In this blog series, we’re examining the actions of Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins and Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten on the nights for which they were later convicted of their capital offenses. This blog originally appeared at mansonfamily.net.
Today, we’re going to look closely at the behavior and activities of Leslie Van Houten.
In the early hours (perhaps 2am?) of Saturday, August 9, 1969, four members of the Manson Family returned to Spahn Ranch. They included Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel, Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins and new follower Linda Kasabian. Linda was forced to be the lookout that night, as Watson, Krenwinkel and Atkins went on their bloody rampage that left five innocent people dead including Sharon Tate. While Susan Atkins did not officially kill anyone, she did contribute to the deaths of these people by committing the following acts:
- Criminal trespass
- Criminal restraint
- Attempted murder
When the four returned to Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, California, Manson was awake and waiting for them. He questioned them about the events of that night, including whether it was going to send the message he intended (a copycat of the Hinman murder so that Family member Bobby Beausoleil — in jail on suspicion of murder and with knowledge of Charlie’s own responsibilities in Hinman’s death — would be freed) as well as whether they had any remorse for their actions. Each person he questioned — Kasabian, Krenwinkel, Atkins and Watson — said no, they did not feel remorse for what they had done.
The killers then went to bed, sleeping until the late morning or early afternoon hours of the next day, by all accounts. That is when many of them learned the names of their victims — Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Stephen Parent, who was just 18 at the time of his murder and a guest at the property. Sometime in the afternoon hours, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Watson learned who their victims were. Kasabian also, at that time, learned about Tate’s pregnancy and was horrified that her new friends had stabbed a pregnant woman to death.
During that afternoon, Patricia Krenwinkel spoke privately to Leslie Van Houten. She told Lulu what she had done the night before, including chasing Abigail Folger across the lawn of Cielo Drive, finally catching her and stabbing her. Although it was Watson who officially ended Folger’s life, by assisting Krenwinkel and enacting the final wounds, Patricia aka Katie knew that she had killed this woman. She later complained, during the drive back to the ranch, of how badly her hand hurt — her knife had hit bone many times while stabbing Folger.
It is unclear whether Krenwinkel spoke to anyone else at the ranch, the day after the murders, other than Leslie. Pat and Leslie had a special relationship, however.
“Pat Krenwinkel had been the person that in the group was more or less designated to keep an eye on me… I don’t know why he picked Pat, but when I first got to the ranch, he had told me to stay close to Pat, that she was the most tuned in to him.”
— Leslie Van Houten, from her 2016 Parole Hearing
Pat and Leslie had much in common. They both grew up in Southern California, each with an older sibling (Leslie also had two younger siblings). They both witnessed the decline of their parents’ marriages, divorces that had devastating affects on both. Both women were drawn to the Family via their faiths or desire for a sacred experience. Both were relegated, within the Family, to very traditional feminine roles. And as of 1969, both were seriously considering leaving Charlie. For Patricia Krenwinkel, it began with the mounting violence.
“He began to do things like grab me by the hip. I remember when I laughed at him once and he jerked me by the hair and said, ‘You won’t ever laugh at me again.’ And then I started watching him beat Mary… When we were out in the woods… he threw knives over my head, he threw hatchets over my head into a tree… He, at times, gave me to other people to use for sex… The idea was to let you know that he always had that control.”
— Patricia Krenwinkel, from her 2004 Parole Hearing
By the summer of 1969, Leslie was engaging more with the Straight Satans to Charlie’s immense displeasure. This meant not only that she was defying him, but that she wasn’t bringing Bobby Beausoleil to the ranch. Charlie had dozens of women around him between 1967 and 1969, but in many ways it was the men that he desired. That meant giving the men a sense of longer leash than the girls.
“Charlie’s acquiescences to the men — Bobby, Bruce, Tex and Paul — included permitting them a freedom to come and go that he never allowed any of the women. Make no mistake, Charlie needed those men as much as he did his female followers. But he knew that key to keeping them was letting them believe they were free.”
— From ‘The Manson Family: More to the Story’ by H. Allegra Lansing
Due to the fact that both Leslie and Katie were considering leaving Spahn Ranch and Manson, it is likely that they had begun to confide in each other that summer (1969). We do know that Katie spoke to Leslie, and confessed what she had done at Cielo Drive. That confession intrigued Leslie:
“Leslie said that when she found out that Pat had gone to the Tate house that first night, it gave legitimacy to Manson’s ‘Helter Skelter’ plan. ‘It had a huge influence on me,’ she said. ‘That doesn’t mean that I blame her for my actions, I don’t. It’s only to describe how influential she was in the group’.”
— The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder by Nikki Meredith ©2018 Citadel Press
Leslie believed what Pat had told her, and felt a sense of guilt that she hadn’t participated (she has admitted to such). So when Charlie approached her later that day, she was open:
“I was disappointed that I hadn’t been selected to go the first night… Manson met me on the boardwalk (part of the old movie set at Spahn Ranch) and asked if I believed in him enough to kill. And I said, ‘Yes’. I wanted to do it for Manson and for Manson’s approval. To let him know I was a good soldier and… willing to lay my life on the line for him.”
