(Investigator 161, 2015 March)

In August 1969 eight people were stabbed, clubbed and shot in Los Angeles by young followers of Charles Manson. He was an ex convict who had started a religious cult and ordered his followers to commit murder.

Almost forty years later detectives planned a new search for grave sites at the cult’s former Death Valley base. Preliminary soil tests at remote Barker Ranch suggested the presence of human remains. (Ayres 2008)

Manson (b.1934) has lived half his life in Corcoran State Prison, California, with other high-profile murderers. He used to claim that The Beatles were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and that the band’s song Helter Skelter referred to a race war in the USA which he planned to start. He foretold that the Blacks would win the war but would need him to rule America afterwards.

To ignite his race war Manson decided to organize the killing of wealthy Whites. His supporters, known as “The Family” committed eight known murders at four locations. The most famous victims were Sharon Tate, 26-year-old actress and 8-month pregnant wife of film-maker Roman Polanski, stabbed 16 times, and Leno LaBianca a supermarket millionaire. Some sources that say nine murders apparently count Tate's unborn baby.

Manson and four followers were sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment when California abolished execution in 1972.

The Manson cult had several bases near Los Angeles. These included Spahn Ranch a former Hollywood set for television westerns such as Bonanza and The Lone Ranger; and Barker Ranch a desolate place in Death Valley.

Manson told his followers that a secret city lay underneath Barker Ranch where they would survive the apocalypse and subsequently come out to rule America.

In addition to the eight known murders it was surmised that additional murders of Family members, runaways and hitchhikers took place at Barker Ranch.

An expedition in April 2008 included technicians with instruments to detect chemical markers of human decomposition and “an anthropologist with magnetic resonance readers”.


Charles Manson was illiterate until his early twenties but was brought up with knowledge of the Bible. Fascinated by Revelation 9, he saw himself as Apollyon, the exterminating angel there mentioned. He believed that by committing the Tate/LaBianca celebrity murders he would initiate the death of one third of humankind and himself emerge as the leader of a new society.

Manson was born to 16-year-old runaway Kathleen Maddox. He never met his father and was deserted by his mother for years at a time and finally abandoned at age 12. Besides a nomadic life with his mother, Manson's other homes included his grandparents, a Home for Boys, reformatories, an aunt and uncle, and from age 21-24 in prison for car theft.

After that he became a pimp and took young girls across state borders, which landed him in two penitentiaries until 1967.

Free again, Manson found himself in a new world of flower power, liberation, and the catch-phrases "Tuning in, turning on, dropping out."

He later commented: "Pretty little girls were running around every place with no panties or bras and asking for love. Grass and hallucinatory drugs were being handed to you on the streets. It was a different world than I had ever been in and one that I believed was too good to be true. It was a convict’s dream and after being locked up for seven years, I didn’t run from it. I joined it…"


Manson slept in parks, let his hair grow long, smoked marijuana, played his guitar and became a regular on the hippie scene. He bought a minibus and traveled around with two newly-acquired girlfriends — the first members of his harem. By 1969 he had a following of naïve disciples, mainly girls, whom he referred to as his "Family", living a primitive commune life in various shacks.

Dr Derek Ellis (1982) says:
He worked on the girls by convincing them that an ideal world would come, and he would lead them to it. He provided sympathy for their problems, which he seemed to sense intuitively. He gradually indoctrinated them by intimate persuasion to overcome their sexual hang-ups and to enjoy uninhibited sex, not the least benefit to them being the funds they could earn for the family by hustling.

Murder Casebook (1990) says: "They were based at the old Spahn Movie Ranch near Chatsworth, often retreating to the more desolate and inaccessible Barker Ranch in Panamint Valley. They were a fluctuating population…around 30 or 35 followers, three quarters of them women and a few of them children."

Although Manson's "Family" consisted of young people a few older men were influenced:
George Spahn, the eighty-one year-old, nearly blind owner of the ranch which the family took over, was provided with nineteen year-old Squeaky Fromme, to act as his eyes, to look after him, and even to make love to him. Spahn was not so taken in by the family that he made over the ranch to this girl, and this may have saved his life. (Ellis 1982)

Manson’s charisma lay not in size — he was only 5' 2''. But he was persuasive with a charismatic personality, was good at lying and bluffing, and good with his knife — once attacking a 6' 5" cowboy:
The family recounted stories of him using a knife to kill and main others. He was strong and coordinated. In the court-room one day he made an enormous standing leap over a table towards the judge. (Ellis 1982)


Lynette [Squeaky] Fromme, a Manson follower but not one of the murderers, was convicted in 1975 of plotting to kill President Gerald Ford. She was released in 2009. This former child star in a dance group that performed on television was 17 and a runaway when she met Manson and turned to him. She carved an "X" into her forehead, which Manson required of followers as proof of loyalty, and became his second in charge. After his sentencing she and other followers demonstrated outside the prison.

In 1975 Fromme pointed a loaded pistol at the President but a Secret Service agent wrestled it away. Her motive was to get attention. She told a reporter in 1989: "But when people around you pay no attention to the things you say, you have to do something." (Jacobson & Deutsch 2009) Having spent over half her life in prison she’ll be supervised by the US Parole Commission for the rest of it.

Susan Atkins (1948-2009), one of the murderers of 1969, died in prison and several others remain behind bars. Atkins was a daughter of alcoholic parents and a member of her church choir. She met Manson at 19, believed he was Jesus, and contributed to two murders and stabbed Sharon Tate. She soaked a towel in Tate's blood and used it to scrawl "PIG" on the front door. In prison Atkins became a born-again Christian (1974), published her autobiography Child of Satan, Child of God (1977), and married twice. Denied parole 18 times Atkins became the longest incarcerated female inmate in California's penal system. She died from brain cancer — her hospital care cost the state $1½ million (after spending other $millions keeping her locked up).

Patricia Krenwinkel (b.1947) was denied parole in January 2011 despite apologizing and admitting that she "threw away everything good in herself and became a 'monster'." At the 1969 murders Krenwinkel killed one woman and assisted in two further killings. 

In 2014 the parole board in California recommended the release of Bruce Davis who had been in jail for 43 years but were overruled by Governor Jerry Brown. Davis was convicted of the 1969 killing of musician Gary Hinman and stuntman Donald Shea.


Sharon Tate was a rising film-star full of potential, yet is primarily remembered for being murdered in her Beverly Hills Mansion. Her sister, Debra (b. 1953), has set the record straight in a book Sharon Tate: Recollection (2014). Debra spoke at every Manson follower's parole hearing since 1998 to ensure they stayed locked up. She sees them as "psychopaths who have become criminal superstars". (Das 2014)

During Atkins' parole hearing in 2000 Debra, read a statement from her father which said in part, "Thirty one years ago I sat in a courtroom with a jury… I saw a young woman who giggled, snickered and shouted out insults… My family was ripped apart. If Susan Atkins is released to rejoin her family, where is the justice?" (Wikipedia)

Film director Roman Polanski (b. 1934), Tate's husband and father of her unborn child, was absent on the night of the murders. He gained notoriety for fleeing the USA in 1977 to avoid sentencing for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Swiss authorities disallowed his extradition and he remains free.


Manson was denied parole in 2007.

In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine (November, 2013) 79-year-old Manson talked of his bisexuality, his plans to marry a 25-year-old follower, and of his leadership of the jail's fifteen rapists and murderers. These included Phillip Garrido a Jehovah’s Witness who raped an 11-year-old and held her captive for 18 years, and Juan Corona who killed 25 male laborers in 1971.

Manson's fiancée, Afton Elaine Burton, whom he renamed "Star", is a lookalike to Susan Atkins. Star became a Manson follower at 19 and moved to live near the prison. She runs websites calling for his release and visits him Saturdays and Sundays. Deutsch & Smith (2014) reported that Manson and Star plan to marry: "It's going to happen. I Love him. I'm with him," she said.

The age difference is 54 years. But commentators observe that prison benefits Manson who "looks pretty damn good", "oozes charisma", and "Who would not marry this sexy man?" In February, 2015, however Manson cancelled the wedding after finding out Star wanted him for his corpse. His fiancée's idea of blissful marriage was to display a dead husband in a glass box to queues of people paying cash to gawk.

If Manson survives until 2027 when eligible again for parole he'll be 93.


Ayres, C. The Weekend Australian 2008, March 22-23, p. 13

Das, L. The night a cult of death came calling, Sunday Mail, June 8, 2014, p. 30

Deutsch, L. & Smith, S. Lover tells — how I'm marrying a mass murderer, The Advertiser, November 9, 2014, p. 9

Ellis, D. 1982 Subordinate Sex, Arlington Books, London, p. 113

Jacobson, S. and Deutsch, L. Squeaky will never be clean, Sunday Mail 2009, August 16, pp 39 & 80

Murder Casebook 1990, Volume 1, Part 3, The Sharon Tate Killings, A Marshall Cavendish Weekly Publication.

Nye, J. Killer crush: Why I want to marry Manson, The Advertiser, November 24, 2013, p. 26

Tate, D. 2014 Sharon Tate: Recollection, Running Press.