Book excerpt: The press and the Charles Manson murders

Manson-Exposed-Front-FINAL-72.jpgAs a British journalist based in Los Angeles, Ivor Davis reported in detail on the August, 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and four others at her Cielo Drive home in Benedict Canyon -- and the strange era that began when authorities arrested a repeat criminal named Charles Manson for masterminding the crimes.

Davis wrote his first book about Manson and his followers, "Five to Die: The Book That Helped Convict Manson," in 1970 and covered the legal proceedings that led to Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian and others becoming notorious household names.

Davis' new book, Manson Exposed: A Reporter's 50-Year Journey into Madness and Murder," revisits the era and some of its key figures, including lead prosecutors Vince Bugliosi and Aaron Stovitz and the Los Angeles reporters who covered the Manson family and the legal case.

In this chapter, Davis recounts battles between the DA's office and top Los Angeles journalists who competed to get to Manson and to break news on the case.

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"People say I'm an extremely opinionated person. If opinionated means that when I think I'm right I try to shove it down everyone's throat, they're correct. As for arrogant, I'm arrogant and I'm kind of caustic. The great majority of people I deal with are hopelessly incompetent, so there's an air of superiority about me."
--Vince Bugliosi, Playboy

For nearly a year, I trotted along and took my front-row seat at the trial. It was unlike any I have ever covered, and it provided wildly unpredictable, bizarre behavior by the defendants and another group of people who, like me, were writing and reporting on the trial. I am talking about those ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate--the press, the supposedly unbiased third wheel in this legal circus, who had no official role other than to report on what was being played out daily. We were simply present as unbiased onlookers, to efficiently, accurately, and effectively record what took place in front of judge and jury as well as outside the courtroom.

But in this particular case, with Bugliosi using every trick in the book to send "the diabolical dictator and his mindless but bloodthirsty zombies" to the gas chamber, some members of the press forgot their role as silent watchers and became inextricably entwined --sometimes in the most alarming and unimaginable fashions. Allow me to chronicle some of the many ways they impinged upon events surrounding the trial from the very beginning, often with chilling side effects.

To start with, when stories of the murder first broke in early August 1969, headline writers had a field day. The victims were no mere ordinary souls but high-profile personalities; and as a result, early accounts produced a slew of largely irresponsible suppositions, citing everything from drug orgies to black magic and voodoo as being responsible for the carnage.

Even the stately Life magazine, a month after the Cielo massacre, gave grieving widower Roman Polanski a chance to provide a fully illustrated guided tour of the blood-stained house. And in December, when the LAPD named the suspects, before you could say Tate-LaBianca, the confession of Susan Atkins -- based on an interview she had given to her lawyers -- was spread-eagled all over the front page of the Los Angeles Times. The paper paid $5,000 -- big money back then -- to entrepreneurial photojournalist Larry Schiller, for permission to run the story.

Fast-forward to a month before the eagerly awaited trial was to begin; an issue of Rolling Stone carried a nearly book-sized 30,000-word story about Manson titled "The Most Incredible Story of the Most Dangerous Man Alive." That article eventually led to career changes for two individuals -- namely Stovitz and Bugliosi. For Stovitz, it was the precursor to the death knell of his role as the district attorney's chief trial prosecutor; for Bugliosi, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

But the press wasn't finished stirring the pot. On October 9, 1970, William Farr, a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, reported that authorities knew that the chief architect of the Tate-La Bianca killings had also compiled a celebrity death list. The story headlined, "Liz, Sinatra on Slay List--Tate Witness" was splashed on the front page. Leaked from grand jury testimony of Susan Atkins' Sybil Brand cellmates, it made for pretty sensational and gory reading, spelling out in great detail the fate that awaited the celebrities. Among the revelations: Elizabeth Taylor's famous violet eyes were to be removed and mailed to her ex-husband Richard Burton. Castration was to be his fate. Ol' Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra was to be skinned alive while hanging from a meat hook. Welsh heartthrob Tom Jones was to have his throat cut while engaged in sexual intercourse with Susan Atkins -- at knifepoint, if necessary. And Steve McQueen was cited as well, though the exact manner of his liquidation was not spelled out by Atkins; she did tell Graham that she felt the superstar was getting "too politically inclined," which went "against her grain." Whatever that meant.

Farr received the information in transcripts surreptitiously passed to him by one of two lawyers. And no one knew which one of the two it was. Suspicion pointed to Bugliosi or [defense lawyer] Daye Shinn. When the judge asked Farr to reveal his source, he refused, citing California's shield law that safeguards the right of journalists to protect their sources. Not surprising, the prosecution pointed the finger at the defense, which in turn blamed the prosecution. The case dragged on, and eventually Farr paid for his exclusive by serving forty-six days in jail. Bugliosi and Shinn were indicted by a Grand Jury, but eventually a judge dismissed the case against the two.

