30 years later
By LINDA DEUTSCH, special to AP
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 6 – The night of Aug. 9, 1969, was
oppressively hot. Doors and windows were left open, but the
sounds of screams and gunshots were no more than distant
echoes in the hills around the sheltered Benedict Canyon
No one heard Sharon Tate pleading for her unborn baby. No one but
The next morning, a maid coming to work ran screaming into the street
after she found the actress and four others slaughtered in a grotesque
scene marked by bloody scrawlings with messages like “Death to Pigs.”
The next night, it happened again. Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, a
wealthy couple who lived across town, were stabbed to death in their home.
Thirty years later, the ghosts of the Tate-La Bianca murders will not
rest. The Charles Manson cult that carried them out haunts the Internet
and a new generation is oddly fixated on a mass murder that remains the
nation’s most bizarre and notorious.
For those who were even peripherally involved in the case, the horror
never ends, a spectacle relived in occasional parole hearings.
“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” said realtor Elaine Young, who
had leased the Benedict Canyon estate to Tate and her director husband,
“I cried for six weeks afterwards and it took me years to recover from
it,” said Young.
Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who wrote the book “Helter Skelter,”
calls the killings “probably the most bizarre mass murder case we’ve ever
had in America.”
Bodies were scattered about the lush green estate. Miss Tate, who was
8 1/2 months pregnant, was stabbed to death, then hung from a rafter in
the living room. Also slain were Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger
coffee fortune; Voityck Frykowski, a Polish filmmaker friend of
Polanski’s; Jay Sebring, hairdresser to the stars; and Steven Parent, a
young man shot while leaving the cottage of his friend, the caretaker.
The victims’ fame and status combined with the grisly nature of the
crimes to draw international attention, which intensified when police
found the LaBiancas, slain in the upper middle class neighborhood of Los
Feliz amid the same bloody scrawlings.
The killers were at large and Southern Californians were thrown into
panic. People rushed to buy guns and the market for guard dogs exploded.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and I can’t remember a time when people were
more scared,” said Stephen Kay, the trial co-prosecutor who has attended
53 parole hearings for the killers, lobbying for their continued
Three months later, police arrested a rag-tag band of cult members
devoted to a charismatic ex-convict named Charles Manson. They called
themselves the Manson Family, and the name still
symbolizes the dark underside of the 1960s.
Cult members indulged in drugs and popular culture may have inspired
their acts. Bugliosi contends that Manson believed the Beatles were
talking to him through songs like “Helter Skelter,” which inspired his
desire to foment a race war in America.
A trial as bizarre as any seen in American courts transfixed the
nation. All that was missing was the TV coverage that surrounded the O.J.
“It was like that old radio show, “Can You Top This?’ It was so crazy
and so interesting,” recalled Paul Fitzgerald, the lead defense attorney.
In her memoir, “Headline Justice,” reporter Theo Wilson recalled a
10-month trial with “testimony that went from horrifying to ludicrous ...
witnesses with names like ‘Lotsapoppa, Snake and Ouish’ ... threats of
self immolation and other destruction ... a defense attorney disappearing,
his drowned body undiscovered until many months later on the very day that
the defendants received death sentences from the jury.”
Manson’s three women co-defendants, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten
and Patricia Krenwinkel, were convicted with him after taking the stand
and attempting to absolve him by admitting their own deadly deeds. Another
defendant, Charles “Tex” Watson, was found guilty in a separate trial.
Their death sentences were commuted to life when the death penalty was
briefly outlawed in
America in 1972.
But it was Manson, now in California’s Corcoran State Prison, who
kidnapped the nation’s imagination.
“It’s sad but Manson has become somewhat of a folk hero to young
people. He gets four fan letters a day, more mail than any prisoner in the
United States,” Kay said.
An Internet search of the words “Charles Manson” comes up with more
than 8.5 million references, including sites about Manson’s recorded
sayings, his music and reproductions of his scrawled notes and artwork.
One Web site compares him to Jesus Christ. Another focuses on the
influence of Beatles’ music on his murderous agenda.
One site, operated by Manson follower Sandra Good, offers arguments
for Manson to receive a new trial and lengthy excerpts from Manson’s
“thoughts” as well as a “discography” of recordings made from his music.
“The name Manson has become a metaphor for evil,” said Bugliosi, “and
evil has its allure. Some people have the same fascination for Jack the
Ripper and Hitler.”
The phenomenon is perhaps best summed up by a former reporter.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Gil Garcetti,
covered the trial for City News Service.
“Charlie was always a con man,” said Gibbons, “and now he’s managed to
con a whole new generation of people.”