Charles Manson dies 48 years after the murders that changed LA


Debra Tate, the sister of the late actress Sharon Tate, received a call Sunday night from California prison officials informing her that Charles Manson died at 8:13 p.m. "I said a prayer for his passing," Tate said. "One could say I've forgiven them, which is quite different then forgetting what they (were) are capable of."

manson+at+77.jpgManson lived to 83, his original death sentence vacated when the California death penalty was struck down in 1972.

Tonight's call came 48 years after the August, 1969 murders of Sharon Tate and five others at her rented home on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Manson was not there that night: the gruesome torture-murders were carried out by followers he sent from the Spahn Ranch movie location where Manson and his "family" squatted in Santa Susana Pass, near Chatsworth. Manson knew the house; it was formerly occupied by Terry Melcher, a record producer who had spurned Manson's musical stylings.

The next night, Manson did accompany a few followers to a home in Los Feliz where they stabbed and killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson left early to plant the victims' wallets at a gas station in Sylmar, hoping this would somehow help incite a race war. The killers themselves hitchhiked across the Valley back to the ranch.

The following Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran a short news item about the arrests of a car theft ring at the Spahn Ranch with an odd fact: many of the thieves were young women. It took months for police to link two of the most notorious murder scenes ever in Los Angeles to the Spahn Ranch women and their leader, a lifelong petty criminal in his mid 30s who was born in Ohio.

By then, Manson and his followers had fled with their dune buggies to the desert near Death Valley, planning to sit out the coming race war. Or so that's what Manson told the girls. He was arrested in isolated Inyo County that December after a jailhouse conversation put detectives on Manson's trail.

The details of the murders, revealed in a trial in the old Hall of Justice and the book "Helter Skelter" by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, made household names of Manson and followers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Linda Kasabian and Tex Watkins. Atkins died in prison in 2009 and Kasabian received immunity to testify. Van Houten has been recommended for parole by state officials but the final decision is pending from Gov. Jerry Brown; he denied her parole last year. Ever since the death sentences of the others were overturned, Debra Tate and representatives of the Los Angeles County DA's office have actively opposed parole for any Manson followers. Manson himself was denied parole a dozen times.

Many if not most Angelenos who lived through the period also remember the names of the other murder victims who died on Cielo Drive. Jay Sebring, a Hollywood hairstylist and Tate's ex-boyfriend. Abigail Folger, a volunteer social worker and heiress to the Folger's Coffee fortune. Her boyfriend Voytek Frykowski, a friend of Tate's husband, the director Roman Polanski, who was not at home. Steven Parent, who was visiting a tenant in the guest house in the property.

The details were impossible to ignore. Tate's body was found sprawled beside a sofa, a rope looped around her neck. She had been stabbed 16 times in the chest and back. Eight months pregnant, her unborn child was also dead. Sebring lay near Tate in the living room. Outside on the lawn were Folger and Frykowski; they had been chased down and knifed dozens of times. Parent was killed in his car.

A housekeeper arriving at work in the morning discovered the scene. On the front door of the house, the word PIG was scrawled in Tate's blood. Across town at the LaBianca home the next night, the misspelled Beatles lyric Helter-Skealter was written in blood.

The gory details seized many in Los Angeles with fear. It was worst in the Hollywood colonies, where stars went into hiding or started buying guns. Polanski was the hot young director of the previous year's sensation, "Rosemary's Baby." Tate had a recurring part in the TV hit "The Beverly Hillbillies," had posed in Playboy and had gotten her movie break as a starlet in "Valley of the Dolls." Joan Didion wrote in "The White Album," her book on the era, that "many people I know in Los Angeles believed the '60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969."

During the trial, Manson and his followers actively disrupted the proceedings, and after Manson carved a swastika into his forehead, the female defendants did as well. Outside, young Manson followers such as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme sang and danced and engaged with the crowds. Fromme later served 34 years in prison for trying to kill President Gerald Ford. One of the family's attorneys, Ron Hughes, vanished during the Manson trial and turned up dead.

"For the band of journalists who covered the Manson trial, those 10 months felt like a plunge into horror beyond comparison," former Associated Press trial reporter Linda Deutsch writes for AP. "If the story had been put forward as a Hollywood script, no one would have bought it. It was just too unbelievable."

Though Manson went to prison, he never left the public consciousness and became a pop culture icon to some. Media reported on followers who continued to live near the prison, on his plans to marry, on his music, on his violations of prison rules banning cellphones.

Manson sites around the LA areas continue to attract interest. The Spahn Ranch burned down in a wildfire shortly after the murders, but it's easy to find out where it was, alongside Santa Susana Pass Road. The murder scene on Cielo Drive has been razed and the property given a new address. There's residual interest among Manson aficionados in the Sunset Boulevard home where Manson and some of the followers stayed for a time with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and in the Van Nuys recording studio where Manson cut a demo record. For those who care, the Sylmar gas station where Manson dumped the LaBiancas' wallets is still there, and the Denny's where he grabbed a milk shake before heading back to the ranch.

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles released a statement: "Vincent Bugliosi, the Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson provided the most accurate summation: 'Manson was an evil, sophisticated con man with twisted and warped moral values.' Today, Manson's victims are the ones who should be remembered and mourned on the occasion of his death."

News: AP story, TMZ, Los Angeles Times, New York Times.

Rolling Stone has posted a piece it ran in 1970 by David Felton (a former LA Times reporter) and David Dalton. Here's a more recent oral history piece by Steve Oney for Los Angeles Magazine.

The Day the Sixties Died
Vincent Bugliosi, Manson prosecutor and author, was 80
Manson nabbed with another cellphone
Manson at 77: new picture from prison

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