Part of my ongoing series about the Manson Family women in prison
Well, I’ve been remiss at finishing this particular blog series — my bad! Seriously, there’s been a lot of distractions lately (both Manson-related and non: see coronavirus). Glad to be back on track. Especially because I have a couple of new series that I’m about to start! Are you ready?
So, resuming to the topic of Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins and Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten — what they were actually guilty of, what they were sentenced to, and their chances of parole…
In Part One, we listed the actions of Susan Atkins during the weekend that Gary Hinman was murdered, including how she held a gun on Hinman, lied (with a phony British accent) to someone who called the house that Sunday looking for Gary, destroyed evidence and even took turns (with Mary Brunner) in holding a pillow over his face after he had been stabbed by Bobby Beausoleil, in an attempt to end the musician/chemist’s life. But as we reported, Susan’s actions did not directly cause Gary Hinman’s death — indirectly, yes and she was found guilty and sentenced for her crime.
In Part Two, we described Susan’s behavior during the Cielo Drive murders — how she scaled the fence and illegally entered property, how she ‘kidnapped’ Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger by ordering them (at knifepoint) to leave their bedrooms and go into the living room where Tex Watson was, along with Wojciech Frykowski. Susan stole approximately $70 from Abigail Folger and then stabbed Wojciech several times in the legs. Although he managed to escape her, Frykowski was chased outside by Watson who finished killing the man. Susan remained inside, with Sharon, while Patricia Krenwinkel chased Abigail Folger outside. Folger was killed by Krenwinkel and Tex.
Sharon terrorized Sharon Tate, who begged for her life and the life of her unborn child. Susan told her “I have no mercy for you” and called her a bitch and told her to prepare to die. But in the end, Susan could not stab Sharon. Instead, Tex Watson came inside and committed the murder of the pregnant actress.
In Part Three, we documented the activities of Leslie Van Houten on the night after the Cielo murders, when Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were killed. We explained that she accompanied the killers willingly, after learning what they had done the day before from Pat Krenwinkel. We told you that Van Houten entered the home, after Charlie tied Leno up and left the LaBiancas with demented Tex Watson. We wrote of how Pat and Leslie tied Rosemary using a lamp cord, and subdued the woman when she freaked out at hearing her husband stabbed by Watson in the other room, and how Pat tried to stab Rosemary around the collarbones but could not get through. Tex then came into the bedroom, stabbed Rosemary to death with the bayonet and forced Leslie to stab the woman. She has admitted to stabbing Mrs. LaBianca 16–17 times around the buttocks — wounds that were, according to the coroner, all committed post-mortem. Although her stab wounds were committed after the victim was dead, Leslie was found guilty of capital murder for her crimes — and when she was retried ten years later (due to issues involving her legal representation) it was brought up that she also stole items from the LaBianca home, quashing any possibility of her receiving a conviction of second degree murder or manslaughter. She was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
In Part Four, we wrote of Susan’s years incarcerated and her attempts at parole and redemption. For every positive report she received, she balanced it with negative behaviors (refusing psychiatric evaluations, marriage to a conman, violations involving the transaction of money, and what many felt was her phony attempt to align herself with the evangelical movement). Susan’s efforts at parole failed: she died in 2009 of brain cancer.
Now, we turn back to Leslie Van Houten and her life behind bars, including her parole experience. Leslie has long been deemed the Manson Family Killer most likely to gain freedom — a false label since the only killer who has been freed was Steve Grogan (who killed stuntman Shorty Shea and later identified the place of his burial to law enforcement). But most will agree that Leslie has been nearly a model inmate, even those who continue to advocate against her release.
