They were no saints, but they didn’t deserve to die

the story of Manson Family victims Leno and Rosemary LaBianca

Late in the evening of Friday, August 8th, 1969, Charles Manson sent four members of his group (a cult who believed in a doomsday prophecy of a global race war which they would ultimately profit from) to kill people at an upscale residence in Benedict Canyon, Bel Air, Los Angeles.

Image for post
Image for post
Charles Manson

He sent them because he was angry — one of his other followers had just been arrested on charges related to a separate murder and might name Charlie as an accessory to the crime — and his plans to flee Spahn Ranch (the 500-acre property in Chatsworth where the ‘Manson Family’ had been staying that summer) fell apart when two more members of his Family got arrested hours earlier for using stolen credit cards.

The house in question — 10050 Cielo Drive — was currently being rented by film director Roman Polanski and his wife, 26-year old American actress Sharon Tate. Tate was at the property that evening, along with four houseguests and a caretaker who was living in the guest house.

Charlie had been to Cielo Drive several times. He visited the property in 1968 when it was being rented by Columbia Records producer Terry Melcher. Manson wanted Melcher to produce his music but his efforts were not successful.

In early 1969, Melcher moved out of Cielo Drive and Tate/Polanski moved in. Charlie visited that property once, in March 1969, looking for Melcher and was rudely asked to leave by a friend of Sharon’s.

So on August 8th, when his own life was crashing down on him, Charlie sent four of his followers to kill the people at Cielo Drive. He had no particular beef with the people living or visiting there, but he knew it would send a message to Melcher and any of his other enemies, not to cross him.

Just after midnight, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian scaled the fence at Cielo Drive and killed all of the people there, except for the caretaker at the back of the property.

Image for post
Image for post
The victims at Cielo Drive were (from left) Wojciech Frykowski, Sharon Tate, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger

Rumor has it that after they returned to Spahn Ranch, Charlie and another member of the Family went to Cielo Drive, to see what the scene looked like and ensure that it would be pinned on black people. The goal of the murders was to create a series of murders of establishment white people that would be blamed on black people, so that white people would retaliation by going into black communities and killing people in response. That action would result in black people seeking their own revenge, and on and on and on again, until Los Angles and the rest of the world were engulfed in the flames of war. Charlie, meanwhile, would be hiding in the Death Valley desert, waiting for someone to let him know it was time for HIM to take over rulership of the planet. Manson called this vision Helter Skelter, inspired by a song on the Beatles’ White Album.

But the next morning, after the killings of Sharon Tate and her friends, Los Angeles wasn’t in flames. War had not begun. Helter Skelter wasn’t happening yet. So Charlie gathered the four killers from the night before, along with two others and set off for another night of murder and mayhem.

Image for post
Image for post
3301 Waverly Drive — the home where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were savagely killed by the Manson Family

Leno and Rosemary LaBianca spent that day at Lake Isabella (two hours north of L.A.). They’d been married since ’59, and together brought five children into the marriage. Leno had three kids with his first wife, and Rosemary had an adult daughter and a 15-year old son from previous relationships.

Pasqualino Antonio LaBianca, known amiably as ‘Leno’, was 44-years old, an Italian-American born in Los Angeles, president of a chain of local markets. A portly man, Leno was the only son born to Italian immigrants. He had two older sisters and served in the Army during World War II. He saw battle in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany before returning stateside in spring of 1946. He then joined the Army Reserves.

His parents bought the home at 3301 Waverly Drive in 1940, while Leno was in high school. He dated Alice Skolnick all during his high school and Army years. While he was overseas, Alice lived at Waverly Drive with the LaBianca’s, waiting for her sweetheart to come home.

The plan was that Leno and Alice would wed when his service was over and they would then live in the garage apartment, behind the main residence. Leno’s parents assumed that once Leno and Alice had children, they would move into the main residence and the elder LaBianca’s would retire elsewhere.

But his first marriage had many trying times. There were three children, born between 1948 and 1955. At some point, Leno and Alice moved out of Waverly Drive and purchased a home in nearby Alhambra. Leno was then on the board of Gateway Ranch Markets (his father’s business) and Alice got an accounting degree. During different periods, they moved back to Waverly (including in ’51 after the senior Mr. LaBianca died) but they couldn’t make the marriage work. Alice was in her first trimester with their youngest child when they separated in January 1955.

