This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.
January 25, 1971. Cult leader Charles Manson is found guilty of a series of notorious murders.
This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.
It’s August 10th, 1969. Around 1 AM in Los Feliz, a neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Rosemary LaBianca sits in the passenger seat of her husband’s car listening to the radio to pass the time.
Driving the car, her husband Leno rolls down the window to let in some air. They’re both keen to be home after a three-hour drive from Lake Isabella. Their vacation was relaxing, but the journey home is slow due to the speedboat they’re towing behind them. Bored with the travel and music, Rosemary flips through the channels.
She stops on a local news station. As she listens to the anchor’s report, her eyes go wide with fear: late last night, the anchor says, the famous Hollywood actress Sharon Tate was the entertaining company when unnamed perpetrators broke into her home and murdered Sharon and her guests. Before leaving, they scrawled a cryptic message on the front door; “pig”, and more messages on the walls inside. Rosemary is devastated when the anchor explains that Sharon was eight months pregnant.
Horrified, Rosemary switches off the radio. When she looks at her husband, he is equally troubled. Despite living in the greater Hollywood area, the LaBianca’s are not movie people. He’s the President of a chain of LA supermarkets and she co-owns a successful dress shop. But everyone knows Sharon Tate, the beautiful blonde from Valley of the Dolls, and the wife of film director Roman Polanski. Rosemary wonders why anyone would want to kill Sharon. She shudders at the realization that Beverly Hills is less than ten miles away from where she and her husband live.
Rosemary reminds Leno that a few weeks earlier she suspected that someone had broken into their home while they were away. Things were tampered with, she reminds him, and someone let the dogs outside. At the time, Leno dismissed her concerns.
But tonight, as he pulls the car into their long driveway, he realizes he should have taken her more seriously. Leno parks and turns off the ignition. He takes his wife by the hand and assures her that everything will be alright. Then the couple gets out of the car and heads inside to get some sleep.
Roughly 21 hours later, at 9:30 PM on August 10th, the LaBianci’s son finds his parents’ mutilated bodies inside their home. Just like with the Tate murders, Rosemary and Leno were stabbed repeatedly. Strange messages were written in blood on the walls and kitchen appliances, including the phrases “HELTER SKELTER” and “DEATH TO PIGS.”
The Tate-LaBianca murders, as they are known, send shockwaves across America. Detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department will launch a thorough investigation that will lead them to a group of young killers who acted under the direction of one deranged individual. Cult leader Charles Manson will eventually stand trial; and be called to account for his horrific crimes on January 25th, 1971.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 25th: Charles Manson is Convicted of Murder.
It’s late August 1969 at LAPD headquarters. Fifteen months before Charles Manson is found guilty.
Sharon Tate’s husband, 36-year-old film director Roman Polanski, takes a polygraph test. Devastated from the sudden, violent loss of both his wife and unborn child, Roman is eager to help the police catch their killers. The police lieutenant interviewing him has already asked if he thinks Sharon was specifically targeted. Roman dismisses the idea. He can’t imagine why anyone would want to harm a woman he describes as “an angel.”
When the crime took place, Roman was in England prepping a movie. But as soon as he was notified, he flew right back. He knew most of the victims that died alongside Sharon; they were his friends and guests in his home.
When the police ask Roman who he thinks is responsible for the murders, he says he doesn’t know for sure; all he knows is that whoever did must be “a maniac.”
In the days and weeks after the murders, detectives search for the Tate-LaBianca killers, but the trail runs cold; until the police get lucky with a surprise confession.
It’s fall of 1969 at the Sybil Brand institute, a women’s jail in Los Angeles.
Sitting across from each other in a common area are Virginia Graham, a former call girl and career criminal, and a newcomer to the jail: Susan Atkins.
Susan arrived just days ago, but already, she’s earned a reputation with her fellow inmates for being peculiar. She often acts like a child, singing nursery rhymes and dancing at inappropriate times. She also insists on being called Sadie Mae Glutz, or “Sexy Sadie” after the Beatles song from the “White Album”. Most of the inmates make fun of Susan. But Virginia feels sorry for her.
In an effort to make small talk, Virginia asks Susan what she’s “in for”. Without hesitation, Susan replies “first-degree murder.” Virginia is surprised. Susan doesn’t strike her as a killer. Virginia doesn’t press for details. But Susan is eager to talk.
As time goes on, Susan tells Virginia that she was arrested for the murder of a man named Gary Hinman; and that she killed Gary at the behest of another man. Susan calls him “Charlie.”
Susan is a member of a cult led by a little-known criminal named Charles Manson. “The Manson Family”, as the group will come to be known, is made up of over a dozen individuals, mainly young girls, who live at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a former film set that they converted into a commune.
