Charles Manson, leader of murderous cult, dead at 83

Charles Manson, who led deranged followers known as the Manson Family into a series of horrific crimes that haunted Americans for over a generation, died Sunday at a California hospital after being imprisoned for more than 45 years. He was 83 years old.

Manson was hospitalized Tuesday for an undisclosed ailment. He was serving nine life sentences, most recently incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison, near Bakersfield.

Debra Tate, the sister of the Manson Family's most high-profile victim, actress Sharon Tate, confirmed to CBS Los Angeles that she received a call from California State Prison, Corcoran, at about 8:30 p.m. local time, informing her that Manson had died. Debra Tate told CBS Los Angeles she hadn't yet processed his death, but that she had "said a prayer for Manson's soul and has forgiven the family but refuses to forget what they did."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a statement confirming that Manson died in a Kern County hospital of natural causes at 8:13 p.m. local time.

The prosecutor in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi, told CBS News in 2004 that people still asked him about the case 40 years later. "The Manson murder case, unlike any other mass murder case in history, continues to fascinate to this very, very day. It never stops," Bugliosi said. 

In a statement released early Monday morning, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of California released a statement quoting Bugliosi, who once gave, "the most accurate summation: 'Manson was an evil, sophisticated con man with twisted and warped moral values.' Today, Manson's victims are the ones who should be remembered and mourned on the occasion of his death."

Manson was convicted of orchestrating the infamous August 1969 murders of seven people in a bloody two-night Southern California crime spree, and prosecutors said he used his influence over his Family to order the gruesome killings in an attempt to incite a race war. Manson and other Family members were also later convicted in two more killings linked to the cult.

The killings exposed a dark underside to the counterculture movement of the time and were seen as a stark ending to the 1960s "peace and love" era, the Associated Press reported.

"If hippie paradise was a myth, it was a myth that a lot of people believed in," Todd Gitlin, one of the nation's foremost historians of the 1960s, told the AP. "Manson damaged it gravely."

Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and spent the first half of his 32 years in prison, mainly for petty crimes. In 1986, Manson gave a rambling jailhouse interview to Charlie Rose on CBS' Nightwatch. When Rose asked Manson whether he believed his life took a wrong track early on amid his first contacts with the prison system, Manson gave a bizarre answer.

"See, that' doesn't even compute in my world, because like, there is no wrong," Manson said. "….According to everyone else, I've never done anything right. In the world I live in, I've never made a bad move in my whole life."

In the interview, he denied ordering the killings.

After being released from prison in 1967, Manson moved to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, where he started leading the quasi-religious nomadic group who were mainly impressionable young women. They claimed to be influenced by drugs such as LSD and the music of the era—with special emphasis placed on the Beatles' 1968 White Album.

Manson had an oft-documented brush with the Hollywood music scene when a chance encounter with two Manson followers led the "Family" to move in with founding Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson at his Hollywood home for a period in the spring of 1968. 

In a 2012 article for Canada's National Post, Beach Boys biographer Mark Dillon wrote Dennis Wilson was drawn to Manson's charisma and musical talent and admired him as a kind of guru. Manson, who had learned guitar in prison and aspired to be a singer-songwriter, viewed Wilson as a "gateway to a recording contract," Dillon wrote.

Dennis Wilson was impressed enough to record a Manson composition and place it on the B-side of the Beach Boys' late 1968 single Bluebirds over the Mountain, Dillon wrote, but the relationship soon soured.  Manson's fits of temper and ravings of an upcoming race war distressed Wilson, Dillon wrote, and Wilson began to view the Family as "leeches." Dennis Wilson later moved out of the home and the Family faced eviction after the lease expired.

The Family later moved to Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles County, a 500-acre ranch used for movie sets. In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Manson described living with the Family as "there's no saying no. If I slide up, you've got to go with the flow. You were with anyone anyone wants."

In his non-fiction account of the killings, "Helter Skelter," prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote Manson was a kind of spiritual leader for the group, but also exacted absolute control over its members. Many of his followers believed Manson was Jesus Christ, Bugliosi wrote, and wouldn't hesitate to do his bidding. Manson preached that a race war was coming, and the Family would need to learn how to live in the desert to stay alive. He also told the Family that they would need to initiate the race war, Family member Leslie Van Houten would later testify

Manson called the race war "Helter Skelter," many of his followers said, and believed lyrics in the Beatles' "White Album" – including a song by the same name -- contained coded messages describing it.

In July 1969, Manson ordered the Family to carry out the murder of an acquaintance, Gary Hinman, who Manson claimed in later interviews owed him money. The family members wrote "Political piggy" on the wall in Hinman's blood and a panther paw, seemingly to blame the murder on the Black Panthers. Manson and followers Bobby Beausoleil and Bruce Davis were convicted in the slaying. Davis, Manson and Steve "Clem" Grogan were also convicted in the August or September 1969 murder of Donald "Shorty" Shea, a stuntman and employee at the ranch where the Family lived, who Manson had allegedly deemed a "snitch."

