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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McGANN I have nothing but respect for Bugliosi as a lawyer, but his attitude pissed me off. He didn’t solve the case. We solved the case. We brought the case to the district attorney’s office in a pretty good package. He found more evidence, but that’s what he’s supposed to do.

GALINDO Vince Bugliosi was intense. Boy, was he intense. If I interviewed somebody and didn’t get something he wanted, he re-interviewed them. But I didn’t mind. He was strictly for conviction, and conviction meant proving these people guilty. He’s the guy who made the case.

BUGLIOSI I made a deal with Richard Caballero, Susan Atkins’s lawyer, that if Susan cooperated I wouldn’t seek the death penalty against her. If she stopped cooperating, I couldn’t use what she’d told me. I hadn’t wanted to do this. As far as I was concerned, she was one of the main killers. But the D.A. overruled me. There was a lot of pressure. There was such a desire to break the case. So we came up with this agreement.

The deal with Atkins soon fell apart. First came a spate of publicity that threatened to pollute the jury pool, undermining her value as a witness. The most damaging article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Under the headline “Susan Atkins’ Story of 2 Nights of Murder,” the state’s star witness provided a comprehensive first-person account of the killings. Second came Manson’s transfer from Inyo County to Los Angeles.

McGANN Manson and Susan Atkins started communicating, and she completely changed. She became very belligerent. She didn’t want anything more to do with us. She decided she wouldn’t testify.

BUGLIOSI Sadie went back to her god, Charlie.

As Atkins returned to the Family, Linda Kasabian, who had fled to New Mexico, came out of hiding.

GARY FLEISCHMAN, Kasabian’s lawyer. Now 75, he practices in Northern California. Linda had seen them committing mayhem at the Tate house. She had driven the killers to the LaBianca residence, but she hadn’t done anything. Still, she was technically guilty of first-degree murder. I told her that a deal was the only way out. She initially didn’t want to do that. These were her soul mates, no matter what they’d done. But I told her, “You’re broke, you’re pregnant, and you were there. You must become a prosecution witness.”

One day Aaron Stovitz, the head of the trial division, called me. He said, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “I’m going to get my hair cut at the barbershop at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Come on over.” So he drives out, and he makes me an offer. A very strange confluence of events had occurred. They needed Linda Kasabian, and she needed them. They gave her total immunity.

BUGLIOSI We took Linda to Cielo Drive. I wanted her to point out to me where certain things had occurred. When we approached the gate, a couple of snarling dogs appeared. The owner had bought watchdogs. Linda started sobbing and saying over and over, “Why couldn’t they have been here that night? Why couldn’t they have been here that night?”

XVI. THE TRIAL

The People v. Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten began July 24, 1970, on the eighth floor of the Hall of Justice, with Judge Charles Older presiding. The trial would produce 28,354 pages of transcript and cost more than $1 million. Watson, not yet extradited from Texas, would be tried separately.

BUGLIOSI When Manson walked into the courtroom the first morning, people gasped. The night before, he’d gotten ahold of some sharp object and carved a bloody x into his forehead. Outside the Hall of Justice, Family members passed out his statement: “I have x’d myself from your world.… Your courtroom is man’s game. Love is my judge.” That weekend the female defendants heated bobby pins and burned x’s into their foreheads.  It was bizarre, but every day when I walked into the courtroom I exuded confidence. I’d done so much preparation I felt we couldn’t lose.

FLEISCHMAN On the third day, when they brought Linda into court, she looked at the three little girls, the killers—Sadie, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten—and asked them, “How could you?” They were supposed to be hippies. They were supposed to value life.

BUGLIOSI Linda knew on the night of the murders that she’d be the one who’d have to tell the world what happened. She thought they were just going off on another creepy crawl mission. She was an ideal witness. She’d been present both nights, but she hadn’t participated. She said Manson gave the orders to kill everyone at Tate. She described watching Tex Watson stab Voytek Frykowski. She said Manson directed them to the LaBianca house. As she talked about what happened, you’d see these expressions of terrible pain on her face. She was cut out of different cloth than the other Family members. The others were bloodthirsty robots. She was on the stand for 17 days. The defense assaulted her verbally. It was mostly Manson’s lawyer, Irving Kanarek.

