The mysterious death of Ronald Hughes
During July and August of 1969, the Manson Family (a communal group of runaways, ex-cons, outlaw bikers and women who had been trafficked by former pimp Charles Manson) committed ten murders (seven of which were known as the Tate/LaBianca killings).
One of the killers — Susan Atkins — was in Sybil Brand Institute (the main women’s jail at the time for Los Angeles County) three months later and began bragging about the murders to other inmates.
One of those women, Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Howard, called police to report these claims while the Tate investigation team were interviewing Danny DeCarlo, treasurer of the outlaw motorcycle club the Straight Satans. DeCarlo linked the Manson Family to the murders resulting in the appointment of Vincent Bugliosi as lead prosecutor, and a December grand jury date.
Charles Manson, Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Linda Kasabian were indicted on charges of murder thanks to Atkins’ testimony. She won immunity against the death penalty for her testimony. But by late February, Family members pressured her into recanting her testimony. As a result, she lost immunity against the death penalty and would be tried with her co-defendants.
On December 11th, Manson was brought before Judge William B. Keene (Keene later became judge on the show Divorce Court from 1984–1993). At the hearing, the judge appointed public defender Paul Fitzgerald to represent Manson. They butted heads immediately.
Charles ‘Tex’ Watson was in the Dallas area, fighting extradition. Linda Kasabian, who did not actually kill anyone, was granted immunity after Susan backed out of her deal. Linda would be the chief witness for the prosecution.
Susan, Pat Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten all had separate defense attorneys. That was not a good thing for Manson. Those attorneys were supposed to defend and represent their clients to the best of their abilities. That meant that they could throw Charlie under the bus, if it got their clients off (or with a lesser sentence). Charlie’s plan was to deflect blame at the cost of his co-defendants, the women.
Neither Susan nor Leslie technically killed anyone on the nights of the murders, although they did participate in the crimes. Their attorneys could have argued the facts and gotten lesser sentences (manslaughter or murder in the second or third degrees) for their clients. So Charlie played an ongoing game of ‘shuffle the decks’ in the months leading up to the trial, harassing and getting rid of attorneys for the women that did not toe his line.
On December 17th, Manson dismissed Fitzgerald, his public defender and asked Judge Keene to let him represent himself.
“Judge Keene told Manson that he was not convinced that he was competent to represent himself, or, in legal jargon, to proceed ‘in pro per’ (in propria persona)” — Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry ©1974 W.W. Norton & Company
But Charlie argued back:
“Your Honor, there is no way I can give up my voice in this matter… If I can’t speak in my own defense and converse freely in this courtroom, then it ties my hands behind my back, and if I have no voice, then there is no sense in having a defense.” — Official Court Records, December 1969
On Christmas Eve, Judge Keene approved Manson’s request to represent himself. But on March 6th, Judge Keene vacated that right. He appointed defender Charles Hollopeter to represent Charlie. Hollopeter wouldn’t last long, however.
On March 19th, Manson again requested that he be allowed to represent himself. The judge denied his order but did allow Charlie to replace his Charles Hollopeter with Ronald Hughes. Hughes, 35-years old, was with the Los Angeles public defender’s office. He was unmarried and lived in a friend’s garage, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Hughes was viewed as a ‘hippie lawyer’ and thus, Manson agreed to be represented by him, at least for now.
On April 13th, Manson filed a motion to dismiss Judge Keene, claiming prejudice. The motion was carried and Judge Charles Older was appointed over the Tate/LaBianca trial. Judge Keene was only too happy to step aside.
On June 9th, Manson, Susan, Patricia and Leslie were called before the court for a pre-trial hearing. Charlie dramatically turned his chair away from the judge, claiming that since the court didn’t respect him, then he had no respect for the court. The following day, Susan, Pat and Leslie stood and turned their backs on the judge, like little puppets. The trial established its precedent early: the women would do exactly as Charlie commanded them.
Manson’s new attorney, Ronald Hughes, had little experience in criminal court. He also had never won a case but was well-versed in the counter-culture. In fact, he used to be a rock band manager. Once Manson saw that Hughes was not swayed by his manipulations, Charlie cut him loose. He asked to replace Hughes with Irving Kanarek.
On July 14th, the prosecution and defense attested the selected jury. On the 21st, alternates were sworn in. And on July 17th, Leslie dismissed Ira Reiner and was approved to have Ronald Hughes replace him. Manson liked the hippie attorney. He just wasn’t good enough for him.
On July 24th, People v. Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten began in Los Angeles Superior Court. Charlie arrived in the courtroom with a bloody X carved in the middle of his forehead. His followers, camped out on the street outside the courtroom, claimed it was because he had ‘Xed himself out of’ our world.
On the third day of trial, Linda Kasabian was led into court. She would spend eighteen long days on the stand. There were a number of witnesses during August, including investigators from the Tate and LaBianca teams.
During the trial, Manson began to be at odds with Ronald Hughes, Van Houten’s defender. Hughes wanted Leslie to be tried separately. He and Charlie argued several times about how his client should be represented.
On September 11th, Danny DeCarlo took the stand and began his testimony. And that day, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson lost his fight against extradition and was flown to Los Angeles. His trial would follow that of Manson and the women.
Manson did everything he could to keep the trial in the circus-like atmosphere that he believed might result in a hung jury, at least for him. Judge Older was constantly reprimanding Charlie and the women. Bugliosi remembered the day that Manson snapped back:
“Manson got ahold of a sharp pencil, and from a standing position jumped over the defense table toward the judge, shouting, ‘In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.’ It was an amazing feat. I don’t know how he did it…. The deputies immediately tackled him and dragged him off. From there on out Judge Older wore a handgun under his robe.” — Vincent Bugliosi quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine
Manson was ejected from court that day, and again a week later.
