Infamous cult leader Charles Manson, who became synonymous with evil after ordering the murders of nine people over two months in 1969, has died. He was 83 and serving nine life sentences in California’s Corcoran State Prison.
In 2014, PEOPLE published a cover story featuring Debra Tate, the sister of actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered at the hands of Manson’s followers, known as his “family.” Below is a reprint of the story, headlined: “My Sister’s Murder 45 Years After Manson’s Spree.”
Following Manson’s death, Debra told PEOPLE, “I said a prayer for his soul.”
It was an unusually warm day in Southern California on Aug. 9, 1969. The Tate family had just moved from Northern California to the Los Angeles area, where their oldest daughter, Sharon Marie, 26, was winning fame as Hollywood’s latest “It Girl.” Married to acclaimed director Roman Polanski, Sharon was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with the couple’s first child, a boy, and the family was eagerly awaiting the birth of the baby. “Sharon was my mother’s world,” Debra Tate, then 16, remembers. “And she was my sun and my moon and what I modeled myself after as a person.”
By mid-afternoon, as the temperatures rose, the girls’ mother, Doris, sat down in the family kitchen to have a piece of coffee cake with a visiting neighbor while 11-year-old Patti watched cartoons in the den. Debra decided to take advantage of the break from unpacking to cool off with a quick shower. While she was in there, the phone rang — and the family’s world fell apart.
“My boyfriend at the time called to say he had heard on the radio that there was a fire at a house in Benedict Canyon and that one of the victims was Sharon Tate,” Debra recalls. “My mom flung open the shower door and said, ‘Sharon’s dead.’ She was crying and wailing and shaking and her knees buckled and I remember the horror that comes with watching my little sister’s world crumble. It’s very horrifying when your parents fall out from beneath you.” And the family’s horror was just beginning.
Over the next hours, days and months, the Tate family would learn that there had been no fire, that instead Sharon and friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski, who were at the house that night, had each been stabbed dozens of times, their blood used to write messages on the walls of the home as part of Charles Manson’s unhinged plan to start a race war he called “Helter Skelter.” (Another man, 18-year-old Steven Parent, who had arrived at the home to visit groundskeeper William Garretson, was shot to death at the front gate.)
Forty-five years later, Debra sat down with PEOPLE to discuss the night that changed her family’s life and how they have spent a lifetime trying to move forward. “It’s hard to determine if it’s a dream or if you’re awake,” says Debra, who recently published Sharon Tate: Recollection, a book of iconic photographs of her sister. “The ones that are left behind are victims as much as the actual victims. We are here to suffer for years and years to come.”
Even now the hours after that fateful phone call on Aug. 9 are forever seared in Debra’s brain. “I got out of the shower without even rinsing the soap out of my hair and got on the phone,” she says. “I felt like there must have been some sort of mistake.” She called her father, Col. Paul Tate, who was wrapping up his 23-year Army career in San Francisco, to deliver the news. “He came down and went straight to the house,” she says. “He wandered in on the scene when they were still doing their detective work.”
When he returned to the family home, Debra wanted answers. “I had to know what happened, and he needed to tell somebody,” she says. “He said in all his time in the military that he hadn’t seen such slaughter. And he cried. I was stoic. I didn’t allow myself to cry for years.”
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As detectives tried to piece together what had happened, they interviewed Debra about the time she had spent with her sister and friends in the days before the murders. After starring in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and other films, Sharon took a break from acting to get ready for the birth of her son.
The last time her family saw her, Debra recalls, their mother asked if she needed anything. Sharon looked at her round belly and smiled before replying, “I have everything I need.”
Life in the Benedict Canyon house “was really normal,” Debra says. “Jay would take me out sometimes or bring food in. Abigail Folger loved to read; she always had her nose buried in a book. Wojciech liked to fly kites in the front yard, and we would swim. They had a young dalmatian puppy, and Sharon had a Yorkie puppy, Tom and Prudence.”
After the murders, police found the two puppies hiding in a closet. “They were scared to death,” says Debra. “We took Prudence home and found a home for Tom. I wouldn’t leave him behind.”
Debra remembers reporters showing up at her school and even flocking to the funeral. “They actually knocked me down, bloodied my knees and palms trying to get to my mother and Roman,” Debra says. Grieving was made even harder by all the attention. “It’s very private, yet so darn public.”
The trial and eventual convictions of Manson’s minions and the man himself — who called himself God upon arrest — intensified interest and cemented the horrific crimes in the public imagination.
“Your mind cannot grasp how these people’s motive was to go into strangers’ homes and cause a race war. I mean that’s craziness,” says Debra. And it utterly destroyed her family.
“For my mother it was absolutely devastating, and she wasn’t capable of getting beyond the pain. She fell into a horrible depression. She shut everything off. The lights were on, but nobody was home. She would have moments of lucidity, but most of the time she was sedated.”
Their father worked on the case yet never talked about it. And he forbade the rest of the family to attend the trial.
“If he was suffering, and I know now he was, we never saw it,” she says. Debra was left to care for younger sister Patti, “making sure she had money, clothes put out, everything a mother would do.”
More than a decade later, hearing that Manson family members were petitioning for the convicted members’ releases, Debra and her family fought back, appearing at every parole hearing and becoming well-known advocates for victims’ rights.
“When that phone call happened, you could see in my mother’s face, ‘Boom!’ The lights went back on again for the first time, and she had a purpose,” says Debra. “By helping others, you’re actually helping yourself.”
Debra, who lives in Riverside, California, and has a daughter, says her sister’s murder was her life’s defining moment. “It made me what I am.” As long as she lives, she will battle to prevent parole for Sharon’s murderers.
“They’re not supernatural, they’re not the devil, they’re nothing special, they’re just little creeps,” she says.
And while she dreads the court hearings for the way they “make you relive it all,” she finds satisfaction in seeing that “these people stay in prison for the rest of their lives. The people that we lost in this historical event were real, and they had lives and families. They’re sorely missed.”