In California's San Joaquin Valley, about halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno, on the outskirts of the fly-infested, windblown, stink-soaked, dry-mouth town of Corcoran, sits the squat, sprawling expanse of Corcoran State Prison, where Charlie Manson is serving out the rest of a life sentence for his part in the peace-and-love-era-ending Tate-LaBianca slayings of 1969. He has just entered the visiting room.
He doesn't look how he used to look, of course, all resplendent in buckskin fringe, sometimes sporting an ascot or the Technicolor patchwork vest sewn by his girls, with his suave goatee and his mad Rasputin eyes and his fantastical ability to lunge out of his seat at the judge presiding over his trial, pencil at the ready to jam into the old guy's throat, before being subdued and thereby helping to cement a guilty verdict. Those days are gone. He's 79 years old. He's an old man with a nice head of gray hair but bad hearing, bad lungs, and chipped-and-fractured, prison-dispensed bad dentures. He walks with a cane and lifts it now, in greeting to his visitors, one of whom is a slender, dark-haired woman he calls Star.
"Star!" he says. "She's not a woman. She's a star in the Milky Way!"
He shuffles toward her, opening his arms, grinning, and she kind of drifts in his direction.
From a raised platform in the room's center, two guards armed with pepper spray and truncheons keep an eye on the couple. Star is 25 years old, comes from a town on the Mississippi River, was raised a Baptist, keeps a tidy home, is a prim dresser, has a fun sense of humor. Charlie is probably the most infamous convicted killer of all time. He's been called the devil for the way he influenced friends to murder on his behalf. He's spent the past 44 years in prison and nearly 60 years incarcerated altogether, meaning he has spent less than two decades of his life as a free man. He will never get out. For her part, Star has been living in Corcoran for the past seven years, since she was 19. It wasn't Charlie's murderous reputation that drew her here but his pro-Earth environmental stance, known as ATWA, standing for air, trees, water and animals. She has stuck around to become his most ardent defender, to run various give-Charlie-a-chance websites (mansondirect.com, atwaearth.com, a Facebook page, a Tumblr page) and to visit him every Saturday and Sunday, up to five hours a day, assuming he's not in solitary or otherwise being hassled by the Man. "Yeah, well, people can think I'm crazy," she likes to say. "But they don't know. This is what's right for me. This is what I was born for."
Visiting-room rules allow them a kiss at the beginning and end of each visit. They do this now, a standard peck and hug, then sit across from each other at a table. The first thing you notice about Manson is the X (later changed to a swastika) he carved into his forehead during his trial, to protest his treatment at the hands of the law, an act that was soon copied by his co-defendants – and, all these years later, by the girl sitting across from him, Star, who recently cut an X into her forehead, too. The second thing is how nicely turned out he is. Despite his age, there's none of that gross old-man stuff about him, no ear hair, no nose hair, no gunk collecting in the corners of his mouth, and his prison-approved blue shirt has not a wrinkle or a food stain on it. He looks pretty great. The third is how softly he speaks, so different from how he was in TV interviews during the Eighties and Nineties, when, for instance, he angled in on Diane Sawyer in her black turtleneck and pretty earrings, roaring, "I'm a gangster, woman. I take money!"
He stands up and looks around. "I thought we'd have some popcorn," he says, making his way to a cabinet where inmates sometimes stash food. He bends down, looks inside, moves things and heaves up a great sigh of disappointment.
"Well," he says. "The popcorn's all gone."
"I think we ate it all last time," Star says.
Charlie sighs and takes a seat, seeming lost and befuddled. But then, before I know it, he's reached out and bounced one of his fingers off the tip of my nose, fast as a frog's tongue, dart and recoil.
He leans forward. I can feel his breath in my ear.
"I've touched everybody on the nose, man," he says, quietly. "There ain't nobody I can't touch on the nose." He tilts to one side and says, "I know what you're thinking. Just relax." A while later, he says, "If I can touch you, I can kill you."
He puts his hand on my arm and starts rubbing it. An hour after that, we're talking about sex at the ranch in the old days, what it was like, all those girls hanging around, a few guys, too, the group-sex scene. "It was all this," he says, putting his hand on my arm again, sliding it up into the crook of my elbow and down. "That's what it was like. We all went with that. There's no saying no. If I slide up, you've got to go with the flow. You were with anyone anyone wants." I nod, because for a moment, with his hand on my skin, sliding up, I can see how it was. It feels OK. It feels unexpectedly good to go with the flow, even if it is Charlie Manson's flow and even if, since he's touching me, he can kill me, which is probably how it was way back when, too.
Meanwhile, Star is arranging a little spread: candy bars, pumpkin pie, potato chips, corn chips, strawberry shortcake, peanut butter cups. Charlie goes for a candy bar, washing it down with a soda. This is how he spends his time today.
This is how he is waiting for his time to end.
