Thursday, June 7, 2018

Inside the Case of Charles Manson--a true crime investigation

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: So. Pick the creepiest scariest villain you can imagine. Non-fiction, I mean. Someone from real life. We have lots of possibilities, sadly. And we ask ourselves—who could do that? Why? How do their brains work? 

The lawyer/prosecutor/professor/reporter Lis Wiehl is engaged with those questions in every part of her life—and now, she’s taken the authorial step—maybe a risky one—into delving into the darkest corners of one of this country’s most feared and reviled criminals. And the potentially botched investigation to stop him!  (Did you know Manson was not the actual killer of actress Sharon Tate?) 

HANK: Welcome, Lis. And congratulations on all the buzz about HUNTING CHARLES MANSON.  But I’ve got to ask: Why Manson?

LIS WIEHL: Even after his recent death, the name “Charles Manson” is etched in the consciousness of American culture.  We want to know who was this head of a murderous “Family,” touting a self-made swastika tattoo on his forehead, and somehow persuading young women to brutally kill and torture for him in the late 1960s.  Who he was and what his Family did changed American culture forever. I wanted to explore how that happened, and, perhaps, how it could be prevented from happening again.
 
HANK: So-- you found that the initial investigators on this case, ah, did not do such a good job.

LIS: Well, yeah. The investigators, how can I put it nicely, bungled the case.

First, had parole officers been keeping better tabs on Manson, no murders likely would have taken place--because he was in violation of parole long before the first murders.  True, Manson was conniving and manipulative with his parole officers, but, in my experience as a prosecutor, most convicts are, and Manson wasn’t special in that regard. So, shame on those parole officers.

Second, had the different police departments –including the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff—shared information more efficiently and had evidence not been mishandled, Manson would have been arrested much earlier than he was.

Again, sadly, nothing special about the way law enforcement handled – or mishandled- this case. The case was more high profile, but the jurisdictional squabbling between different law enforcement precincts was (and is) positively pedestrian. We saw the same at the Federal level after 911 when it was revealed that the FBI and the CIA failed to share crucial information involving potential terrorist attacks.

I detail in “Hunting” the instances of law enforcement failing to pick up on crucial clues because of mishandled evidence and lack of information sharing. These errors could have been Manson’s ‘get out of jail free card’.

HANK:  You’d think prosecuting Manson would have been a slam dunk. But it wasn’t? And you found problems there, too?

LIS: Probably the biggest issue facing Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor, was the fact that Charles Manson hadn’t actually plunged the knife in to any of his victims. Yet Bugliosi had charged Manson with multiple counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Bugliosi had to convince a jury that because Manson set the murders in motion by essentially ordering Charles “Tex” Watson and the ‘girls’ to “do something witchy”,  that he was guilty of murder, even though he didn’t physically commit murder.  He had to convince a jury that the Helter Skelter motive was real, and that it was all fueled by Manson.

Bugliosi also had the monumental task of deciding which Family member to grant ‘immunity’ to in exchange for their testimony at trial. This is always a tough call in any trial, especially one like Manson where the potential witnesses are also potential co-conspirators with killers. As a prosecutor, Bugliosi had to be careful to not be too lenient in exchange for testimony.

HANK: How about the press coverage? I’m trying to remember.

LIS: Amazing.  Early on in his trial, Manson smiled and stood up at the defense table and raised a copy of the Los Angeles Times for everyone in the courtroom, including the jurors, to see:

MANSON GUILTY, NIXON DECLARES,” the tabloid-sized headline read, a violation of the judge’s gag order by the nation’s most powerful elected official.   Manson immediately moved for a mistrial. It was denied.

The prosecution had other challenges within its own ranks. One of the prosecutors, Aaron Stovitz, gave a pretrial interview to two writers for Rolling Stone magazine, trying to get around the court’s gag order by getting the reporters to promise not to use his name.

