Manson Murders: 40 Years Ago

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 5:43 PM EDT
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Sharon Tate was two weeks away from becoming a mother when she was stabbed 16 times by a member of Charles Manson's group. Tate was found dead along with four others at her home in Los Angeles. She was 26.

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It was 40 years ago Sunday that America's worst fears of the hippie generation crystallized when Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered by Charlie Manson's "family" in her rented Benedict Canyon home.

On Aug. 9, 1969, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent and Tate -- who was 26 years old, eight months pregnant and married to film director Roman Polanski -- were slain "to instill fear into the establishment," one of the killers, Susan Atkins, later told a grand jury.

A day later, Manson's followers struck again -- slashing to death grocery store chain owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their Los Feliz-area home.

The murderers left bloody messages at both crime scenes, including the title of a Beatles song, "Helter Skelter," in what authorities believe was an effort to start a race war.

Following a nine-month trial in 1970-71, jurors convicted Manson, Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel -- and Charles "Tex" Watson in a separate trial -- of first-degree murder and recommended they die for their crimes. In 1972, however, the California Supreme Court invalidated the then-existing statute for capital punishment, and their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Manson's brief reign of terror is four decades ago, but it continues to have a hold on America's psyche.

Sandi Gibbons covered their trial for City News Service. Today, she is a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case.

What Charlie Manson meant to America was "the death of the hippie movement," Gibbons told CNS.

The Manson family was "the dark side of the peace, love and brotherhood movement," she said. "These were still the '60s, with flower children, love-ins ... peace-loving druggies ... but Manson was another side altogether. This was murder. This was killing people."

She said that from the moment Manson's family was uncovered at their commune in Death Valley a couple months after the murders, "people looked at hippies in a different light."

She added that the commune movement also "started shrinking."

But Gibbons said she never considered Manson a hippie. Rather, she said, he was simply a "con man."

She said he knew "how to get people to do his bidding through drugs, spouting a bunch of philosophy to a bunch of drugged-out kids, promising them a home -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The main thing was that Charlie was never a hippie."

She noted he had been institutionalized for most of his life since he was a child and that he discovered the hippies in the late '60s after he got out of prison in Washington state and "wandered down the coast to the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco."

She said he played the guitar and gathered a small following, and that "his visions didn't turn dark until he got rejected in Los Angeles on the music front."

"The bottom line is that Charlie was a con man, and he's still conning people," she said. "I was raised in the South, and Charlie to me was a redneck Southerner who did not like women -- they were something to use, and he used them well."

Manson has repeatedly been turned down for parole, as have the so-called Manson women, even when one of them became terminally ill with brain cancer.

When asked for her personal opinion on whether the women should be paroled after 40 years, Gibbons said that as a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's office she couldn't discuss that.

"So far, this office has opposed parole," she said.

Gibbons noted the Manson women were in their mid 20s when they committed their crimes, and that she wasn't much older at the time.

"I could easily have been them -- but I wasn't," she said.

She said she sat behind Manson during some of the trial, and did not consider him to be charismatic in the least.

"He was like 5 feet 2 inches, a little redneck Southerner. I did not find him charismatic, or fascinating or interesting. He was a little creep."

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