FLEISCHMAN Charlie Manson made a huge mistake. He picked the worst lawyer he could have gotten—Irving Kanarek. He was famous around town as an obstructionist. If I’d been cross-examining Linda Kasabian, I’d have shoved that immunity agreement up her nose. I’d have said, “You were promised your freedom, so you made up this story.” Then I’d have gotten her off the stand. But Kanarek kept her up there. He’d ask Linda, “How many times have you taken LSD?” She’d say, “Fifty.” He’d ask, “Do you remember the first time?” She’d say, “Yes.” He’d ask, “Do you remember the last time?” She’d say, “Yes.” Then he’d ask, “Do you remember the 37th time?” Vince would yell, “Objection,” and there’d be a dozen lawyers at the bench. Then Kanarek would spend an hour finding out where Linda had lunch that day and what she’d eaten. The guy could think of more irrelevant questions. He’s meshuga, as we say in Yiddish. Manson sought him out for that reason—to foul up the trial. But it didn’t work. Linda’s testimony stood up.

Bugliosi had more than Kasabian: fingerprints, firearm identification, testimony from a home owner at whose residence Tex Watson and the others had hosed the gore off their hands after the Tate killings, and indirect evidence tying Krenwinkel to the writing at the LaBianca home.

BUGLIOSI One day Manson got ahold of a sharp pencil, and from a standing position jumped over the defense table toward the judge, shouting, “In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.” It was an amazing feat. I don’t know how he did it. You just don’t see things like that in court. The deputies immediately tackled him and dragged him off. From there on out Judge Older wore a handgun under his robe.

HOYT For months before I testified, I was getting death threats. Sometimes I knew who was calling—it was Squeaky or Sandy. The prosecution had to give my depositions to the defense. So they knew what I was going to say, and they knew it wasn’t going to be good for Charlie. I stayed in touch with a few of them, trying to make them think I was still on their side. They asked me to go to Hawaii. So I went. I was at the Honolulu airport with Ruth Ann Moorehouse, and we got a hamburger. After I ate it, she said, “Just imagine if there were ten tabs of acid in that.” I then went into the city. All of a sudden I was feeling really weird, very high, and I realized there were ten tabs of acid in the hamburger. I got to a bathroom and made myself throw up. I don’t know how I did it, but I got to the steps of the Salvation Army building. I sprawled out. A man asked me, “Are you all right?” I said no. I told him to call Mr. Bugliosi. They took me to a hospital and gave me Valium by IV to bring me down. The Valium went up my arm and into my brain and ripped it out. That’s when I lost consciousness.

Even though they tried to kill me, I had to testify. I’d seen Sharon Tate’s mother on TV talking about her grief. That’s what swayed me. I felt so sad for her. What it finally came down to for me was this: Did I want to be able to live with myself when I got old? And I decided that I did.

BUGLIOSI In November Ronald Hughes, Leslie Van Houten’s lawyer, vanished from the face of the earth. The Family had adopted an umbrella defense strategy. The goal was to save Charlie. The girls were going to give themselves up for Charlie. At some point Hughes started to show some independence. He started defending Leslie at Manson’s expense. In March Hughes’s body was found in a decomposed condition at Sespe Hot Springs in Ventura County. The coroner couldn’t determine the cause of death. I don’t know that the Family killed Ronald Hughes, but if I had to guess, I’d say they did.

FLEISCHMAN It freaked us all out when Ronald Hughes got killed. How many times do you hear of a defense lawyer getting killed in the middle of a case? I was living in a two-story apartment in Beverly Hills, and I had a couple of these kids—Linda’s husband, Bob, and a guy named Charlie Melton—sleeping on my doorstep. Bob and Charlie were really just warm bodies. They were just eating my food and smoking my dope. But they lived with me for several months. I wanted someone there if Squeaky Fromme tried to sneak in and slit my throat.

Officers escort Manson to jail following a preliminary court appearance in December 1969 in Los Angeles
Officers escort Manson to jail following a preliminary court appearance in December 1969 in Los Angeles

Photograph courtesy AP

XVII. VERDICT

When asked to call its first witness, the defense rested. Manson never testified in front of the jury. Kanarek hoped the jury would decide that the prosecution had failed to prove its case. The jury deliberated for 42 hours and 40 minutes. On January 25, 1971, it found Charles Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten guilty of murder.

BUGLIOSI I couldn’t conceive of the jury coming back with a not-guilty verdict. But I did fear a hung jury. One juror, out of fear—because they all knew the Manson Family was still on the streets—could have balked. When the jury came in, I watched Manson. His hands were trembling. He’d convinced the Family members that death was beautiful. But that was all BS.

FLEISCHMAN Was there enough proof to convict Manson? Legally, I think it’s pretty questionable. Morally, I have no doubt that he’s guilty. Manson took control of these 22- and 23-year-old kids and turned them into killers. But legally, all Vince had was the testimony of my client, and he gave her immunity for her testimony. Not that it mattered. Vince was trying the devil incarnate, and what jury is not going to convict the devil?

