For 50 years, the Manson Family murders have had a hold on America, and yet, many people know very little about them. Some are surprised to find out that Charles Manson himself didn’t actually commit any of the nine murders, which took place in Los Angeles on August 9th and August 10th, 1969. Similarly, they’re surprised to find out that it took two months for the cult leader and his followers to be apprehended; and when they were, they were initially arrested for car theft, not murder. It was only after Susan Atkins started bragging to her cellmates about participating in the murder of Sharon Tate that the threads started to unravel, and the legend, as we know it, began to be written.
Much of what we know comes from Helter Skelter, one of the best-selling true-crime books of all time. Written by the lead prosecutor on the case, Vincent Bugliosi, when the book came out in 1974, it established what would become the accepted narrative: A crazed, charismatic man who grew up in juvenile detention facilities is released from prison just before the Summer of Love, gathers together a group of drug-crazed hippies, tries to break into the L.A. pop scene and, when he’s unceremoniously rejected by it, convinces his followers that the only way forward is to commit a series of brutal murders to usher in an era of violent race war. It’s this apocalyptic event that Bugliosi identifies as the motive of the apocalyptic plan, which Manson named after a song on the Beatle’s White Album — the Beatles being the harbingers (four horsemen?) of the Apocalypse who were sending him messages through their music.
Forty-five years later, Helter Skelter is a somewhat difficult read; it’s not just the self-aggrandizing tone of the narrator, but the knowledge that he might not be as reliable as he seems. It’s hard to entirely trust that a prosecutor — someone tasked with the job of convicting the suspects, no matter what — is giving you everything at face value. This year, after 20 years of research, one man is trying to disprove much of the Bugliosi myth. Tom O’Neill, who started his research for a simple 30th-anniversary feature for Premiere magazine in 1999, presents his alternate theories in Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. And though not entirely conclusive — throughout his book, and over the course of two conversations with Rolling Stone, he repeatedly insists that there is still much more work to be done — it’s definitely convincing. Perhaps those of us who thought we knew the story were misinformed, as well.
To be clear, O’Neill is not trying to make the case that the convicted members of the Manson family are innocent — the questions he raises are about why: Why did Manson choose the victims he did? Why did it take so long for the authorities to find the culprits? Why did the prosecutors push a theory they knew to be flawed? And, finally, given the brutality of so much of American history, why has this become the crime that we can’t forget?
Chaos, which O’Neill co-wrote with journalist Dan Piepenbring, is broken into a dozen chapters, but its argument is twofold: In the first section, Chaos attempts to prove that Bugliosi hid evidence and pushed witnesses to lie on the stand in order to win his case, and propagated these falsehoods in his best-selling book. The book presents that the motive of the brutal crimes was, as O’Neill explains it, to “ignite a race war that would end like an apocalypse, and all the whites would be wiped of the face of the earth, except for [Manson’s] family, who had hidden out in the bottomless pit in the desert, and they reemerge from that to subjugate the blacks and repopulate the world with Manson’s perfect offspring.” There was some sort of cover-up, O’Neill argues, something bigger than Manson, bigger than Bugliosi, which the powers that be didn’t want getting out.
“We chose to present everything we had that contradicted the official narrative that we could substantiate in documents,” says O’Neill. They present overwhelming evidence, both through original interviews and exhaustive research, that the narrative of Helter Skelter was created to sell a jury — and to sell books.
The second part of Chaos, O’Neill admits, is entirely speculative. “When it came time to step back and say what I thought really happened, I got into the conspiracy area,” he says. “It sounds lazy, and maybe like a cop out, but I’d rather let the readers see everything, and [come] to their own conclusions.” This section argues that the great secret behind the cover-up is that Manson, either knowingly or unknowingly, was being watched and studied by the government.
But first, the cover-up. In the 400-plus pages of his book, O’Neill presents multiple examples, but in interviews with Rolling Stone, a few stand out. Take Susan Atkins, who helped break the case after she was arrested that fall, and she began bragging to her cellmates that she and her friends were behind the Tate and LaBianca murders. Her cellmate immediately told the authorities, providing a huge break in the case. Finally, Bugliosi had a serious suspect. Sure, she was in custody — but he wasn’t going to take any chances.
