PEOPLE Explains: Behind the Manson Murders That Terrorized the Nation — and the Killers Now

In the summer of 1969, a group of young people led by Charles Manson sent a wave of terror through the hills of the Los Angeles area

In the summer of 1969, a group of young people led by Charles Manson sent a wave of terror through the hills of the Los Angeles area, leaving a trail of bodies behind them.

Nearly 50 years later, here’s what you need to know about the cult’s violence, its victims and where the killers are now.

The ‘Family’ Forms

Manson began attracting followers after he was released from prison in March 1967. But before he and his murderous group embarked on a plan to kill famous people, they sought out celebrities as friends, roommates and professional connections.

As Dianne Lake, the cult’s youngest member (who did not participate in their later violence) told PEOPLE, Manson was an adept manipulator and surrounded himself with those in his thrall — mostly young women.

The group lived on the Spahn Ranch, a commune located 30 miles outside L.A.

“He was extremely intelligent,” Lake said. “He had the incredible ability to pick up on other people’s weaknesses and their needs and their desires, and he could fulfill those.”

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Manson was drawn to the famous and glamorous, biographer Jeff Guinn explained to PEOPLE: He “fully intended to become the most famous rock ’n’ roll star in history” — and he worked to connect with famous people who he believed could aid his career.

Among his celebrity connections were the Beach Boys and producer Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day.

Manson ultimately failed as a musician, fanning the flames of his anger at the world.

His plan, according to Guinn, was to trigger a race war by pinning his killings on the Black Panthers.

Charles Manson
Manson Cult Van Houten 1969
George Brich/AP

Four Days of Death

The first of the Manson family murders — which shared an extreme violence and the use of torture — was on July 27, 1969.

That’s when, according to authorities, Manson orchestrated the death of Gary Hinman at the hands of Bobby Beausoleil, with fellow followers Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner in attendance.

Less than two weeks later, on the night of Aug. 8, 1969, Manson sent Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson to kill everyone at an L.A. home rented by actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski. (Manson had visited the home previously, when Melcher lived there with his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen.)

The following morning, police discovered a brutal crime scene with the bodies of Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steve Parent.

The night of Aug. 10, 1969, Manson took the group, along with Leslie Van Houten, to the Los Feliz, California, home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The couple was found dead inside their home hours later, and it was the Tate-LaBianca murders that helped cement the Manson family’s place in the national consciousness.

But there was still one more death to come: Later in August 1969, Manson ordered the killing of Donald “Shorty” Shea at the Spahn Ranch. (Shea’s skeletal remains were found nearly a decade later.)

Sharon Tate On The Shooting Of 'L'Oeil Du Malin' By Jack Lee Thompson
Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty

Who Were the Victims?

Hinman, the first to die, was a music teacher.

Tate co-starred in the 1967 cult classic Valley of the Dolls and married Polanski in 1968. Sebring was a celebrity hairstylist and Tate’s friend and former boyfriend. Frykowski was a friend of Polanski’s and Folger, heiress to the eponymous coffee company, was his girlfriend.

Parent, 18, was only at Tate’s home that night to visit another teenager who was staying there as a caretaker.

The LaBiancas, Leno and Rosemary, were each successful entrepreneurs: He had worked as as supermarket executive and she owned a dress shop.

Shea, the final victim, worked at the Spahn Ranch.

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“They’re nothing special. They’re just little creeps,” Tate’s sister Debra told PEOPLE 45 years after her murder, of the Manson family.

“What should be regarded are the people that were lost,” she said. “They were truly magnificent people.”

CORCORAN STATE PRISON - MARCH 18: In this handout photo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Charles Manson, 74, poses for a photo on March 18, 2009 at Corcoran State Prison, California. Manson is serving a life sentence for conspiring to murder seven people during the "Manson family" killings in 1969. The picture was taken as a regular update of the prison's files. (Photo by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Getty Images)
Charles Manson in 2009. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Getty

Where Are the Murderers?

Many of the Manson family members were convicted of various first-degree murders following their arrests in 1969. They were set to die until the death penalty was temporarily abolished in California and their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Here’s where some former followers are now:

Manson, 82, is incarcerated at California State Prison in Corcoran. He plays his guitar in his cell or the day room, according to prison officials. Earlier this year, numerous outlets reported he was treated for an unknown illness. He has been denied parole 12 times.

Atkins, also known as Sadie Mae Glutz, was denied parole 13 times before dying in prison from natural causes on Sept. 24, 2009, at age 61.

Krenwinkel, now 69, is the state’s longest-serving female inmate. A spokesperson for the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation in California told PEOPLE that she has not had any recent infractions.

Van Houten, 68, was found suitable for parole by a panel of board of parole hearing commissioners in Corona, California, in September. The two-member parole panel’s recommendation will now go to the Board of Parole hearings for review, which can take up to 120 days, before being sent to California Gov. Jerry Brown, and that could take up to 30 days.

Watson, 71, was considered Manson’s right-hand man. He is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian and teaches Bible study in prison. He is serving his sentence at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California.

During the Tate-LaBianca murders, Linda Kasabian waited outside. The prosecutor called her a “star witness,” and she was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony. At trial, she told jurors Manson’s women did “anything and everything” for him. Now 68, she has reportedly changed her name and moved to the Pacific Northwest.

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