The Day the Sixties Died
Dec. 2, 1999
Joan Didion wrote in "The White Album," her book on the era, that "many people I know in Los Angeles believed the '60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969."
Sketchy details began emerging that day from a gruesome murder scene in exclusive Benedict Canyon. The fenced estate had been the home at various times of Henry Fonda, Candice Bergen and, more recently, Roman Polanski, the hot young director of the previous year's film sensation, Rosemary's Baby.
A housekeeper arriving at work in the morning discovered the carnage: Four victims fiendishly sliced and slaughtered, two of them in the living room and two outside on the front lawn. A fifth victim had been shot in a car in the driveway. On the front door of the house, a single word was scrawled in blood: PIG. The blood belonged to 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate, Polanski's wife, who was eight months pregnant.
Tate had a recurring part as a comely bank secretary in the TV hit "The Beverly Hillbillies," had posed in Playboy and had gotten her movie break as a blond starlet in Valley of the Dolls. She and Polanski lived in Europe but she was staying at the Cielo Drive home with friends, awaiting the birth.
Tate's body was found sprawled beside a sofa, a rope looped around her neck. She had been stabbed 16 times in the chest and back. She was the last of the victims to be tortured and killed, as she pleaded for her baby. The unborn child, Paul Richard Polanski, was also dead.
Lying near Tate's body was that of Jay Sebring, her former boyfriend and a hairstylist to Hollywood stars. Outside on the lawn were the bodies of Abigail Folger, a volunteer social worker and heiress to the Folger's Coffee fortune, and her boyfriend, Voytek Frykowski, a friend of Polanski. The couple outside had been chased down and knifed dozens of times. Both men had also been shot. The victim in the car, Steven Parent, had been visiting an acquaintance in the estate's guest house when he was killed.
The gory details seized Los Angeles with fear. It was worst in the Hollywood colonies, where stars went into hiding. That night, the murder spree resumed across town in Los Feliz. Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were stabbed to death in their home; written in blood at the scene was the phrase "Helter Skealter," a misspelling of the Beatles song title.
The next Sunday, the L.A. Times ran follow-up stories on both murder scenes. On the same page, the paper reported -- in a small, seemingly unrelated story -- the arrest of members of a car theft ring at an old movie location ranch in the Chatsworth hills. Left unexplored was the odd detail that most of the two dozen suspects, many of them armed, were young women.
Not until months later did police connect the horrible murders to each other, and then to the Spahn Ranch women. Many were suburban girls-turned-hippies who went by nicknames such as Sexy Sadie and Squeaky and hung out with some interesting friends, among them Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
The women called themselves a family and called their leader Charlie. A lifelong thief and con man, Charles Manson was older, in his 30s. He was fresh out of Terminal Island prison when he acquired his first follower, Mary Brunner, in Berkeley. As more women joined him, they competed to sleep with him. Brunner had his child.
Manson was, among his other evils, a racist who preached that a coming race war would throw the world into disarray that he called "helter skelter." The car thefts were of Volkswagens that the family modified as desert dune buggies -- Manson intended to wait out the war deep in the Mojave. He had already tried to make the killing of a Topanga musician, Gary Hinman, look like the work of Black Panthers.
On the night of Aug. 8, he sent four followers -- Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and a newcomer, Linda Kasabian -- into the city to commit a crime he figured would be so heinous that whites would rise up against blacks. Manson waited back at the Spahn Ranch, but he knew the house on Cielo Drive. He had tried to interest a former resident, music producer Terry Melcher, in making his record, but Manson was spurned.
For the LaBianca killings the next night, Manson rode along and tied up the victims, then left Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten to finish the murders and hitchhike back to Spahn Ranch.
Manson was finally arrested in December in a remote desert valley, and convicted of first degree murder in a circus trial. When he shaved his head and carved an X in his forehead, so did the women co-defendants and other group members, including Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, later convicted of trying to shoot President Gerald Ford. One of the family's attorneys, Ron Hughes, vanished during the Manson trial and turned up dead.
Manson will turn 65 in prison on Nov. 12, his original death sentence commuted to life in prison in 1972. Parole is regularly rejected for him as well as for Watson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Atkins.
©Los Angeles Times 1999
Not for publication without permission