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Helter Skelter: A Look Inside the Manson Family Murders

The brutal murder of Sharon Tate and other socialites foreshadowed the end of hippie culture.

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  • Photo Credit: Not a Hollywood Sign Production

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of an ongoing series that will offer an in-depth exploration of prominent serial killers and infamous true crime events.  

Helter Skelter

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  • Sharon Tate.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The scene is 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, the residence of director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. On the morning of August 10, 1969, the Polanskis’ housekeeper, Winifred Chapman, arrives to discover a cut phone line and, once inside the gate, two bodies on the lawn and another in a vehicle parked in the driveway. These are Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger Coffee fortune; Voytek Frykowski, her boyfriend; and Steve Parent, a friend of William Garretson, the caretaker living in the guest house. 

When police arrive and enter the home, they find the bodies of Tate and her ex-boyfriend, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring, along with marijuana, meth- amphetamines, and the word “pig” written in blood on the door. The crime scene is savage; the victims had been beaten, shot, and stabbed repeatedly. There is wild speculation by police and the press, suggesting a drug-fueled party, orgy, or ritual sacrifice gone awry.

Related: The Manson Family and the Gruesome Murder of Sharon Tate 

In a house across town the next night, teenager Frank Struthers returns home from a camping trip to find all of the curtains drawn. Sensing that this is unusual, he calls his sister. The two of them along with the sister’s boyfriend enter the house and discover the bodies of their parents, grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, both of whom had been brutally stabbed, choked, and beaten. The word “war” is carved into Leno LaBianca’s stomach, the words “healter skelter [sic]” are written on the refrigerator in blood. 

The Manson Family’s depravity is often viewed as the symbolic end of the freewheeling decadence of the 1960s, the inevitable crash after a decade-long party. 

Who was Charles Manson?

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  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Born Charles Milles Maddox as an “illegitimate” child of a 16-year-old mother, Manson spends his youth in and out of correctional institutions, committing his first armed robbery at age 13. Charges of grand theft auto, rape, pimping, and forgery soon follow. In prison, Manson grows very interested in Scientology and the Beatles, and begins playing music himself. Upon his release in 1967, Manson relocates to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where he observes the hippie culture and begins picking up followers, mostly teenage runaways and prostitutes whom he swindles into giving him money, sex, and their total devotion. 

Charlie and his early disciples establish a “commune,” or communal living space centered around a quasi-socialist ideology of sharing work and resources. The Manson Family, as they come to be known, settle in at Spahn Ranch, an old movie set for Westerns in the Simi Hills of Los Angeles. The owner, George Spahn, allowed the hippies to squat there in exchange for labor and female companionship.

Related: Who is Charles Luther Manson? 8 Little-Known Facts About Manson’s Real Family  

At the commune, Manson conned his followers into believing he was a messiah or Christ figure, preying on their weaknesses, and making them completely dependent on him. Many were female teen runaways or prostitutes with nowhere else to go. Manson used many methods to control his disciples, from threats, to flattery, to drugs and sex. He had a grifter’s natural ability to spot weaknesses in people and exploit them. 

As the Family grows closer, Charlie uses his charisma and political rhetoric to indoctrinate his followers, ultimately convincing them to fulfill his diabolical plan of instigating a race war through murder. The fame and social status of the victims makes the murders even more shocking: Sharon Tate, a well-known actress married to director Roman Polanski who was pregnant with his child; heiress Abigail Folger (of Folgers Coffee) and her boyfriend; and Jay Sebring, a hairdresser to the stars in Hollywood. 

The LAPD circulates fliers seeking the gun used in the murders, unaware that it is already sitting in a precinct evidence locker in Van Nuys, having been found by a child in Sherman Oaks and turned over to police. Complicating matters further is a rivalry between investigators assigned to the Tate case and those assigned to the LaBianca case. 

Related: 20 Little-Known Facts About Sharon Tate, the Tragic Manson Family Victim 

Despite these challenges, police manage to arrest 26 members of the Manson Family’s hippie commune for auto theft just one week after the murders. The arrest of a hippie commune for a series of brutal and violent murders shocks the city of Los Angeles, and indeed the entire United States. Historians will cite the Manson Family Murders (along with the Rolling Stones’ “Nightmare at Altamont”) as cultural touchstones that heralded the last throes of 1960s hippie culture. 

Members of the Manson Family Arrested at Spahn Ranch Include: 

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Susan Atkins: Known by her peers as Sadie Mae Glutz or Crazy Sadie, Susan Atkins was present at the Hinman, Tate, and LaBianca murder scenes and admitted to stabbing Sharon Tate, though she later recanted. She was perhaps the most flamboyant of the “Manson Girls,” brazenly bragging of her involvement in the murders to her cellmates and investigators. Atkins settled at Spahn Ranch with the Manson Family in 1967. She gave birth to a son, whom Manson named Zezozose Zadfrack Glutz.   

