The truer story of Hel­ter Skel­ter

The Prince George Citizen - - A&E - Greg KING Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post — Greg King is the au­thor of The Last Voyage of the An­drea Do­ria: The Sink­ing of the World’s Most Glam­orous Ship, due out in April.

On a swel­ter­ing morn­ing 50 years ago this week, a maid ar­riv­ing at a se­cluded Bev­erly Hills es­tate found a scene of hor­ror: five dead bod­ies strewn about the iso­lated house, among them preg­nant ac­tress Sharon Tate, who had rented the prop­erty with her hus­band, di­rec­tor Ro­man Polan­ski. Blood was ev­ery­where; it had even been used to scrawl the word “pig” on the house’s front door. The next night, gro­cery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife were slaugh­tered in sim­i­lar fash­ion, the killers again leav­ing bloody mes­sages, in­clud­ing a mis­spelled Heal­ter Skel­ter. Amer­ica was ter­ri­fied.

Nearly four months passed be­fore the killers were ar­rested, a strange group of flower chil­dren who had lived at an aban­doned movie ranch un­der the spell of their leader, Charles Man­son. The murders had been bizarre, but the al­leged mo­tive ar­gued by pros­e­cu­tor Vin­cent Bugliosi in court and ex­panded in his best­selling book, Hel­ter Skel­ter, was even more so: an ex-con­vict who claimed to be both Je­sus Christ and Satan, whose (mainly) mid­dle-class fol­low­ers had seem­ingly turned into drug-ad­dicted zom­bies and killed to bring about the end of the world. The Bi­ble and the Bea­tles’ song, Man­son held, both pre­dicted a race war, dur­ing which he and his so-called Fam­ily would live in a bot­tom­less pit in the desert be­fore emerg­ing to rule the world. But as jour­nal­ist Tom O’Neill shows in his new book, Chaos, Bugliosi’s flam­boy­ant the­ory, rather than re­veal­ing the truth, merely con­cealed a tan­gled mass of con­tra­dic­tory mo­tives in this most in­fa­mous of Amer­i­can crimes.

Con­spir­acy the­o­ries have ringed the Man­son case since 1969, with al­le­ga­tions of drug deals gone bad, CIA-spon­sored mind con­trol ex­per­i­ments, celebrity sex tapes and re­venge af­ter pro­ducer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son, who had pre­vi­ously lived at the Tate house) did not give the cult leader a record­ing con­tract. It’s a con­fus­ing, of­ten con­flict­ing jour­ney down the rabbit hole, as I learned writ­ing my 2000 bi­og­ra­phy of Tate. O’Neill at­tempts to bur­row deep be­neath the sur­face of the murders. This isn’t so much a his­tory of the crimes as it is a chron­i­cle of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It started as a fea­ture for now-de­funct Pre­miere mag­a­zine in 1999; it took O’Neill 20 years of in­ten­sive re­search, and hun­dreds of in­ter­views, to bring his story to its am­bigu­ous con­clu­sion. Along the way, he found le­gal mis­con­duct, sup­pressed in­for­ma­tion and loose con­nec­tions sug­gest­ing a much darker pic­ture of what may have led to the 1969 murders.

It’s prob­a­bly no ac­ci­dent that this book ap­peared af­ter Bugliosi’s death in 2015: O’Neill un­cov­ered trou­bling in­di­ca­tions that the pros­e­cu­tor may have with­held ev­i­dence from the de­fense and per­haps sub­orned per­jury, strong-armed wit­nesses and lied dur­ing the tri­als, in an ef­fort to strengthen his Hel­ter Skel­ter mo­tive. “Much of what we ac­cept as fact,” O’Neill writes of the case, “is fic­tion.”

Some of O’Neill’s dis­cov­er­ies are stun­ning, es­pe­cially when he’s dis­cussing the in­ex­pli­ca­ble le­niency shown by law en­force­ment of­fi­cials and by Man­son’s pa­role of­fi­cer.

Both be­fore and af­ter the Au­gust murders, Man­son and sev­eral mem­bers of his group were ar­rested for var­i­ous crimes but never charged. O’Neill spec­u­lates that this may have led to some sort of later coverup, meant to con­ceal the fact that in­ac­tion may have re­sulted in ad­di­tional deaths.

O’Neill wor­ries that his ex­plo­rations make him “one of ‘those peo­ple’: an ob­ses­sive, a con­spir­acy the­o­rist, a lu­natic.” In­deed, the last third of the book tosses in shad­owy fig­ures and their pos­si­ble con­nec­tions to Man­son.

There’s the CIA, hop­ing to use un­wit­ting hip­pies in San Fran­cisco to study the ef­fects of LSD; the di­rec­tor of the Haight-Ash­bury Free Med­i­cal Clinic, in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether am­phet­a­mines led to vi­o­lence; and even sug­ges­tions that a man tied to Lee Har­vey Oswald as­sas­sin Jack Ruby may have crossed paths with Man­son and used him in some kind of un­of­fi­cial mind-con­trol in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It’s all in­trigu­ing, per­haps even sug­ges­tive of some dark mo­tive be­hind the murders, but O’Neill is un­able to make the con­nec­tions or even reach any firm con­clu­sions: “I didn’t have a smok­ing gun,” the au­thor ad­mits.

There’s plenty of new in­for­ma­tion that makes Chaos a worth­while ad­di­tion to the canon of Man­son lit­er­a­ture, even if it ends with­out a uni­fied the­ory of the crimes and their mo­ti­va­tions.

“My goal isn’t to say what did hap­pen,” O’Neill ex­plains, “it’s to prove that the of­fi­cial story didn’t.”

In that he suc­ceeds.

Hel­ter Skel­ter may no longer con­vince as a mo­tive, but, with Man­son’s death in 2017, it is un­likely that his­tory will ever pen­e­trate the re­main­ing mys­ter­ies sur­round­ing the grisly events that sum­mer of 1969.


Chaos ex­plores a 20-year search for the truth be­hind the Man­son Fam­ily murders.

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