Sharon Marie Tate was a star on the rise. The studios were grooming the 26-year-old California blonde to be the next Marilyn Monroe. She was married to acclaimed film director Roman Polanski and was on the verge of giving birth to their baby boy.
But on Aug. 9, 1969, she and four others were found brutally murdered inside her Los Angeles home, the victims of a horrific plan by cult leader Charles Manson and his followers to start a race war they called “Helter Skelter.”
The killings terrorized the country, turning many of the people involved – including Manson – into household names. Even 45 years later, Tate’s sister Debra, who was 16 at the time of the murders, continues to live with the anguish.
“I didn’t ask for this job or position, neither did anybody else from the survivors’ families,” Debra, now 61, tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “There’s no benefit financially or mentally or emotionally. But it is what it is.”
Debra has lived life with this tragedy longer than without it. The immediate aftershocks turned her life upside down (her family had to leave town due to the media frenzy), and the ripple effects were devastating for her family – her mother suffered from severe depression for more than a decade. “We as a family had to take life day by day,” she says.
Debra, who has lived outside of Los Angeles for more than 20 years, says she is often reminded of the tragic night while helping victims or survivors of violent crimes, or attending parole hearings for many of the convicted, including Manson.
“They’re nothing special. They’re just little creeps,” she says about Manson and his followers, who are all serving life sentences in prison. “They’re nothing that should be regarded in any way, shape or form. What should be regarded are the people that were lost. They were truly magnificent people.”
For more about the murders and the lives lost that fateful night, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday