Editor’s note: This weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Manson Family murders. Five years ago, reflected on the 40th anniversary, how the story of the murders ignited a lifelong interest in “true crime” and criminal psychology, and how my own experience changed my view of the events, the victims, and the killers. I am re-posting the two-part series I wrote on the 40th anniversary of the crimes.
Tell me, tell me, tell me the answer…
“Helter Skelter,” The Beatles
His name was Jason. I didn’t remember that right away, but I remembered him. As I closed the book on Dennis Rader and asked myself how people could sit right next to a murderer like him — or like any of the others whose deeds I’d been reading about — and not now it … I thought about Jason. I hadn’t for a long time.
He was, when I knew him, a fairly ordinary guy. I didn’t know him well, and we weren’t close friends. He was part of my social circle in college, for a while. Most of the time, I’d see him in the dining hall, where some of us who had a break in classes at the same time would gather for lunch. Or I’d see him when roughly the same group got together for dinner in the dining hall.
I don’t remember how he came to be a part of the group, which was randomly assembled. He may have been someone’s roommate. Perhaps he had a class with someone in the group, or attended the same high school, or came from the same hometown.
He was average height or maybe a little shorter, kinda skinny, brown hair, blue eyes. He had a nice smile, and a somewhat deep voice. I might even have briefly thought he was somewhat cute, before moving on to crush on some other guy.
Anyway, he was straight, so I likely dismissed the notion quickly. He dated one young woman in our group, for a while. They eventually broke up, but I don’t remember any drama about it. He still hung out with the group afterwards.
Most of all, I don’t remember anything that stood out about him. He wasn’t violent, as far as I remember. He was mild-mannered and quiet, but friendly. I don’t remember anything about him that suggested he would ever be likely to murder anyone.
Like I said, at first I couldn’t even remember his name. But I remembered him. More than that, I remembered his victim’s name.
It was after I’d halted my serial killer research, having had enough by the time I finished reading up on the BTK murders. As I thought about the case, I wondered how anyone could sit right next to someone like Dennis Rader and not know that he was a murderer, or that he was capable of murder? Then I thought back to my college days, and remembered that I’d known, at next to, and even ate lunch with someone who would later commit murder.
The details were fuzzy, mainly because it happened right around the time that I moved to DC. I remembered reading a news article about the story with my friends, and all being shocked that we knew the guy accused in this particular case. I recalled enough details to start looking for articles about the case, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across the victim’s name that I knew I was on the right track.
Her name was Claudette. The research skills I used for the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, came in particularly handy. A search that literally started with the terms “boyfriend,” “pregnant,” “girlfriend,” and “murder” — led me to her name, the details of the case, and ultimately to Jason’s name.
It was the kind of case that would be much bigger news now: young, Caucasian female college student goes missing. This was before Natalee Holloway, Lacie Peterson, or any of the other cases that became obsessions of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle, but it was big on local news around the time I was preparing to leave Athens, Georgia.
The facts of the case were as follows:
- They met at the pet shop where she worked. He worked for the same chain, and may have worked in the same store she did, or may have been a manager at a different store in the same chain.
- She was a student at Southern Tech.
- She was last seen on February 16, 1994, in the parking lot at her school.
- She was four months pregnant.
- The two were supposed to visit her parents on the 16th, to introduce him and to announce that they were getting married. He would later say that he didn’t make the trip because they had argued before she left.
- Two days later, her truck was found parked at Techwood Homes, in Atlanta.
- On March 27, 1994, her body surfaced in the Oconee River, in Clark County, GA.
- It was found by two canoeists.
- Her body had been weighted down with two anchors.
- He was arrested on April 11th, and charged with her murder, as well as feticide — which carried a mandatory life sentence in Georgia.
- GBI agents said at the time that evidence tied him to the murder and indicated the scene of the crime. That evidence included:
- One of the weights attached to her legs, which was traced to the construction site across the street from the pet shop where he worked.
- A swatch of carpet missing from his apartment.
- Detectives theorized that he strangled her at his apartment after they argued, and then proceeded to dispose of her body
- On August 24th, 1996, he pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Eventually, I found him in the Georgia Department of Corrections database. I stared at that page for a long time. I knew the face right away. He was older, and balding, but still recognizable. But what I was looking for, I didn’t find. There was noting about him — beyond the prison uniform and mugshot, that is — that said “killer,” “murderer,” or even “dangerous.” He looked like the same guy I sat with during lunch countless times in college. He looked like a guy I might sit next to on the subway today and not even notice.
