Bugliosi: The Manson Murders, 40 Years On

The leaves were turning on the summer of love. Vietnam was droning on. Racial unrest was rising. And then, it happened: a crime so heinous, it sent shock waves through the country that are still palpable today. The Manson "family" murders are more than grisly crimes. They marked the close of an era. As Joan Didion wrote in her memoir of the time, The White Album, the '60s "ended abruptly on August 9, 1969," the evening Sharon Tate and four others were brutally slaughtered in cold blood, a night before another round of senseless killing claimed two more lives.

Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the case, secured first-degree murder convictions against Manson and his codefendants; the jury returned verdicts of death, which were subsequently reduced to life imprisonment when California set aside the death penalty in 1972. Bugliosi went on to co-author a book about the case with Curt Gentry titled Helter Skelter (after the Beatles song name printed in blood at one of the murder scenes), which became, according to his publisher, the bestselling true-crime book of all time. Bugliosi spoke with NEWSWEEK's Tom Watson on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Manson murders about what it was like to prosecute the case, and why Manson's chaotic charisma continues to attract global attention to this day.

Watson: Set the scene for us. What was the mood of the country, and of Los Angeles, on the eve of the Manson murders?
Bugliosi: I can't speak for the rest of the country, but I can tell you that in L.A., it was a time of relative innocence. I've heard many people say that prior to these murders, there were areas of the city where folks literally did not lock their doors at night. That ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders. The killings were so terribly brutal and savage: 169 stab wounds, seven gunshot wounds. They appeared to be random, with no discernible conventional motive. That induced a lot of fear throughout the city of Los Angeles, particularly in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, the heart of the movie colony, where the Tate murders happened (the LaBianca murders happened across town, near Griffith Park). Names were dropped from guest lists. Parties were canceled. No one knew if the killers were among them. Overnight, the sale of guns and guard dogs rose dramatically.

Why did the crimes penetrate so deeply in the American psyche? How did the culture change in the immediate aftermath?
I was just involved prosecuting one murder case after another, so I'm not someone who's a sociologist. But the killings tapped a feeling of dread … if you're not safe in your own home, where are you safe? And the very thought of young women dressed in black, armed with sharp knives, entering the homes of complete strangers in the middle of the night and mercilessly stabbing them to death … it's difficult to even contemplate a thought like that.

The other thing that terrified the nation so much is when the identity of the killers became known. And who were they? Young kids from average American homes with fairly good backgrounds. There was a feeling that this could be our own children. Tex Watson, Manson's "chief lieutenant" at the murder scene, was from Farmersville, Texas, hometown of World War II hero Audie Murphy. Watson was a football, basketball, and track star. He had almost an A average in high school. And when the people in Farmersville learned he was being charged with these murders, the general consensus was this is absolutely impossible, it must be a case of mistaken identity. Patricia Krenwinkel—another one of the main killers—her father was an insurance executive; she sang in the church choir; got good grades in school; at one time she even wanted to attend a Jesuit college in Alabama. Leslie Van Houten—another killer—she was a homecoming princess at Monrovia High School here in L.A.

How did Manson seduce these kids?
Manson is this 5-foot-2 guru with a long and checkered criminal history. He gets out of Terminal Island federal penitentiary off Long Beach, Calif., in 1967, goes up to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. He's got his guitar, and his street rap, and he sings—a pretty good composer of music, by the way. Guns N' Roses and the Beach Boys have recorded Manson songs. So he mesmerizes these young kids and tells them things they can identify with—about the need for the preservation of wildlife, that there's pollution of the environment by big corporations, that the poor man's fighting the rich man's war in Vietnam …. Their lifestyle was sex orgies and LSD trips. He convinces them he's the second coming of Christ and the devil all wrapped up into one person, and ultimately, as you know, he gets them to kill for him. He tells them the purpose for these murders is to start a war between blacks and whites, which he called Helter Skelter, after the Beatles song.