Having a case that becomes a ‘Trial of the Century’ case can be great fodder for the media, but more a curse than a blessing for the prosecutor charged with actually trying the case.

HANK: So besides your TV and legal careers, you’re a bestselling thriller author. (Whew.) How did you transition to a  true crime book? Or maybe it wasn’t a transition!

LIS: Hunting Manson is told as a fast paced, non-fiction thriller. So, I hope you’ll read the book almost as a novel, with the awareness that the stories really did happen.

My transition wasn’t much of one at all because my mystery novels are largely based on cases I’ve prosecuted, or stories I’ve covered as a journalist. I take bits and pieces of reality to make up a fictional world. In writing Hunting Manson, I followed leads so I could document and source material. And we are talking a vast amount of material. A huge manhunt. And then multiple trials with multiple defendants. And then multiple parole hearings, that are still on going.

And then there is the question of the missing boxes in the L.A. County Superior Court. Yes, you heard me correctly. Many boxes containing documents of the Manson case have gone missing. Very strange!   Sounds like it could be a good plot for a novel. Whoops, I’m flipping between fiction and non-fiction
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HANK:  Your past fiction dedicated to your family. Not this one.

LIS: I dedicated the book to the victims of the Manson Family. In the more than two years I’ve spent working on this book, I got to know their stories well. My prosecutor instincts kicked in as I retraced the scenes of the crimes. In Los Angeles, I visited the outside of El Cielo and Waverly Drive, the houses where the victims were so brutally murdered. I even went to the restaurant and sat in the very booth where Sharon Tate and her friends had enjoyed their last meal. I went to Spahn Ranch where the Manson family lived, and where the “witchy” plan was hatched. It was such an eerie feeling.  And I kept thinking of those victims.  

HANK: Did you get to know the victims’ families?

LIS: I was the only reporter allowed at the last parole hearing of Charles “Tex” Watson in California.  He was the one who actually did commit the murders, plunging the knife multiple times in multiple victims. When one of the girls couldn’t quite bring herself to finish the job, Tex would step in and do it. Tex murdered Sharon Tate and her unborn child as well.

I sat only three feet away from Watson during the nearly nine-hour parole hearing, and listened to him calmly recite the facts of those nights in the Summer of 1969.  He actually was reading from notes, as if he needed notes to remind him of what he’d done! I was shocked by how well he looked. Groomed, and clean shaven. He probably spends time at the gym and eats well. He’d also found religion.

The members of the victims’ family were there. At first, many were reluctant to speak with me, but soon we were eating donuts and commiserating during breaks. They were concerned – validly so – that certain changes in California law might mean that Watson could be granted parole, a proposition that truly spooked them. I tried to allay their fears as best I could.

At the end of the hearing when the parole officer announced that the parole board would not be granting parole to Watson, one of the victims’ family members asked me why I was sticking by their side. Why I wasn’t assuming my role as reporter and rushing off to report that the parole had been denied. I told her that I’d let another reporter have the news scoop. My place was with the victims who were processing the fact that Watson was denied parole. That was a good day for them.  

HANK: Whoa. Amazing, Lis!  Well, Reds, when do you first remember hearing about Charles Manson? Were you riveted to the case?  (It's okay--we're crime fiction aficionados, so it's all research.) Do you remember Casey Anthony? Gacy? Dahmer? Have any of these people fascinated or intrigued you? Are you a fan of true crime? What books do you suggest?





