The Manson ‘family’: A look at key players and victims in the cult leader’s killings
Jul 11, 2023, 10:07 PM
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, left, and Wally Fong, right, via AP, File)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — In 1969, Charles Manson dispatched a group of disaffected young followers on a two-night killing rampage that terrorized Los Angeles. The killings remain etched in the American consciousness.
On Tuesday, Leslie Van Houten was released after spending more than 50 years in prison for two of those murders. She’s the only one of Manson’s followers who participated in the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders to go free.
Members of the Manson “family” arrived at the Hollywood Hills home of Sharon Tate on Aug. 8, 1969, where they stabbed, beat and shot to death the young actress and her friends — celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski. As they made their way to the house, they encountered a teenager, Steven Parent, who had been visiting an acquaintance at the estate’s guesthouse, and shot him to death.
The next night, Manson led a handful of followers, including Van Houten, to the home of wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. Manson tied up the couple and left the others to kill them.
Manson and his followers also killed two others — musician Gary Hinman and Hollywood stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea — in separate, unrelated attacks
In the decades since, some of Manson’s followers have died while others remain behind bars.
— Charles Manson was a petty criminal who had been in and out of jail since childhood when he reinvented himself in the late 1960s as a guru-philosopher. He targeted teenage runaways and other lost souls, particularly attractive young women he used and bartered to others for sex.
He sent them out to butcher LA’s rich and famous in what prosecutors said was a bid to trigger a race war — an idea they say he got from a twisted reading of the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.”
Decades after his conviction, Manson would continue to taunt prosecutors, parole agents and others, sometimes denying any role in the killings and other times boasting of them. He told a 2012 parole hearing: “I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man.”
He died in 2017 after spending nearly 50 years in prison. He was 83.
— Susan Atkins, convicted of the Tate, LaBianca and Hinman murders, was a teenage runaway working as a topless dancer in a San Francisco bar when she met Manson in 1967.
The Tate-LaBianca murders went unsolved for months until Atkins, who was in jail on unrelated charges, boasted to a cellmate about her involvement.
At trial, she testified she was “stoned on acid” and didn’t know how many times she stabbed Tate as the actress begged for her life. Atkins, who became a born-again Christian in prison and denounced Manson, tearfully recounted that confrontation during a parole hearing years later.
She died in prison of cancer in 2009. She was 61.
— Leslie Van Houten, a former high school cheerleader and homecoming princess, saw her life spiral out of control at 14 following her parents’ divorce.
She turned to drugs and became pregnant but said her mother forced her to abort the fetus and bury it in the family’s backyard.
Van Houten met Manson at an old movie ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he had established his so-called “family” of followers.
She didn’t take part in the Tate killings but accompanied Manson and others to the LaBianca home the next night. She has described holding down Rosemary LaBianca with a pillowcase over her head as others stabbed LaBianca dozens of times. Then, ordered by Manson follower Charles “Tex” Watson to “do something,” she said she picked up a knife and stabbed the woman more than a dozen times.
Van Houten, 71, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling while in prison and led several prison programs to help rehabilitate fellow inmates. She was repeatedly recommended for parole, but two governors — first Jerry Brown and then Gavin Newsom — blocked her release.
However, she was finally freed after Newsom announced last week that he wouldn’t pursue efforts to keep her behind bars.
— Patricia Krenwinkel was a 19-year-old secretary when she met Manson at a party. She left everything behind three days later to follow him, believing they had a budding romantic relationship.
After he became abusive and bartered her for sex, she said she twice tried to leave him but followers brought her back, kept a close watch on her and kept her high on drugs.
She testified at a 2016 parole hearing that she repeatedly stabbed Folger, then stabbed Leno LaBianca in the abdomen the following night and wrote “Helter Skelter,” ’’Rise” and “Death to Pigs” on the walls with his blood.
Krenwinkel, 75, remains in prison. Krenwinkel contends she is a changed person but was denied parole more than a dozen times. She was finally recommended for parole last year but Newsom reversed the decision.
