Los Angeles, California: One of the most infamous criminals of the 20th century, Charles Manson, the cult leader who masterminded a string of brutal murders – of actress Sharon Tate and six others – in Los Angeles in 1969, died at a Bakersfield, Kern County Hospital at 8:13 p.m Sunday of natural causes – according to Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He was 83.
Manson became a metaphor for evil, and evil has its allure. Manson and four of his followers — Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles “Tex” Watson — were convicted of murdering actress Sharon Tate, the wife of movie director Roman Polanski, in their Bel-Air home on Aug. 9, 1969, along with four others.
Sharon Tate, 26, who was eight months pregnant, pleaded with her killers to spare the life of her unborn baby. Atkins replied, “Woman, I have no mercy for you.” Tate was stabbed 16 times. “PIG” was written in her blood on the front door.
The next night they killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their Los Feliz home. Manson picked the house at random, tied up the couple and then left the killings to the others. They cut “WAR” in Leno LaBianca’s flesh and left a carving fork in his stomach and a knife in his throat. Using the LaBiancas’ blood, they scrawled on the wall and refrigerator in blood “DEATH TO PIGS” and “HEALTER SKELTER,” the misspelled title of a Beatles song. Before leaving, they helped themselves to some watermelon in the refrigerator, leaving behind the rinds.
Along with Tate, they killed Jay Sebring, a Hollywood hairdresser; Voytek Frykowski, a friend of Polanski; Abigail Folger, Frykowski’s girlfriend and the heir to the Folger coffee fortune; and Steven Parent, 18, who was visiting the resident of the guest house and was just leaving the property.
The next night Manson led followers to a Los Feliz neighborhood he was familiar with, picked a house at random and tied up the LaBiancas with leather thongs. After Manson took off, the couple was murdered.
And these murders were particularly brutal. On the two nights there were 169 stab wounds.
Manson did not commit the murders himself; instead he persuaded a group of his followers to carry out the killings. The crimes received frenzied news coverage, because so many lurid and sensational elements coalesced at the time — Hollywood celebrity, cult behavior, group sax, drugs and savage murders that concluded with the killers scrawling words with their victims’ blood.
Los Angeles residents were terrified by the crimes. Before the killers were apprehended, gun sales and guard dog purchases skyrocketed and locksmiths had weeks-long waiting lists. Numerous off-duty police officers were hired to guard homes in affluent neighborhoods and security firms tripled in size.
He hitchhiked to Berkeley during the Summer of Love, a time when the Bay Area was a mecca for young, idealistic hippies. They were easy prey for a street-smart conman like Manson. He soon put to use everything he had learned in prison. He played guitar on the street to attract women, intrigued them with his metaphysical monologues and, like the pimp he once was, manipulated and exploited young women and used them to attract male followers.
The followers took copious amounts of LSD, but Manson always abstained or took a much smaller dose and then orchestrated orgies in order, he claimed, to break down saxual taboos. The family survived by petty crimes and raiding supermarket dumpsters. Before the Summer of Love was over, Manson had eight followers, most of them women. They piled into an old school bus and roamed the West Coast before ending up in Los Angeles. In the spring of 1968, two female Manson family members who were hitchhiking were picked up by Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. They introduced him to Manson and the family briefly lived with Wilson at his Pacific Palisades home. Wilson introduced Manson to Terry Melcher, a record producer who was Doris Day’s son, and Manson played a few of the songs he wrote. Melcher had considered signing him, but eventually passed, embittering Manson. The family eventually moved to the Spahn Ranch, a little-used 500-acre property in the Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth.
In August 1969, Manson handed Watson a gun and a knife. “He said for me to take the gun and knife and go up to where Terry Melcher used to live,” Watson testified. “He said to kill everybody in the house as gruesome as I could. I believe he said something about movie stars living there.”