Hunting Charles Manson is the first book in a major new series of thrilling works of history that tell of the pursuit of justice in the aftermath of some of history’s most devastating and sensational crimes.
In the late summer of 1969, the nation was transfixed by a series of gruesome murders in the hills of Los Angeles. Newspapers and television programs detailed the brutal slayings of a beautiful actress — twenty-six years-old and eight months pregnant with her first child — as well as a hair stylist, an heiress, a small businessman, and other victims. The City of Angels was plunged into a nightmare of fear and dread. In the weeks and months that followed, law enforcement faced intense pressure to solve crimes that seemed to have no connection.
Finally, after months of dead-ends, false leads, and near-misses, Charles Manson and members of his “family” were arrested. The bewildering trials that followed once again captured the nation and forever secured Manson as a byword for the evil that men do.
Drawing upon deep archival research and exclusive personal interviews — including unique access to Manson Family parole hearings — Lis Wiehl gives readers a propulsive, page-turning historical thriller of the crimes and manhunt that mesmerized the nation. And in the process, she reveals how the social and political context that gave rise to Manson is eerily similar to our own.



Lis Wiehl is one of the nation’s most prominent trial lawyers and highly regarded commentators. She is the author of 18 books, including Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter (Thomas Nelson, June 2018) and was a legal analyst and reporter for Fox News for fifteen years. Lis is currently an anchor for the Law & Crime Network and a Professor of Law at New York Law School and the host of the podcast 
Pursuit of Justice” (available for download and subscription on iTunes or at LawAndCrime.com).


60 comments:

  1. I was living with my grandmother that summer and I remember talking with her about Charles Manson and the murder of Sharon Tate and her unborn child. Truly a frightening crime; it still gives me shivers to think about it. But I won’t let that stop me from checking out your book, Lis. I wonder, did you find anything particularly difficult to deal with when you were writing the book?

    I do remember the Casey Anthony case, Hank . . . such an innocent, adorable little girl and such a horrific crime. It’s always difficult to forget about the children . . . .

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    1. Yes, could you believe the outcome of the Casey Anthony trial? I wish I had been in the jury room to hear the deliberations...

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    2. Joan, Being a mother of two, the gruesome nature of Sharon Tate's murder was difficult for me because I couldn't help myself from imagining her last thoughts. And I imagine those last thoughts were of her unborn baby, and her realization that her baby was going to die too. That's tough.

      But I do believe that writing about an important cultural or even historical event like this one can shed light on what made this whole Manson family tick. And that's important for us all to know, lest history repeat itself.

      Thank you for your question.

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  2. Like Joan, I remember reading about the Manson murders in the newspaper when it happened. Later on, Bugliosi's book kept me awake all night. It's fascinating to me these days to realize that Manson didn't actually murder anyone, although he surely inspired something horrific. It's the cult aspect of the crimes that continues to haunt me. How can people be so lost that they follow someone like that? Manson was a little guy, kind of a nut, and in the early days he wasn't spouting anything weirder than the usual peace/love/drugs stuff. What toxic group dynamic made it all come out so horrible?

    Closer to home, it's the Branch Davidian cult mess that continues to tug at me. I remember staring at the television, horrified, as the buildings went up in flames and nobody came out. There are still folks down in Waco who call themselves Branch Davidians--although they say they're from a different branch. What drives people to doomsday cults like Manson's, David Koresh's, or Jim Jones'?

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    1. I'd love to know--it's so fascinating, the process of "brainwashing..." Remember The Manchurian Candidate?

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    2. From my research, it seems that at first "Family" members stayed because they felt accepted, loved to a certain extent, and part of something special and bigger than themselves. Many felt that their parents didn’t understand them. Ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-twenties, the people in this hippie commune all seemed so welcoming — they seemed like good, hopeful folks. Manson touted himself as an anti-establishment guru, and his whole gig was about peace, love, and music. More recently Keith Raniere’s approach to enticing young people into NXIVM appears to be similar to Manson’s techniques -- by promising peace and love and "empowerment." And then, once the women were inside, Raniere did just as Manson did: he got mean — hitting, branding, and scaring them into not leaving.

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    3. The lead FBI negotiator wrote a terrific book called "Stalling for Time," which is about the Waco crisis and other cases he worked during his time in the FBI. His name is Gary Noesner, and I highly recommend the book. It provides some insights into how the whole mess unfolded.

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    4. Thanks, Ingrid. I'd like to read this, too.