Bugliosi claimed he was not happy with Farr, but he reserved special ire for Mary Neiswender, a veteran police-beat writer who was covering the trial for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Neiswender had become the envy of the press corps for one reason and one reason only -- throughout the trial she had acquired unbelievable access to Manson. (She later wrote about it in her 2012 memoir, "Assassins...Serial Killers...Corrupt Cops--Chasing the News in a Skirt and High Heels.")

Week after week throughout the trial, there appeared under Neiswender's byline exclusive interviews with Manson. When I spoke to her in 2019, she recalled her one-on-one talks with the man at the heart of the murder. She was the only reporter to have access to him while the trial was playing out. Other trial reporters -- jealous of her unfettered access -- reckoned that once again Manson had gained control over a woman and was feeding her only what he felt would benefit him.

"I thought Charlie hated women," she told me. "So why did he choose me? How did it happen? I maneuvered a way to get a phone call to him through a lowlife Mob friend who had worked for the Teamsters Union in Long Beach Harbor and who had met him in the prison law library -- Charlie was planning to go proper and be his own lawyer." She said her longshoreman pal called her on the phone while in the library, and "then he handed the phone to Charlie, who, he told me, had slithered under a table. We started talking. I had Charlie all to myself." She insisted she was never his propaganda machine, though he likely had some Machiavellian reason for talking with her. Perhaps for "media relations."

"I tried to keep him away from the rest of the press," she said. "All the major network big names in the TV news divisions as well as newspapers and magazines had written asking for interviews. He asked me, 'Do you think I should do this one, or that one?' And I would say, 'Oh, hell no, Charlie.' I kept the whole press away from him. I said, 'Tom Brokaw is going to put you in a pressure cooker...and you don't need that.' I knew he was insecure, and I used his insecurity against him. I guess that was a switch for someone like Charlie." But along the way, she insisted, "I wasn't about to give my soul away. And I never did."
She began to visit him regularly in prison. "Charlie set it up so I was listed as a 'friend' with no police record. And as Manson didn't have many friends without a police record, I was home and dry." Later on, she said, when her stories became more trial oriented and upset those in the district attorney's office, he suggested she change her designation from "friend" to "witness."

It was an uphill battle, Neiswender recalled. "I had to fight first with his jailers and later with the judges to make that 'witness' designation stick. They knew I wasn't a witness, but it was just a way around the system."

The "witness" said she got to know him very well. "We never shook hands or anything like that. Charlie was clever, street-wise, and charismatic. He knew how to get around people. Despite stories to the contrary, Charlie couldn't stop a clock with his eyes or make you shrivel up and die, although he tried." But she never ever underestimated him, or ever forgot who he was and what he did. She said that frequently, when Manson telephoned her, if she wasn't in the office, her editors would automatically put his calls through to her home in Rolling Hills. Her children came to answer the phone and yell, "Hey,'s Charlie." She insisted he didn't have her home phone number, "But he did know where I lived because a few months later three Manson Family members unexpectedly dropped by, told my young son who was in the house alone that they had been sent by Charlie, and then asked him for a box of matches. I was furious and I called Charlie and said, 'You sonafabitch.' He promised me it would never happen again." When he couldn't reach her on the phone, he'd send her handwritten notes. "His handwriting was middle-school, but his vocabulary was that of a college graduate. Don't forget -- he had a doctorate in street smarts and manipulation."

In a strange way, those calls and letters brought her closer to Manson, she said. "Most of the time, Charlie made a lot of sense. He said, 'Here are twelve lyin' jurors who all say they never heard of me or Sharon Tate or the murders -- you believe that? They've made up their mind. I'm the one they're going to send to the gas chamber; with my long hair I'm a perfect scapegoat.'"

He carefully massaged the scapegoat scenario, repeatedly stressing that not only didn't he murder anyone, he didn't force kids into dope -- just the opposite. "If they let me go," he told her, "I'm still trouble because I could turn into a monster. They've given me the weapon of fear. Everyone's afraid of me." During those tête-à-têtes, she said, "I noticed how carefully he would watch my face to see how far he could push. When he felt he had pushed the line, he would break into his little-kid smile."

During the trial, Neiswender wrote a series of "exclusive" stories based on her interviews. "Manson's Conscience Clear" was one; another, titled "Forces that Shaped Manson," focused on his unhappy childhood and his prostitute mother's abandonment of him. The stories had changed from her earlier ones, which had headlines that screamed, "Wolf Gang Pack of Thrill Killers." She was later to observe, "One-on-one, he was okay, but in court he was a totally different guy -- a performer."