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Linda Kasabian: Kasabian moved to Spahn Ranch with her young daughter, Tanya, in 1969, and quickly became one of Manson’s apprentices, believing that he could see her for who she really was. As the only Family member with a legal driving license, Kasabian drove the Family members to the commit the Tate and LaBianca murders. Kasabian was the only Family member to express any sympathy for the victims, even suffering an emotional breakdown when she was brought back to the Tate house to reconstruct the crimes. More than any other testimony, it was Kasabian’s that led to the convictions of Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten. 

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Leslie “Sankston” Van Houten: Present at the Tate and LaBianca murder scenes, Van Houten was introduced to Manson via Bobby Beausoleil and Catherine “Gypsy” Share. According to Barbara Hoyt, Van Houten was one of the female leaders of the group.

Related: Leslie Van Houten, The Manson Family, and the Labianca Murders

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Charles “Tex” Watson: Watson was Manson’s right-hand man. According to Al Springer, Tex was the “brains” at the ranch, along with Charlie. Upon his arrival at the Tate house, Watson said, “I am the Devil and I’m here to do the Devil’s business.” And indeed he did – eventually murdering Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Voytek Frykowski, and Leno LaBianca. 

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Patricia Krenwinkel: Disciple of Charles Manson, Patricia was present at the Tate and LaBianca murders; she was observed by Kasabian chasing a fleeing Abigail Folger across the lawn at the Tate house and stabbing her repeatedly. 

Barbara Hoyt
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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Barbara Hoyt: A follower of Charles Manson and eventual witness for the prosecution, Hoyt began living with the Family at Spahn Ranch in 1969. She became suspicious when she saw some of the Family members watching the news about the Tate murders, and later overheard Susan Atkins tell Ruth Ann Moorehouse that she had killed Sharon Tate. Hoyt, along with Sherry Cooper, another Family member, attempted to flee the ranch in Death Valley, but were unsuccessful. Concerned about her testimony at trial, the Family sent Hoyt to Hawaii with other Manson girls. There, she was given food laced with LSD. Soon after, she collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room. After that episode, Hoyt returned to California and eagerly testified against the Family. 

Related: 9 Facts About Charles Manson and the Manson Family That Will Shock You

The Case Against the Manson Family

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  • Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.

    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Vincent Bugliosi is assigned as prosecutor and begins his own investigation, visiting Spahn and neighboring Barker Ranch to collect evidence. He and other investigators try to piece together the Manson Family’s motives. Several witnesses (including Susan Atkins) outline Manson’s intention to start a race war (a.k.a. “helter skelter”) by blaming the Black Panthers for the murders. Atkins provides chilling testimony to the grand jury, relating details of the murders. She names Manson, Van Houten, Kasabian, and Krenwinkel in the murders of the LaBiancas. It is noted that she exhibits no “remorse, sorrow, or guilt.” 

Around the same time, LaBianca detectives interview Al Springer and Danny DeCarlo, members of a motorcycle gang who had visited Spahn Ranch and heard details from Charles Manson about the Tate and LaBianca murders, as well as other crimes. DeCarlo implicates several other Family members, including Tex Watson and Steve Grogan (a.k.a. “Clem Tufts”), and corroborates the motive: Manson was hoping to pin the murders on the Black Panthers and instigate a race war. 

Related: Too Close for Comfort: 8 True Crime Books Written by Authors with a Direct Link to the Case 

According to Manson, after “the black man” won this war, he would find himself ill-equipped to rule society and seek out Charlie and the Family (who had been hiding safely in a “bottomless pit” in Death Valley) to take over. Manson believed this prophecy was backed by quotations from the Bible’s Book of Revelations, and more peculiarly, references made by the Beatles in various songs from The White Album. Charlie felt that the Beatles lyrics were “direct communications to him.” Furthermore, several of the songs contained words or phrases written in blood at the murder scenes: “pig,” “rise,” and “he[a]lter skelter.” 

The grand jury comes back with indictments for Manson, Watson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten, Atkins, and Kasabian. Upon his arrest, Manson insists he will represent himself at trial. 

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  • Some of the Manson family members at Spahn Ranch.

    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Former Family member Paul Watkins tells investigators about Manson’s techniques for domination and manipulation, which include rationing out food and drugs, threatening violence, and demanding sex acts. Bugliosi also discovers a link between Manson and the house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Manson had been to the house before the murders, seeking record producer Terry Melcher. According to members of the Family, Melcher had promised to produce an album for Charlie and then changed his mind. While Charlie knew Melcher no longer lived at the address, it would have held a certain symbolic appeal to launch “helter skelter” from this location because he associated it with Melcher’s betrayal. 