Leslie was not the first Manson Family Killer to turn her back on Charlie (that actually was Susan Atkins) but it wasn’t long before she saw the light. It began with reconnecting with her family. According to author Nikki Meredith:
Leslie was so weirdly out of touch with reality, Mrs. Van Houten felt as though she was visiting a mental patient. As a way to reorient her to her past she… brought boxes of family photos and asked Leslie to help her put them in albums… “I’d say, ‘Leslie, do you remember what we were doing there? Where were we? Wasn’t that a picnic?’’ And this stimulated extended conversations about each family member and memories Leslie had about her childhood… Mrs. Van Houten was so determined to do everything she could to reintegrate Leslie into the family, she agreed to include Mr. Van Houten in an overnight visit. For a brief time, they were a family again — cooking, talking, playing cards and board games… given how much acrimony there had been, a testament to how much they both loved their daughter.
— The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder by Nikki Meredith ©2018 Citadel Press
In 1977, Leslie’s original 1971 conviction was overturned. Her attorney (Ronald Hughes) disappeared near the end of the trial and was replaced, and the California courts agreed that this caused Leslie to be underrepresented in court. The first retrial ended with a mistrial, and she was released in order to prepare for the next trial. As we stated above, that trial ended with a guilty verdict, a conviction of first-degree murder and a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. Prosecutors made sure to mention that Leslie ate food from the LaBianca’s refrigerator and stole coins and clothing from the home — theft during the commission of a homicide removes the possibility of a conviction merely of manslaughter. Leslie was returned to the women’s prison at Frontera, where she again joined Pat Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins behind bars.
But also during the 1970s, Leslie received an education in prison that emphasized women’s liberation and empowerment. That education, courtesy of Canadian writer and educator Karlene Faith, appears to have been a major catalyst in Leslie’s life. It helped her overcome an eating disorder (she also got sober during that decade) and channeled her energies into writing. Leslie has a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and a Masters Degree in Humanities. She has written many poems and other works during the past four decades — some of which have been published. She has also taught and mentored other female inmates at Frontera.
She has had no disciplinary citations in at least forty years. She has not profited off her crimes. Numerous psychologists have testified that she is remorseful, repentant and unlikely to commit future crimes. The one glaring faux pas we have found is her decision in 1982 to marry a man named William ‘Bill’ Cywin — a man who likely had plans to break his new wife out of prison. He was arrested and a women’s prison guard uniform was found in the trunk of his car. There is no evidence that Leslie knew of his plans (she claimed she married him to enjoy conjugal visits) and she divorced him shortly after learning of his arrest.
As we wrote in Part One:
Prisons have four major purposes: Retribution (punishing those who commit crimes), Incapacitation (preventing dangerous criminals from harming others), Deterrance (a warning to others not to commit similar crimes) and Rehabilitation (helping criminals become less dangerous). Therefore, the prison experience should include an attempt to help make the prisoner better able to function in society, should they be released. Prison should be both a punitive and a redemptive experience for even the worst of offenders. That means that the prisoner must be honest and forthright about what they did during their capital crimes, in order to participate in the parole process as well as working to rehabilitative themselves.
(originally posted at https://www.mansonfamily.net/news/sadie-and-lulu-1)
Leslie Van Houten has appeared before the parole board 22 times. She has appeared poised and calm and reflective during her hearings (not displaying the kind of hystrionics that Susan Atkins and Pat Krenwinkel have, nor the bombastic theatrics of Charles Manson) and in 2017, the California Parole Board saw fit to parole her. This means that she was deemed eligible for parole — meeting their requirements. That she no longer required retribution for her actions of 1969. That imprisoning her was no longer a deterrence to others who might commit similar crimes. That she had been rehabilitated and was no longer a threat to society.
But the parole findings are then submitted to the California Governor’s office for review. The Governor will review the information provided and determine whether the parole board made the right decision and whether they should honor it, by freeing the inmate in question. In 2017, Governor Jerry Brown elected not to release Leslie. He said that while she had demonstrated model behavior during her incarceration, that she seemed to still blame Manson for her actions and that she was unsuitable for parole.
In 2018, Leslie was again recommended for parole and again, Jerry Brown denied her eligibility.
In 2019, Leslie was recommended a third time for parole and new Governor Gavin Newsom claimed that she was still a threat:
While I commend Ms. Van Houten for her efforts at rehabilitation and acknowledge her youth at the time of the crimes, I am concerned about her role in these killings and her potential for future violence,. Ms. Van Houten was an eager participant in the killing of the LaBiancas and played a significant role.