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,
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.
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.
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?"
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.
"Look, here's how that works," he says. "You take a baby and" – here he says something truly awful about what you could do to that baby, worse beyond anything you could imagine – "and it dies," and here he says something equally wretched. Then he goes on, "I know what you're thinking. I can see your brain rattling and running back and forth. But what happens when that baby dies?" He breathes in and he breathes out, he breathes in and he breathes out. "A dog would have done it, kill to take another breath. So, was it wrong to do it to those people?" And it's at moments like these that you realize prison is the only place for him, and hope to hell he never puts his hand on your skin again.
Visits with Charlie are always taxing for Star, and she takes it easy driving the two miles from his door back to her own. It used to be she'd make the trip with a tall, gaunt, spooky-looking guy named Gray Wolf, 64, a Manson believer from the Spahn Ranch days who carved an X into his forehead at the same time Star did, but earlier this year he was arrested for attempting to smuggle a cellphone into prison for Charlie, and there went his visitation rights, leaving Charlie's weekend companionship almost all up to this slight, doily-thin girl.
How she got here is pretty much like how many of the Spahn Ranch girls got to where they were going, too, as a reaction to the world around them and how it made them feel. She grew up on the Mississippi River, near St. Louis, had an early fondness for I Love Lucy, had parents who were deeply religious and disliked all her friends. "They thought I was turning into a hippie," she says. "I was smoking marijuana, eating mushrooms, not wanting to go to church every Sunday, not wanting to marry a preacher. They are Christian Baptist and wanted me to be a preacher's wife." To keep her out of trouble, they would lock her in her room, which is where she spent a good portion of her high school years. And, like Charlie, she found a way to coexist with such solitary confinement. "I've never been lonely since those times when I got used to being alone." Then one day, a friend gave her a sheet of paper with some of Charlie Manson's words on it about the environment. She'd never heard of Manson, but she liked what he had to say – "Air is God, because without air, we do not exist" – and began writing to him. After their correspondence took off, she put her nose to the grindstone, saved up $2,000 while working in a retirement-home kitchen and in 2007, stuffed all the belongings she could into a backpack and took a train to Corcoran. And soon enough, Charlie nicknamed her Star, just as he had once named Squeaky (Red) and Sandy (Blue).
Her pad is not large, not well-lit and inexpensively furnished, with a bedroom too messy for her to let me into. A guitar and a violin case are in a corner. No television. On one wall is the great, evocative black-and-white photograph of Charlie at Spahn Ranch, wearing a beat-up side-tilted fedora with a crow on his arm, the rugged Dust Bowl guy who could tame birds. ("We became road dogs and ran together," he says. "I didn't give it a name. It was just a crow." Others have said its name was Devil.) On a nearby table is the computer where Star spends much of her time trying to rehabilitate Charlie's image in the public eye. She is especially rankled by the long-standing belief that Charlie is only five feet two – she says he is at least three inches taller – and thinks Bugliosi intentionally published that lie in Helter Skelter to further diminish Manson's stature. He's short, just not that short.
Of the original Family girls, only two of the main ones are thought to still believe in Charlie – Sandra Good, now 69, and Squeaky Fromme, 65. Sandy's current whereabouts are unknown, though she was recently photographed smiling and riding a mule in the Grand Canyon. In 1975, Squeaky was convicted of attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford and wasn't released until 2009. She has long been Manson's favorite. "That little girl right there, Lynette," he says, "I've never met a girl as truthful as her. She's never turncoated. She did 34 years in prison and never broke her vow. A man can't even do that." But Star is on the scene now, leading some of those on the Internet Manson beat to wonder if she's replaced Squeaky in Charlie's affections.
"Lynn deserves to be number one," wrote LynyrdSkynyrdBand on the Tate-LaBianca Homicide Research Blog, after a picture of Star and Gray Wolf with Charlie made the rounds. "She's been loyal for decades." Marliese: "I'm guessing the beautiful girl with Charlie hasn't experienced any strip and suck demands from him, or felt his fist smash across her face." A number of them commented on how unsettling it is that Star looks so much like Susan Atkins "when she was all waxed and pretty."
Star, however, pays little attention to these things. She'd rather spend her online time ordering items for Charlie's quarterly-allowed gift box stuffed with, most recently, roasted peanuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, protein bars, vegetable-soup mix, vitamins, crackers, cough drops, teas, tank-top T-shirts, socks, shorts, an electric shaver and guitar strings.