Manson continues to exert influence from his prison cell, using members of the Family who aren’t in custody to threaten, coerce, and pass along messages. He seems to be orchestrating the entire legal defense, telling the girls which attorneys to hire and fire and ultimately convincing Susan Atkins to recant her statement. Fortunately, the prosecution has a second star witness to take her place: Linda Kasabian. 

Taking Linda Kasabian along on a ride to the crime scenes, Bugliosi extracts her story through tears of remorse. She says that at the Tate house, she saw Tex Watson shoot Steve Parent, but stayed in the car while the others went inside. She witnessed Patricia Krenwinkel chase Abigail Folger across the lawn and Tex Watson go after Voytek Frykowski before stabbing him repeatedly. Kasabian did not take part in the murders, but did not seek help because her daughter was still back at Spahn Ranch. 

Related: 6 Killer Cults That Shocked the World 

Recalling the night of the LaBianca murders, Kasabian supplies a wealth of information only one of the perpetrators could have known, including the location of Rosemary LaBianca’s wallet. She fled the ranch in terror shortly after the crimes were committed. Ballistics tests on spent bullet casings found at Spahn indicate that the same model of gun used in the Tate murders was used for target practice there. Going through the LAPD’s evidence, Bugliosi finds a wooden door covered in graffiti, also taken from the ranch. The words “Helter Skelter” are printed on it. 

Not permitted to represent himself in court, Manson chooses Irving Kanarek as his counsel. He’s an attorney with a reputation for being disruptive in the courtroom and carrying on endless motions, dragging out simple cases for months. Manson causes his own disruptions, turning his back on the judge and striking a “crucifixion pose.” 

The Trial and Aftermath

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  • The Family is taken to prison.

    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Bugliosi explains that, even though Manson did not take part in the murders, he will be tried under the “vicarious liability” rule of conspiracy, which basically states that if he and his codefendants were all working toward the same conspiratorial goal (in this case, “helter skelter”), they are all equally guilty. Manson appears in court with a bloody “X” carved into his forehead, claiming, “I have X’d myself from your world.” His codefendants, and Mansonites on the outside, have “Xs” on their foreheads as well. 

The trial is known for being one of the most raucous and dramatic in American history. During Linda Kasabian’s testimony, Manson is observed making a “slitting motion” with his finger across his throat. The antics crescendo when Manson grabs a pencil and leaps over the attorneys’ table toward the judge, before being tackled by a bailiff. 

Bugliosi gives his opening statement, laying out the “helter skelter” motive, and Linda Kasabian testifies. Testimony is given by experts regarding weapons, the state of the bodies, and the fingerprints. Danny DeCarlo testifies to Manson’s use of the word “pig” and his theories about the impending race war. Juan Flynn, a ranch hand from Spahn, provides similar testimony. He also recalls specifics about the night the LaBiancas were murdered, including Susan Atkins stating, “We’re going to get some fucking pigs.” Former Family member Brooks Poston testifies to his prior belief that Charles Manson was the second coming of Jesus Christ. 

Related: Serial Killer Cinema: 4 Horrifying Charles Manson Documentaries

Steve “Clem” Grogan is let out on probation (from the auto theft charges of the Barker raid), despite warnings by Bugliosi’s co-counsel that he is “exceedingly dangerous.” He and other members of the Family begin loitering outside the courthouse, holding a “vigil.” One member is quoted as saying, “I’m waiting for my father to get out of jail.” Bugliosi is followed by Family members repeatedly and Manson himself threatens to kill Bugliosi, the judge, and his own attorney. 

Prosecution witness and former Family member Barbara Hoyt is spirited away to Hawaii by the Family in an attempt to silence her. When it doesn’t work, Manson follower Ruth Ann “Ouisch” Moorehouse slips ten tabs of LSD into Hoyt’s hamburger, resulting in her hospitalization. Tex Watson, awaiting trial, ceases speaking and eating and is placed in a mental hospital. 

Finally, in late November 1970, the prosecution rests, followed by the defense. Manson is allowed to make a statement in closed court, without the presence of the jury. In a semi-coherent diatribe, he rails against the Vietnam War and the “system,” professes his innocence, blames the Beatles, and declares his desire to beat everyone present to death with his microphone. 

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  • Manson Family members.

    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

The following Monday, Van Houten’s attorney Ronald Hughes fails to show up for court. He went camping over the weekend and disappeared. Many suspect he has been murdered by the Family because he was looking out for his client’s best interests during the trial, laying all of the blame on Charlie. His body is eventually found a few miles from where he had last been seen camping. 