While the rest of us in the press corps were being regularly scooped by Neiswender, Bugliosi was absolutely furious about Manson using a reporter as his private conduit. "Vince despised me -- he hated me until he died," she told me. "It had started when I first got onto the case and did stories on the judges and the attorneys -- anyone who could help me. I had already made friends with the judge. It's the way I operate, and it worked for me. I wrote a story about Vince. And then Aaron [Stovitz]. I called Vince a 'near genius.' It was a very flattering story. But my big mistake was when I described him as the 'balding prosecutor.' It was like a bomb went off."

Later, Neiswender recalled that he summoned her and Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press, who was getting her very first taste of big trial coverage and at first assumed the lunacy she was witnessing was normal procedure, into his office. "He lived in that office the entire trial, and he said, 'If you don't straighten out and do what I say, I will release an article I've written for Life magazine.' I didn't know what that meant, but what upset me more was his foul language. He was treating me like a naughty child. He kept accusing me of being anti-cop. What with that and his swearing, I'd had it. 'You jackass, I've got the words "cop lover" tattooed on my ass,' I screamed at him. From then on, we never even said hello for the rest of the trial. Whenever he saw me coming he would cut off the conversation. I didn't need him -- I was on good terms with Aaron. He was easy to get along with -- he even came to our press parties, which we held at what we called 'trial central': room 905 at the Hilton Hotel where reporter Theo Wilson based herself."

One evening during the trial, Neiswender remembered that Bugliosi surprised everyone by showing up at a media party where guests were instructed to, 'come dressed as your favorite Manson Family member.' Several reporters came as Linda Kasabian or Mary Brunner with crosses painted on their foreheads. A crudely written sign posted on the wall at the party read, "I'm the to do the devil's work," which was the phrase Watson purportedly delivered shortly after arriving at the Cielo Drive house.

"Vince didn't stay long," recalled Neiswender, "Ron Hughes stayed until the end."

Realizing that getting too close to the press was a slippery slope, Bugliosi opted mostly to keep his distance, although other reporters frequently heard from him indirectly when their editors called them with a reprimand from the chief prosecutor. He religiously monitored the local papers and his personal clips. His sister meticulously clipped every article that mentioned her famous brother, and she would alert him of any negative press. If he was displeased, as he often was, he would call the journalist's editor to harangue or complain about the coverage. On one occasion, Theo Wilson and Sandi Gibbons, the reporter for the local City News Service, were confronted by Bugliosi. "Vince apologized -- sort of," recalled Gibbons. "He said when he called a female reporter 'a cocksucker' he was referring only to Neiswender. 'I didn't mean you girls,' he said."

A day later, a newspaper colleague, so aggrieved by Bugliosi's language, complained to DA Joe Busch, noting that Neiswender was a good Catholic mother of two, who was outraged at such foul language. Busch ordered Bugliosi to publicly apologize, recalled Linda Deutsch. "Vince bit his tongue and said something like, 'Mary you know I've been under a lot of stress.' It was all about Vince." Another time Deutsch and Gibbons were amazed when the smiling prosecutor waxed on endlessly about how happy he was with their coverage. The two women reported back to gathered media: "Pope Vincent the Last has just blessed us."

But mostly we saw the dark, serious, and severe side to Bugliosi, although I know he worked hard to impress the press. "Vince had one technique he always used with the press," his deputy Stephen Kay recalled. "He didn't care what the press asked him because when he left the court every night, he walked over to where the cameras were. He ignored their questions but delivered just one sound bite. He told me he had learned the sound bite by heart the night before, having practiced it in front of a mirror. At the time I thought, 'Why waste your time practicing a sound bite?'"

Kay, who had completely the opposite attitude with the press, later told me that Bugliosi disliked women reporters more than their male counterparts. He lumped them all under the derogatory label of "sob sisters," and complained bitterly that the reporters wrote sympathetic stories about the Manson girls who camped out in front of the Hall of Justice.
"One time, I was kind of crouched down to talk inside the railing and the lady reporters were sitting in the front row. Vince turned to me and said, 'Don't ever let me catch you kneeling to those whores again.'" And on one occasion in court, Bugliosi almost got into fisticuffs with Susan Atkins. She was being dragged out of the court for repeatedly interrupting the proceedings and made a sudden grab for Bugliosi's papers. He reacted by grabbing the documents with one hand and swinging at her with the other. He missed.

My own experience with him was a strange one. We were pleasant to each other during the trial, although I knew he was resentful of the media. In 1976 he ran for district attorney opposite incumbent John Van De Kamp, who, much to Bugliosi's chagrin, had been appointed to the job after Joe Busch died. That year I had written a long profile on Bugliosi for Los Angeles magazine. It was relatively pro Van De Kamp, the rich and efficient, but dull white-bread candidate compared to the flashy, live-wire, shoot-from-the-hip Bugliosi in his three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, still riding high on his Manson triumph. Van De Kamp's team was doing as much as it could to jazz up his image and put a little pep in the step of the man who had been given the job after Busch's death. Everyone knew Bugliosi's name, yet he was still the outsider -- a bit of a wild card. My magazine piece chronicled two incidents in his life: I labeled them "The Milkman Case" and "The Cardwell Affair."
Leading the anti-Bugliosi charge was George Denny, an affable Beverly Hills lawyer who insisted he, too, was a serious candidate for the office, but really wasn't.

