"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
A former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, advertising copywriter, PR professional, and trade association executive, Chester D. Campbell is the author of two books in the Greg McKenzie mystery series: Secret of the Scroll and Designed to Kill. A third, Deadly Illusions, will be released in March 2005. The books feature retired Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent Greg McKenzie and his wife Jill.
You can visit his website at www.chesterdcampbell.com.
The Bizarre Case of
Mass Murderer Charles Manson
Although the O. J. Simpson case ranked as the number one Trial of the Century in an NBC poll conducted at the close of the millenium, the designation of most unusual and bizarre would have to go to the 1970-71 trial of mass murderer Charles Manson and members of his nomadic hippie Family. The case spawned Helter Skelter, which has made publishing history as the top-selling true crime book. Helter Skelter has appeared in eight editions, including the 25th anniversary version published in 1994 with an afterword by the author, Vincent Bugliosi, chief prosecutor in the case.
The trial set several records, including the longest, lasting more than nine-and-a-half months. Its jury remained sequestered for a record eight-plus months. The main prosecution witness, Linda Kasabian, occupied the stand for eighteen days. Indicative of the savagery, though maybe not a record, a total of 102 stab wounds were counted on four victims of the vicious killings, 67 stab or puncture wounds on two others.
The trial had other bizarre aspects. Manson and his three co-defendants were repeatedly banned from the courtroom for their outbursts and refusal to abide by the judge’s orders. Manson’s attorney, Irving Kanarek, helped lengthen the proceedings with his repeated and often confusing objections. By the third day, when the press quit counting, he had already made more than 200 objections. The judge fined him for contempt several times.
The trial involved seven murders committed over a period of two days, though the investigation suggested the Manson Family may have committed 35 or more murders.
The first slayings took place at a plush home in the Benedict Canyon area high above Hollywood and Beverly Hills shortly after midnight on August 9, 1969. Actress Sharon Tate, wife of movie director Roman Polanski, and four others, including Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger Coffee fortune, were the first victims. Early the following morning at a home in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were brutally stabbed to death. LaBianca owned an LA supermarket.
There were striking similarities in the two cases. At the Tate home, "PIG" had been scrawled in blood on the front door. Printed in blood on a living room wall at the LaBianca house was "DEATH TO PIGS." Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, a friend and celebrity hair stylist, were linked together by a rope that had been wrapped around their necks. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca had lamp cords tied around their necks.
The cases involved multiple murders of affluent Caucasians on consecutive nights, scores of barbaric knife wounds, no indications of robbery or ransacking, and nothing pointing to a conventional motive. Yet the following day, a Los Angeles Police Department inspector told reporters he saw no connection between the two crimes.
The investigation was hindered by several factors, including crime scene errors, police rivalry, and overlooked clues. One of the killers had left a bloody fingerprint on the push button that opened the electronic gate to the Tate property, but it was obliterated when an officer pushed the button to go out the gate. The police technician who took blood samples did not test many of them for subtypes, causing a problem when attempting to re-create the murders. Also, a .22 pistol used in the Tate murders was found by a young boy on September 1 and turned over to the police. But it was December 16, three and a half months later, before the detectives realized what they had.
More crucial was the rivalry factor. Separate teams of LAPD detectives investigated each of the crimes. The Tate case was handled by long-time veterans, while a younger, better-educated group dealt with the LaBiancas. The teams pursued separate paths and failed to communicate with each other. Cooperation between the two would likely have turned up the culprits much sooner. Neither group bothered to check with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office until two months had gone by.
The LaBianca detectives came up with a list of eleven suspects, including one Charles Manson. When they finally consulted the sheriff’s investigators, they discovered a murder being worked by the county involved multiple stab wounds and "POLITICAL PIGGY" written on the wall in blood. The deputies had recently raided an isolated ranch and arrested twenty-four members of a hippie cult called the Manson Family. It was the first big break in the case.
Charles Manson was a thirty-four-year-old, poorly-educated felon who had been in and out of prison since the age of thirteen on charges ranging from burglary to auto theft to forgery to Mann Act violations. In the mid-sixties he became obsessed with music of the Beatles, learned to play the guitar and aspired to be a song writer. Released from prison in 1967, Manson headed for San Francisco. In the Haight-Ashbury district, the city’s hippie haven, he gathered a group of primarily young, impressionable girls who became the nucleus of his Family. They engaged freely in sex and drugs like LSD.
After traveling about the West for a year and a half in an old school bus, they settled in at the Spahn Movie Ranch in Southern California during the summer of 1968. When the Beatles' White Album came out that December, it made a profound impression on Manson. Borrowing from the lyrics and from the Book of Revelations in the Bible, he developed a weird prophesy that he ingrained into his followers.
