Manson Murders

Helter Skelter: The True Story Of The Charles Manson Murders

Published December 4, 2021
Updated December 5, 2021

For two weeks in the summer of 1969, Charles Manson and his "family" went on one of the most ruthless murder rampages America has ever seen.

The Manson Murders of 1969 brought a nation entrenched in hippiedom and free love to its knees. Where there was once hope for a brighter future, there was now a black hole of despair and literal disbelief.

The slaughter of Hollywood elites — in their own beds and homes — by devotees to cult leader Charles Manson was simply too perplexing to process. If the movie industry’s new starlet, Sharon Tate, could be butchered while eight-and-a-half months pregnant, all bets were off.

The police investigation at 10050 Cielo Drive beginning on August 9, 1969, immediately bore this out. Dozens of officers, investigators, and members of the press were confounded at what they saw.

Initial theories of the murder relied on the seemingly negative impact drugs had had on the culture that decade, as though the gruesome murders of Tate and her friends were merely the result of a drug deal gone wrong — but investigators soon uncovered a much more harrowing truth.

Charles Manson

YouTubeCharles Manson became obsessed with “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles.

After families were informed of the massacre and while suspects were being questioned about their whereabouts, those actually responsible were free — roaming Los Angeles to hunt down their next victims.

The day after Sharon Tate and four of her friends were murdered, Manson sent his brainwashed loyalists after Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. This time, however, he went along for the ride — aggravated at the messiness of the Tate killings the night prior.

Though many of those responsible were caught and apprehended before Christmas of that year, the psychic echoes of their gruesome deeds reverberated through Hollywood’s hills and canyons for years to come.

Even now, 50 years later, the Manson murders of 1969 have a powerful impact on American culture, entertainment, and the country’s collective memory.

Charles Manson Before The Murders

Unbeknownst to even those familiar with the man, Charles Manson never actually killed anyone. Instead, the notorious cult leader amassed a faithful following to take care of his hit-list. For serving as the Manson Family’s eponymous figurehead, however, he was nonetheless sentenced to death.

But before the murders of 1969 would cement his name in infamy, Manson was just an amateur criminal who served time for shoddy car theft and botched robberies.

Born Charles Milles Maddox in Cincinnati, Ohio on Nov. 12, 1934, his mother Kathleen was a 16-year-old who had been abandoned by the father of her child. When Kathleen told her lover Colonel Scott — his given name, not a military rank — that she was pregnant, he told her he was called away on military business. It took her a few months to realize he was never coming back.

Kathleen Maddox

YouTubeCharles Manson’s mother, Kathleen Maddox, who had Manson when she was just a teenager.

In August of 1934, while pregnant with Charles, Kathleen, then 15, married 25-year-old William Manson. But in less than three years, they were divorced, with William charging Kathleen with “gross neglect of duty” — probably infidelity, drunkenness, and going out at night.

When Charles was five years old, his mother was sentenced to prison for robbing a man and knocking him unconscious while wielding a ketchup bottle in Charleston, West Virginia.

With a new last name and a newly developed penchant for stealing, Manson was eventually sent to a Catholic school. His attempts to come back home were painfully dashed by an emotionally unavailable mother and no one else to turn to. This early trauma presumably had a lifelong impact on Manson, who found himself living on the streets — and committing his first few crimes.

Charles Manson Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsManson’s booking photo at Terminal Island, c. 1954.

It was 1951 when he spent his first stint behind bars. In his later years, Manson was a fairly obedient inmate who rarely caused any trouble — but this was not the case for his teenage self. He was described in probation reports as someone with a “marked degree of rejection, instability, and psychic trauma.”

Manson was “unpredictable” and “safe only under supervision,” “constantly striving for status and securing some kind of love.”

In 1955, it seemed he succeeded in securing a kind of love when he married 15-year-old hospital waitress Rosalie Jean Willis. The 20-year-old ex-convict moved his pregnant wife to Los Angeles with him — but failed to consider that driving a stolen vehicle across state lines was a federal offense.

Charles Manson And Rosalie Jean Willis

TwitterRosalie Jean Willis met Charles Manson when she was 15 years old. After marriage in 1956, Willis became pregnant, and gave birth to Charles Jr. while his father was in prison.

Once again, Manson found himself in prison — but this time, he left a pregnant wife behind. She gave birth to his first son, Charles Manson Jr., who was eventually so ashamed of his heritage that he changed his name and shot himself in the head when he was 37.

