There was no method to Los Angeles’ sinister summer. It was all madness.
Of all the terrifying details of the spree murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others on Aug. 9 and Aug. 10, 1969, at the hands -- and knives -- of Charles Manson and his followers, there is none more unnerving than this: the randomness.
Conspiracy theorists may spin tales of CIA involvement, and the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may put a dramatic sheen on the bloody saga, but the historical record -- the police and forensics investigations, the courtroom testimony, the accounts of the people who crossed paths with the principles -- tells a plain, and plainly disturbing tale of chance.
The worst could’ve happened to anyone within driving distance of the northern outskirts of Los Angeles, where Manson and his so-called family had set up a squalid encampment; it happened to them: Steven Parent, a teen-aged, part-time stereo-shop employee from L.A.’s suburban San Gabriel Valley; Leno LaBianca, a middle-aged owner of a Southern California grocery-store chain; Abigail Folger, the daughter of the chairman of Folgers Coffee, and a volunteer social worker; Rosemary LaBianca, a dress-shop proprietor and Leno’s wife; Jay Sebring, a celebrity hairstylist who gave iconic shape to Jim Morrison’s curls and waves; Voytek Frykowski, Folger’s companion and the childhood friend of fellow Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, and, Sharon Tate, the 26-year-old Hollywood star and eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife of Polanski.
Each was murdered in brutal, up-close-and-personal fashion by people who didn’t know them, on the orders and the whim of a man who didn’t know them, either.
“The circumstances were so bizarre as to constitute irrefutable proof that God is a deranged practical joker,” the author and Star Trek writer David Gerrold, a friend of Parent’s, once mused in print.
What follows is the story of the improbable people, unlikely connections and terrible twists that led up to Tate-LaBianca murders. What follows is a maddening story of madness.
Charles Manson has a request: The 32-year-old inmate at Terminal Island federal prison would like to stay. The convicted forger, near-lifelong criminal, “virulent racist” (as a future biographer will describe him) and admitted rapist has become, he will say, “very happy and content” inside the institution. He practices guitar, writes songs, rubs elbows with show-business types who end up behind bars, and basically feels “accepted, even appreciated, as an individual.” Prison officials deny Manson’s plea; like it or not, he’s paroled. He’s free.
Sharon Tate is an Army brat and certified beauty queen from Dallas. Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor from Poland’s World War II-era Krakow ghetto. Against all odds, if not logistics, in January 1968, in London, they become husband and wife.
The movies bring them together: They meet on Polanski’s horror comedy, The Fearless Vampire Killers. It turns out to be a lucky break for both. At the time of their wedding, they are stars in ascendance: She’s fresh from the glossy 1967 big-screen soap, Valley of the Dolls; he’s about to break through to American audiences via the then-upcoming adaptation of the best-selling occult thriller, Rosemary’s Baby.
Their union is toasted at a reception at the Playboy Club. Attendees include Warren Beatty, Michael Caine, Joan Collins -- and Candice Bergen, the actress and live-in girlfriend of Byrds producer Terry Melcher.
Bergen and Melcher (pictured, above) are the offspring, respectively, of the Hollywood stars Edgar Bergen and Doris Day -- a golden couple in their own right. Back home in Los Angeles, they’re at the center of a social circle they help to keep rolling by hosting parties for friends, including Tate and Polanski, at their home, a rented French country-style estate in Benedict Canyon. At 10050 Cielo Drive.
As Rolling Stone will relate it, Harold True had ambitions of joining the Peace Corp. But the Southern California young man instead opts for college. During the week, he studies. On the weekend, he likes to party. One day, in March 1968, True crosses paths with a band of hippies who live itinerantly in the Malibu-bordering, artist enclave of Topanga Canyon. True’s in luck: These people like to party, too. At some point, True must mention where he lives, because the hippies -- or, slippies, as Charles Manson prefers -- show up at his door the next day. True lives with a few buddies in a rental house near L.A.’s Griffith Park, in a neighborhood known as Los Feliz, on a street called Waverly Drive.
