In parts One, Two and Three of this blog series (originally released at mansonfamily.net) we’ve explored the actions of Susan ‘Sexy Sadie’ Atkins and Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten on the nights for which they were later found guilty of murder. It is important for inmates with capital offenses to identify their crimes and responsibilities in order to participate in the parole process.
As we identified, neither Susan nor Leslie technically murdered anyone and yet, they contributed to the deaths of up to eight people and one unborn infant, and they were legally found culpable of first degree murder by juries of their peers.
Susan contributed to the death of Gary Hinman by, among other things, holding a gun on Gary while Bobby fought with the victim, holding the wounded Hinman captive after he was slashed by Charles Manson with a sword, held a pillow over his face (along with Mary Brunner) in an attempt to bring about Gary’s demise after he had been stabbed in the chest by Bobby Beausoleil, and then by wiping down evidence in Hinman’s Topanga Canyon home, including fingerprints.
Susan also contributed to the deaths of Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Sharon Tate and the infant that Sharon was carrying in her womb, by invading the Cielo Drive residence along with three co-conspirators, stealing money from her victims, tying them up, stabbing Wojciech in the legs and then holding Sharon Tate captive, while terrorizing the woman, as Charles ‘Tex’ Watson and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel ran around killing the others.
Leslie Van Houten contributed to the deaths of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca by entering a home that she knew was targeted by Krenwinkel and Watson after they had admittedly killed the previous night, by tying a lamp cord around Mrs. LaBianca’s neck and by wiping down evidence inside the property after both Leno and Rosemary were dead. Leslie also stabbed Mrs. LaBianca 16–17 times in the lower back/buttocks area, but (as autopsy reports confirmed) only after Watson had killed Rosemary using a bayonet.
When both Atkins and Van Houten were sentenced in early 1971 for their crimes, they were ordered to die by electric chair. A little over a year later however, while both were serving in a special unit at the California Institute for Women in Chino, California, the state’s Supreme Court (temporarily) abolished the death penalty. The sentences of both women (along with Krenwinkel and the other co-defendants) were then commuted to life in prison, with the possibility of parole. In 1977, Leslie’s original conviction was overturned due to issues with her legal representation. She was retried for the murder of the LaBianca’s, but her trial ended in a mistrial. She was released from prison and a third trial was scheduled. During that trial, Leslie was again found guilty of the murder of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
Starting in the late 1970s, Susan Atkins began appearing before the parole board. During the years since her conviction and original sentence, she had attempted to present a different face to the public and to prison administrators. Declaring herself a born-again Christian, Susan co-wrote a memoir (“Child of Satan, Child of God”) in 1977 and in that book, she claimed that most of what she had told the grand jury in December of 1969 was false. Susan claimed that she did not actually stab Sharon Tate, as she had once bragged and that, in fact, she didn’t actually kill anyone.
We know that Susan’s claims are correct, because a year after her first memoir was released, Charles Watson also released a tell-all (he also claimed that he was a born-again Christian). Watson acknowledged that he alone killed Sharon Tate, and took responsibility for all of the murders that he committed: Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Sharon Tate, Leno Labianca and his wife, Rosemary. The final wounds of every one of these victims were committed by Tex Watson. And while he did not admit to his role in the stabbing death of Spahn Ranch hand Shorty Shea, his admissions laid the blame at himself for each of his admitted victims. Susan Atkins did not stab Sharon Tate. Watson was the only one who stabbed the pregnant actress. And while Susan continued to bear responsibility for her participation in the two sets of murders she was present for, she did not technically kill anyone.
Ahead of her 1981 parole hearing, Susan submitted to a polygraph test in which she denied her confessions of killing Sharon Tate. She passed the test, according to administrators.
However, at that 1981 hearing, Susan was newly married to a man named Donald Lai$ure (yes, that’s how he spelled his name), a conman who had already been married to 34 previous women. Nor was Lai$ure the first man in Susan’s life, post-conviction. In fact, she was engaged to three other men before her nuptials with Lai$ure. Lai$ure not only had been married more than three dozen times before, but he also claimed to be a multi-millionaire and the parole board smelled an opportunist — not just the Texan, but Susan herself. What otherwise could have been a winning argument for redemption, parole and release (she had also recently converted to Roman Catholicism), turned into a sham of a hearing, in which Atkins was roundly decried for her poor judgement. The results of her lie-detector test (and a favorable psychiatric exam) stacked up poorly against Susan’s recent behavior and her parole was denied. The marriage to Lai$ure was annulled a few months later.
Susan’s next parole hearing, in 1982, went badly — she was admittedly very nervous and she looked terrible, wearing a lot of makeup and a bad perm. The proceeding was also filmed and Atkins’ demeanor came across poorly. But she was racking up good citations, including her recent move into general population and her education, in the prison vocational system.