There was a secondary motive for the Tate murders, Bugliosi wrote in “Helter Skelter”: “As Susan Atkins put it … ‘The reason Charlie picked that house was to instill fear into Terry Melcher because Terry had given us his word on a few things and never came through with them.’ But this was obviously not the primary motive, since … Manson knew that Melcher was no longer living at the [house].”
Manson was an unlikely figure to evolve into the personification of evil. A few inches over 5 feet, he was a petty criminal and small-time hustler. And his followers — dubbed the Manson family — bore little resemblance to the stereotypical image of hardened killers. Most of them were young men and women in their early 20s, middle-class white kids, hippies and runaways who fell under the charismatic sway of Manson.
Watson had been a high school football star. Krenwinkel a former Sunday school teacher. Van Houten a homecoming princess from Monrovia. And Atkins once sang in her church choir. Linda Kasabian, a pregnant 20-year-old with a baby daughter, who said she was asked to go along that night because she was the only one with a valid driver’s license, testified against the others in return for immunity from prosecution. Atkins died in 2009 in prison; the others remain incarcerated.
The 9½-month trial — the longest in U.S. history at the time — was as bizarre as the crimes.
A group of young female followers with shaved heads gathered outside the courthouse and conducted a 24-hour vigil for Manson. One morning Manson entered the court room with an X carved into his forehead and his followers soon did the same. During the trial, Manson jumped over his attorney’s table and made a dash for the bench. While the bailiffs were dragging him out of the courtroom, Manson shouted to Judge Charles H. Older, “In the name of Christian justice, someone should chop off your head!” The judge began packing a .38-caliber revolver under his robe. Van Houten’s attorney, Ronald Hughes, disappeared during the trial and was later found dead. Prosecutors suspected he was another Manson victim.
Bugliosi argued during the trial that Manson orchestrated the murders as part of a plan to spark a race war that he called Helter Skelter. Blacks would win the war even though, according to Manson, they were inferior to whites. Then he and his followers would survive by living underground near Death Valley and would eventually take over power. In a later trial, Manson was convicted in the slayings of musician Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea, who worked at the San Fernando Valley ranch where the family lived for a time.
In 1972, the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment when the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty. Since then Manson and his followers have been eligible for parole hearings. Only one of those convicted in the nine murders — Steve Grogan, who was involved in the Shea shooting — has been paroled. Atkins died in 2009 while incarcerated in Chowchilla.
Manson — who had spent more than half of his life in prison before the conviction — was housed at Corcoran State Prison since 1989. He broke prison rules dozens of times for violations including possessing cellular phones and a hacksaw blade, throwing hot coffee at a staff member, spitting in a guard’s face, fighting, refusing to obey orders and trying to flood a tier in his cellblock. Long ago, he turned the X on his forehead into a swastika. He was denied parole 12 times and had numerous disciplinary violations. His last parole hearing was in 2012, which he declined to attend.
Doris Tate, Sharon’s mother, became a victims’ rights advocate after the murders and helped collect more than 350,000 signatures on petitions opposing parole for Manson and his followers. After her death in 1992, her daughter Patti Tate appeared at Manson family hearings opposing parole.
More than 40 years after the mass murders, Manson — whose wild-eyed stare was immortalized on a Life magazine cover — remains a figure of fascination, a homicidal anti-hero for a new generation. Rock groups have played songs that he wrote. Merchants peddle T-shirts bearing Manson’s likeness, as well as belt buckles, caps, necklaces, rosaries and cigarette lighters. Manson memorabilia is sold on the Internet.
Manson received in prison an average of four fan letters a day, said Stephen Kay, who helped prosecute the case. When he turned 80, Manson and a 27-year-old fan obtained a marriage license. But it expired before the paperwork was completed.
More than 40 years later, the notoriety of Charles Manson and the murders he plotted endures.
Manson was nonchalant after he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to San Quentin’s Death Row. He told prosecutors they were simply sending him home.
“Prison is my home,” he once said in an interview, “the only home I ever had.”