True Crime - Charles Manson
From Quentin Tarantino to Mary Harron, it seems that Hollywood has a blatant niche for the creation of Charles Manson movies. From hours-long podcast investigations in the True Crime Community to blockbuster motion pictures, it reigns true that these pop culture conceptions hold pique interest within the American media, and such sentiment must be absorbed under the notion that the Manson Murders were intrinsically American in nature. Stemming from Manson’s attitudes regarding class, sexuality, race, and family, the image perpetuated is often characterized under the guise of sexually wild hippies and LSD-fueled delusion, the American media has rigorously detracted from the gruesomeness which truly occurred from the Manson Family. So, what exactly happened?
On Friday, August 8, 1969, five people were murdered at 10500 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, California. The murders were directed and executed to the will of Charles Manson, a hippie criminal with grandiose aspirations of bloodshed. Standing at a petite five foot, four inches, Manson held big dreams of power, fame, and fortune. This yearning for notoriety granted Manson an extremely tumultuous relationship between himself and Hollywood, which led him to the enterprise for murder. A free-spirited misogynist, Manson weaponized the “free love” philosophy as a means to manipulate and abuse younger women who would ultimately become enamored with him. These women are usually referred to as the “Manson Girls,” though there were also male members of his cult entitled the “Family,” the group was predominantly made up of young women. Manson, starving for a music career, utilized himself and his followers to network into the business, to quite a successful avail. Upon meeting a few of Manson’s female followers, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys was known to become quite fond of the Family and Manson himself, going as far as allowing the cult to stay at one of his houses until his manager eventually kicked them out.
The murders at Cielo Drive became very famous very quickly, as the victims of the murders were famous themselves. Inside the house was Abigail Folger, heiress of the Folger coffee fortune; and Wojciech Frykowski, the Polish boyfriend of Abigail and friend of Roman Polanski, the owner of the house who was away filming in Europe at the time of the murders. Steven Parent, an eighteen-year-old boy, was totally there by chance, as he was a friend of the caretaker, William Garretson, and wanted to sell him a clock. Jay Sebring, ex-boyfriend-turned best friend of Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski. And lastly, Sharon herself who was eight months pregnant at the time of the murders. The following night, the Family murdered supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary LaBianca, a co-owner of a boutique for dresses.
The murders were blatantly gruesome and were not enacted by Manson himself, nor entirely planned by him. To put it plainly, Charles Manson directed his cult followers to commit the Tate-LaBianca murders because he wanted to incite a race war, entitled Helter Skelter. Manson believed that the album of the same name by the Beatles was written about this impending war (The album is actually about an amusement park). Manson and his Family believed that it was their duty to incite Helter Skelter and therefore distract the law from other crimes in order to make the war the sole focus. Manson subsequently convinced his followers to steal from a friend of his named Gary Hinman, whom Manson and his Family held hostage for two days, one of which they cut Hinman’s ear off. Their two-day visit ultimately resulted in the death of Hinman by Family member Bobby Beausoleil.
The Family attempted to pin the murder on the Black Panthers, writing the phrase “Political Piggie” and the Black Panther symbol in Hinman’s blood on the wall. However, the framing was unsuccessful as Beausoleil was arrested for murder on August 6th. Manson, furious about the arrest, ordered his right-hand man, Charles “Tex” Watson, to “totally destroy” the inhabitants of Cielo Drive in order to make their murders resemble the Hinman murder to avert the police’s attention from Beausoleil. It is also noted by the lead prosecutor of the Manson trials and author of Helter Skelter that Manson believed the murders would spook Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day, as he was hesitant to sign Manson a record deal. When ordering Tex to kill the inhabitants of Cielo Drive, he referred to the house as “the one where Melcher used to live.” Melcher had rented out the property to the Polanski’s, which is why it was Sharon and her friends being murdered that night as opposed to Melcher. However, Manson had apparently already been made aware of this and went forth with his directions of murder anyways.