BUGLIOSI You’ve got to realize that Manson was the main focus of the trial. The problem was that he did not physically participate in the murders. How did I connect him to the crime? I brought him in by way of circumstantial evidence. The first piece was his total, complete domination. The other one is that only he had a motive for these murders: Helter Skelter. I told the jury that when those words were found printed in blood at the LaBianca murder scene, it was tantamount to finding Manson’s fingerprints.

The penalty phase of the trial lasted nearly two months. On March 29, 1971, the jury found that Manson, Krenwinkel, Atkins, and Van Houten should be sentenced to death. Virginia Graham, Ronnie Howard, and Steven Weiss, the youngster who found the gun, split the $25,000 reward put up by Warren Beatty and others.

BUGLIOSI I told the jury, “If you’re not willing to come back with a verdict of death in this case, we should abolish the death penalty in the state of California. Why have it on the books? How many people do you have to kill to get the death penalty?”

Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the killers, speaks to reporters after winning the death penalty.
Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the killers, speaks to reporters after winning the death penalty.

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

XVIII. AFTERMATH

In October 1971, Tex Watson was convicted in a separate trial. Like the others, he was sentenced to death. Within little more than two years after the Tate-LaBianca murders, all five killers had been brought to justice. Bobby Beausoleil, and later Manson, were convicted of the Hinman murder. In addition, Manson, Davis, and Grogan were convicted of the Shea murder; Watson was not prosecuted in that case.

BUGLIOSI I was driving with the radio on when I heard that the Supreme Court had set aside the death penalty. I immediately recalled a conversation I had with Manson after the verdict. He said, “You know, Bugliosi, all you’ve done is send me back to where I came from.” I said, “But Charlie, you haven’t been to the green room.” The green room is where they drop the cyanide tablet. So I thought back to that conversation, and I thought, “Now he will never be in the green room. Now he will be where he wants to be.” Sure, he’d rather be back on the outside with a harem of women, driving dune buggies up and down the desert. But he doesn’t mind life behind bars. He’s bisexual. So when I heard the news, I said to myself, “Charlie’s beaten the rap.”

HOYT Manson should have been executed. They all should have been executed. It’s not that I want to see them die. It’s hard to think about. But it’s harder to think about what they did to their victims.

Like many lifers, Manson, now 74, and the others are eligible for parole. (Squeaky Fromme, who was convicted of the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in 1975, is also eligible.)

DiMARIA What strikes me about parole hearings is that they’re always a trek back to hell. Every year, sometimes two or three times a year, we go. I don’t know how many hearings we’ve been to for Leslie Van Houten. We’ve also been to hearings for Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel. Each time I have to watch my mother endure an account of how her brother died. Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, comes. The LaBiancas come. I feel that the crimes themselves should be enough to keep them in prison for life.

We’re talking about premeditated mass murder.

HOYT I hear these murderers complain about the size of their cells. But the size of their cells is a lot bigger than the size of the coffins their victims are in. They say they have to live with what they’ve done for the rest of their lives. Well, at least they get to live with it. Their victims don’t get to live at all.

FLEISCHMAN It’s a shock that Leslie Van Houten has been kept in jail. Had she done an isolated event of this nature 40 years ago, she’d have long since been released on parole. But because she was in the Manson Family, she’s still in the pokey.

HOYT I think Manson is possessed. I think he has believed his stuff so long, he’s incapable of waking up. And I don’t think he’ll ever own up to what he’s done.

SHARE If you let Charles Manson out, he’d try to kill more people. Even in a physically diminished state, he’d try to manipulate someone into killing for him.

BUGLIOSI One of the reasons people are obsessed with the Manson case is that except for Susan Atkins, who had a tough childhood, the killers were all average American kids from good backgrounds. My God, Tex Watson was a football, basketball, and track star. He had an A average in high school. Leslie Van Houten was a homecoming queen. Patricia Krenwinkel wanted to become a nun. These were normal American kids. But Manson got ahold of them. The case is a reaffirmation of the verity that whenever you turn over your mind to an authoritarian figure, the potential for madness exists. When you lose your will, you can’t turn back.

There is also another reason. People forget that before the Tate-LaBianca killings, hippies had a clear image. They wanted to end the Vietnam War. They wanted to promote love. That these types of people were involved in a murder case that stretched the limits of brutality was a shock to the country.

In prosecuting this case I saw the face of unbelievable evil. That these people could not just stab their victims but enjoy it, that they could ignore their screams and keep stabbing as the victims were begging for their lives—I’d not seen that before. The question is, Where was God? Where was God in the LaBianca home and the Tate residence? Christians believe God is omniscient. So evidently he was there those nights and just decided not to do anything. You know, I’m an agnostic.

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