Not far from Topanga Canyon, maybe about 15 miles west, Dennis Wilson is tooling around in his Rolls Royce. The 23-year-old could’ve hopped in the Mercedes or Ferrari (he’s got one of each), but the Rolls it is. He’s obviously rich, and, as a member of the Beach Boys, abundantly famous. He spies a couple of hip, hippie female hitchhikers. He likes -- and recognizes -- what he sees.
The hitchhikers are the same alluring pair Wilson had encountered a month earlier up in the mountains. On that day, they’d been thumbing for a ride, and Wilson had given them one, and he gives them one on this day, too. According to Steven Gaines’ Heroes & Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, Wilson has sex with the two women at his 14400 W. Sunset Blvd. home in L.A.’s ocean-adjacent Pacific Palisades.
When Wilson returns home that night following a stint in the recording studio, he finds that the hitchhikers, known to him as Yellerstone and Marnie Reeves, are back. Not only that, they’ve brought others, including a diminutive man in fringed buckskin -- their guru, they say. The encounter is a surprise, though not entirely a shock. Earlier, Wilson and the women, in between having their fun, had talked spirituality. Wilson told them about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian-born, rock’n’roll spiritual leader and father of transcendental meditation, a movement that would be immortalized in a same-titled track from the suddenly psychedelic Beach Boys on their not-yet released 1968 album, Friends.
At the time, the Maharishi and the band, its members rocked by the nervous breakdown of its creative leader, Brian Wilson, Dennis’ revered older brother, are so enmeshed that they will hit the road together that summer.
“I told them about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie,” Wilson says in an interview that will appear in the U.K. music weekly, Record Mirror.
Now Charlie’s right there, in the flesh, before Wilson. Charlie drops to the ground, and kisses the Beach Boys drummer’s sneakers.
“I’m a friend,” Charlie assures Wilson, per the Gaines book.
Proving his good intentions to Wilson, per accounts, Charlie offers drugs and a cadre of free-love-practicing women, including Yellerstone and Marnie.
Yellerstone’s given name is Ella Jo Bailey. She’ll become a law-enforcement witness.
Marnie’s given name is Patricia Krenwinkel. She’ll become a killer.
Charlie is Charles Manson. You know what he’ll become.
But that’s later. This is now: Wilson is rich, famous and looking for something, for someone. He allows Manson, the “girls” and assorted hangers-on to move into his home. They become a family.
On Nov. 22, 1968, the Beatles issue their latest: a self-titled, 30-track release that’s as eclectic and busy as its all-white cover is sparse. Cuts on the White Album, as the collection will popularly be known, include “Piggies,” “Revolution” and “Helter Skelter.”
Manson is a fan.
In December 1968, Wilson’s remarkable interview with journalist David Griffiths -- featuring perhaps the first printed mentions, outside of the police record, of Manson -- is published in the Record Mirror. The headline, “Dennis Wilson: I Live With 17 Girls,” however, is already outdated. Perhaps burned by the scorching failure of the Beach Boys’ concert tour with the Maharishi -- empty arenas, hecklers, canceled dates -- or feeling tapped out by the Manson gang, whom he’d collectively sunk as much as $100,000 into for food, clothes, doctor’s bills, recording sessions, car repairs and more in a single summer, Wilson is done with the guru scene.
But rather than ask Manson and his followers to move out of 14400 W. Sunset Blvd, Wilson in late summer moves himself out, to an apartment elsewhere in the Palisades. The Manson Family, as the group will be known to the world in about a year’s time, remains at Wilson’s old house, until, that is, the lease expires and they’re evicted. They’ll remain in Los Angeles, but barely, about 25 miles north, as squatters at Spahn Ranch, a 500-acre property in Chatsworth frequently used as a desolate-looking location for Hollywood Westerns.
By all accounts, Manson takes the relocation in stride -- easy come, easy go. Then on Dec. 3, the Beach Boys issue the first single, “Bluebirds over the Mountain,” from their new album, 20/20. The song’s flip side, or companion cut, is “Never Learn Not to Love.” The song is credited to Dennis Wilson, but it’s really a reworking of a Manson piece, “Cease to Exist.”
