Roman Polanski after Sharon’s murder

what happened after his beautiful wife was killed by the Manson Family

Image for post
Image for post

On the morning of Saturday, August 9th, 1969, housekeeper Winifred Chapman arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive. Ms. Chapman noticed that the phone lines were down just outside the fence. Concerned but not worried, she walked onto the property grounds and continued into a back entrance of the house, not noticing that a dead teenager lay on the front seat of a car near the gate, and two more bodies lay upon the lawn. Winifred walked into the kitchen, picked up the phone, discovered that there was no dial tone and then, planning to inform her employer, she walked from the kitchen into the living room. There, she discovered a gruesome crime scene that likely haunted her the rest of her life: the dead body of 8-months pregnant Sharon alongside that of another man, with a towel over his head.

Winifred ran screaming from the house, back the way she came. This time she did see the victim in the car. She ran out through the gate and to a neighbor’s house, who called police.

It took almost an hour for law enforcement to arrive at the crime scene. Ms. Chapman was still in such a terrible state, hysterical and mentioning names that seemed foreign to the police questioning her: Polanski, Frykowski. Eventually, they were able to determine that the property was rented by 26-year old Sharon Tate, a film actress along with her husband, movie director Roman Polanski.

Roman was not there, reportedly overseas at the time. But somebody needed to identify the bodies and Winifred was so hysterical she was taken to a medical facility and given a sedative. That left the responsibility to Roman’s manager, Bill Tennant.

Tenant arrived just before noon, and was led by police to each body for identification. He didn’t know the man in the car but identified Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger, the man and woman on the lawn, and Sharon Marie Tate, the female victim in the living room. He believed that the male victim inside the home was Sharon’s friend Jay Sebring, but the victim’s face was so battered that Tennant was not certain.

Image for post
Image for post
The victims at Cielo Drive: Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Stephen Parent

Tennant fled the property, escorted by police, dodging questions from reporters. Bill then called Roman in London. Roman was with the production crew for Day of the Dolphin (a science fiction adaptation), finalizing his script. Polanski completely fell apart hearing the news, sobbing and sinking to the ground. It was two days before he made his way home from London.

The crime scene was not only horrifying, but mystifying. Three bodies outside, two inside. Ropes tied around the necks of the inside. Blood everywhere. The word “PIG” written in blood on the front door. Evidence of a struggle. No evidence of property theft. Who could have committed such savage, meaningless crimes, police wondered.

During the investigation, detectives found numerous videos of Roman having sex in the Cielo home, only some of which included Sharon. They also found a fair amount of drugs at the property, although not enough to warrant suspicion of drug dealing.

Time magazine ran a story August 22nd that read:

“Theories of sex, drug and witchcraft cults spread quickly in Hollywood, fed by the fact that Sharon and Polanski circulated in one of the film world’s more offbeat crowds.… Polanski, who was in London at the time of the murders, is noted for his macabre movies.” They also erroneously wrote: “Sharon’s body was found nude…Sebring had been sexually mutilated… [Frykowski’s] trousers were down around his ankles.” — “The Night of Horror” ©August 22, 1969 Time magazine

Roman returned to the states on August 11th. At a news conference in Los Angeles, he recounted his last conversation with his wife. On the verge of tears, Roman decried the media for their salacious and inaccurate reporting of his murdered wife.

“You are suddenly curious about my relationship with Sharon… I can tell you the… last few years I spent with her were the only time of true happiness in my life. In fact, which will be coming out, day after day, will make a shame… a lot of newsmen who, for selfish reasons, write unbearable — for me — horrible things… Sharon not only didn’t use drugs, she didn’t touch alcohol, she didn’t even smoke cigarettes. All of you know how beautiful she was. She was one of the most beautiful women, if not the most beautiful woman in the world. But few of you know how good she was. She was vulnerable. She couldn’t refuse any friendship.” — Roman Polanski at his August 1969 press conference in Los Angeles

Polanski’s August 1969 Press Conference (date stamp on video is inaccurate — the murders took place on August 9th, not the press conference)

The press conference was held in a banquet room at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where Polanski was staying. But he did tour his home in Benedict Canyon that week, a photojournalist from Life magazine accompanying the director for the added salaciousness of showing the world a man broken, surrounded by the blood and gore of his loved ones.

Sharon and her friends were killed by members of the Manson Family, a commune and cult living in Chatsworth, California. They had murdered a man ten days before the Cielo Drive murders, they killed two more people the following night, and another man about two weeks later. Despite many similarities between the Cielo Drive murders and those of the following night (Leno and Rosemary LaBianca at Waverly Drive), the two homicide teams did not communicate with each other and did not suspect their crimes were linked.

Sharon’s death left a gaping hole in the life of her family. She was gone, so savagely, as were her friends and the baby she was preparing to welcome into the world. They were buried together. Sharon’s mother fell into a deep depression. Her father retired from the military and tried to infiltrate counterculture movements in an effort to solve her murder, before police finally broke the case. And Roman also did some sleuthing: at times he suspected musician John Phillips (Mamas and the Papas) and martial arts star/actor Bruce Lee.