Jail essentially became Manson’s second home by 1960. His wife had divorced the absentee husband and father, who was busy robbing and pimping. Manson then remarried and got divorced yet again. When he was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison in McNeil Island, Washington, for forging checks, he began forming the familiar Manson persona etched into our culture.

While at McNeil, Manson delved into the cult-like, sci-fi-esque teachings of Scientology, learned how to play guitar, and decided he wanted to be a world-famous musician like The Beatles.

Charles Manson With A Guitar

Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesCharles Manson learned to play guitar while in prison in the early and mid-1960s.

Manson’s passion for music contributed to his early release for good behavior on March 21, 1967. By then, he’d developed his knack for getting people to listen and pay attention to him, as well as his deep-seated belief that he was destined for greatness. It didn’t take long for him to find true believers.

Amassing The Manson Family Cult

The Manson Family may have looked like your standard group of California hippies and freakniks, but the ragtag band of followers was far from it. Their peace and love lifestyle was tainted with a dose of death and blood.

After Charles Manson’s release from prison in 1967, the silver-tongued figurehead amassed about 100 followers — mostly middle-class young women — who were drawn to Manson’s radical views and penchant for free sex and psychedelic drugs.

Manson Family At Spahn Ranch

Michael Haering/Los Angeles Public LibraryThe Manson Family at Spahn Ranch, circa 1970.

In fact, Manson’s affinity for hallucinogens likely played a part in molding his “family’s” minds to bend to his will. LSD, the Manson Family’s drug of choice, wasn’t only used as a psychedelic, but was also being used by the U.S. government in mind control experiments.

The Family first moved to San Francisco, but — after spending the summer of 1968 living with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys — settled on a ranch owned by George Spahn in the San Fernando Valley.

Spahn Ranch became their de facto compound — a gathering place for acid trips, group sex, and Manson’s soliloquies on the coming race war.

Spahn Ranch Overhead

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

Among Manson’s impressionable young group of followers was a faction of staunchly dedicated women who earnestly believed in their leader’s claims that he was the second coming of Jesus. The man’s prophecy of an impending race war was in no way questioned by any of them.

But it wasn’t just drugs that shaped Manson or molded his disciples into the loyalist killers they became. He obsessed over The Beatles track “Helter Skelter,” which became a hypnotizing mantra for the group, as well as a slogan of sorts for their supposedly God-given mission.

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, and Leslie Van Houten were among this sect of family members — and all contributed to the murders at the Tate and LaBianca homes a year later.

Susan Atkins With Her Lawyer

Ralph Crane/Time Inc./Getty ImagesManson Family member Susan Atkins leaves the Grand Jury room after testifying during Charles Manson’s trial in December, 1969.

Helter Skelter: The Start Of The Manson Family Murders

The Tate murders epitomized Manson’s murderous mission, with the vile slaughtering of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby pushing this particular incident over the edge of gruesome. Though two more people would be murdered the following day, the sheer gruesomeness and celebrity aspect overshadowed all others.

Sharon Tate met Roman Polanski at a party a few years earlier. The Holocaust-surviving movie auteur courted the new Hollywood starlet vigorously during their collaboration on The Fearless Vampire Killers.

She had been dating hairstylist Jay Sebring since 1964, and after the movie wrapped told him that she and Polanski were in love. Still, they remained friends.

Sharon Tate And Roman Polanski's Wedding

Evening Standard/Getty ImagesPolish film director Roman Polanski and American actress Sharon Tate at their wedding.

Soon, Polanski was consumed by his film, Rosemary’s Baby, about an ambitious husband who sacrifices his wife and child to Satanists in hopes of attaining Hollywood fame and fortune. The project wrapped in late 1967, and Polanski and Tate married in London on Jan. 20, 1968.

In June, the newlyweds rented a house in Los Angeles. They hired Winifred Chapman – who would be the first one to find a blood-spattered Tate with a noose around her neck — as their housekeeper.

In February of 1969, the house at 10050 Cielo Drive opened up and Polanski and Tate – already pregnant with their first child — moved in. Little did they know, their house had already been visited by none other than Charles Manson.

Manson’s connection to 10050 Cielo Drive began in the summer of 1968 when Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson picked up a couple of hitchhikers on Sunset Boulevard. Those hitchhikers turned out to be Manson Family members, and Wilson and Manson became fast friends.