“Susan Atkins already had a court-appointed defense attorney, but when the prosecution realized that she could be the most important witness in the case, they basically planned to remove her legally appointed attorney through the judge, and have him replaced with one of their hand-selected former prosecutors who, they said, would get her to cooperate,” O’Neill explains. On November 26th, 1969, at her arraignment in front of Judge Mario Clinco, Atkins was reassigned to Dick Caballero. Caballero, who had worked in the District Attorney’s office for eight years, helped get the confession the prosecution needed.
“Her story was cut and polished until in glimmered for the prosecutors, bringing indictments, convictions, and a raft of publicity,” O’Neill writes, noting that her version of the story was published in the L.A. Times, and even turned into a paperback book. When O’Neill confronted Gerald Condon, her original lawyer, he recalled being confused why he was taken off the case. But, Condon told O’Neill, he chose to move on because of commands from his wife. “From that point on, I think the whole trial shouldn’t be trusted, because the well was poisoned,” O’Neill says. “They planted a prosecutor in the defense.”
Take, as well, the case of Terry Melcher, the hotshot record producer and son of Doris Day. He and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, had lived at the house on 10050 Ceilo Drive until late December 1968, when they decided to move into one of his mother’s properties in Malibu. According to the official record, Melcher and Manson met a handful of times in social situations — Manson had been close with Dennis Wilson, and the Beach Boys drummer would take him around to house parties or clubs on the Sunset Strip. Charlie, familiar with Melcher’s reputation as one of the biggest producers in L.A., was convinced Melcher would give him his big break and, after much insistence, the producer went out to see Charlie play at Spahn Ranch. But Melcher was unimpressed with Manson’s music, and he quickly left. That was May 1969, and according to Melcher’s testimony, their final meeting
Yet according to Chaos, their relationship didn’t end after that failed audition. In his research, O’Neill was able to find two police interviews that indicated a much different story — Melcher and Manson had stayed in touch, even after the murders. One interview was from Danny DeCarlo, a Straight Satan biker who spent time at Spahn, and another from Paul Watkins, a sometimes-member of the Family. According to police documents that O’Neill uncovered, they both told authorities that Melcher had been around both Spahn Ranch and Baker Ranch, the Family’s remote hideout in the Mojave Desert. DeCarlo told the cops that, weeks after the murders, he saw Melcher get on his knees in front of him, begging forgiveness.
When O’Neill confronted Melcher about this inconsistency in 2000, in an uncomfortable interaction on the roof of Melcher’s Santa Monica penthouse, he maintained the official story, referring O’Neill to Bulgiosi for any further questions about what happened in 1969. Melcher died in 2004.
The second section of O’Neill’s book, however, is what separates it from the Charlie canon. Having found that Helter Skelter had its own motives, O’Neill was left with some questions. In an interview from the early 1970s, Bugliosi admitted that even he didn’t think Manson really believed that the murders would jumpstart a global race war. “If Manson ordered the murders, but not for Helter Skelter, then why did he send people there?,” O’Neill was left wondering. “Why to the LaBiancas, why to the Tate house, and why didn’t Vince tell the truth at the trial?”
It was this line of questioning that led O’Neill down the path he describes as “conspiratorial.” Why, after constant run-ins with the law, did all the members of the family keep getting out? “The law afforded special privileges to everyone in Manson’s orbit,” O’Neill writes. “Once I was absorbed in the Family’s origin story, I found evidence everywhere of a curious leniency, always helped along by the hand from the outside.”
O’Neill traced one of these threads back to San Francisco in mid-1967, during the Summer of Love, just a few months after Manson’s release from prison. There he found Roger Smith, Manson’s parole officer. There, Smith participated in a study called “The San Francisco Project,” an experimental parole program. As O’Neill reports for the first time in Chaos, he used Manson as his charge. In the Project, which was meant to study how different-sized PO caseloads affect the recidivism rates of parolees, each officer was given a different number of cases. Though Smith was initially given about 40 cases, by the end of the year, he had just one: Charles Manson.