What Manson called "Helter Skelter," the title of a Beatles' song, would be an uprising in which the blacks would massacre the whites, then take over as the new rulers. Manson and his Family would take refuge in a bottomless pit in Death Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. When the blacks found they lacked the capacity to rule, they would turn to Manson as their savior. He liked to identify himself with Jesus Christ.
One of the Beatles’ tunes was titled "Piggies." Manson said "Pigs" meant the establishment. The word had been written in blood at the site of both murders. And at the LaBiancas, a misspelled "HEALTER SKELTER" was lettered in blood on the refrigerator door.
Prosecutor Bugliosi learned about Manson’s strange ideas while questioning witnesses in preparation for the trial. The story was so bizarre he wanted several sources to tell it to convince the jury of its truth. Though small in stature, with long, unruly black hair, Manson had an almost hypnotic affect on his followers. Bugliosi needed to pound home the fact that Manson’s Family members were so dedicated to him they would do absolutely anything he asked.
When the trial began on June 15, 1970, it took five weeks to seat a jury. This was a capital case and the judge sought to make sure the jurors had no objection to the death penalty. But Bugliosi carried the questioning one step further. As he wrote in Helter Skelter, he asked each prospect "if [he] could conceive of circumstances wherein [he] would be willing to vote such a verdict against (1) a young person; (2) a female defendant; or (3) a particular defendant even though the evidence showed that he himself did not do any actual killing."
The reasons for his questions were obvious. The cult leader’s three co-defendants were females barely over twenty. Manson, himself, was the only one of the four not accused of taking part in the murders. But, as the testimony would show, he was the one who sent them on their mission of unthinkable violence.
Witnesses testified that on the afternoon of August 8, Manson told his followers, “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.” He called Atkins, Van Houten, Linda Kasabian, and Charles “Tex” Watson aside. He told them to get a change of clothes and a knife. He instructed the girls to do whatever Watson told them. As they were leaving the ranch, Manson said, "Leave a sign ... Something witchy." That something was "PIG" written in Sharon Tate’s blood.
The following evening, Manson called on the same group, plus Patricia Krenwinkel and another male Family member named Steve Grogan, to drive with him into Los Angeles. After a lot of wandering around, they stopped at the LaBianca home. Manson went in and tied up the couple, then sent Watson, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel in to finish off the LaBiancas.
Linda Kasabian was a witness to much of what happened at the two murder scenes, though she did not participate in the killings. With a promise of immunity from prosecution after her testimony, she told all to the jury.
Among the many strange aspects of the trial was the disappearance of Ronald Hughes, who started out as Manson’s lawyer and later defended Van Houten. Hughes failed to return from a recess the judge ordered prior to final arguments. It was never proved, but Bugliosi believed Family members murdered him after Hughes rebuffed Manson’s efforts to have Van Houten testify and claim Manson had not ordered the murders.
The question of the defendants testifying was another oddity. After Bugliosi closed the state’s case, the defense lawyers shocked everyone by refusing to put on a defense. The problem lay in the defendants’ desire to testify, which one lawyer said would amount to an admission of guilt. But after the defense rested its case, Manson and the three girls demanded they be allowed to testify.
Judge Charles Older, who had continually clashed with the defendants over their outrageous behavior, nevertheless agreed for them to testify without the presence of the jury. Manson was the only one to take the stand. Rather than having his lawyer question him, Manson wanted to make a statement. He rambled on for more than an hour about how the state had not proved its case.
The lawyers’ final summations lasted from December 21 to January 15, keeping the jury locked up over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. After a week of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: all defendants were found guilty of murder of the first degree.
During the penalty phase, the defense put several other Family members on the witness stand, starting with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. In his book, Bugliosi referred to them as a "parade of perjurers." They testified to how great a man Charlie Manson was, that he was just another member and not the leader.
The jury obviously did not buy any of it, sentencing all four defendants to death. In a separate trial later that year, the other Tate-LaBianca killer, Tex Watson, was also sentenced to death for the murders.
Charles Manson’s grandiose scheme for achieving ultimate power through Helter Skelter achieved nothing but the vicious, brutal stabbing deaths of seven innocent people, giving him the reputation of being one of America’s most heinous mass murderers. When the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty a year later, the five murderers’ sentences were reduced to life in prison. This made them eligible for parole, though the horrendous nature of their crimes has prevented that. Manson was turned down for the tenth time in 2002.
In his afterword which culminates the 25th Anniversary Edition of Helter Skelter, Bugliosi notes that carnage by demented killers hardly shocks the public any longer. He adds: "But fortunately, as of this date, the singularity of Manson’s evil and the particular brand of demonic murders he authored have not again been inflicted upon our nation. We can only hope that the ensuing years will be the same."
Copyright 2004 by Chester D. Campbell
a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."