Monday, August 10, 2009

General if Decent

The Manson murders — 40 years later

TERROR: The brutality of the killings destroyed a period of innocence and changed the city forever.

Forty years ago on Aug. 8, from his ranch in the San Fernando Valley, Charles Manson dispatched a band of devoted fanatics on a high-profile killing spree that shocked the world and terrified Angelenos, who never left their doors and windows unlocked again.

"It was a scary thing back then and it continues to this day," says Vincent Bugliosi, who successfully prosecuted the Manson "family" for one of the city's most notorious murder binges.

Among the seven victims of the two-day murder spree was actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, who was eight and a half months pregnant at the time.

As details of the crimes emerged, fear spread in a city that simply could not comprehend the sheer brutality of the murderers, many of whom were long-haired young women who could be mistaken for peaceniks.

Six of the seven victims were stabbed a total of 169 times and the seventh was shot dead.

"It had a definite effect throughout L.A., and it did induce fear throughout the city," Bugliosi said.

In the early hours of Aug. 9, 1969, the Manson family killed Tate, 26, and four others in Benedict Canyon - coffee fortune heiress Abigail Folger, 25; celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35; Polish film director Voyteck Frykowski, 32; and Steven Parent, 18, friend of the caretaker at Tate's home.

Manson stayed at the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth while his devotees committed the Tate murders. The following night, Manson went

with the group, but stayed in the car while his followers murdered wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca, 44, and wife Rosemary, 38, in Los Feliz.

The killers also scrawled "Healter Skelter" and "Pigs" in the victims' blood at both murder scenes - references to the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" released the year before, which the killers misspelled, and a slur directed at police and the white establishment.

"There were people in L.A. back then, in 1969, who didn't lock their doors," says Bugliosi. "It was a certain period of innocence to a certain degree and that all stopped with the Tate-LaBianca murders."

James Schamus, screenwriter and producer of the upcoming film "Taking Woodstock," grew up in North Hollywood, in the hills right off Mulholland Drive, and remembers the fear that overtook the city.

"I was under lockdown, as were all of my friends because just a few days before, the Manson family went on a rampage in the neighborhood," he recalls. "My parents were like, `You're not going out!'

"They didn't know it was the Manson family until they were arrested a couple of months later. But they knew that they were hippies who did it, because they used the blood to scrawl `pig' on the wall."

Four decades after what Bugliosi calls an "orgy of murder," the legacy of Manson looms disturbingly over pop culture and an entertainment capital that still seems to be coming to grips with the madness of the convicted mass murderer.

Manson was given the death penalty along with Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. When the courts overturned the death penalty, their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Another family member, Linda Kasabian, who stood watch at the Tate murder site, turned state's evidence. She served no time.

Today, Manson, 74, short and balding, bears little resemblance to the long-haired, bearded menace whose likeness became a pop culture icon. What does remain is the devilish stare and the swastika, which he carved on his forehead while on trial.

"But the shadow of Charles Manson continues to haunt our nation's psyche, especially in Los Angeles," says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist on the clinical faculty at UCLA who specializes in violence and terrorism.

"Why? First, the scattered contamination of spots in Los Angeles where the Manson family lived and killed. From Malibu to Los Feliz, the San Fernando Valley to Venice, and numerous places in between.

"Secondly, the randomness or `helter skelter' aspect to the crimes, which causes us to realize that we are not safe, even within our fancy homes."

Though America has seen dozens of notorious serial killers since Manson, the fascination with this Ohio-born drifter who spent most of his life in reform schools and behind bars persists.

"The main reason for the continued fascination at such a late date (is) the murders were probably the most bizarre in the recorded annals of American crime," says Bugliosi, who later authored a best-selling book about the crimes - "Helter Skelter."

Manson construed the expression as the harbinger of an apocalyptic race war he hoped the murders would trigger.

"For whatever reason," says Bugliosi, "people are fascinated by things that are strange and bizarre. Manson himself. Just how many Charles Mansons are out there?

"The incredible motive: To ignite a war between blacks and whites, an Armageddon. The killers printed words from Beatles songs in blood, mind you, at the murder scene. The fact that these kids (Manson's killers) came from average American homes. Who would ever dream that, of all people, they would be mass murderers?"

Today, dozens of bands, especially in Europe, play songs penned by Manson or that were written in support of the mass murderer. The Internet has millions of pages devoted to him. Manson cult groups abound throughout the world.

At the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth where Manson and his followers lived while in the Valley, locals say they occasionally see visitors searching for the Santa Susana Mountain location, once a western movie set and now fenced off and owned by the state of California.

"Some people don't think Manson was crazy but a genius to be able to manipulate people like he did," says horse trainer Candy Cooper who lives not far from the ranch. "People were horrified by the killings and the way they were done, and they come here, I guess, looking for where the man who masterminded that lived."

Holly Huff, who lived in Box Canyon where the ranch was and had just graduated from high school when the murders took place, remembers that Manson and his clan had taken control of George Spahn's movie ranch, over the objection of the ranch's caretaker.

"George was blind, and the story was that they had seduced him by having the girls have sex (with him)," says Huff, who remembers that the caretaker soon mysteriously disappeared.

"I don't think anyone ever heard from him again."

Huff also recalled that in the months before the murders, many residents of the Box Canyon area complained of returning to their homes and finding their furniture and furnishings moved around - though nothing was taken.

"I think they called it `creepy crawling,' and many thought (the Manson family) was responsible," she says.

Then, just days before the killings, Huff said, a friend found his garage looted of equipment used to cut steel. It was common knowledge the Manson family was converting old cars into dune buggies.

"He was gonna go up to the ranch and confront them, but didn't," said Huff. "And it's probably good that he didn't."

Others with an interest in Manson also look for the former site of a two-story house at 20910 Gresham St. in Canoga Park, not far from the Spahn Ranch, where the Manson family lived in late 1968 and early 1969.

That house was known to Manson's followers as "The Yellow Submarine," referring to another Beatles song.

"It was like a submarine in that when you were in it, you weren't allowed to go out," Watson tells Bugliosi in his book. "You could only peek out of the windows."

Today, the house is gone. The former single-family home neighborhood has been converted to apartment buildings - but memories of Manson and his family remain.

Longtime Chatsworth resident Virginia Watson remembers that the Manson family became a fixture in the area in the months leading up to the murders.

"They weren't here long, but they made a big impression," says Watson, who is now curator of the Chatsworth Historical Museum. "They were like a gang, and they would come in to shop at the Hughes Market or the Arco gas station.

"They would steal things from the market, and you would see them scavenge through trash cans, and everyone would stay away from them as much as possible."

But it was not until Manson and the family were linked to the killings, says Watson, that local residents realized how close they had been to potential harm.

"Before they had just seemed like renegades," says Watson. "But when we found out what they did, I think we realized we had been right in avoiding them as much as we could."

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