I don’t know — and probably no one does except Jason and Claudette — what exactly happened that night, that ended with him murdering her. An argument? Perhaps she, being pregnant, wanted to get married and he did not?
Perhaps, but — again — also because there’s nothing spectacular about it. Both the motive and the murderer seem so ordinary, that it’s hard to connect the person you see in front of you now with the horrific crime.
Especially since that means perhaps accepting that the same potential sleeps behind every ordinary face you see, lying dormant until circumstances call it to the surface.
Jason’s crime — though devastating to Claudette’s family — isn’t in the same category as the Manson family crimes, if only because there was only one victim. (Two, if you count the fetus, as Georgia apparently did.) But as I thought about that case again, and started reading up on what was happening with the Manson family murderers, I thought of Jason’s story again, because forty years has made the people convicted of (at least) seven murders seem nearly as ordinary as their crimes were gruesome.
One of them is Leslie Van Houten, who was 19 at the time of her participation in the LaBianca murders, considered the least dedicated of Manson’s followers, the least culpable of those accused in either the Tate or Labianca murders, and thus the most likely (of the participants in the murders of August 9th and 10th) to ever be paroled.
Her Wikipedia entry gives some insight into her pre-Manson life.
Van Houten was born in Altadena, California to an automotive auctioneer and a schoolteacher. She grew up in a middle class household with an older brother, along with a younger brother and sister adopted from Korea. Van Houten attended Monrovia High School, where she was twice elected homecoming princess.
In 1963, her parents divorced, with her father moving out while the children stayed with their mother. Van Houten took the divorce very hard and later started experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and marijuana. At 15, she became pregnant and her mother arranged an abortion. She wanted to keep the child, but was forced to undergo the abortion. Van Houten was deeply angered, and the relationship with her mother became extremely difficult.
Van Houten graduated from high school in 1967. She moved in with her father and began attending business college, studying to become a legal secretary. She became very interested in spirituality and considered becoming a nun in the Self-Realization Fellowship spiritual community in Los Angeles.
In the summer of 1968, Van Houten met Catherine Share and Bobby Beausoleil in San Francisco. It was through them that she heard of Charles Manson and his community. She was told that Manson was “like Jesus Christ and that he had the answers.” When she met Manson, she was immediately captivated by him and the people associated with him. His way of life intrigued her, and she joined his group in September 1968, moving to the Spahn Ranch.
Most recently, film director John Waters has spoken up about his friendship with Van Houten, including a section about her in an upcoming book.
I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do. She was one of those notorious “Manson girls” who shaved their heads electric shaver reviews , carved X’s in their foreheads and laughed, joked, and sang their way through the courthouse straight to death row without the slightest trace of remorse forty years ago. Leslie is hardly a “Manson girl” today. Sixty years old, she looks back from prison on her involvement in the La Bianca murders (the night after the Tate massacre) in utter horror, shame, and guilt and takes full responsibility for her part in the crimes. I think it’s time to parole her.
…Will there ever be a “fair” answer to how Leslie should pay for these crimes? Can you ever recover from being called “a human mutant” or a “monster” by the government, especially when you know that they were right at one time in your life? How can you feel optimistic about your own rehabilitation when you see yourself reproduced as a bald-headed dummy with an X carved in your head in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum? How do you begin to deal with the pain of the victims’ relatives when the world has turned your former image into a Halloween costume?
With patience. God knows, Leslie Van Houten has patience. Patience to not find religious fanaticism that would forgive her instantly and take away her responsibilities for her actions. Patience to know and accept that she can’t take back the defiant and deluded things she was programmed to say at her first trial: “Sorry is only a five-letter word. It can’t bring back anything.” Or her rantings to the jury on hearing all the defendants, including herself, being sentenced to death, “You blind stupid people. Your own children will turn against you”. Or the terrible thoughts she admitted to prison psychologists at the time, about how she “felt kind of bad” she didn’t get to go the first night (when Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and four other victims were brutally murdered). Or how she was “hoping if we did it again, I would get to go”. Or worse. After “Tex” Watson stabbed both Leno and Rosemary La Bianca he told Leslie to “do something” and “feeling like a shark” or “a primitive animal, a wildcat who had just caught a deer” Leslie remembered, she stabbed Mrs. La Bianca sixteen times with a knife in the lower back.
Decades later, when a parole officer had reviewed eleven different favorable psychiatric reports, all concluding that Leslie was suitable for parole and no longer a danger to the community, he listened to her sadly try to explain her addled thought process at the time of the murders and her shame for “the girl I was at nineteen. The best way to show remorse is to be the best person I can be today”. He told her sympathetically but unforgivingly, “You’ve dug yourself quite a hole and it’s going to take a little time to get out of it”. It sure has.
