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 . 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 /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

Vincent Bugliosi was chosen as Prosecuting Attorney, along with Aaron Stovitz. That afternoon, the LAPD handcuffed Danny and drove him to Spahn Ranch to search for shell casings. The cuffs were his terms — he knew Charlie was getting info passed to him from Chatsworth. Charlie’s ‘eyes and ears’ (Sandy and Squeaky) were in Inyo but somebody at Spahn Ranch was gabbing.

Bugliosi recalled that visit: “Old man George Spahn was sitting in this dilapidated shack where he lived. He was wearing sunglasses and a Stetson, and he had a Chihuahua in his lap. He was listening to Sonny James on the radio while one of the hippie girls prepared lunch for him. We kept Danny in handcuffs so none of the Family still there would suspect he was cooperating. He took us to where Charlie and the others did their target practice shooting. We found casings from a .22-caliber revolver. Danny later told us he’d seen the revolver — located by Steven Weiss back in September — in Manson’s hand. When LAPD test fired it, the casings matched those we found at the ranch…”

Then the prosecutor drove to Death Valley. “It was extremely rough country. I was looking for boots. There were bloody boot prints at the Tate residence. I didn’t find them, but I did find lots of magazines with articles about Hitler. And the detectives found the wire cutters that, it would turn out, had been used to cut the telephone line at the Tate residence.” And Bugliosi remembered the first time he saw Manson. “He was in jail in Independence. I watched three or four sheriff’s deputies walk him into the courthouse. I was shocked by how little he was. He was scruffy, with long, scraggly hair, and kind of hunchbacked. I thought, ‘He doesn’t look imposing.’ But I’d already learned enough about him to know that it would be a great error on my part to underestimate him.”

Bugliosi had made a name for himself in the L.A. Prosecutor’s office as a ferocious litigator. But he stepped on toes along the way, including the way he took over the case against the Manson Family. “Traditionally, the role of the prosecutor has been twofold: to handle the legal aspects of the case; and to present in court the evidence gathered by law-enforcement agencies,” Bugliosi wrote in his best-selling book based on the trials. “I never accepted these limitations. In past cases I always joined in the investigation — going out and interviewing witnesses myself, tracking down and developing new leads, often finding evidence otherwise overlooked. In some cases, this led to the release of a suspect. In others, to a conviction that otherwise might not have been obtained. For a lawyer to do less than his utmost is, I strongly feel, a betrayal of his client. Though in criminal trials one tends to focus on the defense attorney and his client the accused, the prosecutor is also a lawyer, and he too has a client: the People. And the People are equally entitled to their day in court, to a fair and impartial trial, and to justice.”

“I have nothing but respect for Bugliosi as a lawyer, but his attitude pissed me off,” remembered Sergeant McGann from the Tate investigation team. “He didn’t solve the case. We solved the case. We brought the case to the district attorney’s office… He found more evidence, but that’s what he’s supposed to do.” Actually, McGann (lead investigator at Tate) didn’t solve the case — the Hinman team put the pieces together.

Danny Galindo (who had investigated both the Tate and LaBianca crime scenes) defended the prosecutor. “Vince Bugliosi was intense. Boy, was he intense. If I interviewed somebody and didn’t get something he wanted, he re-interviewed them. But I didn’t mind… conviction meant proving these people guilty. He’s the guy who made the case.”

The problem is that when you interview and re-interview witnesses, sometimes their stories eventually fit your narrative. Witnesses can be led or convinced that your version of the truth is what really happened, particularly after long, exhaustive interviews in police stations and jails.

  • 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, 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 prosecutor was searching for motive, trying to understand what led the Family to kill and what convincible case he could present. Bugliosi had a perfect prosecutorial record — he’d won every homicide case he’d tried and had no intention of letting this band of scruffy stabbers blemish his record. Thus the Bug (as the Family nicknamed him) went on the chase for what became known as ‘the Magic Motive.’

Even Bugliosi had doubts about whether he could convince a jury of Manson’s guilt in the murders. The women, Tex and Bobby, were easier — Susan admitted to her crimes (hell, she admitted to crimes she didn’t commit), there was physical evidence linking Krenwinkel, Watkins and Beausoleil, and Van Houten was implicated by others. But Charlie? He wasn’t even there when the killings went down. How could the prosecutor tie him to the murders?

That’s how Bugliosi stumbled on Helter Skelter. By demonstrating that Manson had a vested interest in Los Angeles going up in flames following the murder of establishment white people pinned on black militants, the prosecutor found something tangible that — as outlandish as it was — a jury would believe.

But as Susan wrote, “Bugliosi didn’t look at the events that led up to these murders in chronological order. If you don’t study what happened in the order it happened how can you ever understand why one occurrence followed another? …the Tate­LaBianca trial was rushed from the start due to the incredible amount of public pressure the Los Angeles Police Department was under. The Grand Jury was held before the District Attorney’s Office had any real evidence on anyone, except for my testimony. As such, Mr. Bugliosi was forced into the case much quicker than he would have liked. He had to come up with a way to convict Charles Manson of crimes which Mr. Bugliosi knew he was responsible for but for which Charles Manson had been very careful to distance himself from… It wasn’t until the trial started that Vincent Bugliosi finally found out about the suspected murder of Bernard Crowe… by the time Vincent Bugliosi discovered it he was already selling Helter Skelter to a jury. To have tried to change the purported motive at that point would have cost him his credibility in a case in which he was already stretching his credibility to the limit.”

  • 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,

“Linda had seen them committing mayhem at the Tate house. She had driven the killers to the LaBianca residence, but she hadn’t done anything. Still, she was technically guilty of first-degree murder. I told her that a deal was the only way out. She initially didn’t want to do that. These were her soul mates, no matter what they’d done. But I told her, ‘You’re broke, you’re pregnant, and you were there. You must become a prosecution witness.’

One day Aaron Stovitz, the head of the trial division, called me. He said, ‘I want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘I’m going to get my hair cut at the barbershop at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Come on over.’ So he drives out, and he makes me an offer. A very strange confluence of events had occurred. They needed Linda Kasabian, and she needed them. They gave her total immunity.”

  • 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 .

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 .

To give Bugliosi credit, his legal work was brilliant. He successfully tried the defendants, winning deserved convictions for all. His decision to lead with the ‘Helter Skelter’ motive in court was probably the right call. But my criticism of Bugliosi (who passed away in 2015) is that he knew there was more to this story yet in the many interviews he gave since the verdicts, he stuck solely to his original story about motive. Perhaps he felt righteous about his judicial win and wanted to protect his reputation. Maybe he wanted to continue to earn a living as a true crime author and paid ‘expert’ on news programs. But failing to reveal the full story has hindered our ability to understand the cult mentality and psychopathy that led to these shocking and violent crimes, and put a major American city in the crosshairs.

Vincent Bugliosi had a responsibility to prosecute these crimes to the best of his abilities and put the killers behind bars. But I would argue that he also had a duty to educate the public about what really happened. As we know, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

There were many opportunities for the prosecution to tell the full story, to provide a clearer understanding of the real motives and Bugliosi chose not to do so, perhaps for selfish reasons. We’ve learned more from the killers than we have from those who prosecuted and studied them.

  • 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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