The most notorious Manson Family killings, however, were the seven slayings that happened over two nights in August 1969 that came to be known as the Tate-LaBianca murders.  Manson gave Family member Charlie "Tex" Watson a gun and a knife, ordered him to drive to the Benedict Canyon Estate home of filmmaker Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant with their first child, and "kill everybody in the house as gruesome as I could," Watkins would later testify. Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel went with Watson and took part in the massacre.

Five people were slain in the Aug. 9, 1969 beating, shooting and stabbing rampage: Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski and Steven Parent.

Atkins, who died in prison in 2009, said she had stabbed Tate to death while the actress begged for her life and the life of her unborn son. Atkins said they had been on LSD and acting on the orders of Manson.

When asked in a 1993 parole hearing about Tate's final words, according to the Los Angeles Times, Atkins said: "She asked me to let the baby live. I told her I didn't have mercy for her."

The next night, Manson directed Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten  to kill a Los Angeles grocer, Leno LaBianca, and his wife, Rosemary. Van Houten, who at 19 was the youngest member of the Family, testified at a parole hearing earlier this year that she held down Rosemary LaBianca while another Family member stabbed her to death. Family members also carved the word "WAR" into Leno LaBianca's stomach. Krenwinkel testified that she wrote "Rise," "Death to pigs" and "Helter Skealter" [sic] in LaBianca's blood.

All were alleged to be messages related to Manson's vision of a race war. Bugliosi argued at trial that while Manson controlled the Family, each member made their own decision to kill.

"He never told these people, 'Either you murder for me or I'm going to murder you," prosecutor Bugliosi told CBS News in 2004. "There were several members of his family totally subservient, [who would] do anything for him, but wouldn't kill for him. They didn't have enough guts in their system to kill a fellow human being, but their religion, their cradle, was to commit murder. They had plans to kill Sinatra, Liz Taylor, folks like that. They were going to travel around country and murder families in American homes. It was their religion. They enjoyed killing."

Bugliosi argued at trial that Manson chose his victims at random, but there were documented links between Manson and the scenes of the infamous crimes, Bugliosi wrote in his book.

During their brief association, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson introduced Manson to music producer Terry Melcher. Melcher never signed Manson – but Melcher once lived in the Benedict Canyon Estate home that was later rented by Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, one of the murder sites.

Manson felt double-crossed by Melcher over his dashed hopes of a record contract, biographer Dillon wrote in the National Post. On the night of the Tate murders, however, Manson was aware Melcher had already moved out of the home, Bugliosi wrote in his book. Bugliosi wrote that while Manson may have known about the Benedict Canyon Estate home and even stopped by the property before the slayings looking for Melcher, he insisted "Helter Skelter" was the real motive. 

The murders had captivated – and terrified – the country. Atkins had told police they had a list of Hollywood stars they were set to murder, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra and others. Linda Kasabian – who had served as a driver and a lookout during the Tate murders – testified for the state and was granted immunity.

During the high-profile trials, Manson and his followers carved Xs and swastikas in their foreheads and the killers often giggled during descriptions of the murders.  Although Manson insisted he never directed the Family to kill anyone – and insisted that the whole concept of the Family was a lie – he was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty, along with Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten. Watson was convicted later. Atkins also pleaded guilty in Hinman's murder.

All were spared execution when a California Supreme Court ruling temporarily banned the death penalty in 1972. Manson's sentence was commuted to nine life terms.

But Manson still had his followers -- in 1975, Manson Family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme was convicted of attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

The fascination with Manson continued – for a while in prison, he received more mail than any other inmate in U.S. prison history. He has granted interviews over the years, including with Charlie Rose in 1986, Penny Daniels in 1987, Geraldo Rivera in 1988 and an interview with Diane Sawyer in 1994 that led California to ban recording devices in prison interviews. In 2013, he granted an interview to Rolling Stone and said he was set to marry Afton Elaine Burton, a 25-year-old devotee known as "Star." The two were granted a marriage license, but it expired two years later without a wedding.

During his 45-year stint in prison, Manson has hardly been a model inmate: According to the Los Angeles Times, Manson had "hundreds" of violations during his time in prison, including possessing a cell phone and homemade weapons. He has been denied parole 22 times.

"Suffice it to say that he cannot be described as a model prisoner," Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Los Angeles Times.

Bugliosi, the prosecutor, said that "young kids, impressionistic, going through a rebellious state and view him as some type of anti-establishment hero, a glorious outlaw." Bugliosi said the murders would never have happened without Manson's way to influence people.  

"I would stipulate these murders would not have happened if it weren't for Charles Manson, but he had the raw material to work with and he was like the catalyst that brought that hostility to the surface," Bugliosi told CBS News.


More Stories

Don't Miss

Trending Stories

Latest News

Video Center