A while later, she sits on a couch talking about a problem she and Gray Wolf are having with a Manson-memorabilia collector named Ben. Every time Manson does something wrong and is sent to solitary, he has to get rid of everything he owns or the state will take it, so he sends the stuff to those who have befriended him, mostly collectors looking for some big future payoff. Currently, Ben has an old pair of Manson's flip-flops for sale, $5,000. With Manson's permission, he's also selling some early Manson recordings, but just today Ben started accusing Star and Gray Wolf of trying to sabotage his sales, as well as with swiping a $4,500 wheelchair he'd sent Charlie. "It's war!" he wrote on his Facebook page. "This is just the beginning! Your [sic] toast!" Star shakes her head. "He's freaking out because Charlie stopped calling him. He doesn't want to let go. And we're the bad guys. Anyway, that's the problem we have. People are so weird."
Charlie gets up in the morning, leaves his gray concrete cell, goes to breakfast, grabs a bag lunch, comes back, naps, eats his lunch, takes another nap, paces back and forth, maybe plays a game of chess, goes to dinner, has to be back in his cell by 8:45 p.m., has no specific time for lights out. "I like my cell," he says. "It's like that song I wrote. I called it 'In My Cell,' but the Beach Boys changed it to 'In My Room.'" Manson makes this claim about "In My Room" fairly often, which is kind of ridiculous, since the song came out in 1963, four years before his release on the parole-violation conviction, but obvious fabrications like these never seem to slow him down. "Like all my songs," he continues, "it's about my heaven is right here on Earth. See, my best friend is in that cell. I'm in there. I like it."
Even so, he worries constantly about the prison's ventilator system and swears the air is killing him. He's afraid that the guards will put garbage in his shoes, just to mess with him. He says he always has to be on high alert. He has never been held in general population, always in some kind of protective-housing unit, where it's supposed to be harder for inmates to get at him, especially the fame-seekers. Even so, back in 1984, at a different prison, a guy doused him with paint thinner and set his head on fire. Right now, he has only about 15 other prisoners to contend with, among them Juan Corona, who murdered 25 people in 1971; Dana Ewell, who ordered the murder of his own family in 1992; Phillip Garrido, the rapist who kidnapped 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard and held her for 18 years; and Mikhail Markhasev, who was convicted of killing Bill Cosby's son, Ennis. So far, they seem to all get along just fine.
Manson doesn't watch much TV, although he used to like Barney Miller, Gunsmoke, and Sesame Street in Spanish. He plays his guitar and sometimes offers musical advice to fellow guitarist Corona, the serial killer. "I'm not a teacher, but I show him how to make chords and progressions." He'd listen to an old Doors or Jefferson Airplane album if he could figure out how to get his CD player working. Sometimes he'll have to leave his cell while sniffer dogs search for contraband; during a recent visit, the dogs found nothing but did leave behind a single turd, delighting Manson. He gets thousands of pieces of mail a year, more than any other prisoner. Sometimes he will send out autographs signed, "Hippy cult leader made me do it." During his time behind bars, he's committed 108 infractions. The last time, in 2011, he was caught with an "inmate-manufactured weapon" – in this case, a sharpened eyeglass stem – and thrown in solitary for a year.
In the late afternoon, he saunters over to the wall where the telephones are. His phone calls are recorded, but he can make pretty much all the calls he wants, collect only, 15 minutes at a clip, and he makes tons. I know this, because I have been on the receiving end for months now. He calls while I'm at the movies, while I'm driving, while I'm at cocktail parties, while I'm walking my dogs in the park, while I am everyplace he'll never be again.
Here's how he has begun some of his recent conversations: "Hello, hello. Are you ready? OK. There's seven steps from the death chamber of holding to the death chamber of release." "I forget – was you mad at me or was I mad at you?" "Would you come and swing upon a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar?" "Why don't you go ahead and say what's best for you, and then I'll go along with it and meet you later over on the beach." "I've got something important I'd like to explain."
Mostly, he wants to discuss the environment – "The end is on the way, baby bucks" – and what should be done about it. Once, when he was talking to me about the rightness of killing to get more air, he said, "Whoever gets killed, that's the will of God. Without killing, we got no chance." He paused, then went on, "You might want to keep that out of your paper and say to yourself, 'How can that work for me?'" At the time, I didn't think much of it. It took a while for what he was suggesting to sink in.
Sometimes he seems lonely ("Star, Star, nobody comes to visit me but Star"). Sometimes he'll give props to Neil Young for once saying that the Manson musical style was pretty good. "He didn't play no games on me, didn't try to steal a lot of my stuff like Zappa and them others. He's a straight-up dude." And sometimes he'll try to con me.
"When we were talking once," he says, "you promised me half of it."
"Half of what?"
"Whatever you could give."
"Well, half of nothing is nothing."
"Well, half-and-half is still half. Like one and one is still one. See, you've been confused, honey. You didn't know you was my wife? I recognize you."
I change the subject, the way you sometimes have to do with him, bluntly, with no social niceties, and tell him I'm suffering from a bad case of poison ivy. He brightens right up and admonishes me to go soak my blisters in apple-cider vinegar. "I had fungus on my feet and tried everything and nothing worked until Star sent me this apple cider. It's some miracle stuff, man!"