Tex and three female members of the family arrived at Cielo Drive just past midnight, Tex making a point to climb a telephone pole and cut the house's phone line upon arrival. As they were making their way up the driveway, a young Steven Parent was driving out of it, to which they forced him to stop and exit the vehicle. Watson consequently slashed the young boy's hand with a knife before shooting him four times in the chest. Once inside the house, Tex quickly began tying up an eight-and-a-half month-pregnant Sharon Tate with a rope around both her and Jay Sebring's neck. A desperate Jay Sebring begged Tex to let Sharon go, to which Tex responded by shooting him in the chest and then stabbing him seven times. Tex then hit Frykowski over the head with the gun in his hands, causing the gun grip to break. Tex and Frykowski grappled together in the lawn in front of the house, where Frykowski was shot twice and stabbed over fifty times. Abigail had escaped out of the back door but was tackled on the front lawn by female Family member Patricia Krenwinkel, leaving both Krenwinkel and Tex to stab her a total of 28 times. Once finished outside, Sharon Tate begged for the life of her child, pleading to at least be granted the chance to give birth before something so horrific happens to her. Susan Atkins, another female Family member, and Tex Watson ultimately stabbed Tate a total of 16 times, killing her and her unborn child.
On August 10, 1969, the LaBianca murders occurred. Manson, unsatisfied with the frenzied, unorganized murders of the night before, brought the four murderers from the Cielo Drive massacre as well as two other Family members to the LaBianca residence to "show them how to do it,” meaning doing it properly. Manson selected the LaBianca residence purely because it was next door to a house the Family had been invited to the year before, located in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. According to Susan Atkins, Manson first went inside the residence alone to tie up the LaBianca’s before sending up Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. After placing pillowcases over the LaBianca's heads and binding them in place with lamp cords, Manson left after ordering their deaths to the others. Watson first stabbed Leno LaBianca 12 times before hearing the commotion from the bedroom where Rosemary was being kept. Tex walked in to see Rosemary rightfully fighting for her life from the other two girls, but Tex interrupted by stabbing her with a bayonet. He then returned to Leno to finish him, carving WAR into the man's abdomen. The girls evidently murdered Rosemary by stabbing her 16 times and many times post-mortem. Once finished, Watson cleaned off the bayonet and showered, leaving Krenwinkel to write "Death to pigs," "Rise," and a misspelling of "Healter Skelter." Krenwinkel gave Leno LaBianca 14 puncture wounds with an "ivory-handled two-lined carving fork," which she left hanging out of his stomach before also leaving a knife in his throat.
The murders were messy, though incredibly hard to solve and pin at first. The gun initially used in the murders was found in Los Angeles two weeks after the killings at Cielo Drive, but not by police. A young boy had found the gun by the front yard of his house as he lived not too far from Cielo Drive. From there, investigators utilized the serial number of the weapon to verify the amount of that specific gun model which had been sold in the Los Angeles area since its initial manufacturing. It was reported that “the boy was careful not to touch the revolver to protect fingerprints. The police smudged it up and filed it away, the chambers of the weapon containing seven spent shells and two live bullets,” as stated within the official LAPD police report.
Mistakes were unfortunately routine throughout the investigation; it was even believed for a long time that the murders at the Tate and LaBianca residences weren't even related. The gruesome, horrific nature of the murders caused those who were investigating profound emotional harm and pressure, causing them to lose sight of the necessary procedures which had to be conducted in order to serve justice. For example, an LAPD police officer touched the button of the front gate, which held a bloody fingerprint, leaving it no longer viable for investigation. Forensic chemist Joe Granado chose not to take samples from the blood around the victims stating that he believed the blood to be their own and decided to get samples "later." Police officials tracked blood throughout the crime scene as they investigated, tampering with the scene of the crime. The broken-off gun grip, which was first seen by the house's entryway, was later found under a chair in the living room. As stated in the LAPD official report, "They were apparently kicked under the chair by one of the original officers on the scene." It wasn't until December 1969 that the gun's grip would be matched to the gun the young boy had found just weeks after the killings. The gun grip found at the scene had type 0 blood on it, making it a key point of evidence. A white nylon rope was found at the crime scene as well, but investigators could not determine whether or not it was used for violent practices. After examining the wounds of the victims, investigators concluded that a six-inch bayonet was responsible for at least one of the attacks.