Manson is not a fan.
It’s February 1969. 10050 Cielo Drive has new tenants: With Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen having relocated to Malibu about a month earlier, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski sign a rental agreement for the house on Feb. 12, and move in three days later, according to Helter Skelter, the landmark account of the Manson Family investigation by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. The couple will pay $1,200 a month for what Tate calls her and Polanski’s “love house.”
Games people play
On the April 16, 1969, broadcast of The Mike Douglas Show, a daytime-variety series, the musical guest the Beach Boys performs “Never Learn Not to Love.” Dennis Wilson takes the spotlight on lead vocals. Spahn Ranch doesn’t have heat, so maybe it doesn’t have antenna-TV, either. We don’t know if Manson sees Wilson, with whom he’d stayed in contact, post-eviction, perform his song before millions. We do know from a later Manson interview that he’ll leave a bullet on Wilson’s bed -- a sign of his displeasure for Wilson having changed, or “remodelled,” as Beach Boys singer Mike Love will put it, his song.
But according to a Rolling Stone account of the Manson-Wilson rift, Manson keeps himself in check because he’s got his eye on the prize: Terry Melcher, the A-list music producer.
Manson has come into Melcher’s orbit through Wilson, and he wants the producer to produce him.
Leaving on a jet plane
In spring 1969, Tate and Polanski are expecting their first child. Looking to squeeze in work before her pregnancy shows, Tate prepares to fly to Rome, where she’ll film a new movie, Twelve Plus One. The production will also be shot in London, where Polanski is working on a script.
On March 23, as recounted in Helter Skelter, while Tate packs in the main house at Cielo Drive, a man knocks on the door of the guest house. Rudi Altobelli, the Hollywood talent manager who owns the estate, and stays in the guest house when he’s in town, answers the door.
As recounted in Helter Skelter, Altobelli is familiar with Manson -- he’s seen him at Dennis Wilson’s, playing music.
Altobelli greets Charlie, as he calls him, and asks why he’s at his door, instead of the main house. Manson tells him the “people” there -- Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, Altobelli will relate -- sent him to the guest house. In any case, the important thing, the reason Manson’s there this time: He’s looking for Terry Melcher. (On trial for murder in 1970, Manson will testify he’d been at, though not inside, the Cielo Drive home a total of “five or six” times. He apparently doesn’t elaborate as to why.)
Altobelli tells Manson that Melcher has moved to Malibu. Manson leaves.
Later, as Tate and Altobelli share a flight to Europe, the actress asks Altobelli, “Did that creepy-looking guy come back there yesterday?”
Something in the air
It’s May 1969. Terry Melcher cedes to Manson’s overtures, and comes to Spahn Ranch. It’s not the producer’s first time at the guru’s makeshift compound, but it’ll be his last. Even if Neil Young will one day note in his memoir about Manson, the singer-songwriter, being “quite good,” Melcher hasn’t been sufficiently impressed. It’s a hard pass. Manson and him are not happening.
Manson is not happy, but, as they say in Hollywood, he’s got other projects. He’s been talking more and more about jumpstarting what he sees as the coming race war between white and black America. The time for “Helter Skelter,” as he has dubbed his philosophy, if that’s what you’d call it, is near.
Time of the season
On Aug. 6, 1969, at a little before 11 a.m., according to an arrest report recounted by the Manson Family public-record site, CieloDrive.com, a California Highway Patrol officer rolls up on a Fiat station wagon parked along the side of the Highway 101 in central California’s San Luis Obispo. There’s a man in a sleeping bag in the back seat. The man doesn’t have proper identification, and he doesn’t have a good explanation as to how he came to be in a vehicle that’s registered to Gary Hinman, a Los Angeles-area musician and music teacher who was found slaughtered in his Topanga home about two weeks prior.
The man’s name is Robert Kenneth Beausoleil. He used to live with Hinman. Now he lists his address as 14400 W. Sunset Blvd., the old Dennis Wilson hang. Beausoleil (pictured, below) is arrested for murder -- a Manson Family first.
