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Charles Manson Today: The Final Confessions of a Psychopath

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What most people know and believe about Manson is almost wholly derived from prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi's 600-page account of the crimes, investigation and trial, Helter Skelter, more than 7 million copies sold since 1974, more than any other true-crime book in history. It was a scary, Establishment-brain-frying read when it was first published, and it still is.

Track the events of Manson's helter-skelter life in a chilling timeline

Bugliosi laid it out like this: On March 21st, 1967, after serving six years for violating parole on a $37 check-forgery conviction, penny-ante career criminal Charles Milles Manson, age 32, stepped out from behind prison walls into the groovy, peace-and-love world of San Francisco. It was the Summer of Love. He'd never seen such a thing before, free love, free food, lots of hugging, pot and acid, girls, so many girls, many of them lost girls just looking for someone to tell them they'd been found. Charlie was their man. He played the guitar, he had the mystique of the ex-con, he had a good you-can-be-free metaphysical rap. The girls flocked to his side, starting with librarian Mary Brunner, followed by pixie-cute Lynette Fromme, soon dubbed Squeaky, oversexed Susan Atkins and trust-funder Sandra Good. This was the beginning of what the prosecutor would later call "the Family." This was also the beginning of the end for Manson.

They eventually dropped down to L.A. More than anything, according to Bugliosi, Manson wanted to be a rock star. He made friends with the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, who thought he had potential, and big-shot record producer Terry Melcher. He was going places. Everybody was banging everybody else. So much fun, so loving. It really was, except when, as some of the girls later testified, Charlie would knock one of them around. They lived at Spahn Ranch, a sometime Hollywood backdrop for Westerns where Charlie let it be known he might be Jesus, and everyone treated him as such, which has led to the belief that he had some kind of super-duper hypnotic Svengali-on-blotter hold over the people there. And for a while it was all good. Kids who'd never really had a home before now had one. You've never seen so many smiling faces. But something changed in 1969. The Beatles had recently released the White Album, and Manson developed a sudden and complex attachment to the song "Helter Skelter." He divined in it a coming apocalyptic war between blacks and whites, during which he and his gang would live in the desert, underground, in a magical land of milk and honey, and after which the blacks, who had won the war, would beg him to come be their leader, because they could not lead themselves.

Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys
Susie Macdonald/Redferns

In Bugliosi's account, Manson got tired of waiting for the war to start, so on August 9th, 1969, he decided to kick-start it by sending former star high school athlete Tex Watson, former Catholic-college student Patricia Krenwinkel, former church-choir singer Susan Atkins and a recent arrival named Linda Kasabian to a house some rich people were living in on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles – a house that Melcher had once rented – with the order to "totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can." They were to leave "witchy" signs and portents behind that would make it look like the work of Black Panthers. There was no saying no. Or at least no one did say no.

"I'm the devil and I'm here to do the devil's business," Watson announced upon entering the home. Roughly 25 minutes and 102 stab wounds later, it was all over, at least for that night.

Among the butchered were pregnant actress Sharon Tate, 26, wife of director Roman Polanski; celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35; screenwriter Voytek Frykowski, 32; and Folger's-coffee-fortune heiress Abigail Folger, 25. And then the next night, the killers did it again, again under Charlie's direction, with former high school homecoming queen Leslie Van Houten added to the group, tacking on 67 more stab wounds to the total and slaughtering a seemingly random couple, grocery-store-chain owner Leno LaBianca, 44, and his wife, Rosemary, 38, as they lounged at home. In both cases, they also left words like "pig" and "death to pigs" scrawled in blood on walls, a door and a refrigerator.

Read Rolling Stone's full, epic 1970 interview with Charles Manson

The way Bugliosi saw it, these things were meant to connect the crimes to blacks; the whites would go after the blacks; the blacks would rise up; and the revolution would be joined. He said Manson termed it Helter Skelter, after the Beatles song. It was a loopy, harebrained scenario and one that Bugliosi's fellow law-enforcement types wished he would ditch in favor of something more down-to-earth, like robbery or a drug deal gone sour. But Bug, as Manson calls him, would not be deterred. He gave Kasabian immunity – she apparently was not present when any of the murders took place – and with her as his star witness, he was able to sell Helter Skelter not only to the jury but also to the rest of the country. In 1971, the defendants were all found guilty and sentenced to death, which was commuted to life when the state briefly did away with the death penalty. Atkins died of cancer four years ago, at the age of 61. Krenwinkel, 65, and Van Houten, 64, are in the California Institution for Women in Chino, where they have been model prisoners and continue to hope for parole. Watson, 67, is incarcerated in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. He has confessed to perpetrating all the killings in the case, with the girls mostly just stabbing the victims after they were already dead, for what difference that makes. They have all repudiated Manson. And Bugliosi, 79, after a lengthy career both as an attorney and a bestselling author, is now mostly resting at his California home, battling cancer and giving the occasional interview.

