Google any crime list with qualifiers like “horrific”, “gruesome” or “terrifying” and the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969 probably make the top ten. Almost fifty years later they remain one of the darkest examples of malevolence and cruelty the American public has seen. In the book Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry offers a dense, fact-heavy account of the murders, arrests and trials for the crimes that brought the decade of free love and optimism to a bloody end.
Helter Skelter, published in 1974, fulfills the Book Originally Published the Year You Were Born challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). The murders happened a little over five years before I was born. As such, I didn’t learn of Manson and his mayhem until decades later. By then there was a glamourous infamy that reduced the victims to footnotes and made Manson a star.
Bugliosi recounts his struggle to build a case against Manson and his followers amidst some surprising setbacks—sometimes coming from his own side. Despite the similarities, detectives reject the idea that the cases are connected and treat them separately, refusing to share information. Lost evidence and unfollowed leads plague the investigation. Bugliosi, through his own interviews and investigations (literally searching for evidence himself) builds the case enough to present to a jury.
As expected with a high profile case this disturbing there’s a lot of information to disseminate and Buglioso does his best to make it accessible. The prose gets mired in details to the point of confusion. Evidence and possible evidence (a pair of unclaimed glasses confounds the investigators), dates, times, locations, alibis, lies, people and their relationship to each other blend together in a hazy mass of data. The book has 50 pages of black and white photos, many of Manson but also of the victims and the Family, as well as maps and other miscellaneous images. I found myself flipping back and forth to help me keep track of who was who.
The reading becomes sludgy during the guilt trial and worse during sentencing, though it has more to do with the complexity of the case rather than Bugliosi’s straightforward writing. The four defendants—Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten—and obstructionist attorney Irving Kanarek cause so much chaos and disruption it’s hard to stay focused. This continues through the sentencing phase when some of Manson’s followers, now allowed to testify, add alternate motives and theories to the already closed case.
He truly gives readers a seat at the prosecution’s table as he takes us through the tedious seven-month long trail. He explains why certain evidence was introduced while other evidence wasn’t, why certain witnesses were called while others weren’t (he subpoenaed many of the Family members simply to keep them out of the courtroom during the trial). He relives his doubts about the strength of the case and fears for a world where Manson walks free.
The Family’s self-righteous certainty that the murders were justified chills even the most jaded, demonstrated by the obsessive need to “understand” Manson, his followers and their reasoning. The motive doesn’t matter. The end result is that nine people died because Manson said so.
Thoughts that linger:
Sharon Tate’s unborn baby, posthumously named Paul, would be fifty years old in 2019.
Everyone was so young. The victims and the murderers.
The known victims of Manson and his followers are:
- Abigail Folger
- Donald “Shorty” Shea
- Gary Hinman
- Jay Sebring
- Leno LaBianca
- Rosemary LaBianca
- Sharon Tate
- Steven Parent
- Voytek Frykowski
Bernard Crowe, the only person Manson shot himself, actually survived.
Many believe Manson ordered the murders to start a race war, with the assumption that blacks would be blamed, and whites would retaliate. In truth, the Tate-LaBianca murders were meant to be a blueprint with the hopes that blacks would commit copy-cat murders.