Then he'll get irritated about something and start shouting, "I'm an outlaw, I'm a gangster, I'm a rebel, I'm a desperado, and I don't fire no warning shots," which always makes me smile, because it's a pretty comical thing to say about yourself.
You may not want to know about his sex life, but he'll tell you anyway. "You think I'm too old to jack off. You think, 'He's too old to fuck his pillow.' But I'm not. I'm still active with my roscoe. I'm still me."
He reserves a goodly amount of venom for Bugliosi. "He knows I'm too stupid to get involved in something of the magnitude of Helter Skelter. So how could he convince himself of that for all these years? He made the money, he won the case. He's a winner! He got over! He's a genius! He took 45 years of a man's life for his greedy little grubby self. And he's going to go to his deathbed with that forever on his conscience? Is there no honor in him at all?"
And then he'll go on again about how he has no sympathy for any of the TateLaBianca victims, especially not Sharon Tate. "It's a Hollywood movie star. How many people did she murder onscreen? Was she so pretty? She compromised her body for everything she did. And if she was such a beautiful thing, what was she doing in the bed of another man when that thing jumped off? What kind of shit is that?"
Finally, he'll pull out the old time-tested Jesus trope and say, "I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation, man. How can you interview Jesus when He's dying on the cross?" Or he'll say, "Don't ask why they crucified Christ, ask why are they crucifying Christ." And if I scoff at that, he'll get all puffed up again and say, "When you come face to face with me, you're only you. I don't give a fuck what you are. I'll take you. Put you in the grave. What're you going to do about that, jitterbug? Who's protecting you, sweetheart?"
This is how he spends his days. This is how he will spend them until the end.
"Well, I got to go," he says. "Get back with you later."
And then, grudgingly, he'll talk about the murders, not a lot, not all at once, but enough that over time, as the months tick by and one year turns to the next, you can piece together some kind of rudimentary narrative.
More or less, here's Manson's version of what happened, and it's far different from Bugliosi's: Tex Watson was having problems with a drug dealer named Bernard "Lotsapoppa" Crowe, so he called Charlie to come help him out, which Charlie did, by shooting Lotsapoppa. He didn't kill him, but he thought he did. Now Tex was in his debt, man to man. Then a musician pal, his "brother" Bobby Beausoleil, also known as Cupid, got into a beef with a drug dealer named Gary Hinman, and he too called on Manson for help, which Manson gave, by coming over and slashing the side of Hinman's face with the sword he used to carry. He took off after that, leaving Beausoleil with an even greater problem than before – what to do with Hinman, who was now wounded and probably ready to go to the police, which would bring the law right to Spahn Ranch. Beausoleil couldn't let that happen, so he killed Hinman. Then he got arrested. Then someone at the ranch, Manson won't say who ("I don't snitch"), had the bright idea to commit some murders that had the same signature elements as the Hinman murder, the idea being that, since Beausoleil couldn't be in two places at the same time, he would be freed.
"See, I'd saved Tex from the fate he was suffering under, so when the brother has a problem, I pass it on to Tex. He said, 'Let's get the brother out of jail. What do I do?' I said, 'Don't ask me. I don't want to know, man. I know the law. I walk the line all my life. Do whatever the fuck you want to do.' I knew what Tex was doing. I also knew it was none of my business. He says, 'I'll kill everybody!' I say, 'Don't tell me that shit. I don't want to know!' They say, 'Well, we're going to go murder these people.' I say, 'Well, lots of luck.'"
And so off Tex and the girls went, ending up at the house on Cielo Drive that had once been rented to record producer Melcher, who'd come out to the ranch a few times, heard Manson's music, and apparently decided Manson wasn't a talent worth pursuing. Although Manson himself told everyone that a recording contract was imminent.
"Yeah, it was Terry Melcher's house, and he lied to everybody at the ranch, said he was gonna do stuff he didn't do. He got their hopes up, you dig? Terry was a spoiled brat that had seven automobiles and didn't have nothing to worry about. I'd cheated him in a card game and won a house. It was part card game, part con, all devil, heh heh. But I won it. He owed me. So, Terry Melcher was part of it. He did a lot of things that wasn't right. But no one was mad at Terry Melcher. Not really. He was just in somebody's mind, and when they went by there, it was a familiar place, and they went into a familiar place. Sharon Tate just happened to be there, that's all. Tex did what he had to do. Good boy. Good soldier. Should have given him a Silver Star."
Did you go over and try to clean up the mess they made, which some books say you did, but never with proof, and, if true, would put you at the scene of the crime?
"Well, yeah, I had to look out for my horses. I look out for what looks out for me," he says, although later on he will say he misspoke, that he never went to the Tate house that night.
And the next night, at the LaBiancas'?