Susan tells Virginia all about her crimes and life on the commune. Virginia thinks Susan has a big mouth. She tells her, “if you did what you [say you did]... you sure talk about it an awful lot. If you want to take a piece of advice from somebody that's a little older than you. I wouldn't talk as much as you do.” Virginia warns Susan that running her mouth will only get her in trouble.
But Susan isn’t worried. She tells Virginia that “there is so much [the police] don’t know.” At this, Virginia perks up and asks what she means. Susan tells her, “Well, you know, there's a case right now… they are so far off the track they don't even know what's happening." Virginia asks which case, and Susan tells her it’s the “one on Benedict Canyon."
Virginia’s eyes go wide. She knows all about the Benedict Canyon murders that happened a couple months back. Incredulously she asks, “you don’t mean Sharon Tate?”
Excitement flashes in Susan’s eyes as she answers, “yes.”
Susan tells Virginia that she was present at both the Tate and LaBianca murders. She says she and her cohorts “wanted to do a crime that would shock the world.”
Astonished, Virginia asks if Susan knows who killed Sharon Tate. Susan replies with a sick smile: “you’re looking at her.”
When Virginia asks why they killed Sharon Tate of all people, Susan replies that they didn’t know who they’d killed until they heard the next day. Susan says Charlie picked the house because it used to belong to a record producer named Terry Melcher. Charlie hated Terry. Susan said they knew Terry no longer lived there but they didn’t care. It didn’t matter who was inside. Nor did it matter the next night when they murdered the LaBianca’s.
Sick to her stomach, Virginia asks why again. Susan tries to explain with another Beatles reference, saying, “this was… the beginning of Helter Skelter.”
Virginia doesn’t understand. She has no idea what Helter Skelter might mean. But she is certain that Susan is a dangerous woman who is part of a murderous cult whose members will likely kill again. Throughout her life, Virginia has associated with criminals and never once ratted anyone out. But after her disturbing conversations with Susan, Virginia decides to start. She goes to the authorities, and her decision to come forward will help lead to the arrests of Susan Atkins and other members of the “family”, including Charles Manson himself.
It’s December 1969 in Los Angeles, California and a Grand Jury has convened to consider criminal charges against Charles Manson and three other female members of the so-called “Manson Family”.
Vincent Bugliosi, an ambitious 35-year-old prosecutor, is about to question “family member” Susan Atkins. Susan has become a “cooperating witness” for the prosecution. In exchange for her testimony today, the state of California has agreed not to pursue the death penalty against her. But the state has not given Susan full immunity.
At the start of the proceedings, Bugliosi asks her, “Are you still willing to testify knowing that you are not being given immunity and… that you may incriminate yourself…?” Susan replies, “I understand this… my life doesn’t mean that much to me.”
At Bugliosi’s behest, she then goes on to tell the jury how she met “Charlie” in San Francisco and fell in love with him at first sight; she tells them how he gave her the nickname Sadie Mae Glutz and how she came to join his family. Eventually, Bugliosi asks her about the Tate-LaBianca murders.
With no remorse, Susan details how Charlie gave orders to her and several members of the “family”, including two other girls named Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian, as well as a young man named Tex Watson. Susan explains to the jury that Charlie's orders were to go to the Tate residence and kill everyone inside.
According to Susan’s testimony, she held Sharon Tate down while Tex Watson did the killing. Susan’s vivid description of both the Tate and LaBianca murders is so sickening that some jurors ask to be excused from the courtroom.
Not long after her Grand Jury appearance, Susan recants her testimony and stops cooperating with the prosecution, putting her plea deal in jeopardy. But her decision does little to take away from her contribution to the prosecution's case.
In large part because of Susan’s testimony, the Grand Jury finds that the state of California has probable cause to bring charges against Charles Manson and several members of his “family”. Together, Manson, Susan Atkins, and others are indicted on seven counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The joint murder trial of Charles Manson and his co-defendants is set to begin in the summer of 1970 at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice.
On the first day of testimony, Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi steps past an army of news reporters on his way into the courtroom. He notices members of Charles Manson’s cult camped outside the building; they’re mainly young girls in their teens or early twenties sitting cross-legged on the ground, holding hands and singing children's songs. As Bugliosi heads for the main entrance to the building, he shakes his head in disbelief. But this spectacle out front is nothing compared to the one waiting for him inside.
There, Bugliosi watches with amazement as Charles Manson enters the course room with his defense attorney. The audience of observers gasp when they see what he has done to himself. Using some sharp object, Manson has carved an “X” into his own forehead to symbolize that he’s been “x’ed out” of the world.
As Manson takes the seat, Bugliosi is appalled by the scruffy, volatile criminal who orchestrated so much violence. Even before the murders, Manson had spent over half of his 35 years behind bars for crimes including armed robbery, car theft, pimping, and forgery. Now, Manson is on trial for murder, and his plea is not guilty. His defense rests on the fact that he wasn’t actually present at either the Tate or LaBianca killings.