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  3. These are such good questions, Joan and Gigi! I'm wondering too how hard it must have been to be immersed in this story long enough to write it? And also, whether you got any hints from the families about why their loved ones were sucked into the Manson cult?

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    1. Manson and his family changed America forever.

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  4. I can't remember how I first heard of the case. I just know that knowledge of Charles Manson's evil and his cult followers are etched in my mind like an unwanted tattoo--every time there's a news item about another parole hearing, it surfaces again--the horror of what humans can do to one another. I'd say my shields are too thin to write about something like this--I think people like Lis are by definition stronger than most of us--after all, look at the career(s) she's succeeded in!

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    1. Yes, the idea that someone could take over your mind, and convince you to do something so terrible, is quite disturbing…

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  5. I may have been introduced to the Manson murders through a nonfiction book or a movie - I was 7 when the crimes were committed, and my mother didn't let me see news like that! (Of course, back in the day of three channels, it was easier to shelter kids...)

    The number one question I always have in these terrible cases is "Why?" One of the reasons I'm drawn to crime fiction is that you always get a satisfactory answer to that question - unlike real life.

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    1. So fascinating to try to unpack how people’s minds work, and think about… Did something happen to make him snap? Or is it simply :-) a manifestation of mental illness?

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  6. I remember the lurid press photos. LA was a different world, until we moved there.

    Crime fiction and news stories about cults unnerve me.

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    1. And at some point it’s difficult to separate the fact from the fiction, right? We forget whether we are remembering the fact or the fiction .

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  7. I do remember hearing about the Manson cult murders, but really became familiar with them by reading Bugliosi's 1974 book, Helter Skelter. The story was so chilling.

    In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's 1966 true crime book, made a similar impact, but the mass murderer who freaks me out the most, to this day, is Jeffrey Dahmer. He was so incredibly creepy, horrifying, and downright insane, that I shiver just writing this. And I can't believe he got away with his crimes for so long.

    Interesting sidebar on Dahmer: a movie about him, told from the viewpoint of a high school friend, was made here in Cincinnati in the last year, called My Friend Dahmer. Our friend and neighbor who has a crafts services business worked on it. I think Zac Brown plays the friend, and Anne Heche plays Dahmer's mother.

    No, I've not seen it. And probably won't. Shudder.

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    1. One of my colleagues covered the Dahmer case. She is still haunted by it.

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    2. I can't imagine trying to process that information. The mental images alone would be horrific!

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  8. That was the same summer that Easy Rider came out. I was in Europe (before Internet of course) and only getting bits of US news. Chilling. That he could get women to do his bidding like that. The book sounds amazing, Lis - I'll definitely want to read it.

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    1. Thank you, Hallie! I'm a big fan so I can't wait to hear what you think.

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  9. Thank you, Hank and Jungle Red. I'm honored to be here. I'm excited to hear from all of you today and I'll be answering questions from Los Angeles where I am on my book tour for HUNTING CHARLES MANSON.

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    1. Fabulous, Lis! Keep us posted, and have fun!

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    2. Thank you! Interviews, signing books, and more!

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  10. Yes, the power of persuasion is incredibly fascinating… How does a person like that find just the right vulnerable people to coerce and convince ? I went undercover into a cult church at one point in my career and I have to say I was incredibly wary.

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    1. Hank, that must have been really scary. When I went away to college (the first time, lol) there was a guy, very charismatic, long flowing hair, etc., etc., "recruiting" people, especially women. I couldn't help thinking about Manson and I backed away from this guy and his friends really fast, but I've been fascinated by what motivates people to follow these "leaders" ever since. Unfortunately, I only remember the guy's first name. I'd love to know what happened to him.