— Leslie Van Houten, from her 1996 parole hearing
That evening, Charlie again gathered Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian. But he also asked Leslie and Steve Grogan (a Spahn Ranch hand who idolized Charlie) and this time, Manson accompanied the killers. He drove the car with the others piled inside. According to him,
“While rumors were still flying and the police still scratching their heads, I had visions of another night that would add to the confusion and make the affairs of that night look like more than copy-cat murders. We’d make it appear as though a full-scale war was being waged against the whites.”
— Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press
The seven drove around the Los Angeles area for two to three hours (mostly Manson at the wheel, sometimes Kasabian) before arriving in the quiet suburban neighborhood of Waverly Drive in Los Feliz. The pulled up to 3311 Waverly and several people in the car recognized the neighborhood — a friend previously lived in the house across the street and they had attended several LSD-fueled parties there. That tenant no longer resided there, but Manson set his sights on 3311.
He went into the property alone and found homeowner Leno LaBianca, a 44-year old grocer, napping on the couch. Charlie woke LaBianca and demanded to know who else was in the home. Leno admitted that his wife was in the bedroom. Charlie then tied up Leno with a length of leather from the fringed rawhide suit he wore. He then went into the bedroom, found 41-year old Rosemary LaBianca (a shopkeeper) and told her to get dressed.
Charlie then left the property and went back to the car, where he signaled Watson to go inside and kill the couple. He told Patricia and Leslie to join Watson. Leslie had regretted that she was not asked to go the previous night and was eager to prove her loyalty to Manson, but once she stepped inside the property, she began to have doubts.
“The minute we walked in the house it became clear that this was not what I had imagined. Before that it had always been an abstract kind of thing and when it was the real thing I was absolutely torn in half.”
— Leslie Van Houten from the program “Turning Point” ©1994 American Broadcast Company (ABC)
But Charlie had privately told Watson to make sure that everyone got their hands dirty. While the details of the overnight hours of August 10th have been told before exhaustively, here is what we know about Leslie’s crimes:
- She willingly entered the property of 3311 Waverly Drive, knowing that her accomplices (Watson and Krenwinkel) had committed murder the night before and were planning to do so again.
- She and Pat took Mrs. LaBianca back to her bedroom, holding her there while Watson killed Leno in the living room. Leno’s screams were so terrifying that Rosemary became quite hysterical.
- While Watson may have placed the pillowcase on Rosemary’s head, either Pat or Leslie or both participated in tying a lamp cord around her neck, to hold the pillowcase in place.
- Leslie then witnessed Pat attempt to stab Mrs. LaBianca around the neck/collarbones area, but the bones deflected the knife. At that time, Pat called for Watson to help them.
- Leslie witnessed Tex stab Rosemary several times, at a distance, with his bayonet. Mrs. LaBianca fell to the floor and he continued stabbing her. Tex then handed Leslie a knife and ordered her to stab the woman.
- Leslie admitted to stabbing Rosemary LaBianca 16 or 17 times in the lower back/buttocks.
- While the home was being ‘staged’ by Watson and Krenwinkel, Leslie wiped down fingerprints in the bedroom (tampering with evidence).
- The trio then ate watermelon and drank chocolate milk from the LaBianca’s refrigerator, showered, and dressed — Leslie stole a dress from Mrs. LaBianca and wore it that night.
- They also stole a bag of coins from the residence before leaving, hitchhiking back to Spahn Ranch.
Leslie was convicted of the murders of both Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in 1971. During the last weeks of her trial, her court-appointed attorney (Ronald Hughes) went missing and was later found deceased. Meanwhile, Leslie was found guilty and sentenced to death, remanded to the California Center for Women in Frontera. A year later, the California Supreme Court abolished the death penalty, and Leslie’s conviction was converted to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
However, in 1977, her original conviction was overturned. The court found that she had not received proper representation during trial (due to Hughes’ disappearance) and a new trial was ordered. That trial ended in a hung jury and a third trial began in late ’77. During that trial, evidence of her theft (Rosemary’s dress, the food/drink and the coins) was brought forward, which meant that she lost the possibility of gaining a conviction simply for manslaughter.
Like Susan Atkins, Leslie stabbed someone but evidence showed that her actions did not directly lead to the person’s death (Susan stabbed Wojciech Frykowski in the legs but he overpowered her and ran, chased by Tex Watson who actually killed the man, and Leslie stabbed Rosemary LaBianca in the back/buttocks after Watson had already killed the woman, and after he ordered her to do so). Watson himself admitted that Leslie was not a willing participant in the murders of the LaBianca’s:
“The lady was dead. I pushed Leslie down beside her. She shook her head. I turned her face up towards me. I had blood all the way up my arms and I had a knife in my hand. She was one scared girl.”
— Will You Die For Me? by Charles Watson and Chaplain Ray ©1978 Fleming H. Revell
In the upcoming Part 4 of this blog series, I will explain why I have itemized the actions of Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten during the crimes for which they were convicted. Feel free to comment and share!