— Charles “Tex” Watson was a college dropout from Texas when he arrived in California in 1967 seeking “satisfaction through drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,” as he explains on his website.
He recalled meeting Manson at the house of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson after seeing Wilson hitchhiking and giving him a ride home.
Watson, 77, led the killers to the Tate estate, shot to death Parent as he was attempting to leave and took part in the killings that night and the next at the LaBianca home.
He became a born-again Christian in prison and formed a prison ministry in 1980 that he continues to lead. Watson, who has authored or co-authored several books while in prison, maintains he has changed and is no longer a danger to anyone. He has repeatedly been denied parole.
— Sharon Tate, 26, was a model and rising film star after her breakout role in the 1966 film “Valley of the Dolls.” She was 8 1/2 months pregnant when she was attacked, and she pleaded with her killers to spare her unborn son.
Tate’s mother, Doris, became an advocate for victims’ rights in California and was instrumental in a 1982 law that allows family members to testify about their losses at trials and parole hearings.
Her younger sister, Debra, also dedicated her life to victims’ rights and testified at countless parole hearings for the killers, demanding they never be released.
Tate’s husband, director Roman Polanski, was out of the country the night of the killings and has said it took him years to recover from the grief of losing his wife and baby.
— Jay Sebring, a hairdresser to Hollywood’s stars, was Tate’s former boyfriend and also begged the killers to spare her unborn child. He was shot, kicked in the face and stabbed multiple times.
Sebring had transformed the male haircare industry after graduating from beauty school in Los Angeles, and his clients included Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He founded Sebring International in 1967 to market hair products and to franchise his salons internationally.
— Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger had dined with Tate and Sebring earlier that night.
The 32-year-old Frykowski was a friend of Polanski’s from Poland and an aspiring screenwriter. An autopsy found he was stabbed more than 50 times and shot twice.
His 25-year-old girlfriend was the heir to the Folger coffee fortune. She managed to escape the house but was tackled on the front lawn and stabbed 28 times.
— Steven Parent, a recent high school graduate planning to attend college in the fall, had dropped by a guest house on the property to visit the estate’s 19-year-old caretaker, a casual acquaintance named William Garretson. He was leaving the property when Watson confronted him at the front gate and shot him to death.
Garretson, who was briefly taken into custody, returned to his native Ohio soon after the killings. Except for his testimony during the murder trial, he rarely spoke publicly about that night. He died of cancer in 2016.
— Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who owned a chain of Los Angeles grocery stores, had no connection to Sharon Tate or her glamorous friends.
Their home was chosen at random by Manson, who tied them up and then, before leaving, ordered his followers to kill them. Among the weapons used was a chrome-plated bayonet.
— Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, 74, a Manson “family” member who was not implicated in the Tate-LaBianca murders, was sentenced to prison for pointing a handgun at President Gerald Ford in 1975. Since her release in 2009, she has lived quietly in upstate New York.
— Linda Kasabian, the trial’s key witness, was granted immunity from prosecution. She had accompanied the killers to the Tate house but was posted outside as a lookout. In that position she said she saw some of the killings.
The next night she remained in a car outside the LaBianca house as Manson tied up the victims, then left with him as the others stayed to kill them.
The 20-year-old moved in with the “family” a few weeks before the killings and fled immediately after. She turned herself in to authorities after the others were arrested. Kasabian later changed her name and lived out of sight for decades. She died on Jan. 21 in Tacoma, Washington. She was 73.
— Bruce Davis, 80, was convicted of taking part in the Hinman and Shea murders but was not involved in the Tate-LaBianca killings.
He testified at his 2014 parole hearing that he attacked Shea with a knife and held a gun on Hinman while Manson cut Hinman’s face with a sword. “I wanted to be Charlie’s favorite guy,” he said. Parole panels have repeatedly recommended his release, but governors have blocked it.
— Steve “Clem” Grogan, 71, once a ranch hand at the old movie ranch where Manson had located his followers, was sentenced to life in prison for taking part in Shea’s murder. In 1977 he told authorities where Shea’s body was buried.
Grogan was paroled in 1985 and moved to northern California.
John Rogers retired from The Associated Press in 2021.