"Yeah, I went to the LaBiancas'. I went in there and seen an old man on the couch, and I said, 'Hey, man, I didn't know you was in here, sorry. There was nobody here the last time I came.' I used to go there whenever they had big parties at Harold True's house next door. It'd be empty. It was the crash camp where everyone would go to fall on girls. I'd live in there for a couple of hours at time, that's all. Anyway, I turned around to get out. Tex was right behind me. It was his play, not mine."
What did you do before you left? Did you tie the LaBiancas up and leave them for Tex and the girls to deal with, which is what Tex claims?
"No," he says, quietly. "Hell, no."
So much death, so much violence.
"What violence?" he says, speaking louder. Then the subject turns from knives to guns. "What's violent about pulling your finger across the trigger? There's no violence. It's just a person there and you move your finger and they're gone. What's violent about that? But let me ask you this. Will you ever forgive me for what you think I did? Think about it. Don't let your brain be lame. I didn't kill nobody. So will you ever forgive me for what you think I did?"
Forty-four years on, the facts in the Manson case aren't really facts anymore – they're beliefs and conclusions fashioned out of bits and pieces of bent and redirected light, or, as Charlie likes to call them, they're "perspectives." "Helter Skelter wasn't a lie," he says. "It was just Bugliosi's perspective. Everybody's saying it the way they want to remember it. Sooner or later, we all got to submit to each other's point of view. Sure, it was going on. But it was just part of the part. The reasons was all kinds of different things that were happening in Tex's mind and all of our minds together, and there's lots of different discrepancies in there that don't correlate to be straight. There was a lot of motives, man. You got a motive for every person there. It was a collective idea. It was an episode. A psychotic episode, and you want to blame me for that?"
In a sense, Bugliosi had no choice. You can't prosecute a collective psychotic episode. You've got to boil it down to a single dominant face and a single dominant motive. But, according to Manson and others associated with the Family, lots of crazy things were happening right then in the summer of 1969: big possible paranoia after Charlie killed Lotsapoppa (or so he thought), big possible paranoia over brother Bobby in jail, LSD in the air, guns in the ground, nasty drug deals, dire money needs, Strategic Air Command flying atomic bombs overhead, the Weathermen flying to Cuba to learn how to revolution, the thrumming background noise of the Black Panthers, stolen cars in the weeds, underage girls in the swimming hole, big acid-happy dinners with everyone gathered round, Charlie speaking in metaphors, riddles and paradoxes, unreal figments perhaps being taken too literally, Charlie scared someone's going to rat him out about Lotsapoppa, brains going round and round, big ideas coming out of the big collective mind, mass psychosis, and a different motive for every person there. And to the degree that this is true, Manson might fairly be considered an innocent man, just as he says he is, or, if guilty, then only as guilty as everyone else there; or, if guilty, then maybe absolutely guilty, his fear of someone snitching on him about the Lotsapoppa shooting perhaps leading him to want to bind everyone to him, by turning them into killers, too; or maybe Charlie had nothing to do with anything and it was all Watson's doing, revolving around a drug deal, which is what some people believe.
And maybe his version of that psychotic moment is all Charlie wanted to say to the jury. He knew he was done for. He knew it the minute he saw Atkins with the blood-dripping knife after the Tate murders. It was inevitable, and maybe even bittersweet, because he would be going home. "Too much freedom is detrimental to the soul," he says. "I should not have been out there. It was too fast for me."
Manson always says time means nothing to him, that "in the hallways of always . . . I live a thousand years in a second, man," so, taking him at his word, today is the day in 1934 when he was born, to a 16-year-old girl in Cincinnati. He never had a dad he knew, and the only mom he knew was an irresponsible drunk. He was raised in juvenile halls and reform schools, and was given an adult education by inmates in prison, although not a very good one. He turned out to be a terrible criminal, an inept pimp, a lousy car thief, a ham-fisted burglar, a guy who got busted every time he broke the law. Before the murders, it was all quite pathetic and laughable, really, and if you throw that at Manson today, even he, after a moment of considered silence, will say, "OK, yeah, yeah, yeah. All right, I'll give you that one." And then he'll say, "But I'm not a person, have never been a person. I am an animal been raised a lifetime in cages." So much so that the child's game of thumb wrestling, he has never heard of it. "What's that?" he says, blinking. And that's his early history, all of it you need to know. You can imagine the rest of it. Just think the worst. Barely two decades of his long life spent as a free man.
These days, he's full of bluster about being as free in prison as anyplace else. "You're the one in prison, man." But on his 79th birthday, he calls me, the drawl in his voice low and distant, and says, "What do you think? Do you think this story will help me get out of here, only for a little while, before I go?" And right there is the human seam in Manson, split open and leaking, only for a little while, and it does kind of move your heart.