Terry Melcher And Dennis Wilson

Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library/Wikimedia CommonsTerry Melcher (left), a successful music producer, and Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys. Wilson introduced Charles Manson to Melcher, who lived at 10050 Cielo Drive, in 1968.

Wilson introduced Manson to his friend Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day and a successful music producer in his own right. Manson thought that Melcher could be his ticket to music stardom. He was in the car when Wilson dropped Melcher off at the house he was renting with actress Candice Bergen — the house at 10050 Cielo Drive.

Manson never forgot that address. On March 23, 1969, he returned to the house looking for Melcher. Instead, he found the house’s owner, Rudolph Altobelli, who told him that Melcher had moved away.

According to Altobelli, Sharon Tate came to the door to see what was going on. She saw Manson and Manson saw her.

She had no idea that a few months later, Manson would orchestrate her murder.

Manson Family Murder Scene

FlickrThe Tate-Polanski residence at 10050 Cielo Drive.

The Sharon Tate Murders

Months later, with summer coming to an end, Tate well along in her pregnancy, and Polanski working on The Day of the Dolphin in London, Sharon Tate made sure to fill her home with friends. Altobelli had hired a man named William Garretson as caretaker of the property while the couple was on the lease.

Garretson lived in the guesthouse, while Tate, coffee company heiress Abigail Folger, and her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski, also known as Voytek, stayed with Tate in the main building. On the night of August 8, 1969, two others had the misfortune of being present as well.

One was Steven Parent, an 18-year-old who drove his Jeep there to see if Garretson wanted to buy his audio equipment. The other was Tate’s ex-boyfriend, Jay Sebring, who joined the group of friends for dinner that night. Music producer Quincy Jones, who was friends with Sebring, had planned to join them but ended up not going.

In the end, five people — plus Tate’s unborn baby — were murdered violently. Only Garretson, safe inside the guesthouse and entirely unaware of the events unfolding that night, survived unscathed.

10050 Cielo Drive

FlickrOn August 9, 1969, Los Angeles police found five dead bodies at 10050 Cielo Drive.

On August 8, Manson ordered Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to invade the sleepy house and murder all within. By some accounts, they were instructed to “totally destroy everyone in that house, as gruesome as you can.”

Just two weeks earlier, Manson had slashed musician Gary Hinman’s face with a samurai sword. His disciples sewed up Hinman’s wounds with dental floss and tortured him for three straight days before taking turns smothering him with a pillow. Manson wanted the murders at 10050 Cielo Drive to be even more macabre.

“Make it a real nice murder,” Manson said, “just as bad as you’ve ever seen. And get all their money.”

Parent was the first to die. After the killers climbed the telephone poles and cut the phone lines, they found Parent idling in his car. Watson shot him four times and cut him with a knife.

While Kasabian stood watch at the front gate, the others went inside.

Linda Kasabian

Los Angeles Public LibraryLinda Kasabian (left) served as the Manson Family’s lookout during the Tate murders. Here, she waits in a car outside of the courthouse during the murder trial. August 11, 1970.

Frykowski woke up on the living room couch when Watson whispered in his girlfriend’s ear and kicked him in the head. He fearfully asked what the stranger was doing in the house, to which he received the most terrifying answer imaginable:

“I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business.”

What happened next was nothing short of mayhem.

The Manson Family, led by Watson, gathered all of their victims into the living room.

Frykowski was bludgeoned in the head, stabbed an extraordinary 51 times, and — after running outside to scream for help — shot twice. Sebring was stabbed seven times and shot once. Folger was stabbed 28 times. “I’m already dead,” she said as Watson kept stabbing her.

Charles Tex Watson In Court

Los Angeles Public LibraryCharles “Tex” Watson during the trial. March 1, 1971.

Sharon Tate begged the Manson Family to let her live long enough to have her baby; she was just two weeks away from giving birth. Instead, they stabbed her 16 times.

Five of Tate’s wounds were deadly enough to do the deed, but the Manson Family wanted to make these killings as “gruesome” as possible. The next morning, the world would come to discover just how well the Manson murders followed that order.

In the meantime, however, Charles Manson sent his murderous goons to kill two more people: Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

The Leno And Rosemary LaBianca Murders By The Manson Family

Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, both well-to-do business owners, were on their way back to Los Angeles after a trip to Lake Isabella, about three hours north. Suzanne Struthers, Rosemary’s 21-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, was along for the ride. Her 16-year-old brother, Frank, stayed behind to enjoy his break on the lake for one more night.