— California Governor Gavin Newsom, June 2019
As we stated at the beginning of this series, it is important that we view each Manson Family Killer individually — that we not just lump them together and assume that what one is guilty of, the others must be too. This series was an attempt to clarify the similarities and the differences between Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten — the similarities and differences during their capital crimes, during their trial, their incarceration and their attempts at freedom.
Leslie and Susan are/were two very different women and their motivations and behaviors were strikingly unique. Tex Watson has acknowledged that Leslie only stabbed Rosemary LaBianca because he ordered her to do so and she was “scared” (of him).
It is clear that the California governors (Brown and Newsom) have made decisions based upon public sentiment. Debra Tate (Sharon’s surviving sister) has made it her life’s mission to prevent any Manson Family Killer from being released and that includes those who had nothing to do with her sister’s tragic murder. She petitions the public, ahead of each parole hearing, to flood the Governor’s office with requests to keep said killer behind bars. Even more importantly, both Brown and Newsom have had hopes of higher office. Would America elect a president who freed a Manson Family Murderer, no matter how redeemed that inmate was?
I wrote in The Manson Family: More to the Story that:
Many people still consider the Manson Family killers dangerous — that’s understandable considering what they put the victims, their families and the public through. I know most people oppose the release of the surviving incarcerated killers. But those who speak the truth, who show real remorse, who pledge to work on themselves and appeal to our compassion, show they are not, in fact, monsters but men and women who are seeking to find their full humanity. They are also men and women who can teach us the signs of cult behaviors before others are led down a similar path.
— The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing
Leslie Van Houten has spoken about her experiences and laid out a very clear and relatable story of why she was drawn to Charles Manson and his Family, how she slowly lost more and more of her own identify and was encouraged to become violent, why she believed in ‘Helter Skelter’ (Charlie’s theory of a race war which led him to warn his followers that they might have to start the revolution and become inured to violence in order to survive) and why she was forced to behave the way she did during her original 1970 trial. She has done a good job of identifying what her risk factors were and why she joined the Manson Family cult and committed murder at the behest of her leader. She has demonstrated the ability of the justice system to mete out and punish those deserving, but also to offer a process at redemption.
I was ensnared in Manson’s reality. I felt that if I left that when the revolution came, bad, bad things would happen to me. That’s what I had been told. It was — it was fear.
— Leslie Van Houten, from her January 2019 Parole Hearing
Earlier on, Manson had told me to stay close to Krenwinkel. She had been with him a long time. That, um, I was to stay close to her and help her and all of that. And when I knew that Pat had crossed over the line to her commitment to the revolution, I wanted to too. I wanted to go.
— Leslie Van Houten, from her January 2019 Parole Hearing
I didn’t think up the revolution. It’s enmeshed, but I in no way minimize what I did. I went, I participated, I have done what I can to make right on what I did. There is nothing in that night of murder that I don’t take the responsibility for or all that came before. I was a willing kid that jumped in that truck with Robert Beausoleil. I sat and listened to Catherine Share. I went to the ranch. I became a participant in the group at the ranch. I wanted to be part of the revolution and the murders that were going to happen to spark it. There’s no part of me that says it was his fault that I did all that. I willingly sat and listened. I let myself let go of who I had been and become the whole one thought, one group, one mind. Just like the other people.
— Leslie Van Houten, from her January 2019 Parole Hearing
Her current attorney is working on appeals processes to show that the California governor has not acted in accordance with the law, by denying her approved parole.
How did the young woman deemed most likely to be freed by none other than Prosecutors Vincent Bugliosi and Stephen Kay, and whom has never had a major infraction in prison, and who has educated herself and set an example of model behavior behind bars, and who we know did not (technically) kill anyone and has not used her position in prison for her own profit or gain, and who has helped educate the public about warning us about cult behaviors — how have the last four decades actually diminished her chances of freedom?