Half a Century of Helter-Skelter

Ian Caffarel, Sports Editor

August 8-9 of this year will mark half a century since one of the grisliest episodes of American crime history: the Manson murders. The two-day killing spree which claimed the lives of eight people – including actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, and their unborn child –  still captivates the public’s imagination. How could someone get people to commit such unspeakable acts? Nearly half a century on, what prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi called “the two most horror-filled nights in the annals of American crime” in the History Channel documentary Manson are worth a revisit.

In July 1969, Charles Manson was the leader of a cult, his “family.” The members came from different backgrounds. Charles “Tex” Watson was from a small town in Texas, where he was an honor student at his high school; Susan Atkins came from northern California, and had family issues after her mother died; Leslie Van Houten was from a middle-class family, her parents divorced when she was 14, and she was on drugs for a time or two; Patricia Krenwinkel was also from a middle-class L.A. family, and her father was an insurance salesman. She herself wanted to become a nun. Linda Kasabian was born to a French-Canadian family in Maine; she married an Armenian-American, George Kasabian, and after he left for South America, she became disenchanted with him and ran away.

Following Manson’s failing to get a record deal with the Beach Boys’ producer Terry Melcher, Manson started preaching about a race war, a scenario called “Helter-Skelter” after a song on the Beatles’ “White Album. After Atkins and fellow family member Bobby Beausoleil murdered Gary Hinman, a friend of the Family, and the latter being arrested, Manson decided that early August of 1969 was a good time to launch “Helter-Skelter.” He dispatched Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to 10050 Cielo Drive, with instructions to kill whomever they found there. Watson shot 18-year-old Steven Parent, a caretaker at the residence, and then he, along with Atkins and Krenwinkel, shot and stabbed Tate, along with Wojech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger to death. The next morning, Manson, deciding the previous night’s killings were too messy, took several aforementioned cult members, including Kasabian and Leslie Van Houten, with him to 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz neighborhood, where they murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who ran a grocery store chain. Linda Kasabian was sent to the home of another actor who she had met days earlier with instructions to kill him; she knocked on the wrong door, and when seeing it was someone else, left.

After the ranch was raided by police weeks later, Atkins, who was in jail for another murder, bragged about the Tate murders, cueing a lengthy trial featuring Linda Kasabian as the star witness for the prosecution, Manson, along with Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel, were all sentenced to death. When California abolished the death penalty, their sentences were commuted to life in prison. To date, none of the Tate-LaBianca murder participants have been released.

Since then, members of the Family have gone different directions. Linda Kasabian reunited with her husband, and aside from a DUI offense in North Carolina, has largely stayed out of trouble. In 2009, four decades after the murders, she told her side of the story to the History Channel for their documentary, Manson. Tex Watson has been denied parole on numerous occasions, most recently in 2016, and remains incarcerated at the Richard Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. Susan Atkins, considered to be the worst of the cult, died of cancer in prison in 2009, leaving Patricia Krenwinkel as the longest-incarcerated female in the California penitentiary system. “Krennie,” as she is known by her fellow inmates, was recently denied parole in 2017; she will be eligible again in 2022. Leslie Van Houten, who solely participated in the LaBianca killings, was recommended for parole in 2018, but governor Jerry Brown vetoed it. She was recommended again in January of this year, and is pending the governor’s signature. Charles Manson himself died in prison in 2017; he would have been eligible for parole again in 2027, at age 92. Steve “Clem” Grogan, who participated in the murder of Donald “Shorty” Shea, is the only family member to this day who was convicted of murder but released; Grogan was paroled in 1985. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford, received life in prison, but was paroled in 2009. She currently lives in upstate New York.