said, “It’s unfortunate that you’ve been assigned to this case. It’s not a strong case.” But you have to understand something about me. When I get on a case, the first thing I determine is if the person is guilty irrespective of whether I form that opinion based on admissible evidence. If I believe the person is guilty, I know that I can find the evidence—not manufacture it, find it. If I think a person is guilty, something comes over me. When I started looking at the police reports and saw the kind of person Manson was, I realized it was only a matter of time before I’d come up with enough evidence.

Danny Galindo: Former LAPD homicide detective
Danny Galindo: Former LAPD homicide detective

Photographed by Frank Ockenfels

IX. CHARLES MANSON

In 1969, Charles Manson was 34 years old. He’d arrived in California from Ohio in 1955 at the wheel of a stolen Mercury with his pregnant wife at his side. Over the next 12 years he was convicted of everything from transporting stolen vehicles across state lines to forging government checks. He was in and out of the federal prison at Terminal Island. A modestly talented musician, he adored the Beatles and aspired to become a recording star. He was also a Scientologist and would claim that he had achieved the religion’s highest level. He had spent half his life behind bars.

BUGLIOSI Manson’s name at birth was “No Name Maddox.” He didn’t know his father. Maddox was his mother’s maiden name. Manson was the surname of one of the men his mother spent time with. He felt his mother didn’t love him. He felt he’d been dealt a bad hand. He was only five foot two—he was hostile about that. He took to crime early. By 13, he’d committed an armed robbery. At 17, he committed a homosexual rape. He committed a lot of federal crimes, which carry long jail terms.

To Manson there was no such thing as good and bad, no such thing as right and wrong. Everyone was acting out their own karma. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do. He admired Hitler. He said, “Hitler is a tuned-in guy who leveled the karma of the Jews.” Manson is someone without regrets or compunctions.

Looking at his records, I found only three instances in which Manson had been examined by a psychiatrist and then only superficially. If he’d been properly examined, maybe—and I italicize the word—this rage seething in him would have been detected, and he’d never have been set free. He didn’t want to be set free. Prison was where he felt at home. I called the authorities at Terminal Island, the last place he was incarcerated, and they told me, “Manson wanted to stay behind bars.” He felt prison was his home, the only one he’d ever had. He liked it. But in March of 1967, they let him go. If he’d only remained in prison, as many as 35 people might not be in their graves. I say 35 because that’s the number the Manson Family tosses around. They didn’t just commit the Tate and LaBianca murders. They say, “We offed 35 people.”

From Terminal Island, Manson went up to San Francisco. The Haight-Ashbury district was paradise for him. It was free sex, love, drugs, and food, and kids began congregating around him. There was something about him. He was bright and had the rap of a street hustler. The kids liked his music. He sang about ending the war in Vietnam. Because he was older, kids thought they could learn something from him. Before you know it, a group of them were following him around. They formed the Family, got a school bus, and started traveling up and down the West Coast. He began to gain control of these kids.

Catherine Share: Former Family Member
Catherine Share: Former Family Member

Photographed by Frank Ockenfels

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