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  11. So the Manson Murders were a teeny bit before my time, but I grew up with "Charles Manson" as shorthand for evil and crazy. I knew about him before I knew about his crimes; I knew his name before I knew Sharon Tate's, which is too bad. The true crime case that will always loom large for me, and Hank will know all about this, is the Charles Stuart case in Boston. He killed his pregnant wife, the city went on a manhunt for a black perpetrator who didn't exist, and he ended up jumping off the Tobin Bridge.

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    2. Yes! I was here, covering that--and it was astonishing. Basically everyone believed his story--and turned out to be a real object lesson in racism.

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  12. Like Ingrid, the Manson murders were before my time (I was still in diapers) but, yes, he was definitely a boogeyman that the grownups talked about in hushed tones. What a story to take on, Lis! I can't even imagine the amount of research that was required and I'm a librarian. My husband read Helter Skelter when he was ten and he said it tripped him out for years. I am absolutely getting your book for him. Despite that first experience, he's still big true crime guy. He will love this!
    The first horrific murder case that really struck me was the The Connecticut Wood Chipper murder, where pilot Richard Crafts murdered his wife Helle and tried to hide the crime by using a woodchopper on her body. That case still makes me gag when I think about it. I grew up about 25 miles from where the murder happened so I knew the area. Totally freaked me out - still does.

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    1. Jenn your story about being 25 miles away from the murder site is chilling. The research was vast. And surprising. If anyone is interested, my publisher created a four episode web docu-series chronicling just SOME of my research. https://info.thomasnelson.com/p/hunting-charles-manson-videos/

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    2. Thank you, Lis. Will definitely check out the videos!

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    3. Oh, YES the woodchipper. Ahh... I wish I could un-know that!

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  13. I am too young to know of Manson except through reporting.

    True crime both fascinates and repels me. I'm always amazed at the atrocities people can commit, but I generally can't read a whole book about it.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Exactly, Mary. I think that's why murder mysteries, and crime fiction in general, are so popular. The bad guy nearly never gets away with the crime, unlike in real life.

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    2. Huh. That is so interesting...have there been books where the bad guy gets away?

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    3. I just read one where you could argue that's the case - the bad guy gets away. And I would say he does.

      Mary/Liz

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  14. Lis, what a fascinating story. I'm in awe of your commitment to this project--it must have taken an emotional toll. I notice the blurb for the book says "first in a new series" -- does that mean you are writing more true crime?

    I'd just been reading about Keith Raniere and wondering how these seemingly intelligent and in most cases well-off women would have been sucked into his group.

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    1. Hi Deborah. I am writing a three book HUNTING series (true-crime). HUNTING CHARLES MANSON is the first. I'm already well into the research for Book 2.

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    2. SO fascinating--and you'll come back when that comes out, I hope!

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  15. I was in college when the Manson Family did their thing. The 60's were strange but a horrific set of murders like these were unimaginable. I still do not understand how people can submit to one person's control of their lives. I had a couple of brothers-in-law who got mixed up with a religious cult as young men. I get that the group made them welcome and valued, but that only lasts so long. The first horrible set of murders I remember were the student nurses in Chicago that Richard Speck slaughtered.

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    1. Oh, right...it's so chilling to remember. And to see how many such cases there are..

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    2. Wasn't the Speck case where one girl hid under the bed and survived?

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  16. The Cincinnati Strangler was another horrifying case. He targeted elderly women, for some reason, raping and then strangling them, in 1965-66.

    In my freshman Police Science Criminal Justice class we took a field trip to Cincinnati (from Hamilton, about thirty-five miles away) to visit the morgue, and the police headquarters. They showed us slides (it was 1969) of the victims of the Strangler. I'll never forget seeing photos of those poor women lying on the floor in disarray. Nor will I ever forget what that morgue smelled like, despite the ozone lamps everywhere. Even the smell of ozone takes me right back there.

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    1. ANd of course the Boston Strangler, how could I forget! Remember? And women just let him in??

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    2. Didn't he say he worked for a utility, or something?

      My big childhood crush, Tony Curtis, played the Strangler, as I remember.