Leno met Rosemary Struthers (born Ruth Katherine Elliot) at the Los Feliz Inn, where Rosemary was a hostess. Born in 1929 in Arizona to divorced parents, she and one brother traveled with their mother to Mexico where the woman placed the children in an orphanage. Ruth was separated from her brother and adopted by the Harmons, a couple living in Fullerton, California. The Harmons lost a daughter to a childhood illness and renamed ‘Ruth’ as ‘Rosemary’ in honor of their late child. She was 8-years old at the time.

Rosemary’s first husband was Henry Martin. While married, she had an affair with a friend, Charles LaBerge. She became pregnant and had a daughter, Suzan, in 1948.

Henry Martin traveled for work and during a trip to Alaska, Rosemary left her husband for LaBerge and apparently cleaned out their home of all marital property, including two cars and Henry’s valuable coin collection. Martin refused to file charges because he claimed he was still in love with Rosemary. Two years later she contacted him again, begging for forgiveness…

Rosemary had another affair while married to Martin with Frank Struthers. She left Henry again, married Struthers, had a son with him in ’54, and left him for LaBianca. At the time of their introduction, Leno stood to inherit a good deal of money after his mother passed away.

After Rosemary married Leno, she and her friend Lucy Larsen opened a dress shop (Boutique Carriage). She also held a real estate license and played the stock market…

Leno (was)… a gambling addict (horse races), he squandered his family’s fortune in Gateway Ranch Markets with debt. He also was believed to be friendly with several mob figures (granted, no Italian-American in the last century didn’t have that rumor attached to them) and set up dummy corporations to hide his assets.

I share this information with readers with the reminder that, as salacious as these stories about Rosemary and Leno are, they were not killed for these reasons. Many crime victims are not saints. They may have less-than-spotless records but that shouldn’t diminish our ability to objectively assess the crimes and find compassion for their suffering. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca may not have had the virtue and character of a Sharon Tate but they were still unwitting victims of the same brutal gang of killers.

I want to responsibly share the stories of the victims as they pertain to the crimes that befell them and clear up any rumors and speculation that detract from the real story. There’ve been rumors that the LaBianca’s were killed because of Leno’s gambling debts. Some believe that Manson stole Leno’s ‘little black book’ (a list of sensitive names in the Syndicate) the night they were murdered. That Manson was friends, in prison, with one of Leno’s mob affiliates. Or that Family women dumpster-dived at Gateway Markets and incurred Leno’s wrath. All of this is unsubstantiated and likely false…

The home next door… was the same house that Harold True (a young man that the Manson Family knew and sometimes partied with a year and a half before) previously lived in. Some have wondered if Manson attended a party there, Leno showed up to chew the pot-smoking hippies out and enraged him. It’s doubtful — True moved out of his Waverly Drive home the previous year, weeks before Leno and Rosemary moved in. And the actions of Manson the evening the LaBianca’s were killed also bely the notion that 3301 Waverly Drive was targeted…

This author wants to make clear that it is my belief that neither of these two people did anything to invite their brutal murders any more than Gary Hinman or those at Cielo the night before.

The week of August 4th, Rosemary’s 15-year old son, Frank Struthers, Jr. was vacationing with his friend Jim Saffie. Saffie’s family had a cabin at Lake Isabella. On August 5th, Leno and Rosemary drove to the lake with their speedboat. They returned home, while Frank and Jim enjoyed the boat during the week. On Saturday, the LaBianca’s drove back up with Suzan. They planned to get the boat and bring Frank home. But Frank and Jim were having such a fun time, the LaBianca’s decided to let him stay another night. Leno and Rosemary drove the speedboat home, behind their 1968 Thunderbird, with Suzan as passenger.

They left Lake Isabella at 9:00pm. The drive home took longer than usual, with the weight of the boat behind them and busy Saturday evening traffic. During the drive, they heard news of the slaughter in Benedict Canyon. Rosemary was particularly horrified by the report. Possibly she thought of her own worries that her house was being invaded, intruded. Or perhaps she was simply a compassionate human who cared about the well-being of others.

The LaBianca’s dropped Suzan at her apartment and at 2:00am, Leno purchased a newspaper from a vendor at Hillhurst and Franklin. This was Leno’s regular newsstand and he knew the owner, John Fokianos. Leno bought the early edition of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times along with a racing form. There was a brief conversation between the two men about the tragic news in Bel Air, before Leno returned to the car and he and Rosemary drove home. Mr. Fokianos was the last person to speak with the LaBianca’s, other than the killers.

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

An undated photo of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca

In my next article, I will detail the murders of the LaBianca…

You can read more about the Family here:

And more about the murders at Cielo Drive here:

Written by

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store