Susan was looking forward to her next parole hearing, in December 1985. New attorneys were hired to reframe the narrative with the parole board but recent violations on Atkins’ record (receiving unauthorized payments from inmates for her manicure business, and an altercation in the mail room) showed that the prisoner was not ready for life outside of prison. Most damning of all was her most recent psychiatric evaluation, in which she was deemed to have questionable judgement and to be ‘gullible and manipulative’. These are not good qualities for someone who is striving to demonstrate that she is free from the powerful coercion of homicidal cult leaders (like Manson). Susan, don’t forget, was the first Manson Family follower in prison to renounce Charlie but for the rest of her life, her behaviors were measured up against those who still ‘believed’. During that 1985 psychiatric evaluation, Susan was deemed to have an anti-social personality disorder and to be at risk for future criminal behavior.
Doris Tate, mother of murder victim Sharon Tate, was present at that 1985 hearing and Susan’s sobs and tears hit a particularly sensitive nerve for the grieving woman. Her hystrionics rang false, rightly so.
Susan always displayed the most uncomfortable and self-serving behavior during parole hearings, of all of the Manson Family inmates. The good work that she did behind bars, including finding recovery through AA/NA and group therapy and marrying a young legal student (James Whitehouse), just couldn’t outweigh her bad behavior, like refusing to participate in her 1988 psychiatric evaluation.
Susan grew older and more frustrated with the parole board’s inability to see her truth. Doris Tate passed away in 1992, and her daughter Patti now attended the hearings for her family. Susan, though, believed in Christian redemption and thought that as long as she told the truth (about not technically killing anyone) that the parole board would show her leniency. It is not clear if the parole boards ever believed Susan’s later admissions, in which she denied killing Sharon Tate and the others. A 1996 psychiatric evaluation concurred that Atkins was still at risk for deterioration in the larger world.
Over time, her behaviors improved as Susan continued to mature. She fired her legal team at the request of her husband James, her new counsel.
In ‘The Manson Family: More to the Story’, I was particularly harsh about the fact that Susan’s first memoir was established through a Christian non-profit, in order (I believed) to divert funds from the natural recipient: Wojciech Frykowski’s adult son Bartek (who won a garnishment order against the killers in 1970). But I later learned that Susan did not have much control over that publication — the non-profit organization that was intended to offer ministry to other inmates was never formed, the original publisher went bankrupt and Susan was forced to sign her royalties over to the new publishing firm that bought the assets of the original one. In the late 90s, Susan attempted to compensate for Frykowski’s financial loss by donating several paintings she made in the prison hobby shop and turning over the proceeds to Bartek’s estate (he had recently died but his son and daughter would gain those royalties).
Susan was expected to participate in another psychiatric evaluation in 2000, but she again refused. According to the doctor, “I can only conclude, based upon the inmate’s behavior, that she still has a serious problem with authority and has assumed an extremely adversarial approach to this psychiatric evaluation.”
Atkins fought back when these findings were submitted to the parole board. She said, “the board adopts a policy of breaking their own rules and regulations. I jump through all of their hoops, and then each time I come back after doing everything and more that they asked, then they give me a whole different set of hoops to jump through.”
A 2005 evaluation asserted that “inmate Atkins does admit responsibility and she offers what appear to be credible expressions of insight and remorse. Complete assurance of her acceptance of responsibility, insight and remorse will probably always be clouded somewhat by the factual disputes that stem from her earlier versions of the crimes… There is no immediate threat of dangerousness should this inmate be released to the community… I am fully supportive of a release in accordance with these conclusions.”
During her June, 2005 parole hearing, Susan faced the families of her victims but she refused to speak about her crimes (at her attorney/husband’s advice). Had she spoken candidly about admitted what she was guilty of and apologized with real conviction, she may have won her release. Instead, she got a three year denial. Two and a half years after that hearing, Susan suffered a seizure while exercising at the Women’s prison and was moved to the medical care unit at Chowchilla. There, she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Doctors said she was terminal, with only months to live. Whitehouse attempted to have his wife freed on ‘Compassionate Release’ due to her medical frailty but a special hearing denied that request.
Susan Denise Atkins died September 24, 2009. Her original ‘earliest’ eligible parole date was October 6, 1976. Had she immediately spoken to administrators to deny her grand jury testimony, and submitted to a polygraph and routinely participated in psychiatric evaluations, it is likely she would have been released within a few years of her original conviction — ten years, at most. Once you tell a lie, it’s hard to convince people that you’re now telling the truth. When you’re also mentally unstable, it’s nearly impossible to prove your contrition. When you hamstring your chances by grandstanding and seeking attention, you make yourself look like a narcissist. And when you hire a less-than-stellar legal representative, you’re taking chances with your life.
The last word Susan spoke was ‘Amen’ — so be it.