Pros­e­cu­tor in Manson mur­ders

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Re­becca Trounson and Elaine Woo

Near the close of the 1960s, ev­ery­one who kept up with the news knew who Charles Manson was, but hardly any­one had heard of Vin­cent Bugliosi.

Bugliosi, how­ever, didn’t re­main ob­scure for long: The am­bi­tious Los An­ge­les County deputy dis­trict at­tor­ney soon gained world­wide fame for his cen­tral role in pros­e­cut­ing the bizarre mur­ders that ter­ror­ized Cal­i­for­nia in the sum­mer of 1969.

Two years later, Bugliosi won the con­vic­tions of mas­ter­mind Manson and the fol­low­ers who car­ried out the Tate-LaBianca killings. Then he used his celebrity to launch a ca­reer as a best­selling au­thor, be­gin­ning with “Hel­ter Skel­ter,” his ac­count of the Manson case that has sold more than 7 mil­lion copies.

With a lawyer’s cool, he went on to write books on

sub­jects as con­tentious as Ge­orge W. Bush’s con­duct of the Iraq war and the ex­is­tence of God. But he never shook his pri­mary le­gacy — nor tired of the glory.

“No mat­ter what I do, I’ll be for­ever known as the Manson pros­e­cu­tor,” he told The Times in 1994.

Bugliosi died of can­cer Satur­day at a Los An­ge­les hos­pi­tal, said his wife, Gail. He was 80.

All but one of the de­fen­dants in the Manson fam­ily tri­als he han­dled have out­lived him, in­clud­ing Manson him­self, who turned 80 in Novem­ber.

The events lead­ing to the sen­sa­tional case be­gan on the night of Aug. 8, 1969, when, act­ing on Manson’s or­ders, four of the cult leader’s fol­low­ers drove to the Hol­ly­wood Hills, end­ing up around mid­night at the se­cluded Bene­dict Canyon es­tate Tate shared with her hus­band, direc­tor Ro­man Polan­ski, who was out of the coun­try.

Five peo­ple, in­clud­ing the preg­nant Tate, would be stabbed or shot to death on the sprawl­ing prop­erty. Tate, who begged for her life and that of her nearly full­term baby, was also hanged.

The other vic­tims at the Tate res­i­dence or on the grounds were Hol­ly­wood hair­styl­ist Jay Se­bring, 35; Voytek Frykowski, 32, a friend of Polan­ski’s; Abigail Fol­ger, 25, a cof­fee heiress and girl­friend of Frykowski; and Steven Par­ent, 18, who had been vis­it­ing the prop­erty’s care­taker.

Hours later, across town in Los Feliz, gro­cery chain own­ers Leno and Rose­mary LaBianca were tied up, tor­tured and killed in a sim­i­lar man­ner in­side their home.

Breath­tak­ing in their bru­tal­ity, the mul­ti­ple killings set the re­gion on edge. Gun sales sky­rock­eted in Bev­erly Hills and nearby com­mu­ni­ties. Busi­ness boomed for se­cu­rity firms, and off-duty po­lice were hired to pa­trol the homes of the wealthy.

Aided by a jail­house tip, in­ves­ti­ga­tors would even­tu­ally link the mur­der­ous ram­page to Manson and sev­eral of his fol­low­ers living on a re­mote for­mer movie ranch above Chatsworth.

Bugliosi had been in the L.A. County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice just five years when he was asked to help build the case against Manson and those ac­cused with him: Su­san Atkins, Pa­tri­cia Kren­winkel and Les­lie Van Houten. (An­other de­fen­dant, Charles “Tex” Wat­son, would be tried separately.)

Two months into what would be­come a nearly 10month trial — a record length and, at $1 mil­lion, a record cost for its time — Bugliosi be­came the chief pros­e­cu­tor on the Manson case af­ter a more se­nior at­tor­ney was re­moved by the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice for mak­ing public com­ments about it.

In “Hel­ter Skel­ter,” Bugliosi re­called his sur­prise the first time he saw Manson. “I hadn’t re­al­ized how small he was,” he wrote of the slim man who stood a lit­tle over 5 feet tall. “I could not be­lieve that this lit­tle guy had done all the things it was said he had. He looked any­thing but a heavy­weight. Yet I knew that to un­der­es­ti­mate him would be the big­gest mis­take I could make.”

