Summer of '69: When Charles Manson Scared the Hell Out of Hollywood

Cult leader who ordered his followers to kill and was convicted of first-degree murder for the deaths of actress Sharon Tate and six others has died after spending almost 50 years in prison

By Natalie Finn Nov 20, 2017 5:54 AMTags
Sharon TateTerry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Aug. 8, 1969, Sharon Tate was a beautiful, B-movie actress best known for The Fearless Vampire KillersValley of the Dolls and a handful of episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies.

On Aug. 9, 1969, Charles Manson turned her into the biggest star in Hollywood.

By a twist of unlucky fate, the 26-year-old starlet became the most famous victim of the so-called "Manson Family" when the deranged yet magnetic cult leader ordered several of his followers to murder any "piggies" they found at 10050 Cielo Drive, a sprawling but isolated property tucked into a hillside in Los Angeles' Benedict Canyon that Tate was renting from talent manager Rudi Altobelli for $1,200 a month along with her husband of a year and a half, Roman Polanski

Manson, a musician who aspired to worldwide stardom, had been to the house before. The home had previously been occupied by record producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day's son), his girlfriend Candice Bergen, who had put up the Christmas lights that were still decorating a fence on the property that August, and musician Mark Lindsay. Melcher and Manson had some sort of confrontation, and the 34-year-old songwriter, who stood all of 5'2", left with a grudge. Melcher and Tate had spoken on the phone about the lease transfer that previous February, but they had never met in person.

When Manson dispatched Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles "Tex" Watson and Linda Kasabian to Cielo Drive that night, it stood to reason he had his beef with Melcher in mind.

Celebrities Who Were Murdered

Instead, an 8-months-pregnant Sharon Tate was there, along with her friends, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, whom she used to date, and coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her boyfriend Voytek Frykowski. They had eaten dinner earlier in the night at El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant on Beverly Boulevard that's still there. The fifth victim that night, Steven Parent, was also in the wrong place at the wrong time, shot to death in his car in the driveway after showing up to visit the property's caretaker, William Garretson, who was initially arrested as a suspect since he was the only living person found at the scene—and who insisted that he didn't hear a thing.

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The gruesome, ritualistic killings—Tate was stabbed 16 times and a rope was looped around her neck while one end was looped over a rafter above and the other was wrapped twice around Sebring's neck; Atkins wrote "pig" on the front door in Tate's blood blood; Frykowski was stabbed 51 times—shocked and appalled an entire city, from the law enforcement who saw the scene first hand to the media to every single L.A. resident, particularly the famous ones.

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The terror multiplied the next night, when supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were murdered in similar fashion at their home at 3301 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz. "Rise" was scrawled on the wall in Leno's blood, the word "war" had been carved into his stomach and there was an ivory-handled carving fork sticking out of his belly. "Death to pigs" was written on the wall and "Helter skelter"—like the name of the Beatles tune, though it was misspelled "healter"—was written on the refrigerator, also in blood."

20th Century Fox

Cue the panic.

A famous person had been murdered—and not just murdered, slaughtered—in her home, and because Tate had the recognizable name, the crimes of Aug. 9, 1969, were immediately dubbed the "Tate case" by law enforcement, and collectively the crimes are known as the Tate-LaBianca murders. That, combined with the never-ending obsession with Manson—perhaps due to spike and then temper off, now that he's dead—turned Tate into one of the most famous murder victims of all time practically overnight. At the time, the only murder that had received more media coverage was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

And with all that reporting, some of it was bound to get wildly out of hand, even with no Internet to help it along. For instance, a towel that had been thrown across Sebring's face was reported in different instances as having been a white hood or a black hood, prompting multiple theories about the symbolism of such a gesture (which didn't occur). 

Tate's family lamented the coverage, remembering Sharon as a promising actress and glowing presence in their lives who was overjoyed to be starting a family of her own.

"The world lost an amazing set of philanthropists," her sister, Debra Tate, told ABC News in March, referring to the group at Sharon's house that ended up dead. "They definitely would have been the movers and the shakers in this industry."

In the months before Manson and his murderous followers were apprehended, every celebrity in Hollywood worried that he or she was next—especially because no one knew what was going on. Was Tate or Polanski (who was out of the country) targeted? Authorities found 6.9 grams of marijuana in a baggie in a living room cabinet. There were 30 grams of hashish in the nightstand in the bedroom where Frykowski and Folger were staying, along with 10 pills that turned out to be amphetamines. Was this a drug orgy that turned deadly when a participant "freaked out"? It was the '60s after all. Or was it a drug transaction gone wrong?

Steve McQueen, who had once dated Tate and was a friend and client of Sebring's, advised having a cleanup of the salon owner's house to clear out any potentially damaging items (i.e. drugs) that might embarrass his family or damage his good business name. McQueen didn't participate in the cleanup himself, but police reportedly never found anything untoward there. (In another only-in-Hollywood ghost story, Sebring had lived at 9860 Easton Drive, the former home of Jean Harlow—who died tragically at 26, like Tate—and her husband Paul Bern, who committed suicide in the house two months after they got married.)