Denny was more a hatchet man and distraction, who wanted to take Bugliosi down; he continually insisted that Bugliosi was "unfit for office." I later learned that Denny might have had a hidden agenda. He was Irving Kanarek's personal lawyer and good friend; although, having watched Kanarek in action, I couldn't see how he endeared himself to too many of his colleagues. Denny was apparently also somewhat aggrieved after hearing how Bugliosi had treated opposing counsel in court, and particularly after those covering the trial gleefully reported that Bugliosi once publicly described Kanarek as "The Toscanini of Tedium" -- a devastatingly accurate phrase that you just knew Vincent had pondered long and hard to create. Denny's version of the milkman story was this: Bugliosi had used the power of the DA's office to hound his former milkman, one Herbert Wiesel, because he suspected that Wiesel had fathered Bugliosi's son! Wiesel sued Bugliosi for slander, and the case was settled out of court. Denny represented the milkman and told me at the time: "Bugliosi came to my office and handed me $12,000 in $100 bills as part of the settlement and later delivered an additional $500. Denny said part of the liquidated damages clause stated that anyone revealing the total amount of the settlement publicly could be penalized to the tune of $15,000. Nonetheless, he announced the terms of the settlement at a press conference, openly inviting Bugliosi to bring damages. Bugliosi's version of the story was that at the time he believed the milkman had stolen $300 from his home, so he quite legitimately used the DA's investigators to try to confirm the fact.

The other black eye that was inflicted on Bugliosi occurred in June 1973. A Santa Monica divorcee, Virginia Cardwell, claimed that she was having an affair with Bugliosi. She further asserted that he gave her $448 to have an abortion, and when he found out she had not had the abortion, he exploded and violently attacked her. She reported the attack to Santa Monica Police, but later withdrew her complaint, telling police she had hired Bugliosi to obtain her tardy alimony payments and that her injuries had been caused by her small son wielding a baseball bat. Again, there was an out-of-court settlement, noted Denny, in which Bugliosi paid Cardwell. All along, Bugliosi claimed his relationship with Cardwell was strictly lawyer-client.

"It's not that Bugliosi is not a good lawyer, or a hardworking and skilled trial lawyer, but to me one of the most terrifying things you can conjure up in government is a prosecutor who misuses his power," said Denny. "That's why I took him on before. There are many talented people who have a flaw in their character. His flaw happens to be a massive ego and an inability to tell the truth, as I've experienced it in these two cases. With those credentials a person ought not to become District Attorney."

Bugliosi, who invited me to his home to meet his wife Gail (they had two young children, Wendy and Vince Jr.) and rebut all allegations, told me: "I'm not going to dignify those charges by a comment. If I did these things, my wife of twenty years would not be living with me."

Bugliosi relished the idea of painting himself as the rebel and the outsider, in direct contrast to the establishment Van De Kamp. He suggested I talk to a couple of high-profile supporters -- his tennis pals, actor Robert Conrad and comedian Bill Cosby, with whom he regularly played at Hugh Hefner's Holmby Hills Playboy mansion. His campaign also had the support of the DA's veteran prosecutor J. Miller Leavy, who had approved him being brought aboard for the Manson trial. "Vince may come across tough and aloof," said his campaign manager Harvey Englander, "but a few TV spots will show him as a warm, nice guy -- a fellow who cares much about his wife and family and wants to make your home as safe as his."

At several political rallies I attended, Bugliosi was introduced to wild applause as "the man who got Manson." Ironically, when the race was in full throttle, I spoke to Stephen Kay, who said he was supporting Van De Kamp. Bugliosi lost. Not long afterwards, I met him at a conference of TV critics in Beverly Hills, where Vince was a panelist with George DiCenzo, who played Bugliosi in NBC's 1976 miniseries based on "Helter Skelter." ("Every day Vince came to the set, takes me aside and tells me how I should play him," DiCenzo laughed.)

On the film set Vince and I shook hands. "Do you still hate me?" he asked.

The answer was no, of course I didn't hate him. But I must confess to thinking that his sad question clearly showed that for all his bluster and ego, deep down inside he still had a mile-long streak of insecurity, and that, until his dying day, he would never be able to shake it off, despite his phenomenal success in court and acclaim as an author.

manson-eyes-cover.jpgDavis' book is available at his website.

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