Sharon Tate is going to name the baby Paul after her Army intelligence officer father. Paul Richard Polanski -- that’ll be his full name. Tate and Roman Polanski will meet him soon enough. He’s due in two weeks.
Today is Friday, Aug. 8, 1969. It’s hot. The Los Angeles forecast calls for clouds and a high of 94.
In the morning, Tate and Polanski talk by phone. He’s still in London. She’s back at 10050 Cielo Drive.
“She told me that they had found a wild kitten, and they were trying to feed it with an eyedropper, and they were keeping him in the bathtub because he was absolutely wild, jumping on people, etc.,” Polanski will relate of their conversation to Playboy a couple of years later.
It’s not clear who “they” is, though Tate is not without company while Polanski’s away. The director’s friend Voytek Frykowski, 32, is staying at Cielo Drive while he writes. Frykowski’s girlfriend, Abigail Folger, who is due to turn 26 on the following Monday, is living there, too. There are house staff, gardeners -- and visitors, too: actresses Joanna Pettet (1967’s Casino Royale) and Barbara “Bobo” Lewis (The Monkees, Bewitched) lunch with Tate in the afternoon. Tate shows her friends the nursery that awaits baby Paul. A couple of hours after Pettet and Lewis depart, Jay Sebring, 35, arrives.
At about 11 p.m., on Aug. 8, 1969, his night shift at Jonas Miller Stereo on Wilshire Boulevard behind him, Steven Parent packs a Sony Digimatic clock radio -- a state-of-the-art device for 1969 -- into his father’s white AMC Rambler. Parent hits the road from El Monte, per Helter Skelter. (A San Gabriel Valley Tribune account says he departs from the stereo shop.) All major accounts agree on this point: Parent is headed off to try to sell the clock radio to his friend, William Garretson. The 19-year-old Garretson (pictured, below) works as a live-in caretaker at 10050 Cielo Drive.
Let it bleed
Does he do it to throw the police off the trail of Beausoleil, one of his loyalists? Does he do it to strike fear in Terry Melcher? Does he do it because he can, because the one the Family calls Jesus Christ can do anything? Or, does he do it to serve “Helter Skelter”? Prosecutors will successfully argue the last one at his eventual murder trial. Their bottom line: He does it.
Manson orders four members of the Family -- Dennis Wilson’s old acquaintance Patricia Krenwinkle, Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins and Linda Kasabian -- to drive to 10050 Cielo Drive. Their mission: Kill everyone inside.
At about 8 a.m., on Aug. 9, 1969, Winifred Chapman, the housekeeper at Cielo Drive, reports to work, but she finds a crime scene instead. Tate, Sebring, Folger, Frykowski and Parent, slain in his Rambler as he headed out and down the driveway, have been shot, stabbed and beaten. Garretson, as Helter Skelter will put it, is the "only person still alive on the premises." Police don’t think he’s lucky; police think he’s the killer. Garretson is arrested.
Back at Spahn Ranch, Manson wants a do-over. The Hinman killing, which he ordered for reasons that remain murky to this day, was a protracted affair. The Cielo Drive killings weren’t efficient, either. Maybe the kill team on that one had told Manson about how Frykowski and Folger ran for their lives, and had to be chased down on the lawn, or how Tate begged the knife-wielding Susan Atkins to spare the life of her unborn baby. Manson determines to set things right, as it were. On the night of Aug. 9, 1969, Manson rounds up Tex Watson (pictured, below), Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Leslie Van Houten. They hit the road.
Frank Struthers Jr., 14, is having too much fun at the Kern County, California, reservoir to leave. His mother, Rosemary LaBianca, agrees to let him stay an extra day with a friend. She, husband Leno LaBianca and Suzan Struthers, Frank’s sister and Rosemary’s child from a previous marriage, however, are calling it a wrap on the family weekend. Bound for Los Angeles, some 150 miles south, they hit the road.