The cops were initially pretty keen on a drug angle, but still, what was with all the carnage then? 


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Were the killers some damned, dirty hippies, as the conservative types who were particularly suspicious of the counterculture might think? Were they Satan worshipers? Murderers for hire? Just plain old homicidal maniacs? And LaBiancas aside, were they targeting celebrities?

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As relayed in Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry's Helter Skelter, the seminal book on the case which was adapted for TV movies in 1976 and 2004, Mia Farrow, who had starred in Polanski's biggest film, Rosemary's Baby, and was a friend of Sharon's was said to be too afraid to go to her funeral. Frank Sinatra reportedly went into hiding. Tony Bennett moved from a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel into one of the inner suites. Jerry Lewis installed an alarm system complete with closed-circuit TV in his house. McQueen started keeping a gun under the front seat of his car.

Two hundred guns were sold at one Beverly Hills sporting goods store in two days. The price of a good guard dog went from $200 to $1,500. Anyone who could afford private security hired more private security. Connie Stevens later said that the murders "scared the daylights out of everyone."

Though Manson would eventually "explain" that the killings were intended to trigger a race war—some members of the Black Panther Party had called cops "pigs," for instance, and he meant for African-Americans to be blamed for the killings—and that he'd inferred all the instructions he needed from the Book of Revelations and, more recently, the Beatles' "White Album," at the end of the day he wasn't only a grade-A nut job, to use a clinical term.

He was also a frustrated artist, one who'd brushed paths and even socialized with important people in the music business, such as Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson (brother of Carl and Brian Wilson) and Neil Young. Young, in fact, liked Manson's music and told a record exec he knew about the aspiring singer-songwriter not too long before the murders.

The "Harvest" artist wrote in his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace about a gathering at his house: "After a while, a guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it. His name was Charlie. He was a friend of the girls and now of Dennis. His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like [Bob] Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good."

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But though history is full of what-might-have-happened forks in the road, Manson, a seasoned criminal who had spent half of his young life in jail for various crimes and who had an additional chip firmly lodged on his shoulder due to his unrecognized musical voice, decided the time for mass hysteria, the race war—"Helter Skelter," as he deemed it, on purpose, because he thought the Beatles were signaling as much—had come.

The cops had been back and forth to Spahn's Ranch, a dusty, abandoned Western-themed movie set where the Manson Family was squatting when the murders were committed, for various other crimes—an Aug. 16, 1969, raid turned up a massive weapons cache—but it was a bout of bragging that did them all in.

Susan Atkins had been arrested along with Manson and 22 others in early October 1969 when Inyo County authorities conducted a three-day raid on the latest Manson hangout, Barker Ranch, located in the desert near Death Valley, on suspicion of a host of charges including arson and grand theft. (Manson had also been arrested during the Spahn raid.) During that time, two girls who had been hiding in the bushes a few miles away from the ranch approached officers and said they needed help, that they were trying to flee.

It turns out that L.A. authorities had been looking for one of the girls, Kitty Lutesinger, because she was the girlfriend of Bobby Beausoleil, their main suspect in the July 25, 1969, murder of musician Gary Hinman. Beausoleil had disappeared from Spahn Ranch and Lutesinger, who was 5 months pregnant when she made contact with police, had no idea he was in jail on suspicion of murder.

Talking to authorities on Oct. 12, Lutesinger said that Susan Atkins had gone with Beausoleil to Hinman's house on Manson's orders, to collect money from him. Word at the ranch was, some sort of fight ensued and Hinman was killed. Lutesinger recalled a conversation with Atkins and several girls in which Atkins said she had stabbed a man several times in the legs.

On Oct. 13, investigators questioned Atkins, who said she and Beausoleil stayed at Hinman's house for two days, basically holding him hostage, before Beausoleil ultimately stabbed him to death. Atkins was also booked on suspicion of murder. She didn't mention Manson.

On Oct. 15, the Los Angeles Police Department, which was investigating Tate-LaBianca, finally checked in with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, which had the Hinman case, to see if they had any similar crimes. As it turned out, "political piggy" was written in blood on the wall at Hinman's place. On Oct. 20, the sheriff's office relayed Lutesinger's recollection of Atkins saying she had stabbed a man in the legs to the LAPD, because Hinman hadn't been stabbed in the legs; rather, Voytek Frykowski had.

LAPD eventually interviewed Lutesinger on Oct. 31, 11 days later.

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Meanwhile, Atkins—who was booked under the name Sadie Mae Glutz—was having a grand old time in jail telling her cellmate at Sybil Brand Institute, Ronnie Howard, as well as another prisoner who knew Howard, Virginia Graham, pretty much everything about the murders. (Graham and Howard would both testify for the prosecution at trial.)