The court­room pro­ceed­ings were marked by the de­fen­dants’ bizarre be­hav­ior: Manson and the women known as his “girls” carv­ing Xs in their fore­heads and shav­ing their heads; other mem­bers of the Manson “fam­ily” hold­ing vigil out­side the down­town L.A. court­house; Manson lung­ing at Judge Charles Older with a sharp­ened pen­cil. Bugliosi was as­signed a body­guard af­ter Manson threat­ened to kill him.

Bugliosi ar­gued be­fore ju­rors that the mo­tive for the mur­ders was Manson’s bizarre plan to trig­ger a race war called Hel­ter Skel­ter from a Bea­tles song of the same name. The pros­e­cu­tor said the cult leader be­lieved that blacks would win the war but would even­tu­ally hand over power to Manson and his all-white fol­low­ers, who planned to sur­vive the car­nage by hid­ing out in Death Val­ley.

When Bugliosi made his fi­nal ar­gu­ments in the trial, The Times noted that he “used sar­casm, face­tious re­marks, vivid ex­am­ples, florid lan­guage and arm-wav­ing histri­on­ics to present a metic­u­lous, hard-hit­ting re­but­tal to de­fense claims.”

In 1971, ju­ries found Manson, Atkins, Kren­winkel and Wat­son guilty on seven counts of first-de­gree mur­der. Van Houten was con­victed of two mur­ders.

Bugliosi sought and won death sen­tences for all five de­fen­dants, but the sen­tences were re­duced to life in pri­son af­ter the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court abol­ished the death penalty in 1972. (The Leg­is­la­ture later reen­acted the death penalty statute, but the life terms for the Manson de­fen­dants were un­changed.) Atkins died in pri­son in 2009; the oth­ers re­main be­hind bars.

Stephen R. Kay, a for­mer Los An­ge­les County deputy dis­trict at­tor­ney who worked with Bugliosi on the Manson trial, said the chief pros­e­cu­tor rec­og­nized the sig­nif­i­cance of the case from the be­gin­ning in a way Kay, then 27, and at least some oth­ers in the of­fice did not.

“An­other at­tor­ney had told me, ‘This is just an­other big case and in five years, ev­ery­one will for­get about it,’” Kay said in a 2012 in­ter­view with The Times. “But Vince re­ally un­der­stood the po­ten­tial all along, that this was the case of a ca­reer.”

In the course of the trial, Bugliosi qui­etly en­gaged a writer, Curt Gen­try, to work with him on craft­ing “Hel­ter Skel­ter,” a de­tailed ac­count of the mur­ders and the com­plex court case, pub­lished in 1974.

Vin­cent T. Bugliosi was born in Hib­bing, Minn., on Aug. 18, 1934, the son of Ida and Vin­cent Bugliosi Sr. His fa­ther ran a small gro­cery store and was later em­ployed as a rail­road con­duc­tor.

Bugliosi earned money as a young­ster by mow­ing lawns, de­liv­er­ing news­pa­pers and other small jobs. He also ex­celled at ten­nis, win­ning a state cham­pi­onship in Min­nesota when he was 16. His fam­ily later moved to Los An­ge­les, and Bugliosi grad­u­ated from Hol­ly­wood High School.

He at­tended the Uni­ver­sity of Miami on a ten­nis schol­ar­ship, earn­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. He later re­ceived a law de­gree from UCLA, where he was pres­i­dent of his 1964 grad­u­at­ing class.

In 1956, he mar­ried Gail Tal­luto, whom he had met in col­lege. He is sur­vived by his wife; a daugh­ter, Wendy; and a son, Vin­cent.

Af­ter the Manson trial pro­pelled him into the lime­light, Bugliosi ran twice for Los An­ge­les County dis­trict at­tor­ney, los­ing both times.

Af­ter leav­ing the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice, Bugliosi be­came a de­fense at­tor­ney but ac­cepted rel­a­tively few cases. “I just don’t want to de­fend the same kind of peo­ple I used to send to death row,” he told the Du­luth News-Tri­bune in 2001.

Mainly, he wrote books, more than a dozen in all, some­times with co-au­thors, and al­ways the same way, in long­hand, on a legal pad.