Helter Skelter Book Cover

TwitterCharles Manson prosecutor and New York Times bestselling author, Vincent Bugliosi, wrote one of the most successful true crime books of all time with Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders.

By the time the LaBiancas hit the road, news of the horrific killings on Cielo Drive had already hit the airwaves. The family listened attentively on the radio the whole drive back, dropping off Suzanne at her house and before returning home.

According to Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the Manson trials and wrote Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, Suzanne later recalled that her mother told a friend the following, just a few weeks before the incident:

“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.”

When Frank Struthers got home at around 8:30 p.m. the following night, he noticed that his stepfather’s speedboat was still on the trailer behind the family’s car. This was unusual — Leno didn’t like leaving his boat outside overnight. Something was wrong.

Geraldo Rivera interviews Manson aficionado and researcher Bill Nelson.

He then saw all the shades in the house drawn shut. The light in the kitchen was on. Nobody answered his knock at the door. He called out, and nothing but silence greeted him. Frank was now viscerally afraid, and walked to a payphone to call the house he was too afraid to forcibly enter.

There was no answer, so he called his sister Suzanne. Together with her boyfriend, Joe Dorgan, the three went back to the house at 3301 Waverly Drive. Rosemary usually left a set of keys in her car. They found them and entered the house.

Leno LaBianca was on his back, lying between the couch and a chair with a pillow over his face. There was a cord around his neck, his pajamas were torn open, and he had an object sticking out of his stomach. They knew instantly that he was dead.

Frank Struthers Jr. With His Father

Michael Haering/Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public LibraryFrank Struthers Jr. (left) found the dead body of his stepfather, Leno LaBianca, after he came home from a trip to Lake Isabella.

Dorgan picked up the kitchen phone to call the police, but set it back down — he didn’t want to tamper with evidence.

“Everything’s okay, let’s get out of here,” he said.

They ran to a neighbor’s house, who let them in and called the police for them.

While the authorities had been completely enveloped by the Tate murders on Cielo Drive all day, their investigation was about to get a whole lot stranger.

Investigating The Blood-Soaked Scene Of The Tate Murders

When housekeeper Winifred Chapman arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive, it seemed like just another day at the Tate residence. She found the place covered in blood, and ran to a neighbor’s house upon seeing her first body. They called the police. It was 8:33 AM.

The first officers on the scene — DeRosa, Whisenhunt, and Burbridge — were the first to properly inspect the home and victims. Tate had a nylon rope tied around her neck, which was slung over a rafter with the opposite end tied around her ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring’s neck.

The word “PIG” was scrawled on the front door — in blood.

A 60 Minutes interview with Bob Burbridge, one of the three first arriving officers at the Manson Murders scene.

None of the victims had their pulse checked. The scene was so horrifying that the officers on site simply didn’t feel the need. They did find Garretson outside and immediately tackled him to the ground. He had no idea what had occurred. He’d been up all night, listening to music in the guest house.

Suspiciously unscathed, he was taken in for interrogation. His answers — the result of a sleepless night and psychological shock at the news of what had occurred — made him seem even more suspect to the police.

Though the subsequent lie detector test wouldn’t be admissible evidence, he passed with flying colors, and police moved on to other persons of interest. The early hours of the investigation, though, centered on theories of a drug deal gone wrong or a drug-laden party turned violent.

Victims Of The Manson Murders

IMDBFormer sweethearts Sebring and Tate remained tight-knit despite her marriage to director Roman Polanski.

Police did find hash, MDMA, marijuana, and cocaine scattered across the house and in Sebring’s Porsche, but the sheer violence of the murders led cops to quickly abandon their initial theories.

Polanski’s manager, William Tennant, was playing tennis when he got the call. His friend’s pregnant wife had been butchered. He was still in his tennis shoes when he arrived at the house to identify the bodies.

Tennant had no idea who Parent was, but identified Frykowski, Tate, and Sebring. There were so many cop cars and journalists on Cielo Drive by this time that they were actively detangling themselves to maneuver up and down the road.

“It’s like a battlefield up there,” said Sgt. Stanley Klorman.

Tate Murder

Getty ImagesFive people were discovered murdered on the Polanski-Tate property, including Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate’s ex-boyfriend.