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Among the things she told Graham: the names on a list of celebrities who were going to be murdered, including Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Tom Jones, and how each one was going to be killed. There was never any proof other than Atkins own ravings that such a list actually existed

Talent scout Gregg Jakobson had met Manson at Dennis Wilson's house (Dennis, who battled substance abuse, died by drowning in 1983; he was 39) in 1968, and in turn—impressed by the "whole Charlie Manson package" as an artist, as he told the cops—introduced Manson to Melcher, who was living at 10050 Cielo Drive at the time. Melcher was unimpressed.

According to Susan Atkins, per Helter Skelter, Tex Watson had told her on the night of the Tate murder that they "were going to a house up on the hill that used to belong to Terry Melcher, and the only reason why were were going to that house was because Tex knew the outline of the house." 

Asked by Vincent Bugliosi what Tex told them they were going to do once they got there, Atkins replied, "To get all of their money and to kill whoever was there." "It didn't make any difference who was there, you were told to kill them; is that correct?" he asked. "Yes," Atkins said.

AP Photo/George Brich

In 1971, as a L.A. County Deputy District Attorney, Bugliosi successfully prosecuted Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten for the Tate-LaBianca murders, winning multiple first-degree murder convictions for all, including seven for Manson, despite him having not been physically present during the killings (he tied up the LaBiancas, then left).

All were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted to life in prison when California temporarily ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

AP Photo/David F. Smith

Linda Kasabian, who had witnessed it all but hadn't physically killed anyone with her own two hands, was Bugliosi's star witness. She was chosen to go because she was the only member of the Family who had a valid driver's license.

The still-terrifying story of these murders continues to breath posthumous life into Sharon Tate's short movie career, the actress eternally remembered as a great beauty who had her whole life ahead of her before she ended up playing the starring role in one of the most storied crimes of all time. But we know it was Charles Manson who became the larger-than-life figure, the boogeyman villain who was too crazy to be taken seriously once he was safely behind bars, but who was a ticking time-bomb who destroyed dozens of lives when he walked free.

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The house on Cielo Drive remained standing for years. Trent Reznor recorded the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral in the house, though he said he didn't actually know the property's provenance when he first decided to move in.

"The house didn't feel terrifying so much as sad—peacefully sad," Reznor told Entertainment Weekly at the time. "But that could just be my own insanity." The house was torn down not long after Reznor moved out, toward the end of 1993.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Watkins and Krenwinkel remain behind bars. Atkins died of cancer in prison in 2009. When the parole board refused her request for compassionate release, Debra Tate, who over the years has been vocally against the possibility of parole for any of the killers, was there to see it. Van Houten, who was 19 when she took part in the LaBianca murders, was recommended for parole in 2016, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, calling her an "unacceptable risk to society." The board repeated its recommendation in September at what was Van Houten's 21st parole hearing; the State Parole Board has yet to issue its decision.

And throughout, the fascination with Manson—his absurd yet alarmingly detailed philosophy, his hold over his "Family," the terrifying magnetism that turned him into, as Rolling Stone called him when the magazine put him on the cover in 1970, "the most dangerous man alive"—never abated. His face is on T-shirts and songs he wrote have been recorded by artists including Marilyn Manson, the Beach Boys, the Lemonheads and Guns N' Roses. In 2014 a 26-year-old woman who had been visiting Manson in prison was poised to marry the 80-year-old mass murderer—they obtained a marriage license, but it expired after 90 days of inactivity.

Countless books—both nonfiction accounts and fiction inspired by true events, including Emma Cline's 2016 novel The Girls—films and TV shows have probed the mind of Manson and his followers. The 2016 Lifetime movie Manson's Lost Girls examined the saga from the women's perspective, but it all came back to their Svengali. The NBC series Aquarius first introduced Manson in 1967 as a longtime antagonist for a LAPD detective played by David Duchovny, leading up to the murders in 1969.

Perhaps because no one could ever truly understand Charles Manson in life, and the Tate-LaBianca murders were so bizarre and brutal, and so random, writers and directors and actors have just done with him what they could. 

Bugliosi, who also authored nonfiction tomes about JFK's assassination and the O.J. Simpson murder trial, died in 2015. He attributed the enduring lure of the Manson murders as a topic of discussion to a number of factors.

"The single most important is that the murders were probably the most bizarre in American crime, and people are fascinated by things that are strange and bizarre," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. "It's not the brutality—they were extremely brutal murders, but like you say, there have been more brutal murders. Not the prominence of the victims. Another reason—the very name 'Manson' has become a metaphor for evil, and evil has its allure."

It remains to be seen whether Manson's death—at the ripe old age of 83, of natural causes—helps break the spell he still managed to cast for all those years from a prison cell.