Joan Didion observed in The White Album that "many people I know in Los Angeles believed the '60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969." That was the morning horrifying details began to leak out of Benedict Canyon about a murder scene on Cielo Drive. Inside a compound protected by high fences and an electric gate, the housekeeper arrived to find the body of pregnant actress Sharon Tate, sliced and stabbed sixteen times in the chest and back, a rope tied around her neck and looped over a rafter. Inside her was the baby she had been about to have with director Roman Polanski, her husband. Scrawled on the front door, in Tate's blood, was the word PIG.
Lying near Tate was the body of her former boyfriend, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring. He had been stabbed and shot. Outside on the lawn lay Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger's Coffee fortune, and her boyfriend, Voytek Frykowski. They had been stabbed dozens of times as they fled from whatever violence visited Cielo Drive that night. In the driveway, 18-year-old Steven Parent was found shot to death behind the wheel of his Rambler. The names became embedded in the DNA of Angelenos who were here then, along with the names of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, found murdered on Waverly Drive in Los Feliz the next night. There, the letters painted in blood read "Healter Skelter."
Social engagements were cancelled across the hills. Doors were locked for the first time, guns acquired. Some in Hollywood speculated that the Cielo Drive killings were the result of a sadomasochistic frenzy, due to rumors about Sebring’s sexual tastes. Wild rumors swept from ridge to ridge in the Hollywood Hills. No one picked up the clue reported unwittingly in the Los Angeles Times the following Sunday. On the same page as stories on the murder scenes and the LaBianca funerals, a brief story reported a Sheriff's raid on a car theft ring at the Spahn Ranch, a decrepit movie location near Chatsworth. Most of the twenty-six heavily armed suspects arrested were young women dressed like hippies.
When Charles Manson was arrested months later out in the desert and blamed for the killings, the city shuddered all over again. Valley stoners, famous musicians in Laurel Canyon, the Beach Boys — all had partied with Manson and the spooky girls that worshipped him and craved to please him sexually. They had crashed at Dennis Wilson's place and visited the Cielo Drive home when it was the home of record producer Terry Melcher and actress Candace Bergen. Manson had launched the killings in the middle of a heat siege, hours after Sandra Good and Mary Brunner, the mother of his son, were arrested trying to use stolen credit cards at the Sears in San Fernando. After dinner at the Spahn Ranch, Manson told family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and a newcomer of just a month, Linda Kasabian — the only one with a driver’s license — to grab knives and borrow a ’59 Ford from a ranch hand. Their assignment was to drive to Cielo Drive and do something so unforgivably brutal that race war would erupt. Manson’s last instruction to his barefoot girls was to leave a sign that would implicate blacks and enrage whites: "You girls know what to write. Something witchy."
The killers washed off the blood in a front yard hose in the hills. Driving through Sherman Oaks they tossed a gun into the backyard at 3627 Longview Valley Road. When they got back to the ranch, Manson demanded details. Later that day, they watched TV news in a trailer. Theories were expounded, but no one blamed the black community. That night, Manson himself led the same raiding party — plus Leslie Van Houten — across town to Pasadena, then to Waverly Drive. Manson selected the LaBianca house and tied up the couple, then left Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten behind to do the killing. To fuel his race war fantasy, Manson drove to Sylmar and planted Rosemary LaBianca's wallet in the restroom of a Standard gas station just off the Golden State Freeway. He bought milk shakes at the Denny’s next door before returning to the ranch. The murderers hitchhiked back across the Valley.
More than 20,000 murders have occurred in Los Angeles since the slaughter on Cielo Drive, but except for possibly Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, none have shaken the city more. Manson, now 71, rapped not long ago on one of the websites that stay in touch with him that "I got trapped up in these kids of the sixties. But I'm not a kid of the Sixties; I'm a kid of the Forties. Bing Crosby was my hero, not Elvis Presley."