In 1996, he pub­lished “Out­rage: The Five Rea­sons Why O.J. Simp­son Got Away with Mur­der,” in which he dug through the de­tails of the case against Simp­son in the deaths of his ex-wife, Ni­cole Brown Simp­son, and her friend Ron­ald Gold­man. Bugliosi cas­ti­gated the pros­e­cu­tors and judge who han­dled the case as all but in­com­pe­tent.

In one sec­tion of the book, he asked how God could have al­lowed Simp­son and Gold­man to die and al­low their killer to go free. “I, for one, can’t be sure at all there is a God,” he wrote. Af­ter hun­dreds of read­ers wrote to him — many want­ing to save his soul — the long­time ag­nos­tic de­cided to tackle the ul­ti­mate ex­is­ten­tial mys­tery in his book “Di­vin­ity of Doubt: the God Ques­tion” (2011).

The book he con­sid­ered his best was “Re­claim­ing His­tory: The As­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy,” a 1,600-page vol­ume pub­lished in 2007. In it, he ex­am­ined the as­sas­si­na­tion and in­ves­ti­ga­tion in minute de­tail, scorn­fully dis­miss­ing the con­spir­acy the­o­rists who ques­tioned that Lee Har­vey Oswald had com­mit­ted the crime and that he acted alone.

But he re­mained most fa­mous for “Hel­ter Skel­ter.” Its metic­u­lous de­tail and the au­thor’s unique po­si­tion as pros­e­cu­tor made it an “in­dis­pens­able con­tri­bu­tion” to the di­a­logues spurred by the mur­ders, critic Robert Kirsch wrote in his re­view for The Times. The book won an Edgar Al­lan Poe Award for the best work of true crime and spawned two TV movies, in 1976 and 2004.

In­evitably, most con­ver­sa­tions with him turned to the Manson case.

“Years ago, I spoke at a book con­ven­tion in Rich­mond, Va.,” Bugliosi told a Newsweek in­ter­viewer in 2009. “I ar­rived at the sta­tion at the same time as Wil­liam Manch­ester and Arthur Sch­lesinger, both Pulitzer Prize win­ners. The whole cab ride, Manch­ester and Sch­lesinger are toss­ing me ques­tions about Charles Manson: That’s all they wanted to talk about.”

Af­ter Cal­i­for­nia’s high court de­clared the death penalty un­con­sti­tu­tional, Bugliosi saw Manson only once more. The con­victed killer, who had spent many years in re­form schools and prisons be­fore the mur­ders, taunted the pros­e­cu­tor for achiev­ing noth­ing more than send­ing him “back to where I came from.”

“I hate to ad­mit it,” Bugliosi told the Los An­ge­les Daily News decades later, “but, to a cer­tain ex­tent, Manson has beaten the rap.”

Be­liev­ing that none of the Manson killers would ever be re­leased, he did not at­tend their pa­role hear­ings. He did, how­ever, soften his stance to­ward Atkins.

He had writ­ten in his book that ju­rors “had looked at the heart of Su­san Atkins and seen ice.” But more than three decades on, when she was dy­ing of can­cer, he told re­porters he did not ob­ject to her re­quest for com­pas­sion­ate re­lease.

“She has paid sub­stan­tially, though not com­pletely, for her hor­ren­dous crimes,” he told The Times in 2008, not­ing that she had by then spent 37 years in pri­son, re­nounced Manson and lost a leg to her ill­ness. She died in pri­son.

Bugliosi was of­ten asked to ex­plain the en­dur­ing in­ter­est in the killings, which have been widely por­trayed as the shud­der­ing end of a chaotic decade of so­cial change.

But the man who brought the killers to jus­tice pre­ferred a more pro­saic ex­pla­na­tion.

“The very name Manson has be­come a metaphor for evil....” Bugliosi told The Times in 1994. “He has come to rep­re­sent the dark and ma­lig­nant side of hu­man­ity, and for what­ever rea­son, there is a side of hu­man na­ture that is fas­ci­nated with ul­ti­mate evil.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

VIN­CENT BUGLIOSI talks to re­porters on Jan. 26, 1971, af­ter four mem­bers of the Manson fam­ily were found guilty in the 1969 killing ram­page.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

CASE OF A CA­REER Dur­ing the Manson trial, Vin­cent Bugliosi en­gaged writer Curt Gen­try to work with him on “Hel­ter Skel­ter,” an ac­count of the mur­ders and trial.

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