In October, a few people associated with the Manson Family began talking to law enforcement, finally connecting the dots and solving the crimes. Between 1970–1971, members of the Family were convicted of first degree murder including Bobby Beausoleil, Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Charles Watson, Steve Grogan and Bruce Davis. Initially sentenced to death (with the exception of Grogan), their sentences were commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole after a 1972 California Supreme Court ruling temporarily abolished the death penalty.

Roman has remained close to Sharon’s family. In a book recently published by Sharon’s younger sister Debra, Roman was quoted as saying:

“Even after so many years, I find myself unable to watch a spectacular sunset or visit a lovely old house or experience visual pleasure of any kind without instinctively telling myself how much she would have loved it all.” — Roman Polanski in Sharon Tate Recollection by Debra Tate ©2014 Running Press Book Publishers

Debra Tate holding a copy of her book about her sister Sharon

By 1974, Roman Polanski was having (all things considered) one of his best years. It began with his return to Los Angeles, although initially opposed to the idea.

“I never wanted to go back there again. It took a lot of convincing from Bob Evans, the head of Paramount, as well as Jack Nicholson. But once I was there, I began living again: parties, friends, girls…” — Roman Polanski quoted in “Polanski on Polanski: the Director Discusses His Life Tragedies” by Philipp Oehmke and Martin Wolf ©November 2013 Der Spiegel

Polanski was riding high with the release of his film Chinatown, a glossy homage to film noir with a script by writer Robert Towne. Chinatown went on to win Oscars for Best Writing and Original Screenplay, several Golden Globes and many more awards.

Just three years later, however, Roman Polanski was arrested for the sexual assault of a 13-year old girl. The teen was modeling for Polanski at Jack Nicholson’s home, where Roman was staying. Polanski was indicted on six criminal counts, including rape and providing narcotics to a minor (he gave his victim a Quaalude). Polanski pled ‘not guilty’ to all charges. He was ordered by Judge Rittenband to undergo a 90-day psychiatric evaluation at the California Institute for Men at Chino. He spent forty-two days in Chino, then agreed to a plea deal: he would plead guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, the other charges would be dismissed.

The victim’s attorney encouraged the deal to prevent his client from testifying. But Polanski heard that the Judge planned to disregard his plea agreement and might, instead, sentence him to five years in prison. Allegedly, the D.A. showed Judge Rittenband recent photos of Polanski partying with underage girls. Although his attorneys assured Polanski that he’d only be sentenced to the rest of his 90-days and then deported, Roman took no chances. He failed to appear at his sentencing, instead booking a one-way flight to London. He now lives in France with his third wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner. They have a son and a daughter, now in their twenties. Roman has never returned to America.

Image for post
Image for post
Roman Polanski speaks with the press in 1977, just before he fled the United States

In 2002, Roman Polanski won both the Palm D’Or (the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival) and the Oscar for his Academy-award winning film The Pianist, which dramatized the life of a Holocaust survivor in Poland. Polanski is also a Holocaust survivor. His parents and older sister were sent to concentration camps, and his mother was killed at Auschwitz.

But after he won the Oscar, his legal troubles began picking up steam again. In September 2009, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, at the request of law enforcement back in the U.S. He was jailed for two months near Zurich, then placed on house arrest at his Swiss home. Finally, ten months later, the Swiss government rejected the United States request for extradition.

Roman is a free man, although he is only permitted to travel between Switzerland, France and Poland. And in the past several years, at least three other women have accused Polanski of rape during the 1970s and ‘80s.

In light of today’s #MeToo movement, we view this story now differently than we did in the ’70s or even a few years ago. What Polanski did was terrible — it was traumatic for the girl (she has since come forward to speak about her experience and she forgave Roman, although she believes he should return to the U.S. to resolve his legal standing). But it seemed as though — long before we became enraged about the behaviors of directors and producers like Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves — we were particularly indignant at Roman Polanski. The public almost seemed to blame Roman for Sharon’s terrible death. Of course, that is partially because of the book Helter Skelter. Written by the Manson Family lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, he made sure to include all those salacious clues found allegedly by investigators, even though they were later proved to be unconnected to the murders or motives.

Today, we are able to judge Polanski based upon his own behaviors. In 2018, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences removed Roman Polanski as a member. It did not revoke his Oscar for the 2002 film he won it for. In 2020, he again won the Palm D’Or for his film J’Accuse (English title: An Officer and a Spy). Two actresses walked out of the ceremony, in protest.

Image for post
Image for post
Roman Polanski accepts the 2020 Palm D’Or for his film J’Accuse

Has Roman suffered terrible losses, the kind of losses that may damage a person’s mind and spirit? Absolutely. Is he still responsible for his own behavior, even in the midst of the deepest grief, pain and torment?

You bet he is.

H. Allegra Lansing is author of the true crime book The Manson Family: More to the Story.

You can read more about the murders here:

And more about Sharon Tate here:

Written by

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store