Charles Manson Reign of Terror: 40 Years Later

Charles Manson, now 74, plays guitar in prison with Sirhan Sirhan as a neighbor.

ByABC News
August 6, 2009, 11:17 AM

Aug. 7, 2009— -- It's been 40 years since actress Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered in a posh Los Angeles canyon mansion. It's been 40 years ago that a couple's children found the bodies of their parents Leno and Rosemary LaBianca savagely slashed to ribbons.

Forty years after that carnage the man responsible for the two-day murderous rampage in Southern California remains a household name synonymous with evil, hatred, even the devil.

Now 74, Charles Manson, whose reign of terror once represented the end of the swinging '60s, has been relegated to a dark place in pop culture.

Several of the "Manson women" who supported him with the devotion of acolytes are now gray-haired, completing lengthy prison terms and have a chance to be released in the coming years.

CLICK HERE to read more about Charles Manson and his followers and to watch video of their court appearances.

Manson himself never carried out any of the killings but was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for commanding the Aug. 9, 1969, murders of Tate, who was more than eight months pregnant at the time, and houseguests Jay Sebring, a hairstylist, heiress Abigail Folger, writer Wojciech Frykowski and teenager Steven Parent. The convictions include the LaBianca killings Aug. 10, 1969.

Also attributed to Manson and his cultish Family was the death of Gary Hinman, killed July 25, 1969.

The death sentences of Manson and his lethal Family were commuted to life sentences when a California Supreme Court ruling abolished capital punishment in 1972. While some of his followers have already been paroled, with others possibly to follow, it seems certain Manson will die behind bars.

Vincent Bugliosi, the Los Angeles prosecutor in the 1970 trial, said Manson represented a special brand of evil and that's why he remains so intriguing to this day.

"The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil," he told in an interview from his Los Angeles-area home.

Manson's motivation, Bugliosi said, was a "passion for death, blood and murder."

Bugliosi, now 74, called Manson "extremely bright" and said that while other serial killers were frightening, Manson reached a whole other level of terror by figuring out how to get seemingly respectful young women from middle-class families to kill at his command.

Manson has lived in the protective housing unit, or PHU, at California State Prison, Corcoran, since 1989. He has an 8-by-12-foot cell to himself and spends the token monetary gifts he receives from supporters at the prison commissary.

His neighbors in the PHU, designed for prisoners whose safety may be in jeopardy in the general population, include Robert F. Kennedy assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, serial killer Juan Corona and gang members who have turned state's evidence. Unlike in the general population, for which fellow inmates prepare the meals, all food in the PHU is made by the staff to prevent poisonings.

"[Manson] interacts with the other inmates in that unit," Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told

The unit's prisoners eat a hot breakfast and dinner in the dayroom. Lunch comes in a sack. They are allowed several hours of free time each day, which can be taken in a day room, an outside yard or in their cells.

Thornton said that Manson sometimes plays his guitar in his cell during these periods, occasionally bringing his performances to the prison yard.

"I've heard as he's gotten older, he's slowed down a bit," Thornton said.

But that doesn't mean he's necessarily behaving. Manson has had two rules violations in the last two years, one for possessing a weapon, the other for threatening a peace officer. He has also never taken advantage of any educational or rehabilitation programs offered to prisoners.

"He is not what we would describe as a model inmate," she said.

Thornton said Manson hasn't had any visitors in the past three months, and although people do still make requests, the numbers have dwindled. Lists of visitor requests and actual visitors are kept confidential.

Every once in awhile, she said, Manson will throw out his list of approved visitors and start all over again.

Bugliosi, who is a married father of two with several best-selling books to his credit, said he received four letters from Manson in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I did not respond, and I turned them over to the Department of Corrections," he said, declining to comment on the letters' contents.

A photo of Manson released this spring shows that while he's noticeably aged into an elderly man he still sports his beard -- albeit gray and shorter -- and the infamous swastika he carved into his head during the trial.

But to the California State prison system, Manson is just another inmate -- one of 12,237 people incarcerated for first-degree murder.

Charles Manson was described as charismatic yet seriously disturbed.

It was after his release when Manson began building the Family, what would become a quasi-cult obsessed with chaos and the "Helter Skelter" plan to create a race war between blacks and whites that was supposed to lead to Manson's domination.

The Family began in San Francisco during the 1967 "summer of love" when Manson, then living with new girlfriend Mary Brunner, invited other women to live with the couple. Brunner would go on to bear Manson's third son, Valentine Michael "Pooh Bear" Manson.

Bugliosi said he did not believe Manson intended to use his Family as a killing machine in the beginning, but rather realized his power over its members later as a vehicle to carry out his rage.

As the group expanded and Manson gained more influence over it, it toured the West, possibly picking up more members.

A brief friendship with former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson began the downward spiral that culminated with the Manson murders. Manson, who was said to have genuine musical talent, had struck up a business and friendly relationship with Wilson.

Manson's songs have been recorded by the Beach Boys, Guns 'n Roses and shock rocker Marilyn Manson. His love for music, particularly the Beatles, would come into play during the next few years as he and his followers believed the rock group was sending the Family messages through their lyrics. "Helter Skelter," made famous by Manson, was actually taken from a Beatles song.

Manson took advantage of his friendship with Wilson in 1968 moving into the singer's Los Angeles house with several members of the Family. That summer, after Wilson tired of Manson and his followers and had them removed from his house, the Family took up residence at the Spahn Ranch owned by the elderly George Spahn, who was reportedly placated by sexual services provided by the Manson women.

It was at the Spahn ranch where Manson and some of his most infamous cohorts -- Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Lynette "Squeaky Fromme and Linda Kasabian -- began acting out Manson's plan for "Helter Skelter."

Bugliosi said he believes Manson was angry at the so-called entertainment establishment because he never hit it as big as his idols the Beatles. Manson believed, he said, that given the chance he could even surpass the Beatles accomplishments.

The group's first killing was on July 25, 1969, when Manson reportedly ordered the murder of Hinman, a friend, in order to get money the man had gotten through an inheritance. Family member Bobby Beausoleil was arrested for the crime.

Less than two weeks later, a larger group of Manson followers would show up at the home of Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, eager to kill for "Charlie." Manson had met Tate earlier that year when he visited their home, thinking a family friend lived there.

"The home, I think, was symbolic of the establishment and the establishment's rejection of him," Bugliosi said.

Determined to jump-start a racial war through "Helter Skelter," Manson sent Watson, Atkins, Kasabian and fellow Family member Patricia Krenwinkel to 10050 Cielo Drive and told them to kill everyone they could in the most gruesome manner possible.

What resulted was a blood splashed free-for-all that shocked the nation.

Sharon Tate was married to director Roman Polanski at the time of her murder and was eight months pregnant with Polanski's child.

Shortly before the trial, when Atkins was being considered as a potential witness, Bulgiosi said she told him that she was the one who killed Tate, telling her "Look bitch, I don't have any mercy on you. You're gonna die."

But Atkins, who later rejected an offer to aid the prosecution in favor of going back to the Manson Family, would refuse to say the same thing on the witness stand during a grand jury hearing.

At a parole hearing 16 years ago, Atkins described holding Tate down while Watson stabbed her, something Watson admitted to in his 1978 autobiography.

"She asked me to let her baby live," Atkins said at the time. " I told her I didn't have mercy for her."

Crime scene photos show Tate and Sebring lying together on the living room floor, Tate's very pregnant belly exposed and covered in blood.

To this day, Bugliosi said of Atkins, "I cannot say I'm 100 percent sure that she actually stabbed anyone."

Folger, badly wounded, escaped from the house only to be run down in the front yard by Krenwinkel. She was stabbed 28 times by Watson and Krenwinkel. Reached by, her brother Peter Folger, a San Francisco lawyer, said the family had no comment on the anniversary.

Frykowski who had made a last, valiant effort to protect Folger, his girlfriend, was finished off by Watson. Coroner's reports later showed that the Polish immigrant had been stabbed 51 times.

After using Tate's blood to write "Pig" on the wall, the group left, ditching their bloody clothes as they fled.

One night later, the Family was ready for its next assault.

This time Manson sent six people -- the four from the night before and two others, including Leslie Van Houten -- and rode along himself to make sure it was done correctly.

Bugliosi said Manson had been concerned that there was too much confusion during the previous night's murders.

They chose the house of grocery store executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. Though accounts differ from the trial and subsequent interviews and Watson's autobiography, Manson was believed to have gone into the house to tie up the victims.

Bugliosi said he believes Manson, who was only 5 feet, 2 inches tall, was able to do this despite Leno LaBianca's imposing stature by promising the couple he was only there for the money and that they would be unharmed if they cooperated.

Instead, after Manson left, Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca with a bayonet and carved the word "WAR" into his midsection. Rosemary, held bound with a lamp cord around her neck and a pillowcase over head in the bedroom, was riddled with stab wounds by Krernwinkel and Van Houten when she heard her husband screaming and began to fight back.

It was Krenwinkel, who had left a fork jutting out of Rosemary LaBianca's body, who wrote in blood the misspelled manifesto "Healter Skelter" on the wall along with phrases such as "Death to pigs" and "Rise."

As the city recoiled at the brutality of the two murders, they were not initially connected. The Los Angeles Police Department had assigned two different teams, one for each case. It wasn't until Family member acquaintances began snitching to law enforcement that the two murders were linked and tied to Manson and his followers.

A simultaneous trial for Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten began June 5, 1970. It would become the longest trial in California history until O.J. Simpson's trial nearly 25 years later and included a bizarre string of outbursts and spectacles that dominated headlines for months.

The jurors were sequestered for an astounding nine months. Larry Sheely remembered riding the bus from the hotel to the courthouse with the windows blocked so he and other jurors wouldn't be able to read the headlines on the papers at the newsstands.