But Bugliosi hopes to convince the jury that Manson is anything but innocent; that he commanded his followers to commit these terrible acts. They would not have done it without his influence. To secure a conviction, Bugliosi feels he must present the jury with a plausible motive.
In preparation for the trial, Bugliosi interviewed numerous people from the Spahn Ranch commune in order to build a strong picture of the culture Manson created there and to better understand what his motive might be. Manson encouraged heavy drug use and regular orgies, but he behaved like a charismatic preacher, often inferring to his “family” that he was “Jesus Christ returned”.
Bugliosi also learned that Manson was obsessed with the Beatles, in particular, the songs “Piggies” and “Helter Skelter”. Manson listened to these songs repeatedly and interpreted the lyrics as it suited him. In the course of his preparation, Bugliosi also discovered that one of these interpretations explained Charles Manson’s central motive.
Manson frequently told his followers that “Helter Skelter” was a coming apocalyptic race war which he was destined to lead. Manson planned to blame the murders he orchestrated on the Black Panthers, a political movement created to challenge police brutality against Black Americans. Manson believed that if white America believed the Black Panthers were responsible for the murders of affluent whites, a race war would surely ensue. Meanwhile, Manson and his “family” would hide in a secret, magical underground city. There, they would morph into fantastical creatures; and when they finally emerged in their new form, Charles Manson would take over the world.
Bugliosi knows the motive sounds insane, but he is confident that he has plenty of evidence to establish that Manson believed his deranged ploy would work, that Manson convinced his followers to carry out murders in order to set the plan in motion.
But then, the day after Charles Manson makes his dramatic entrance, another spectacle in the courtroom takes Bugliosi by surprise. Susan Atkins and the other female co-defendants enter the courtroom with own foreheads carved with an X. This troubling act of solidarity inadvertently strengthens Bugliosi's case and helps him show the jury the powerful influence Manson exerts over his “family”.
But there is one former “family member” who Manson no longer controls: Linda Kasabian. Linda was present for both the Tate and the LaBianca murders but she didn’t take an active part. Now, she has turned against the “family” by becoming Bugliosi’s star witness. Linda’s testimony will help Bugliosi make his case, and put Manson behind bars for the rest of his life.
It’s July 27th, 1970 at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice; six months before Charles Manson is found guilty.
Linda Kasabian sits in the witness box giving testimony. From the dock, Charles Manson’s co-defendants glare hatefully at her for speaking out against the “family.”
In answer to the prosecutor’s questions, Linda describes how she came to live at Spahn Ranch and what happened on the night of the murders. She testifies that on August 8th, Manson ordered Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and herself to go to the Tate residence with his second-in-command, Tex Watson. Linda tells the jury that Manson instructed them to do whatever Tex said.
Linda says that after she arrived, she waited by the car while Tex and the other girls broke in and killed everyone inside. Linda then explains that the next night, Manson ordered them to drive to another house, go inside and kill the occupants there too; When the defense asks Linda whether she was under the influence of drugs on either of these nights, Linda replies, “I was under the influence of Charlie.”
Linda’s statements prove crucial in convincing the jury that Manson was the mastermind behind the horrendous slaughters that took place in August of 1969. Unlike Susan Atkins, Linda demonstrates visible remorse for her involvement; she strikes the jury as a docile, suggestible girl who was clearly manipulated.
Months later, on January 25th, 1971, Manson, Atkins, and the other female co-defendants are found guilty of first-degree murder. All of them will be sentenced to death. Tex Watson will be tried separately at a later date but found guilty. But, in the end, none of the family members will be executed.
In 1972, the California Supreme Court rules capital punishment cruel, and unusual, and barred against the state's constitution. As a result, Charles Manson and his family’s sentences are reduced to life in prison. Charles Manson will spend the remainder of his days behind bars. And after four decades in prison, he will die at the age of 83.
Despite his murderous legacy, Manson’s evil does not stop Sharon Tate’s family from fighting for justice.
Over a decade after the murders, Manson’s right-hand man, Tex Watson, comes up for parole. Sharon’s mother Doris Tate appears at his hearing and delivers what is considered the first “victim impact statement” in the state of California. She asks Watson, "What mercy, sir, did you show my daughter when she was begging for her life?”
Over the years, Doris and other members of the Tate family fight for what eventually becomes the Victims' Bill of Rights in California. Today, in part because of the efforts of the Tate family, all 50 states in America have passed laws allowing victims to speak out during trials and parole hearings. The victims rights movement will spread around the world and influence many other nations to introduce similar laws.
Sharon Tate’s life and the life of others including her unborn child ended tragically. But justice for her and her family began when Charles Manson is found guilty on January 25th, 1971.
Next on History Daily. January 26th, 1939. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces conquer the city of Barcelona.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.