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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Family

By 1967, Charles Manson was 36 years old. He had spent more than half of his life in prison for burglary and petty theft. Moving to San Fransico's hippie haven Haight-Ashbury, he established himself as something of a guru to the lonely runaways he found there. Soon after arriving, cultivated a following of females, among them Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian. The Family (as they were then known) took over Spahn Ranch in 1968, at which time many more people joined, including Tex Watson.

Though not recognized at the time, the Family was actually a cult. Manson would gather Family members around himself, supply them with drugs, and then give speeches about "Helter Skelter", the oncoming race war between blacks and whites. "Helter Skelter" got its name from a song on the Beatles White Album, which Manson believed contained coded messages about the upcoming racial apocalypse. Instead of waiting for the race war to begin, Manson decided to speed things up himself.

The Family began their murderous rampage in 1969. On July 1, Manson murdered a drug dealer named Bernard Crowe. On July 25, he sent Mary Brunner, Susan Atkins, and Bobby Beausoleil to acquaintance Gary Hinman's house to get money the Family was convinced he had recently inherited. Beausoleil stabbed Hinman to death after holding him hostage for two days.

On August 8th, Manson decided to put his "Helter Skelter" plan into effect. Manson sent Watson, Atkins, Kasabian, and Krenwinkel to the residence of famed director Roman Polanski, and instructed them to kill everyone in the house. At the gate, they encountered Steven Parent, who had been visiting the groundskeeper, and shot him to death. Inside the house, they found Polanski's eight months pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and Folger's boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski. Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel bound the occupants and stabbed them to death. Kasabian fled in teror of the barbaric acts.

The next night, Watson, Atkins, Kasabian, Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Steve Grogan entered the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The house was chosen solely because the Family had attended a part next door the year before. After terrorizing the LaBiancas, the Family placed pillowcases over their heads and lamp cords around their necks, and stabbed them to death.

Manson and Family members Watson, Kasabian, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel were arrested in December 1969, after Atkins confessed the Family's involvement with the murders. Their trial began January 15, 1970 . Linda Kasabian was the prosecution's main witness, as she was present at the Tate murders but did not participate, and Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecutor. Bugliosi had an impressive record, winning all 21 murder cases he'd ever prosecuted, and only losing one of 106 felony cases.

The trial was bizarre and precedent-setting, and is still popular fodder for criminal justice schools today. Manson had the judge replaced, requested to represent himself but was denied, instead being appointed first Ronald Hughes and then Irving Kanarek. He had frequent outbursts in court and on the first day of the trial, he carved an X into his forehead. The Family copied him and then loitered out in the halls and sidewalks. Manson even attacked the judge. On November 16, Bugliosi rested and only Manson testified for the defense. After the defense rested, Hughes disappeared and his though his body was later recovered, the cause of death was undetermined.

On January 25, 1971 , guilty verdicts were returned for Manson, Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel. They were given the death penalty. Watson was convicted in October and given the same sentence.

When California overturned the death penalty in 1972, their sentences were converted to life without parole. All Family members are currently still in prison and have been denied parole numerous times. Watson has become a Christian, married and fathered four children while in prison. Krenwinkel has maintained a perfect record and received a Bachelor's degree. Atkins has brain cancer and is mostly paralyzed; her compassionate release was denied. Van Houten maintains she has been rehabilitated and has been actively seeking parole for years. Unfortunately, Manson remains a counterculture anti-hero.