Better than anyone else, however, Manson has always understood that he doesn't belong in the outside world. Before he was released from prison in 1967, he told one of his jailers that he didn't want to go. But in 1971, at the end of his trial, with a death sentence looming, he still wanted to have his say before the jury, to mount the kind of defense only he could mount, and he feels Bugliosi somehow cheated him out of it by getting the court to deny his motion to be his own lawyer, and that's one of the things that still really frosts his kernels.
Today, inside the Corcoran visiting room, Star is wearing a paisley midi dress, looks very pretty, is very happy, while she busies herself with a paper towel, wiping clean a table of the sticky, smelly purple disinfectant that the prison uses. I'm glad Gray Wolf has lost his visiting privileges. He's kind of a control freak, glaring at Star with his big sunken eyes whenever she says something he doesn't like. I'm also not sure I like being around them both at the same time. They do whatever Charlie tells them to do, including carving X's into their foreheads. "Charlie gave us the honor of requesting that we cut our foreheads to make an X, 'for ATWA,'" Gray Wolf blogged, though how one correlates with the other is anyone's guess. Once, the three of us went to the redwoods together and tramped into a forest, where they stood near a cliff and kept beckoning me to come closer, come closer, the view is much better here, and all I could hear in the back of my mind was Charlie saying to me, "I'll take you. Put you in the grave. What're you going to do about that, jitterbug?" And, of course, it's not lost on me how much Star does look like a much prettier Susan Atkins, a.k.a. Sexy Sadie, who was the real nut job of the Manson Family. During her trial, she got on the stand and said, "[Sharon Tate] kept begging and pleading and pleading and begging and I got sick of listening to it, so I stabbed her. . . . How can [that] not be right when it's done with love?" And talking about the murders, Star says, "Sharon Tate wasn't a movie star. Even now, nobody's ever really heard of her, even though she supposedly got killed by Charlie Manson, the most famous guy in the world. And that's the only reason anybody knows who she is. And still nobody knows who the fuck she is."
Star looks up, and here is Charlie again, smiling his chipped-tooth, bad-dentures smile, with a pair of cool, yellow-tinted shades covering his eyes. He's pushing a wheelchair in front of him, using it for support, but it's probably all for show, part of some con against the system, because two minutes later, he's on his feet, doing the dragon-dance kung-fu thing he historically reserves for when the TV cameras are turned on.
He did it for Charlie Rose in 1986, Penny Daniels in 1987 and Geraldo Rivera in 1988. These were the golden years of his midlife media exposure. In interviews, he was a massive kinetic force, constantly parting his long, graying hair and fiddling with his beard, eyes all six-guns-a-blazing, rolling right over and owning some of his adversaries (Rivera was especially hapless), playing nice and thoughtful with others, and always raging with righteous indignation. He made for terrific TV. But after a booming, almost sexually aggressive chat with Diane Sawyer in 1994, the state of California banned the use of recording devices during prisoner interviews. This upsets Manson greatly. It's the reason why you haven't heard from him lately. He tends to sulk about it. The main reason is the dance, the big set piece in so many of his on-camera appearances. It's the dance, more even than words, that he believes can best communicate his true feelings, thoughts and ideas. Without it, what's the point of talking to the media? And it really is quite astounding to see, him moving into it now, arms and legs circling around in baroque curlicues, forming jagged-glass shapes and otherworldly patterns and whorls. What it all means, I don't know. But, boy, is he dexterous.
Star has a few things on her mind. For one, that Manson-memorabilia collector. "He's attacking us and saying someone's going to come to my home," she says.
Charlie folds his hands together. "Are you still going to target practice?"
"Good. If they're bullying you, they're afraid. They're just a bunch of Internet fat mouths," he says. Although, of course, he's never been on the Internet in his life. Or on a computer.
He uses his shirt sleeve to wipe some sleepy-winker rheum out of his eyes, then puts his hand on mine, runs his fingers along my fingers, up my wrist, and up my forearm. He squeezes it a few times and says, "Man, you're a soft dude," which I make a joke out of, telling him I don't go that way. He shrugs. "Sex to me is like going to the toilet. Whether it's a girl or not, it doesn't matter. I don't play that girl-guy shit. I'm not hung up in that game."
Then he nods at Star and says, "I can get inside her from out here, just got to go slow." He shakes his head and leans in on me, easing up close. "Well, you know what I'd really like to have? I'd like to have some real pussy. I'd like to have a little something to smoke. I'd like a good electric guitar. I'd like a good place to fart and shit. I'd like to have what you have." He's not threatening me, he's just saying, and it seems to be taking him back. "All the people sucking and fucking at the ranch, I couldn't turn any of them away. All I was looking for is some pussy and to play some music and dance. I took Susie off the bottom. Everyone said she's ugly, looks like a man. I said she's a beautiful piece of humanity. She paid me back. She hands me the bloody knife and says, 'I love you so much, I give you my life.' And Leslie, well, I boned her a few times. She had a big, fat old ugly, it was like sticking your dick out the window. Now that don't make her a bad person, but that's not what you want."
