The Half-Baked Horror of the Tate-LaBianca Murders
If you’re like most normal people, you probably don’t know much about the murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson family beyond, well, those words right there. The fact is that the Tate-LaBianca murders (yeah, there were two) were horrifically gruesome mass slayings, but they were carried out by a bunch of idiot hippies on the orders of their unhinged cult daddy, so they were also a clusterfuck of incompetence and a lot of unanswered questions.
The Manson Family
Charles Manson is famous for being as crazy as he was evil, so how did he convince a bunch of abused young women to follow him? Mostly by targeting abused young women. He stepped off a bus in San Francisco fresh off his latest prison stint in 1967 and immediately set about convincing young women who’d run away to join the hippie movement he was a god. It wasn’t a huge leap from there to persuade them to do his bidding in exchange for ruling the world with him after all other white people were killed in an impending race war. We’ll get to that.
The Tate Murders
It was under those delusions that Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, and Charles “Tex” Watson descended on the home of actress Sharon Tate on August 8, 1969 with instructions from Manson to kill everyone inside “as gruesome as you can.” Aside from Kasabian, who acted as a lookout, they did just that, viciously slaughtering Tate and her friends Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger. Yeah, that Folger. They also killed a poor teenage boy who’d just been visiting the caretaker out back. Then Atkins wrote “PIG” on the front door in Tate’s blood for … well, the reason for that is up for debate.
The prosecutor of the Tate-LaBianca murders suggested they were part of the race war Manson called “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles song he believed was sending him messages about it. While America’s black population wiped out the white population, which are apparently the only two races, Manson planned to hide his “family” in “the Pit” until the war was over and they could emerge to rule over the black new world, who clearly would have realized by then that they were incapable of ruling themselves. The only problem was black America was taking a little too long to get this war started, so it’s believed Manson tried to help them along by murdering wealthy white people and staging a vaguely political scene.
Others believe Manson’s real target was Terry Melcher, a music producer he’d been trying to convince to give him a record deal who had lived at 10050 Cielo Drive until six months before the murders. It would certainly make more sense, but by all accounts, Manson knew Melcher had moved. At most, the house became a symbolic representation of “Manson’s rejection by the musical establishment,” but maybe it didn’t represent anything because he was just goddamn deranged.
A Drug Deal Gone Wrong
Police initially believed the Tate murders were drug-related, and decades later, Sebring’s business partner said he believed Manson had tried to sell Sebring and Frykowski drugs the day before and got an ass-beating instead. A member of the “family,” Bobby Beausoleil, seemed to confirm that when he told Truman Capote that “Sharon Tate and that gang” “burned people on dope deals,” but he also claimed they produced violent kiddie porn and he’s a murderous white supremacist piece of shit, so who knows?
A Cover Up
The most likely story, in fact, is that the Tate-LaBianca murders were simply a means for covering Beausoleil’s ass. Previously, Manson had ordered the “family” to torture the money out of a man named Gary Hinman, but Beausoleil messed up and killed him. They did try to frame the Black Panthers by writing “Political Piggie” and a Black Panther symbol in blood on the wall, but Beausoleil was caught anyway, so they staged the subsequent murders (possibly of people who burned them on a dope deal) the same way to make police believe the killer was still out there.
Making It Up to Him
Manson wasn’t happy about the Tate attack. It was sloppy and loud, and they’d left way too much evidence behind. The next day, he “decided he had to show them how to do it,” which apparently involved driving aimlessly around Pasadena and trying to shoot another driver at a traffic light.
Choosing the LaBiancas
Unlike Tate and friends, the LaBiancas weren’t Hollywood royalty. They were well off, sure, but Leno LaBianca was just a grocery store executive and his wife, Rosemary, owned a dress shop -- not exactly Illuminati material. Manson apparently targeted them on a whim just because they lived near a former associate. Again, this was supposed to be a lesson in well-organized murder.
The LaBianca Murders
Whatever his teacherly intentions may have been, Manson only broke into the LaBianca house through an unlocked door and instructed Tex to tie the couple up before returning to the car and telling the women to go inside and follow Tex’s orders. The LaBiancas both died of multiple stab wounds, and the killers again left their calling cards -- “pig,” “war,” “Helter Skelter,” etc. -- on the walls in their blood.
There Were Other Murders
The reason Manson was so desperate to keep Beausoleil out of jail was fear that he’d rat him out for shooting the awesomely named drug dealer Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe a month earlier, though it turned out Crowe survived, a fact that decidedly shook Manson when he showed up to testify against him. Later, a paranoid Manson became convinced that an employee on the ranch where the family squatted named Donald “Shorty Shea” was a police informant and ordered the family to beat him to death about a month after the Tate-LaBianca murders.
Despite how messy the Tate-LaBianca murders were, the family actually succeeded so hard they failed. Just a few days later, the police confidently announced to the public they were certain the attacks were completely unrelated, and they refused to even consider any connection to Hinman. In fact, their only suspect for a while was the caretaker of the Tate residence, who they let go after a polygraph, which was good because he obviously didn’t do it but bad because they let him go after a polygraph.
For the Love of Volkswagen
In the end, what brought the Manson family down was their habit of stealing VW Bugs to convert into dune buggies to get around in the Pit. They actually ended up selling a Volkswagen shop owner his own car back to him, and after they were arrested, Atkins couldn’t help bragging to her cellmates about the Tate murders. All they had to do was shut up and rely on the incompetence of the LAPD.
Manson made sure his trial was as weird as possible. He was so bad at defending himself that he was actually barred from doing so, later showing up in court with an X carved into his forehead to show he’d removed himself from “the establishment” and his followers (who were, by the way, camped outside the whole time) doing the same within a few days. He straight-up attacked the judge at one point while his three codefendants, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten (Watson was tried separately), chanted in Latin. Manson wasn’t allowed to testify before the jury for fear that he would hypnotize them, and a whole bunch of potential witnesses and one lawyer went missing or suffered mysterious accidents. Everyone was obviously convicted and sentenced to death, although California soon abolished the death penalty.
The Manson Family After The Murders
The Manson family didn’t just dissolve when their leader went to prison. Some of them even moved to be closer to the prison where he served his sentence, including Lynette Fromme, who later tried to assassinate Gerald Ford because Nixon had besmirched Manson, but he was out of office by then, so Ford was close enough. As late as 1996, one follower built a website for the family, and in 2019, two years after his death, Fromme admitted she was still in love with Manson.
The 2019 book CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by journalist Tom O’Neill laid out a new theory that the Manson family was merely a pawn used by the CIA to turn public opinion against hippies. He cites the family’s long history of getting away with crime and their visits at a free clinic used by the government to study the effects of LSD as evidence but admits he “didn’t have a smoking gun,” and it seems just as likely that the LAPD simply sucked and hippies made themselves look bad by virtue of being hippies.
Top image: Alan Pappé/Flickr