Fast-forward to the trial. What was the atmosphere at the courthouse, and the most dramatic moments in prosecuting the case?
It was the longest murder trial we'd ever had in America up to that point: nine months. And it was the most expensive up to that point, at $1 million. Outside the courthouse, there was a group of Manson family members conducting a 24-hour-a-day vigil for him. The media was interviewing them every day. Manson came into court one day with an X carved into his forehead, and the next day they all had X's on their foreheads. One day during the trial, he got ahold of a sharp pencil, and from a standing position, he leaps over the counsel's table with this pencil and starts approaching the judge. The bailiffs immediately tackled him and, as they were dragging him out of the courtroom, he shouted to the judge: "In the name of Christian justice, someone should chop off your head." The judge started carrying a .38-caliber revolver under his robe in court after that.

Even President Nixon got into the act. He was in Denver at a law-enforcement convention. He gives his opinion that he thought Manson was guilty. Ronald Ziegler, his press secretary, tried afterward to correct that, saying that the president meant to say allegedly guilty. But it had gone out over the wires. The main headline in the Los Angeles Times: MANSON GUILTY, NIXON DECLARES. Manson got ahold of that paper—no one knows how—stands up in front of the jury with a little silly grin on his face, and shows the jury the headline. It was almost as if he was somehow proud the president had taken notice.

Then near the end of the trial, a defense attorney vanishes from the face of the earth. Ronald Hughes was the defense attorney for codefendant Leslie Van Houten. The judge said, "Well, we're going to have to be in recess." Every morning we were hoping that poor Hughes would walk through the courtroom door, but he never did. So the judge had to appoint a substitute lawyer to take his place. On the last day of the trial, Hughes's body was found out in the forest, but the Ventura County coroner's office was unable to determine the cause of death because of the decomposition … I can't say positively one way or the other, but my leaning is that Hughes was murdered by the Manson family.

Give us an example of how widespread the interest in the case has been over the years.
Let me tell you a story. Years ago, I spoke at a book convention in Richmond, Va. I arrived at the station at the same time as William Manchester and Arthur Schlesinger, both Pulitzer Prize winners. The whole cab ride, Manchester and Schlesinger are tossing me questions about Charles Manson. That's all they wanted to talk about: tell me about him. Tell me about his eyes. Did you ever talk to him? How did he get control over these people?

Have you talked with Manson since the trial?
No. He wrote me four letters. I didn't respond to any of them; I turned them over to the Department of Corrections... The latest one could have been 20 years ago. [Bugliosi declined to discuss the letters' contents.]

Leslie Van Houten comes up for parole soon. Have you ever gone to a hearing for one of the family members?
No. If it came down to a point where they were seriously considering releasing, let's say, Manson or Watson, I would intervene—not that I have any clout at all. But I would write to the governor. But it's not going to happen.

Place Manson in the pantheon of American criminal outlaws.
Most mass murderers have turned out to be of rather low intellect—drifters, loners. Basically, they committed the murders for one reason only: to satisfy their own homicidal tendencies. Manson not only is very bright—but as misdirected as his violence was, his murders were revolutionary, political, and therein lies his main appeal to those on the fringes. The other thing that has separated him is the fact that all these other mass murderers committed the murders by themselves. Manson, on the other hand, was pulling strings and getting people to go out and kill strangers at his command without asking any questions. And that makes him more frightening to people.

And people are frightened of his impact still.
Let me just read to you a letter I received from the BBC in 1994. This reporter wrote to me about many British and German rock bands playing Manson songs and songs in support of him. "For some reason the neo-Manson cult seems to center in Manchester, where there are five stores selling 'Free Charles Manson' t-shirts, which are fantastically popular on rave dance floors, and bootleg records of his music...The majority of the supporters of these bands are under 25. The truly frightening part is that many, when asked, turned out to be Manson buffs who have read all they can find about Manson, and strongly approve of 'Helter Skelter.'" That was 15 years ago, but Manson is still big.