He scowls, in a mood, sitting with his legs open, his little round convict's belly hanging down in between.
"They all went out and killed, but, of course, I wouldn't do nothing," he goes on. "Do you expect me to go kill all those people? I was scared. I didn't want to go back to prison. Cockroaches do more for life than I do. I do . . . nothing." He stands up. "What a life, man. One great big fucking piece of shit."
I look at Star. Normally, I'd chalk this talk up to one of Charlie's well-established dodges, leading you one way, only to let you know he really means the opposite. But her mouth is open and she's letting loose all these little butterfly groans of concern.
He again brings up the conversation he had with Tex, where Tex wanted to know what to do. He's still on his feet, shoulders pulling back, blood and rage rising to his face. He's right there. "Don't ask me what to do!" he roars, punching the air. "One thing you don't want to do is step on me. You don't want to do that. Man, you know what to do. Do it!"
The guards look over, wait until he calms, then go back to the TV.
"See," he says, "there's no conspiracy in that." Maybe. But I can see now how he may have gotten his point across to Tex and told Tex what to do without having to come right out and tell him. It's in his sudden fury, in the buffeting, concussive roar of his voice, in the silent goading chatter of his expressive body, that dance of his, which can say more for him than words.
He sits back down. I ask him where that talk with Tex took place. He goes silent. In the past, he's said he wasn't at Spahn when Tex and the girls drove off, that he was in San Diego and spoke to Tex on the phone, not returning to the ranch until much later.
By way of reminder, Star scoots forward and says, "You were on the phone."
Charlie looks at her, then at me, then at the wall and says, "I don't know, which is what I say when I'm trying to get out of stuff."
He lets a moment go by. Smiles that half-man, half-devil smile of his.
"I'm lazy," he goes on. "Out there, you can get somebody else to do whatever you want done. I'll do whatever I can to not do anything. When I do nothing, I survive. I just don't want to take responsibility. The mistake I made is I didn't go with them. Tex was scared. A mama's boy. The second night went better, because I had a hand in it. In the situation, not the murders. No, man, I wasn't there for that. But, oh, they made a mess of it the first night. If I'd been there, it would have been a much better scene. I feel I should have did it. I'd have did it right. There's no doubt in my mind."
He nods his head. "Tex always did what I said. He didn't have to. He could skip on the highway and leave, but when he came to the ranch, he did what I said. He'd just seen the man – me – for the first time in his life, and he wanted to walk like it, talk like it. He wanted to be it. And there I was, in the gutter, man. And he was coming along, and he had a nice truck, and my mistake was, I let him into my world for that truck. I was real smart. It cost me 45 years for a damn Dodge pickup truck."
Just another miscalculation in a long line of miscalculations that, in the present case, started with the shooting of Lotsapoppa and the slashing of Gary Hinman and ends with him in prison for life, not only for the Tate-LaBianca killings, but also, along with Spahn regulars Bruce Davis and Steve "Clem" Grogan, for the murder of ranch hand Shorty Shea, about which he says, "Yup, we killed Shorty. Chopped him up into pieces. But I didn't do anything. It was Bruce and Clem, and Tex was there. Bruce didn't know how to fight, so I showed him how to fight and then seen what they did out the back window of a car when I went away. I wasn't there." It's funny how he's never around for anything. "Yeah," he says. "Isn't that odd?" Sometimes he can be so transparent, which makes him look like nothing more than a goofy, klutzy small-timer who made some bad decisions that led to more bad decisions that led to murder and who then got caught up in an ambitious DA's dream about a mastermind Svengali with demonic visions of world domination. Some crook, some outlaw, some gangster, some desperado, probably the worst ever.
Charlie's eyes roll around a little. He's going back even further now. "You see somebody fucking somebody in the ass, and they're looking at you, saying, 'This is what you want to do. You'd like this.' It makes you sick to your stomach to see, but then you end up doing that too. You see this shiny white ass and, oh, my goodness. You don't remember right then where you got the idea to do it, but you learn and you go through changes. I was 17. I asked this guy, 'Let me stick my peter in your butt.' He said no way. I picked a razor blade up off the shower floor and said, 'If we get caught, I'll tell them I made you do it.' So, he let me do it. But I don't know. Maybe he thought I was going to cut him. I didn't really even get it in but for a second or two and I came all over his butt."
This is the story of his life. And if that isn't an explanation of how it's gone from the very beginning, I don't know what is.
Star jumps to her feet and starts throwing food wrappers away. Charlie's poking holes in an avocado with a fork, taking his time, going all the way around, and hands half of it to Star when he's finished, and they both eat in silence. There's not much else that needs to be said right now.