At 23, Sheely was the youngest member of the Manson jury. He was married with two children and working as a telephone repairman. Now a 63-year-old grandfather living in the Sacramento area, Sheely told he believes the public fascination stems from the horror of Manson's crimes.

After Manson was denied permission to act as his own lawyer, he showed up in court with an "X" carved into his forehead, a marking he would later turn into a swastika. In a show of solidarity, the Manson women on trial and his followers who kept vigil outside the courtroom shaved their heads and carved "X's" in their foreheads as well.

Kasabian, who had been acting as a lookout during the Tate murders, told prosecutors that she went up to the house during the massacre trying to stop it. It was this action and her testimony against the others that won her immunity from prosecution.

The group became infamous for its outbursts, and at one point, Manson attacked Judge Charles Older, who began coming to court armed with a pistol. Prosecution witnesses were threatened by members on the outside.

Sheely remembered having staring contests with Manson. Sheely said Manson would alternately stare at each juror. Bugliosi said Manson pulled the same tactic on him in the judge's chambers, one going on for as long as 20 minutes.

One of Sheely's grimmest memories of the trial was seeing the crime scene photos, color images of the bloody wounds.

"It was pretty gross," he said. "It was really hard to believe somebody would go into somebody's house and tie them up and stab them so many times."

"He was just wacko," Sheely said. "How does a person get like that?"

The Manson women arrived in court. They tried to take the blame for the crimes so their leader could go free.

Van Houton's attorney, Ronald Hughes, refused to go along with the women's plan and disappeared during the trial, his badly decomposed body found the next year. It was never determined how he died and whether he had been murdered.

After his conviction in the Tate- LaBianca murders, Manson declared in a statement that he was what society made him.

"Whatever the outcome of this madness that you call a fair trial or Christian justice, you can know this," he said. "In my mind's eye my thoughts light fires in your cities."

Bugliosi said he ended up having several conversations with Manson during the trial, an unorthodox move for a prosecutor. He said Manson told him after the trial that the only thing Bugliosi had succeeded in doing was sending him home, where he wanted to be all along -- prison.

Manson was found guilty of Hinman's death in a separate trial.

The Manson family slowly disappeared from the public eye in the following years, save for Fromme's attempted assassination of President Ford in 1975. Another Manson woman, Sandra Good, remained loyal for decades, even keeping up a Web site devoted to Manson family values as late as 2001.

The Tate-Polanski home at 10050 Cielo Drive has since been demolished, according to, yet real estate agents have declined to list the house that replaced it in their books.

Since all the death sentences were commuted to life in prison in 1972, every member of the Manson family convicted in the Tate and LaBianca murders has been up for parole several times in the last four decades, and all have been denied.

"I wasn't disappointed that they didn't die. I was disappointed in the system," Sheely said. "If I would have known that was going to happen, I wanted the three months [penalty phase deliberations] of my life back."

In a 1992 parole hearing, Manson, repeatedly calling various women "broads," denied having anything to do with the killings.

"Everyone says that I was the leader of those people, but I was actually the follower of the children because, like I never grew up," he said. "I've been in jail most of this time, so I stayed in the minds of the children."

When asked if he took responsibility, Manson admitted he may have unknowingly influenced some people.

"And a lot of things that I said and did affected a lot of people in a lot of different directions," he said, according to transcripts. "It wasn't intentional and it definitely wasn't with malice or aforethought."

But a question about possible remorse kicked off a rambling tirade that included his disdain for the people questioning him, stating "there would not be enough [tears] to express the remorse that I have for the sadness of that world that you people live in."

Susan Atkins, now 61, has made headlines in recent weeks in advance of her September parole hearing. Her husband has publicly begged for his wife to be released from prison, saying she has terminal brain cancer and can't even sit up on her own.

"Squeaky" Fromme, who supported the Family and its mission but did not participate in the murders, is due to be released from federal prison next week.

As for the rest of the Manson clan, Krenwinkel is up for parole this November, Van Houten in 2010 and Watson in 2011.

Manson, who has been denied parole 11 times, next goes before the parole board in 2012.

Sheely said he doesn't believe any of them should be paroled, even Atkins.

"When you consider what they did, they didn't have any remorse," the juror said. "It was kind of like entertainment for them."

Bugliosi said he, too, did not want to see Manson or his followers released from prison, with one possible exception -- Atkins.

"She's not going anywhere," he said. "The mercy we'd be giving her is so minimal."

Bugliosi said he is certainly not an advocate for her release, but believes that as someone who reportedly has only months to live, is paralyzed and has difficulty speaking, Atkins' freedom would mean little opportunity for her besides death outside a prison.

"They were all sentenced to death, and that would have been the proper punishment," he said of the Manson murderers. "All of them, except Susan Atkins ... should spend the rest of their lives behind bars. They should be very happy their lives were spared and not take it to the next level."