For Tennant, the time to call his friend and break the unimaginable news to him, as best he could, had come.

“Roman, there’s been a disaster in a house,” he said, trying to control himself. “Your house. Sharon is dead, and Voytek and Gibby and Jay.”

“No, no, no, no! How?” Polanski asked.

Tennant told him. He told him that his wife had been stabbed to death, and that his baby — a son in his final weeks in Tate’s womb — had died as well.

Roman Polanski And Manson Murders

Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesPolanski sitting on the bloodied porch outside his home after his wife and unborn child were murdered by the Manson family. He came under scrutiny for agreeing to do this LIFE magazine shoot. The word “PIG” can still be seen scrawled on the door in his wife’s blood.

Polanski flew to the states and barricaded himself in a hotel room, under the supervision of a doctor. The police asked him a few questions, but largely left him alone.

Polanski later addressed the press in a short statement and appeared in a bizarre LIFE magazine photoshoot where he posed in front of the blood-scrawled door of the house, and in the living room where his family was butchered.

The LaBianca Crime Scene

The Manson Family again tried to be “gruesome” with the LaBiancas — but even more so this time around. They felt the Tate murders hadn’t resulted in enough “panic.” Not in Los Angeles or in the news media — but in the victims themselves.

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

Linda Kasabian And Leslie Van Houten

Los Angeles Public LibraryLeslie Van Houten and Linda Kasabian being led to court. April 17, 1970.

“[Tex] told Pat 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.”

When Rosemary heard her husband’s screams and called out to him, Van Houten and Krenwinkel stabbed her.

According to The Toronto Sun, Van Houten admitted this herself in 1994.

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

Officers found Leno on the living room floor with a bloody pillowcase over his head, a lamp cord tied around his neck, and his hands tied behind his back with a leather thong.

Rosemary was found lying on her bedroom floor with one of her favorite dresses — blue and white horizontal stripes — bunched up over her head, exposing her naked body. The tautness of the cord between her neck and the bedroom lamp indicated that she had tried to crawl away.

What Happened After Manson Murders?

Nearly every Manson Family member involved in the killings — including Charlie himself — was initially sentenced to death. But their lives were saved when California commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment in 1971.

Van Houten was only 19 years old when she helped kill Rosemary LaBianca. She had been the homecoming queen at her high school.

Manson Family Murders

Getty ImagesLeslie Van Houten was the youngest of the Manson Family members to be convicted, for taking part in the murders of the LaBiancas. She has been denied parole 19 times and is currently serving her sentence in the California Institution for Women.

To this day, her participation in the LaBianca killings continues to stir up discussion revolving around how much personal agency she had over her actions. California Governor Jerry Brown denied her parole in 2016 after the state’s parole officials recommended the then-66-year-old’s release.

“Both her role in these extraordinarily brutal crimes and her inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence cannot be overlooked and lead me to believe she remains an unacceptable risk to society if released,” said Brown.

The parole board tried to release Van Houten once again in January 2019, but Governor Gavin Newsom followed Brown’s lead and denied it. Some critics feel this unnecessary grandstanding on crime is a mere political stance — while others feel she justly deserves to remain imprisoned.

Susan Atkins was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in prison in 2009, and Manson died in 2017 at the ripe old age of 83. Van Houten, Watson, and Krenwinkel remain behind bars. Krenwinkel is the longest-serving female inmate in California history.

Manson Family Members

Getty ImagesManson family members and murder suspects Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten.

Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme — a Manson Family member who wasn’t involved in the murders but supported Charlie and the others at trial — is a free citizen. Fromme, who met the cult leader on Venice Beach, later tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. She was imprisoned, released in 2009, and lives in upstate New York.

Linda Kasabian, who served as the lookout during the Tate murders, was a key witness for the prosecution. While the Manson Family praised Manson as a “Jesus Christ-like figure,” she called him “the devil.” She was crucial to the prosecution’s case.

“I doubt we would have convicted Manson without her,” Bugliosi confessed.

In the end, the “devil” himself lived the rest of his life behind bars, as his mythologized persona continues to serve as fodder for rebellious youth, art, and true crime.

After learning the true story behind Helter Skelter and the Manson murders, read about the true story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous Borden murders. Then learn the horrific true story of Ronald DeFeo Jr. and the Amityville murders. Finally, read more about whether or not Charles Manson killed anyone.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.