The worst that could happen
At about 1 a.m. on Sunday, per the timeline as presented in Helter Skelter, the LaBiancas and Struthers arrive in their L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz. Suzan Struthers lives in an apartment at 4616 Greenwood Place, the future main exterior for TV’s Melrose Place. The LaBiancas drop her off there.
Next, the LaBiancas stop at a local newsstand. Leno LaBianca buys a newspaper. Finally, they drive to their own home: on Waverly Drive -- 3301 Waverly Drive.
Manson, meanwhile, pulls an address out of his head, and directs Kasabian, the Family’s driver on this night as last, to his old pal Harold True’s house. That True and his friends had vacated the rental about a year earlier is immaterial. Manson, the ever-resourceful career criminal, enters the home: It’s empty. Undeterred, Manson moves on to the house next door. The house at 3301 Waverly Drive.
Aftermath: Carry that weight
Bad things that can happen to anyone put everyone on edge. “Toilets are flushing all over Beverly Hills -- the entire Los Angeles sewer system is stoned,” an unnamed Hollywoodista tells Life magazine weeks after the Tate slayings. It’s speculated -- if not feared -- that the actress, her friends and the in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time Steven Parent were killed by drug dealers. (Garretson, who passes a lie-detector test, is cleared and released from custody within a day’s time.) There’s a larger assumption that a quirk or kink in the victims’ lifestyles -- or maybe in Polanski’s dark films -- is responsible.
“This must be the world-famous orgy house,” Polanski says bitterly as he visits the still-blood-splattered Cielo Drive with a Life reporter in late August 1969.
If the LaBiancas don’t fit the Hollywood-hedonism-gone-bad narrative, then no matter: They don’t fit into the narrative at all. Despite the victims of Cielo and Waverly being similarly butchered, and White Album-inspired scrawlings being similarly left behind in blood (“Pig” at Cielo; “Death to pigs” at Waverly), it’ll take police months to link the Tate killings to the LaBianca killings, and then to the Hinman case (“Political piggy” was left behind, in blood, at Hinman’s house.)
The killers will be caught by unlikely twists and turns themselves: Chief among them, in October 1969, authorities, acting on tip related to stolen cars, raid a property in California’s Death Valley. It’s called Barker Ranch, and it’s where the Family has relocated after their life at Spahn Ranch has soured (and Spahn Ranch ranch hand Donald “Shorty” Shea has gone missing and soon be presumed dead). Among those arrested in the sweep is Susan Atkins. While in custody, the 21-year-old is implicated in the Hinman murder. But the bigger picture still isn’t clear until Atkins gets chatty -- very chatty. She tells her cellmates all about Tate, LaBianca, herself, her cohorts -- and Manson. By December 1969, the puzzle pieces are assembled, and the blame for the Aug. 9-10 killings is placed where it belongs: with the Manson Family.
Susan Atkins, Robert Beausoleil, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Steve “Clem” Grogan, Bruce Davis and Manson will be convicted for their respective roles in the summer of ‘69 slayings that, with Shea’s and Hinman’s, total nine. (Linda Kasabian, who did not actively participate in the Tate and LaBianca killings, will be granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony.) Manson and Atkins will die in jail -- in 2017 and 2009, respectively. All the rest, save for Grogan, who was paroled in 1985 for assisting in the location of Donald Shea’s remains, remain in prison.
Fifty years on, just as there’s no approaching milestone birthday for Paul Richard Polanski, there’s no closure for those swept up in the awful saga of chance.
“We went from Happy Days to hell in one weekend,” Lou Smaldino, a nephew of the LaBiancas told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “The fork that they stabbed Leno with was from the carving set we used for our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. I can see that… To this day, I can see that in my mind.”
We don’t know if or how often Dennis Wilson thought back to that day in Malibu, the one when he did a solid for a couple of hitchhikers. In 1976, Wilson swore to Rolling Stone he’d “never talk about that,” meaning Manson. He never did. A broken, substance-abusing Wilson drowned in 1983 at the age of 39. The death was ruled an accident.