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    3. Yes, he said he was a utility guy. And even after they KNEW that was happening, women let him in. Tony Curtis --a crush? Not my type, :-) but really labeled with that role, don't you think? I mean--his face is how we envision DeSalvo.

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    4. I was a bit too young to remember when the Boston Strangler killings were going on, but I do remember the movie and have read thing since. I could also remember there being some doubt that he was the actual killer, as DeSalvo recanted his confessions to killing the women before he died, but in 2013 his body was exhumed and he was definitively linked to the last victim, Mary Sullivan. Hank, I bet you have all kinds of interesting information about this case from living there and being in the news business. Karen, I only lived an hour east down the river, but I can't remember hearing about the Cincinnati Strangler. I would have only been 11 and 12, and no movie.

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  17. I was in high school when these murders happened, and I was horrified largely because of Sharon Tate, whom I'd seen in Valley of the Dolls and the fact that she was eight months pregnant. The brutality of her and her baby being stabbed to death was pure evil. The reports of what happened to all of the people killed at Sharon Tate's house were so graphic, such as Abby Folger telling the girl stabbing her on the lawn that she (Abby) was already dead. Sharon Tate begging for her child's life. Chilling. I'd replay the time before the killers entered the house or even after, hoping for a different outcome or some escape for Sharon or others. Of course, there was only a tragic ending for all. And it was so mind boggling that these girls of Charles Manson were so brain-washed and that Tex Watson was so evil. And, of course, no less tragic was the murder of the LaBiancas. These murders still give me such chills that I try not to read much about them anymore, but your book may be the exception to that, Lis.

    Oh, one item about Manson and the murders, especially the ones of Sharon Tate and her friends at 10050 Cielo Drive, is of particular interest to me. It is the connection between the Beach Boys and Doris Day's son Terry Melcher and Charles Manson. Manson apparently had hope of breaking into the music scene and became friends with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and as a result of this friendship, others connected to the Beach Boys came into the orbit of Manson. One of these people was Terry Melcher, who as a favor to Wilson went to Charles Manson's compound at Spahn Ranch in 1969 to listen to Manson's music. Melcher was not impressed and refused to help Manson in his quest for music fame. Manson, of course, was furious and he knew where Terry lived. Meanwhile, Terry's mother, Doris Day, heard from her son how crazy Charles Manson was and knew that this unstable person knew where her son (who, by the way, was living with girlfriend Candace Bergen at the time) lived. Dorris Day, as the story goes, convinced her son to move out of the 10050 Cielo residence into a house she owned. Was it a coincidence that Manson picked that address, no longer occupied by Melcher, as his first killing site?

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    1. WHAT? Wow. Truly? That is an amazing bit of info. Whoa. And yikes, so scary.
      And that reminds me--Doesn't Andrew Gross talk about meeting Manson, too? I think his book The Blue Nowhere is based around that.

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    2. Now, I'm going to have to look up The Blue Nowhere.

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  18. I have been fascinated by these murders since reading Helter Skelter. This book is now in my TBR pile!

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    1. Amazing, huh? I know I read Helter Skelter..and I think I have blocked it out. Was it good? You know, crime good.

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    2. It was incredible. I don't read much in the way of true crime, but I have never forgotten that book. Brilliant.

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  19. I was terrified reading this news story at the time. I’d studiously avoid the Manson headlines - until I couldn’t stand it anymore and had to check back in again after a few days to see what was happening. It was the Sharon Tate and her unborn child aspect that just overwhelmed me. I am glad that this book is now written not only by someone knowledgeable and skilled but also with enough humanity to stay with the victims’ families after Watson’s parole hearing and also to feel emotion in seeing the restaurant where Sharon Tate and her friends had their last meal. Thanks for this posting and book.

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  20. Thanks again for inviting me to be on Jungle Red. I enjoyed all of your comments and questions. Hank: you deserve a special thank you for your generosity and for making this interview happen. Have a great weekend!

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