Leslie Van Houten Was A 19-Year-Old Homecoming Queen When She Met Charles Manson

Published July 10, 2019
Published July 10, 2019

Leslie Van Houten joined the Manson Family in 1968. The next summer, she stabbed Rosemary LaBianca to death.

Manson Family Murderers

Los Angeles Public LibraryThree Manson Family murderers, from left: Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten. 1971.

Before Leslie Van Houten stabbed Rosemary LaBianca in the back 16 times, she was a normal, middle-class girl who was homecoming queen at her high school. She was the second eldest child of a traditional, all-American family on Aug. 23, 1949, in Altadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Van Houten was an athletic young girl, and outgoing enough that being crowned homecoming queen only made sense. Not averse to mischief and adventure, though, she started experimenting with drugs in her teen years. At first, it was hash and marijuana — but that quickly escalated.

Before anyone was the wiser, young Van Houten was taking LSD on a regular basis. Once, she and her boyfriend ran off to San Francisco’s hippie Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

Bobby Beausoleil

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesBobby Beausoleil and Catherine “Gypsy” Share introduced Van Houten to Charles Manson. Here, Beausoleil poses for a mugshot after being arrested for the murder of Gary Hinman.

She turned 19 in the summer of 1968 — when her life took an unimaginable turn.

It didn’t take long after meeting Bobby Beausoleil and Catherine “Gypsy” Share that she joined them on a trip. The two Mansonites welcomed her in, and hit the road.

Discussion of a man named Charles Manson filled the air with mystery and intrigue — especially when Share said he was “Christlike” and had all the answers they were seeking. By the time summer was over, Leslie Van Houten finally met the shadowy figure. He’d change her life forever.

Leslie Van Houten And Charles Manson

Van Houten met Charles Manson that summer. By 1968, the cult leader had amassed a following of social outcasts, runaways, and amateur criminals.

Manson’s silver-tongued sermons initially revolved around loving oneself and your fellow human. He knew the Bible inside and out, and tantalized his audience of abandoned youths into loyal devotion. Of course, it helped that he provided his “family” with plenty of LSD, while he himself kept an even keel to remain clear in his strategies.

Ranch Overhead

Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesSpahn Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, where Manson and his “family” dwelled in the late 1960s.

What he really wanted was to start a revolution — but not the sort you’d immediately imagine a hippie priest of the 1960s to advocate for.

Manson was desperate for the race war between America’s white and black citizens to begin. He named it “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song from The White Album — which became a mantra, of sorts, in their new home on Spahn Ranch.

George Spahn curiously welcomed Manson and his devotees to dwell on his property — an abandoned movie set on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where westerns and television shows used to be filmed. Oddly enough, the Tate murders in 1969 revolved around an actress and her filmmaking husband, as well.

Spahn Ranch Interior

Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesThe interior of the Spahn Ranch, replete with mattresses on the floor and an utter lack of homey decor.

Cinema and satanic killings by a deranged hippie cult seemed to have put an end to the 1960s counter-culture movement in one fell swoop. But before the events of August 1969, Van Houten lived on Spahn Ranch with her new Manson Family members, and became entranced by her new father figure’s ideology.

“All we did was listen to the Beatles’ White Album and read Revelations,” she later explained.

While Manson managed to guide his group of devotees along fairly well in the beginning, numerous factions within soon became dissuaded with his prophecies of Helter Skelter. Nothing grand was in motion, and some members even left Spahn Ranch to find work and solace on Barker Ranch in Death Valley.

Manson In Handcuffs

Bettmann/Getty ImagesCharles Manson arrives at the Inyo County Courthouse. December 3, 1969.

Van Houten, too, was fed up with the stagnant, isolated nature of her life. This led Manson to put her in his dune buggy and drive to the top of the Santa Susana mountains.

“If you want to leave me, jump,” he told her. She didn’t.

Manson’s chief lieutenant Paul Watkins eventually broke the news to his boss. The cult leader was busy networking and securing funds in Los Angeles when he heard how fractious his group of loyalists had become.

According to Watkins’ memoir My Life With Charles Manson, Family members met a miner there named Paul Crockett — who told them that Manson had been brainwashing them all along. When Manson heard about this, paranoia struck him immediately. He channeled his anger toward Watkins, strangling and nearly killing him.

This was a clear point of no return for Manson — if Helter Skelter didn’t begin as soon as possible, he could lose everything he’d been working toward in an instant. The Tate-LaBianca murders were now right around the corner, and would take place during the last month of the last summer of the 1960s.

The Rosemary And Leno LaBianca Murders

According to Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by the eventual prosecutor of the Tate-LaBianca trials and bestselling author Vincent Bugliosi, Leslie Van Houten stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 16 times. She’d later admit to this herself in 1994, according to The Toronto Sun.