"There are thousands of evil, polished con men out there, and we've had more brutal murders than the Manson murders, so why are we still talking about Charles Manson?" Bugliosi says. "He had a quality about him that one thousandth of one percent of people have. An aura. 'Vibes,' the kids called it in the Sixties. Wherever he went, kids gravitated toward him. This is not normal. I mean, I couldn't get someone to go to the local Dairy Queen and get me a milkshake, OK? But this guy, I don't know what it is. How the hell do I know?"

Sharon Tate
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

How the hell would anyone know? It's inexplicable, and no one will ever really know, just as I will never know or understand why when Manson rested his hand on my arm it felt so good, not passively good, but actively, like leave it there, leave it there some more. It's a presence. And it's that presence, coupled with how he used it, that for the past 44 years has made him a face-of-evil superstar symbol second only to Hitler. In 1970, this magazine published the first exhaustive account of Manson and his followers, 22 pages long, titled "The Incredible Story of the Most Dangerous Man Alive," taking a nuanced approach and allowing Manson to speak at length. Since then, the books and stories have kept on coming. He rarely participates, however, and it's been around 20 years since he last granted a wide-ranging press interview.

I first talked to Star in September 2012, and spoke to Manson on the phone two months later, after which he became increasingly squirrelly about seeing me, some days half-agreeing, some days saying no, some days berating me for being a media stooge. "You're a faraway dude, man," he once said. "I only meet people like you when I'm going to rob you. You're a flunky, man. I don't talk to flunkies." When I went to visit Star this past September, Charlie once again made it clear he wouldn't see me. But he changed his mind at the last minute and then, after our initial talk, asked me to come back the next day.

Over the years, Manson's face and name have managed to remain firmly lodged in the public's imagination no matter what Manson himself wants. You can find his black-hole eyeballs on T-shirts and on reruns of South Park's "Merry Christmas Charlie Manson!" episode. He's inspired an opera and a musical. The deep-thinkers have also had their say. In 2010, theologian David R. Williams wrote, "We, as a collective culture, looked into Manson's eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far. He was the monster in the wilderness, the shadow in the night forest, the beast said to lurk in the Terra Incognita beyond the edges of the map." The point is, like that lurking beast, he's always here, always with us. In a 1988 TV interview with Manson, Geraldo Rivera called him "the stuff of a nation's nightmares," and if he wasn't exactly that before the media got ahold of him, he certainly has been ever since.

This also explains why, in part, the case itself has never gone away, especially on the Internet, where every detail is open to re-examination and reinterpretation. Bugliosi's Helter Skelter race-war theory, for instance, has been bandied about endlessly, with many observers concluding that it's a bunch of hooey, testimony of well-prepared prosecution witnesses and Spahn Ranch hangers-on notwithstanding. It may have been in the air at the ranch. It may have been talked about during the nightly dinners. But so were lots of things.

And now, here sits Charlie in jail, where he has sat for so long, saying the same thing he's said basically since the beginning. He didn't tell Tex to go kill anyone ("I didn't direct anyone to do a motherfucking thing"), he's innocent ("I never killed anyone!"), there was no Family ("Bug made that up!"), he was no leader ("Go for what you know, baby; we're all free here. I'm nobody's boss!"), Helter Skelter wasn't what Bugliosi said it was ("Man, that doesn't even make insane sense!"), he was wrongly denied the right to act as his own attorney during the trial ("I wanted my rights!"), and the government owes him $50 million "and Hearst Castle, for 45 years of bullshit," and none of this is important anyway, given what we are doing to our air, our trees, our water, our animals, the saving of which he sometimes puts on display as a good enough reason alone for what happened at the Tates' and LaBiancas', regardless of his involvement.

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