Several Mansonites are charged in the drugging of Barbara Hoyt with conspiracy to prevent a witness from testifying; shockingly, they are let out on bail. Family members also try, and fail, to smuggle marijuana and a hacksaw into jail for Charles Manson. 

In the guilt phase of the trial, the defense does a remarkably poor job. Leslie Van Houten’s attorney insists that it is implausible that Manson would “send women to do a man’s job”. Ultimately, the jury deliberates for nine days and reaches a verdict of guilty on all counts for all parties. 

Related: Is Charles Manson Behind the Unsolved Murder of Reet Jurvetson? 

The penalty phase of the trial then begins. The girls’ parents testify for the defense, pleading for their lives to be spared. Several Family members testify, including Catherine “Gypsy” Share, who makes the audacious claim that Linda Kasabian organized and ordered the murders as copycat crimes to the Gary Hinman murder so authorities would release Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who’d been charged with the killing of the music teacher. Susan Atkins testifies to the same, as well as her own lack of remorse, calling the crimes “No big thing.” Meanwhile, Tex Watson is released from the mental hospital. 

Several doctors are called to attest to the girls’ mental states and the possibility of LSD use as a mitigating factor in the crimes. They are in agreement that the girls are mentally competent, and possibly suffering from personality disorders, and that LSD could not have compelled them to commit murder. 

Finally, the prosecution and defense make their pleas for the death penalty and life imprisonment, respectively. After two days of deliberations, the jury votes in favor of the death penalty for all four defendants. However, in People v. Anderson, the California Supreme Court commuted all death penalties issued prior to 1971, and the Manson Family members on death row were spared their lives. 

Having hatched an outlandish plan to free Manson, several Family members, including Catherine “Gypsy” Share, rob a Los Angeles Western Surplus Store, collecting one hundred and forty guns before they are apprehended by police. One of Manson’s disciples claims the group intended to hijack a plane and order their leader’s release. 

All of the Manson Family members eventually express remorse for their crimes, with the lone exception being Charles Manson himself. Manson died in California State Prison at Corcoran in 2017, at the age of 83.

Related: Charles Manson is Dead. Where is the Rest of His Murderous Clan? 

Manson Family Murders timeline
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  • A timeline of the murders, arrests, and criminal proceedings. 

Manson Family Trivia

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  • The Beatles, oddly, were one of Manson's inspirations. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Did you know...  

  1. President Nixon caused a splash during the trial when he commented on the glorification of Manson by the media, tacitly implying he believed Manson to be guilty. This led to the sequestered jury having to be transported in a van with soaped windows so they could not see any headlines as they rode to court.  
  2. Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in Sacramento in 1975. She was sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled for “good conduct time” in 2009.  
  3. In 2009, filmmaker John Waters wrote a plea for Leslie Van Houten’s release, calling her “a really good friend.”  
  4. The Manson trial was the longest murder trial in American history at nine and a half months and the most expensive—until the O. J. Simpson trial—at $1 million.  
  5. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson was not a Family member, but he did know some of them. Members of the Family lived with him briefly, to the detriment of his wallet and sexual health. He initially admired Manson’s music and introduced him to producer Terry Melcher.  
  6. The Family was communal in all aspects of their lives, sharing food, clothing, drugs, and even lovers. Children living on the ranch were raised communally and not permitted to spend too much time with their biological parents. This was another form of control for Manson, as the Family relied entirely on each other with no outside support system. They went along with it because they genuinely believed that Manson was Christ reincarnated and they were his devoted followers. 
  7. Charles Manson was inspired by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” He interpreted the lyrics to describe “a war between whites and blacks that the Beatles were in favor of.” In addition to referring to chaos, the term helter skelter also refers to a playground slide in the United Kingdom.  
  8. Charles Manson had many rules at Spahn Ranch. Books, watches, clocks, calendars, or prescription eyeglasses were not allowed on the ranch. Additionally, he never allowed the women to carry money. That way, if they ever left him, they would be penniless.  
  9. In addition to the dogma of cultish institutions like Scientology and “The Process,” Manson reportedly drew inspiration from Dale Carnegie before he became a leader of the Family. In prison, Charles Manson took one of his leadership and self-improvement courses, offered as a way to help convicts adjust to the outside world. Manson studied his book How to Win Friends and Influence People and used the techniques to manipulate people when he was back on the outside.  
  10. While it is not known exactly how many children Manson fathered thanks to the frequent group orgies at the ranch, he does have at least three sons: two are named Charles Manson, and the third is Valentine, after Manson's favorite character in the science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. 

Featured still from 'The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter' via Not a Hollywood Sign Production