Forensic evidence found at the scene of the LaBianca residence included: a white page of paper covered with bloodstains by the dining room table, two 42-inch rawhide thongs, 20 hair particles found around Rosemary’s body which were later concluded to all belong to the family dog, a 10-inch bi-tined fork found in the stomach of Leno LaBianca, a steak knife with a serrated blade, and lastly, a multitude of latent prints.
In October 1969, numerous members of the Manson Family were arrested at their home on Spahn Ranch in Death Valley, a 55-acre lot that was previously used to film movies. They were arrested under the notion of vehicular theft and arson. One of the members ended up linking Susan Atkins to a previous murder, as she had bragged about the monstrous act to her cellmates and that of the Tate murders, leading all the killers to their arrest by the end of the year. The trial began in June of 1970, at which point they combined the Tate-LaBianca murders. Despite numerous disruptions and delays, Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel were found guilty in January 1971. Tex Watson was tried and convicted the following year, and the death penalty was served to all of them by the end of the trial. Their sentences were later substituted for life in prison following California abolishing capital punishment the same year. After becoming eligible for parole, their requests were always denied.
So why was the Family so eager to do Manson's bidding? The answer lies at a Grateful Dead concert during the spring of 1967, where Manson dropped his first dose of LSD.
LSD is a psychedelic that generates positive experiences within the user, painting a dream-like, vibrant experience where colors are perceived to be more vivid and emotions are felt more intensely; euphoria is often a feeling one is reported to feel. However, LSD or 'acid' can also create negative experiences or 'bad trips,' where users may suffer from anxiety due to the overwhelming sensation they are experiencing. According to the novel LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic, when a psychopath (such as someone like Manson) takes LSD, the effects can be more harmful than good.
"There was a psychiatrist in the 1960s who felt, rightly, that the problem with psychopathy is that the madness is buried beneath a veneer of normality, but he felt, wrongly, that the way to cure it would be to bring the madness to the surface so it could be treated… He got a bunch of psychopaths and stuck them in a room called the 'Total Encounter Capsule' and… gave them huge amounts of LSD and strapped them to each other. Then he… tried to get them to go to their darkest places by turning their world into a sort of living hell… A study was done of their long-term recidivism rates: In regular circumstances, apparently 60% of high-scoring psychopaths… go on to reoffend, but of the ones who'd been through the naked LSD encounter sessions, 80% had reoffended. It made them worse… it taught them how to fake empathy and made them more adept criminals."
LSD proved itself to be a valuable method to crumble any sort of conscience the Family members may have had before meeting Manson, and it was stated by Dr. David Smith of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic that, "Charlie would take LSD to reinforce the idea that he was magic."
During the summer of '68, while the Family was living at Spahn Ranch, a messianic cult called the Fountain of the World resided just up the road from a ranch, and Manson was a frequent visitor. It was there that he saw Messianic Passion Play for the first time, a theatrical performance that reenacts trial, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ. He then began performing his own passion play at the ranch, with LSD as Eucharist. During these performances, which occurred quite often, the Family members would all take LSD and watch Manson "reincarnate" as Jesus Christ, forming evident disillusion among the minds of the members.
"With his long hair and beard, his eyes staring from face to face, he seemed to be Jesus speaking to his twelve apostles…" wrote Susan Atkins. "That's when I felt he might be Jesus Christ."
Charles Manson spent the remainder of his life in prison and died in November 2017. Susan Atkins died in prison in September 2009. On November 9, 2021, Van Houten was approved for parole by a parole board. The board approval is now waiting for Governor Newsom's signature; Newsom has denied her parole twice before. As of December 2021, Krenwinkel remains imprisoned at the California Institution for Women in the Chino district of Corona, California. She will be eligible for a parole suitability hearing in 2022. Tex Watson's minimum eligible parole date was November 26, 1976; he has been denied parole 18 times since then, including two stipulations. He was most recently served a five-year denial of parole at a board hearing in October 2021 and remains imprisoned at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California.