Charles Manson’s murder spree — which sent him to prison for more than 40 years before he died on Sunday — broke, overnight, into American culture five decades ago and never left.
During a two-day spree in August 1969, Manson and his followers, known as “the Manson family,” were responsible for the murders of seven people, including 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate. (According to authorities, Manson had already orchestrated the death of Gary Hinman, in July 1969, and would order his “family” to kill a ninth victim, Donald Shea, before his arrest.)
The killings were part of a plot by Manson to start a race war, which he named “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles song. They were particularly gruesome in nature: A pregnant Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, was found stabbed 16 times, with an “X” carved into her stomach inside her secluded Los Angeles home in the canyons above Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Also murdered were coffee heiress Abigail Folger, writer Voytek Frykowski, hairstylist Jay Sebring and 18-year-old delivery boy Steven Parent. Their bodies were discovered the next morning.
Less than 48 hours later, grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were found dead in the tony Los Feliz district of L.A. The word “war” was carved into his stomach, from which an ivory-handled carving fork protruded. “Death to Pigs” was scrawled with their blood on the living room wall.
The bloody Tate-LaBianca murders came to define an era in L.A. history.
Manson and his followers were convicted in 1971 and ultimately given life sentences, being spared execution after California temporarily banned the death penalty.
But the horrific nature of the crimes lingered in collective memory because of their viciousness, the notoriety of those who died and the cult-like influence Manson exerted over his “family,” outwardly laid-back hippies and flower children who became killers under his influence.
“That was kind of scary to people: to think there were people walking around who would kill innocent people they didn’t even know to start a race war,” retired L.A. County prosecutor Stephen Kay tells PEOPLE.
“Nobody made the connection with the public that Manson did,” adds Kay, who says a 1969 photo of a deranged-looking Manson on the cover of Life Magazine helped fuel the nations fear of the cult leader.
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“I trace it back to the Life Magazine photograph and all the publicity,” Kay says. “Americans like to be scared and they go to horror movies and things like that, and here was a real-life monster. He looked wild and scary and that is what did it. People have that image of him in their minds.”
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A Failed Rock Star
A former convict, Manson brought together dozens of disenfranchised young people, including “family” members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson, in the late ’60s.
He had dreams of becoming a rock star and rubbed elbows with the likes of Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson, who allowed Manson and his followers to live with him for a few months in 1968 and tried, unsuccessfully, to get him a music recording contract.
But, after a few months, Wilson had enough of Manson and his group, who ransacked his luxurious home, stole his property and totaled his Mercedes.
Manson and his followers eventually moved on to Spahn Ranch, a former filming site of Western films, where Manson plotted the notorious murders.
In the years since his capture, he was portrayed in movies, television shows and books, including Helter Skelter, by former Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.
His turbulent life behind bars also drew attention and became media fodder. Perversely, Manson actually received more fan mail than any other inmate in California prison history.
“He gets an average of four fan letters a day,” Kay says. “People want to join the ‘family’ and want his autograph. I remember one of the parole hearings at San Quentin and the devil worshippers turned out. He had become the focal point of satanic worshippers. They view him as the devil.”
But to his victims’ families, Manson and his followers were nothing but despicable people.
Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, told PEOPLE: “They’re not supernatural, they’re not the devil, they’re nothing special, they’re just little creeps.”
The focus on Manson is an insult to the memories of his victims, Debra says.
“The people that we lost in this historical event were real, and they had lives and families. They’re sorely missed,” she says. “They were truly magnificent people.”