Dissatisfied by the messy nature of the Sharon Tate murders the night before — and the fact that they hadn’t caused enough “panic” to initiate Helter Skelter — Manson ordered his family to kill again. This time, he wanted them to be even more “gruesome.”

A 1994 Larry King interview with Leslie Van Houten.

Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, two well-to-do business owners, had just returned from a trip to Lake Isabella. They’d heard news of the horrifying Tate murders on the radio during the drive, and dropped Rosemary’s 21-year-old daughter Suzan of at her house before returning home.

Suzan later recalled an anecdote her late mother told a friend a few weeks before the killing:

“Someone is coming in our house while we’re away. Things have been gone through and the dogs are outside the house when they should be inside.”

It was Frank Struthers, Rosemary’s son, who discovered something was wrong when he returned home around 8:30 p.m. the following night. The boat was still hitched to the car. All the shades were drawn shut. The kitchen light was on. He called his sister who, along with her boyfriend, came by and managed to enter the home.

Leno LaBianca was lying in the living room on his back, with a pillow over his face. An object was sticking out of his stomach. They left the house immediately and ran to a neighbor’s house to call the police.

The LaBiancas

CBS NewsLeno LaBianca and Rosemary LaBianca

In a later parole hearing, Van Houten explained that Charles “Tex” Watson and Manson himself broke into the house and tied the married couple up.

“[Tex] told Pat [Patricia Krenwinkel] and I to go into the kitchen and get knives, and we took Mrs. LaBianca into the bedroom and put a pillowcase over her head,” she said. “I wrapped the lamp cord around her head to hold the pillowcase on her head. I went to hold her down.”

Rosemary heard her husband’s screams from the other room, and began to loudly call out to him. That’s when Van Houten and Krenwinkel stabbed her.

“I went in and Mrs. LaBianca was laying on the floor and I stabbed her,” Van Houten said. “In the lower back, around 16 times.”

Police found Leno on a bloody living room floor with a pillowcase around his head and a lamp cord around his neck. His hands were tied behind his back with a leather thong. Krenwinkel had carved the word “WAR” into his chest.

Rosemary was on the bedroom floor with one of her favorite dresses bunched up over her head, exposing her naked, brutalized body.

Tex Watson

Bettmann/Getty ImagesCharles “Tex” Watson was convicted of murder for his part in the killings of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas while a member of the Manson Family.

The lamp cord, still attached to the lamp, was so taut that it was clear she’d tried to crawl off.

It took a few months for authorities to locate those responsible for the heinous crimes, though Manson, Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten were all arrested before year’s end. Van Houten was arrested on Nov. 25, 1969.

Leslie Van Houten Goes To Trial

According to CNN, Van Houten’s participation in the LaBianca killings resulted in a death sentence in 1971. She didn’t participate in the Tate murders, but was found guilty for stabbing Rosemary LaBianca with Patricia Krenwinkel.

On March 29, 1971, Van Houten was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, making her the youngest women ever put on California’s death row, as well as the youngest member of the Manson Family convicted of murder.

Fortunately for Van Houten, California banned the death penalty in 1972 before the state got a chance to impose it on her. Her first conviction, too, was overturned, as her lawyer died before the original trial concluded.

Barbara Walters interviews Leslie Van Houten in 1977, one year before her final guilty verdict.

Two trials followed — one ended in a hung jury, while the other ended in a 1978 guilty verdict and a sentence of 7 years to life with the possibility of parole. It had nearly been a decade since the LaBianca murders.

Leslie Van Houten has appealed this decision a whopping 22 times since then, most recently in 2019.

Charles Manson died behind bars of natural causes in 2017 at the age of 83. Van Houten, meanwhile, was denied parole for the third time in three years in June 2019. Even though the California parole board recommended her for parole in January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom disagreed.

A 60 Minutes Australia segment on Van Houten with her lawyer, Rich Pfeiffer.

“Ms. Van Houten and the Manson family committed some of the most notorious and brutal killings in California history,” he said. “When considered as a whole, I find the evidence shows that she currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time.”

Van Houten will soon be 70 years old. She’s been incarcerated for decades, and spent her time behind bars earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree. She also completed in-prison self-help programs.

She was a 19-year-old acid-head when Manson brainwashed her. Gov. Newsom, however, believes that 40-plus years of imprisonment is not enough to warrant the release of an elderly woman. Perhaps 50 years will be.


After learning about Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten, read about the 11-year-old pregnant girl in Florida who was forced to marry her rapist. Then, learn where the Manson Family members are now.

Marco Margaritoff
Marco Margaritoff is a Staff Writer at All That Is Interesting.