Waters’ five-part piece paints an intriguing picture of the person Van Houten spent the decades after the murders becoming. And that person seems like surprisingly ordinary person — one who wouldn’t look remotely out of place on my own block. If I passed her in the grocery store, never having known who she was, I would probably see little more than another suburban mom doing her shopping.
While making the case for Van Houten’s parole, Waters also mentions another Manson family member who has been before the parole board many times — Patricia Krenwinkel, who was one of the participants in the Tate/LaBianca murders.
Krenwinkel was born in Los Angeles, California to an insurance salesman father and a homemaker mother. She attended University High School and then Westchester High School, both in the Los Angeles area. She was often bullied at school by other students, she suffered from low self-esteem and was frequently teased for being overweight and for an excessive growth of body hair caused by an endocrine condition.
After her parents divorced when she was 17, Krenwinkel remained in Los Angeles with her father until she graduated from Westchester High School. For a time she taught Catechism, a type of Roman Catholic religious instruction, and considered becoming a nun. She decided to attend the Jesuit college, Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama. Within one semester, however, she dropped out and moved back to California. Moving into her step-sister’s apartment in Manhattan Beach, she found an office job as a processing clerk.
She met Charles Manson on Manhattan Beach in 1967, along with Lynette Fromme and Mary Brunner, who were already known as “Charlie’s Girls”. In later interviews, Krenwinkel stated that she had slept with Manson the first night they met, and that he was the first person who had told her she was beautiful. Mesmerized by Manson’s charisma and starved for attention, she decided to go to San Francisco with him and the other two girls, leaving behind her apartment, car, and last paycheck.
But when it comes to parole, Water’s describes Krenwinkle as one who has given up hope of release.
Manson watched on camera his middle-aged despondent co-defendant Patricia Krenwinkel (who thought the first trial was a “play”) tell Diane Sawyer, “Every day I wake up and I know that I am a destroyer of the most precious thing there is — life.” His gentlemanly response? “She got old on me,” he snorted. What a reward for the hippy girl who stupidly gave up her life for him when she was nineteen years old. A girl convicted of seven murders for the man she believed was God, a woman so defeated now that she doesn’t even ask outside her friends or family to write letters of support to the Parole Board because she “doesn’t believe a date will be given.” What a tribute to the one time flower-child who is described now by Karlene Faith as “a good-hearted woman who suffers the anguished burden of interminable guilt.” How kind Manson is to his now horrified ex-follower who told a Parole Board in 1993, “it is very different to live with the fact that I could do something so horrible because that is not who I am, not what I believe in. On a day-to-day basis it is a terribly difficult thing to live with because I feel terrible. But no matter what I do, I can’t change it,” she sobbed. “I am paying for this as best as I can. There is nothing more I can do outside of being dead,” she cried as the board members watched her nervously, “and I know this is what you wish, but I can’t take my life. I’m sorry…” she mumbled looking down in complete defeat.
If she has given up on ever being released, Krenwinkel hasn’t entirely given up in prison.
Update: Atkins died without getting the compassionate release she sought.
Forty years later, I’m no longer an infant, and I’m as familiar with the Manson family murders as probably most people are. The initial fear inspired by reading Helter Skelter has subsided. Instead, I find myself wondering what happened, much as I found myself wondering what happened with Jason — the only person I’ve known, however casually, to have done murder.
I no longer think every bump in the night is the Manson gang coming to get me. I have a good deal of trouble imagining Van Houten or Krenwinkel, let alone Atkins, going on one last murder spree. They are no longer the crazed, LSD-fed “hippies” they once were. They seem utterly ordinary, or would if you knew nothing about their pasts
But, like Jason, they were rather ordinary before. And that didn’t make them any less capable of murder or any less susceptible to another’s murderous designs.
I don’t have an answer on whether any of them should be released. Were I a friend of any one of them, as Water’s is, I might feel release is finally the right thing to do. But were I a victim’s family member, I’m certain I would be absolutely against release.
The only thing I know for sure is that, forty years later, the crimes committed by the Manson family are as horrifying and sickening as they ever were. But what’s more frightening now is the striking ordinariness of the “family” members Manson recruited and pushed to commit murder, before and after their crimes.
It’s the one trait we all share, and it can give way to things inside of us that seem unfathomable on an ordinary day. That’s what’s truly frightening.