Smith wasn’t a career PO; he was a doctoral candidate at the Berkeley School of Criminology, focusing on the link between drug use and gang violence — a coincidence that wasn’t lost on O’Neill. “By 1967, Smith was regarded as an expert on gangs, collective behavior, violence, and drugs,” he writes. “Manson, his one and only parole supervisee, would go on to control the collective behavior of a gang through violence and drugs.”
There were other connections that summer, which suggested to O’Neill something more sinister was happening. The Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (HAFMC) opened in June, spearheaded by Dr. David Smith, as a place for the rapidly expanding hippie population to find cheap medical care. That Charlie and his girls would go on a regular basis (free love meant free STDS, which often needed treating) is no secret; Bugliosi wrote about it himself in his brief section on this period. But, as one contemporary (Emmett Grogan, founder of hippie collective the Diggers) wrote in his memoir, there was something unnerving about the operation. “Just because no one was made to pay a fee when they went there, didn’t make it a ‘free clinic,’” Grogan wrote, according to Chaos. “On the contrary, the patients were treated as ‘research subjects’ and the facility was used to support whatever medical innovations were new and appropriate to the agency.”
It’s around this time in the book, that O’Neill brings in the man he calls — after Manson and Bugliosi — the third main characte: Jolly West. West was a drug researcher who landed in San Francisco in the mid-1960s for the same reasons as the two Smiths: a fascination with narcotics. Unlike the two Smiths, West’s background was in mind control experiments, and he’d been working with the government for decades, on programs like the CIA’s ultra-secretive MKULTRA program.
In San Francisco, using government funds, West established a crash pad of sorts, the Haight-Asbury Project, which was staffed by a team of graduate students who’d been instructed by West to dress like hippies. He got close with the team at HAFMC — close enough, O’Neill reports, to even have an office there. In an interview with O’Neill, David Smith admitted that they worked with West. “We helped him with research,” Smith said. “They came over and interviewed kids that came into our clinic…. The fact that large numbers of white, middle-class kids would use illicit drugs was a total mindblower.”
Whether this connection between Manson and our nation’s most secretive intelligence operations has any value has not, O’Neill repeats in the book and in interviews, been proven. Yet Manson was essentially doing the human experiments that government agencies were no longer allowed to do: Dosing humans with LSD in order to shape their experiences, interpretations, and even memories, as a way to control them. In 1970, David Smith even published a study in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, titled “The Group Marriage Commune: A Case Study,” looking at this phenomenon, using an unidentified group as his subjects. The group in question was the Manson Family.
After 20 years of research, the book is out, but O’Neill’s work is by no means over. With the help of a millennial godson, the author has set up a database on Facebook to share original documents and news clippings with other would-be Mansonologists. Despite the fact that he couldn’t come to a conclusive resolution, it was time to be done; the story had consumed him (he’d strained relationships, began drinking too much, gone broke, been sued, hit the end of his rope, as he bluntly explains), and he just had to get something out before Manson indirectly killed him, too, albeit in a much slower fashion.
And why, after all these years, does this story even matter? “I want to force the issue,” O’Neill says, explaining that he wants to get law enforcement to reconsider old cases that may have been Manson’s doing. There’s Phillip Haught, mentioned in Helter Skelter as a witness who died by his own hand, playing Russian roulette, except all six chambers were full. There was Vero Tennerelli, a 23-year-old Italian immigrant who got caught up with the family, and who was found mysteriously dead a few days later — the official story was suicide, something his family, and O’Neill, have never believed. If the investigation was stunted because higher-ups had other plans, does the government have blood on their hands? How many people died between the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the Manson Family finally being brought to justice?
In the days before the book’s release, O’Neill was expecting criticism. He figured he’d be called a conspiracy theorist, and he’d be dragged for asking more questions than he could answer. And in particular, he worried that it would be said he had waited for Vincent Bugliosi — a man he interrogated, confronted and generally pissed off enough for the former prosecutor to call O’Neill his adversary — to die before he could publish, since he was wary of potential lawsuits. (Bugliosi died in 2015.)
“The last thing I wanted people to think was that I waited until he died to publish the book,” he says. “That’s not the case. I’m disappointed. I wanted him to be alive — and to be held accountable.”