One day, I get on the phone with Bugliosi – "Call me Vince," he says. In the 40 years since So what about the Bobby Beausoleil copycat-killing motive, which is the one Manson seems to favor?
So what about the Bobby Beausoleil copycat-killing motive, which is the one Manson seems to favor?
Bugliosi dismisses it out of hand. "Oh, that. Well, you don't stab people 169 times and murder seven people to get someone out of jail." He goes on: "I agree there wasn't one single motive, but here's my view. I think everyone who participated in the murders bought the Helter Skelter theory hook, line and sinker. But did Manson himself believe all this ridiculous, preposterous stuff about all of them living in a bottomless pit in the desert while a worldwide war went on outside? I think, without knowing, that he did not." He pauses. "I do think one reason why he didn't participate in the murders is because he thought that'd immunize him or insulate him from criminal responsibility. But, of course, if you're guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and there is a murder, then you're also guilty of that murder. This is boilerplate law."
Later on, while I'm in bed watching The Big Bang Theory on TV, Charlie calls again. I've taken to sometimes ignoring him. Maybe I'd rather spend time with Sheldon, Leonard and Penny than with Charlie Manson. Maybe I don't want to listen to another of his far-out spiels designed, no doubt, to take me someplace I don't want to go. Star and Gray Wolf have urged me to go with the flow and see where it leads. No way.
Tonight, though, I answer.
"Breath in and breath out, breath in and breath out," he says. "I'm the last breath on Earth, man. Some people here want me to sign a do-not-resuscitate order. I wrote on it, 'Why should I?' A lot of people want me to die. Bugliosi wants me to die before him, otherwise I've won." And so their battle continues, at least in Manson's mind.
After her visit with Charlie one Sunday, Star and I drive around desolate Corcoran, stop at Kings Drive-In for a milkshake, then head over to the big community park, the only verdant expanse in the area, and find a bench to sit on. "I do not give one fuck whatsoever about 1969, personally," she says along the way. She starts thinking about Susan Atkins. "That bitch was fucking crazy. She was a crazy fucking whore. 'Oh, Charlie, I did this for you.' She didn't know what she was doing. That girl was just a piece of shit, a whore, and just plain fucking crazy psycho." She says this with such vehemence that I'm a little taken aback. I hadn't thought her capable of it, which just goes to show you.
It's cold on the bench, and she wraps her arms around herself.
Then she bobs her head and comes out with a little bit of a shocker, "a scoop," she calls it. "I'll tell you straight up, Charlie and I are going to get married," she says. "When that will be, we don't know. But I take it very seriously. Charlie is my husband. Charlie told me to tell you this. We haven't told anybody about that."
It's one thing to be here, doing what she's doing, visiting Charlie, buying him his quarterly goody box, getting him apple-cider vinegar for his fungus feet and going to target practice. In a way, I can see all of that. I've felt his hand on my skin, listened to him speak, seen him say more with his body than with his words. I know. But marrying the guy? Are you going to take his name?
"Yeah," she says. "My parents like Charlie. We were just talking and they said, 'If Charlie gets out, you guys can come stay here. You could stay in the basement for a while, and you could maybe build your own little house down by the creek.'"
Will there be conjugal visits?
"No, California lifers no longer get them," she says. "If we did, we'd be married by now. You know, that's the only thing I want. I just want to be alone. I don't want to be always in that visiting room with people staring at me. But that's the only time I get to see him, in that room, with people staring. It's hard. But things change, you know. And who knows what could happen?"
Another day, another call from Charlie.
"Star, Star, baby on the floor," he says. "We started all over with this one. The other ones know it all now. I don't need to say anything. They're moving in colors."
The others being Squeaky and Sandy?
This doesn't sound good, him viewing Star as some kind of project, a baby on the floor that he's starting all over with, teaching her from the ground up. It sounds like he has plans for her. And historically, his plans have never turned out well.
What about the marriage?
He snorts. "Oh, that," he says. "That's a bunch of garbage. You know that, man. That's trash. We're just playing that for public consumption."
It's not exactly a surprise to hear him say this. I've spoken to Manson a lot, and I know this is the kind of thing he does. And Star, too, I see, which is more of a surprise. But even that makes sense, once you understand that she's Charlie's baby on the floor, not Charlie's wife-to-be, but another one of his children, just like Squeaky and Sandy once were, with her just now taking her first little baby steps, him holding her hand and showing the way. At least, that's my perception of how it is. But we all know how perceptions are.
"I've always been pretty truthful with myself, as much as I can be under the circumstances," Manson says later. "But I'll never tell on nobody, not even me, man, so that's why I ain't never told nobody what really happened back then. I can't tell you right now. It wouldn't work if I did tell you, because it would change by morning. Everything is constantly changing, man. The mind is a universal thing. Charles Manson and Beethoven," he says before hanging up for the night. "It's just one little thought."
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
Watch the four key players in the Manson family tree.