The prosecution rested its case on November 16th. Three days later, the defense rested their case. But this was clearly not Manson’s plan, and he was upset with the defense attorneys. Very upset.
During the two-week recess that followed, Van Houten’s defense attorney Ronald Hughes went missing.
“On November 27, 1970, Hughes decided to take a camping trip in a remote area near Sespe Hot Springs in Ventura County, California. According to James Forsher and Lauren Elder, two friends who accompanied Hughes on the trip, heavy rains which had caused flash floods in the area had mired their Volkswagen in mud. Forsher and Elder hitchhiked their way out, while Hughes decided to stay in the area until November 29. As the rains continued, the wilderness area was evacuated. Hughes was last seen by three campers on the morning of November 28. They later told investigators that Hughes was alone at the time and had briefly stopped to talk with them. Hughes also appeared to be unharmed and was in an area that was away from flood waters. When court reconvened on November 30, Hughes failed to appear. Due to continued rainstorms, the Ventura County sheriff had to wait two days before a search was launched.
On December 2, Judge Older ordered the trial to proceed and appointed a new attorney, Maxwell Keith, for Van Houten. The women angrily demanded the firing of all their lawyers, and asked to reopen the defense. Judge Older denied the request. By week’s end, Hughes had been missing for two weeks. When the court reconvened, Manson and the women created a disturbance suggesting that Judge Older ‘did away with Ronald Hughes’, which resulted in their being removed again from the courtroom.” — from the Wikipedia page for Ronald W. Hughes
On January 25th, 1971, Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were convicted of first degree murder. The jury deliberated for nearly 43 hours. Sentencing was scheduled for that March.
As part of the sentencing process, each of the female defendants took the stand in their own defense and at Charlie’s orders, accepted blame and denied that Manson had ordered them to commit these murders.
“Unfortunately in our Legal System, if you choose to commit suicide on the stand there’s nothing anyone can do to stop you.” — The Myth of Helter Skelter by Susan Atkins-Whitehouse ©2012 Menelorelin Dorenay
Then on March 29th, Ronald Hughes was found dead. Two fishermen in Ventura County stumbled upon the bloated body of the attorney wedged between boulders beside a river near where he’d gone camping the past November. Squeaky (true name Lynette Fromme, an early member of the Manson Family who later was convicted of the attempted assassination of U.S. President Gerald Ford) and others alluded that the defense attorney was yet another murder at their hands.
Linda Kasabian’s attorney remembered learning of Hughes death, and his paranoia of the Family taking retribution on him:
“How many times do you hear of a defense lawyer getting killed in the middle of a case? I was living in a two-story apartment in Beverly Hills, and I had a couple of these kids — Linda’s husband, Bob, and a guy named Charlie Melton — sleeping on my doorstep. Bob and Charlie were really just warm bodies. They were just eating my food and smoking my dope. But they lived with me for several months. I wanted someone there if Squeaky Fromme tried to sneak in and slit my throat.” — Gary Fleischman quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine
That same day Hughes’ body was found, in the Los Angeles Superior Court, Charlie, Sadie, Katie and Leslie stood before the Judge to receive their sentencing for the murders of Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Sharon Tate and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Three weeks earlier, Manson had shaved his head and transformed the X he carved earlier into a sloppy swastika. On the day of their sentencing, Charlie and his co-defendants were brought into the courtroom and everyone gasped. Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten had also shaved their heads.
They stood as the jury stated that they’d each been sentenced to death.
Patricia Krenwinkel: You have just judged yourselves.
Susan Atkins: Better lock your doors and watch your own kids!
Leslie Van Houten: Your whole system is a game. You blind, stupid people. Your children will turn against you. — Official Court Records
On April 19th, Judge Older formally sentenced the killers to death by electrocution. At the time, no death row for female prisoners existed in California, so a special unit was built at the California Institute for Women in Frontera, a specially-designated city within the city of Corona, California in Riverside County.
The following year, 1972, the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty. The sentences for each of the killers was commuted to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
In 1977, Leslie’s original conviction was overturned and she was granted a retrial. When Ronald Hughes went missing just after her conviction, a new attorney was rather hastily appointed to her. But also, as her new legal team argued, there had been uncertainty since the start of the trial about what her conviction should be for (murder or manslaughter). If she should have been convicted of manslaughter, Leslie would then be eligible for release. She was freed, to face a new trial.
Leslie took a job, rented an apartment and drove herself to court each day, without incident. That August, her retrial ended with a hung jury.
At her second retrial, new evidence was presented about how Leslie stole food, clothing and money from the LaBianca’s during the commission of the murders. This added a charge of robbery which eliminated manslaughter as an option. She was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, but remained eligible for parole. She was returned to the California Institute for Women in Frontera, where she remains today.
In 1980, James Forsher (one of the two people with Ronald Hughes on his November 1970 camping trip) sued prosecutor/author Vincent Bugliosi for libel — claiming that numerous entries in the book Helter Skelter name him as a suspect in Hughes murder. The case states that Bugliosi was willfully remiss in not only listing Hughes’ death in his book as ‘the first of the retaliatory killings’ by the Manson Family, but also naming Forsher (an acquaintance of the alleged victim) as being affiliated with the Family, and a suspect in his friend’s so-called murder. His attorneys argued that this had caused his own life to be threatened and his reputation impugned. The case was settled.
There are many who still suspect the Manson Family of murdering attorney Ronald Hughes. You can even find Reddit threads, in support of this theory. While foul play could not be ruled out, this author believes that Hughes’ death was merely a sad, strange accident.
H. Allegra Lansing is the author of the true crime book The Manson Family: More to the Story.
You can read more about the trial here:
June 24, 1970: the Trial of the Century
On this day in history, the trial against Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten for…
And more about Leslie Van Houten here: