The Bug: the man who brought the Manson Family to justice

how Vincent Bugliosi was selected to prosecute the Manson Family, which led to the trials, a book deal, and so much more…

On August 9th and 10th, 1969, seven people were murdered in the Los Angeles area. Five of the victims were found at 10050 Cielo Drive — an upscale home in Benedict Canyon, currently rented by film director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Tate, who was eight months pregnant, was one of the people viciously stabbed to death sometime in the very early hours (just after midnight) of Saturday, August 9th.

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Police at the scene of 10050 Cielo Drive

The following night, two more people were killed (married couple Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, both owners of separate businesses). Their bodies were discovered the following evening by two of Rosemary’s children.

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Victims of the Manson Family included (from top left) Gary Hinman, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Sharon Tate, Wojciech Frykowski, Leno LaBianca, Rosemary LaBianca and Donald Shea

The scenes of the crimes were bloody, chaotic and contained cryptic notes written upon the walls, doors and appliances in the victims’ blood.

Pig. Rise. Death to Pigs. And the words ‘Healter Skelter’ which was written on the LaBianca’s refrigerator.

For several months, despite the similarities between the two crime scenes, law enforcement had no idea that a single group of people (the Manson Family, a communal group living in the hills above Hollywood at a property called Spahn Ranch) were responsible for those murders.

The Family also killed two more people — one man, ten days before the Cielo Drive killings and another man, two weeks after the LaBianca’s were butchered.

But when one of the women involved in the Cielo Drive/Tate murders (who happened to be in jail on charges related to the first killing) started spilling the beans to some of her fellow inmates, a chain reaction began that would lead to police identifying the killers and filing charges against them.

On November 17, 1969, a biker who knew the Family and had knowledge of the crimes decided to talk to police and tell them what he knew. Danny DeCarlo, treasurer of the Straight Satans outlaw motorcycle club, was facing federal charges related to weapons theft. He wanted immunity on those charges, and previous charges connected to drug possession. He also had a young son that he wanted to protect from Charles Manson, the leader of the Family. He knew that Manson had ordered those murders, and maybe even participated in them. So he decided to cover his own ass, and spill the beans.

The next day, the Los Angeles Prosecutor’s Office was convinced that they knew the culprits and could move forward with arresting and prosecuting them, selected Vincent Bugliosi as lead prosecutor against the Family.

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Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi at a 1969 press conference

From The Manson Family: More to the Story

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing © 2019 Swann Publications including the following citations: (1, 2 — Vincent Bugliosi quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine; 3 — Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry ©1974 W.W. Norton & Company; 4 — Michael McGann, retired LAPD homicide detective, quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine; 5 — Danny Galindo, retired LAPD homicide detective, quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine)

In December 1969, Bugliosi presented his case against several members of the Manson Family (Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Charles Watson) before the grand jury and each were indicted. Susan Atkins was the star witness, the same woman who had been involved in the killing of Sharon Tate as well as the man killed two weeks earlier.

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Susan Atkins testifying before the grand jury

Susan had been given immunity from the death penalty in exchange for her grand jury testimony. But while she waited in jail following the indictments, the Family got to her via coercion and threats. She soon recanted her testimony, and lost her immunity deal. She would face her defendants in the courtroom, and be subject to the same penalty as them.

Bugliosi spent several months investigating what could have led this group of hippies to commit some of the most brutal and heinous murders in Los Angeles history.

In his investigation, he stumbled upon the theory of Helter Skelter. As disciples of Manson explained to him, Helter Skelter was Charlie’s vision of a global race war: a black-on-white apocalypse that would begin with a series of retaliatory killings. The world would be engulfed in war, including hand-to-hand combat, but the Family would escape into Death Valley and hide in a cavern beneath the desert.

Charlie told his followers that he believed that black people would ultimately win the war because, as he put it, black people had been ‘down so long’ and it was their turn to ‘rise’.

Rise. Healter Skelter (misspelled by Miss Krenwinkel). Death to Pigs.

Charlie believed that the murders of five white people in a wealthy neighborhood would result in the revenge killings of black people, and thus would kick off this war with black people then retaliating and then white people, and so on until every state in this nation, and every nation in the world was engulfed in the flames of destruction.

At the end of ‘Helter Skelter’, Manson was convinced that black people would somehow realize that they didn’t have the leadership skills to rule the planet and would come knocking on the cavern where he and his followers were hiding and ask them to take over.

Helter Skelter was most definitely a factor in the murders but this author had suspected for many years that it was not THE motive and my book began by researching and investigating the crimes and the Family to understand what WAS the true motive.

But Vincent Bugliosi decided that Helter Skelter was the best motive to put forth at trial.

Again, from The Manson Family: More to the Story

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing © 2019 Swann Publications including the following citation (1 — The Myth of Helter Skelter by Susan Atkins-Whitehouse ©2012 Menelorelin Dorenay)

Once Susan recanted her testimony, that left Bugliosi in a precarious spot: he needed someone who not only could testify about the Charlie’s Helter Skelter philosophies (and other things he said and did) but who could place the killers at the scene of the crime. Luckily, one of the people that Charlie sent to Cielo Drive did not kill anyone: Linda Kasabian.

As her attorney remembered,

  • Gary Fleischman quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine
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Star witness Linda Kasabian with lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. He always referred to her as the ‘little hippie girl’ — the one who could participate in group sex, drug use and other recreations with the Family but stopped short of murder

Linda Kasabian did indeed prove to be a star witness. She spent eighteen days on the stand, starting in July 1970, testifying against Manson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Atkins (Charles Watson had escaped to Texas and fought extradition for months — he was tried separately from the other defendants.

Bugliosi accomplished the unthinkable — he placed Manson (who was not present for either set of killings) in the leading role of master puppeteer and manipulator, ultimately responsible for the motive of why these seven people were murdered. The defendants were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Their death sentences were overturned a year later when the California Supreme Court temporarily abolished the death penalty, commuting the sentences to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Bugliosi left the L.A. Prosecutor’s office in 1972 and went into private practice. He also co-wrote a true crime book, Helter Skelter which was published in 1974. That book later was turned into two mini-series (the first in 1976, the second in 2004).

Bugliosi made an attempt at a political career (he ran for District Attorney of Los Angeles but was not elected) before turning back to the true crime genre and publishing several additional books between 1996 and 2007. In the meantime, he became a frequent guest on television programs and documentaries to discuss the Manson Family and those infamous trials.

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Vincent Bugliosi, holding his 2007 book about the JFK assassination

During those years he continued to maintain his assertion that Helter Skelter was the primary motive for the crimes. This author determined that while Helter Skelter was certainly a motivating FACTOR (particularly for the women, who believed that they were facing armageddon and would only survive if they had Charlie to protect them) it was not the only motive and certainly not the primary motive. To learn more about the primary motive, please read The Manson Family: More to the Story.

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing © 2019 Swann Publications

Vincent Bugliosi died in 2015 at the age of eighty. Charles Manson outlived the prosecutor by more than two years.

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

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