Over a 60-year career, Ivor Davis has seen and written about things most people only dream about: Touring with The Beatles throughout North America in 1964, interviewing hundreds of celebrities on three continents, and covering news stories for a variety of publications worldwide. But one story has left a chilling and indelible mark on him — his coverage of the notorious Manson Family murders. That story, which begins the day after the first of two nights of terror on August 9 and 10, 1969, will never be forgotten.
The crimes, which happened 50 years ago, were among the most brutal in American history. And the trials of Charles Manson and his acolytes was a public spectacle the likes of which had never been seen before. And the whole world was watching.
Davis, who lives in Ventura, covered the story for Britain’s Daily Express and wrote the first book ever about these crimes, “Five To Die,” which was released in 1970, predating the trials and Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller “Helter Skelter” by four years.
Now, five decades later, Davis has just finished a new book: “Manson Exposed: A Reporter’s 50-Year Journey into Madness and Murder.”
The VCReporter, a sister publication of the Pasadena Weekly, recently sat down with Davis to discuss the crimes, the courtroom drama and his recollections from a half-century ago.
– David Comden
Q: I’d like you to give us a quick setup of what occurred on those two nights in August 1969.
A: Very simply, Charles Manson sent out Tex Watson and the girls to Cielo Drive. I don’t think Manson knew or if he knew, she wasn’t the target — that Sharon Tate lived there. He decided that he wanted to orchestrate some crimes to cover up and look like the kind of crimes that his friend Bobby Beausoleil was in jail for and was facing possibly the death penalty.
And he thought if he created other killings with a similar modus operandi, then the cops would say, hey guess what poor Bobby Beausoleil, who was in jail for murder couldn’t have done it because there were two more nights of murders that were absolutely copycat…they’re similar murders, so Bobby you can go home now.
Take us through the first night, Aug. 8, 1969
The first night Linda Kasabian, a young girl who’d been in the Manson family for one month – was told by Manson to drive Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson to the home up Benedict Canyon. Watson knew where the Cielo Drive home was, knew the address, he’d been there and had stayed overnight as a guest there, not a guest of former owner Terry Melcher but of Melcher’s recording friends.
Tex went to the house and the girls came with him. They cut the telephone lines. They climbed over the fence. I mean, one thing that struck me was that they were all barefooted. I mean, they didn’t wear shoes and they walked into the house and Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger, his girlfriend the coffee heiress said, ‘hi, who are you? to Tex Watson and Watson said that immortal line, I’m the devil here to do the devil’s work.
And for a moment they didn’t believe they were going to be killed but then they were murdered brutally. They were stabbed dozens of times. Everybody in the house — Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, expecting a baby in two weeks – she was with Jay Sebring her hairdresser and ex-boyfriend and they went around, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Watkins, just stabbed them all viciously, chased them onto the lawn, they had no mercy for them.
Minutes before that, a young man named Steven Parent happened to be visiting somebody in the adjacent guest house. He was about to leave when Tex Watson saw him, went to the car, and blasted him with four bullets. Poor guy didn’t know what hit him; wrong place, wrong time.
And then when they finished and they did their dirty work and everybody had been stabbed multiple times, they jumped in the car, took off their dirty clothing, drove to the nearest canyon and threw their clothing over the railing. They also stopped at a neighbor’s house and used the hose to wash down, then went back to the ranch. Charlie asked how did it go, and Tex said ‘we left messages’ – they painted in the blood of the victims. They painted Helter Skelter and all those kinds of messages that Manson said to leave to show that you’ve been there. And they did.
They were on drugs — Linda Kasabian, who drove, never went into the house but she saw and heard what happened — she stayed most of the time with the car and that’s why when everybody was arrested, Linda Kasabian was able to get immunity because she didn’t take part in any of the actual killings.
So on the first night five people died. Tell us about the second night.
Second night: Manson decided that they’d done a rather botched job — they’d made a mess of it, and he said I’m gonna take you out and show you how you’re supposed to do it. And, amazingly enough, they drove around because Manson wasn’t sure where they were going to go. They drove to Pasadena, they looked into a minister’s house and they saw a child so they drove away. They ended up on Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles because Manson had been to parties two doors away many times… Harold True — a UCLA student who befriended Manson, had parties there.
Manson went into the house, he told Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, I won’t hurt you. He then tied them up, went outside and told Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Steve Grogen who had not gone on the first murder, to go into the house and finish them off. And they did. And there were stabbings, brutally — they carved messages into Leno’s stomach — I mean it was horrible. And they also painted Helter Skelter on the wall but they spelled it with a ‘hea’ — incorrectly, so they’re obviously guilty of bad spelling.
There’s already been a lot written about this: books, stories and movies. Why did you choose to write another book about this subject?
Well, I was very familiar with the case from day one. And I am a bit of an expert on it because I’ve lived it. I know and have interviewed many of the principals but not long ago I was in Seattle and a couple of young men came in to do some decorating in my daughter’s house and we were talking about crime and somehow the conversation came up — and I asked them about Manson and they hadn’t a clue who he was. One of them said he’s the guy that poisoned everybody, I said no, that’s Jim Jones. The other one said oh no, he’s a heroic guy kind of like Che Guevara. He said he was out to clean the air — his mission in life was to have a clean environment, clean water.
They knew nothing about the murders and if there are 28, 30 year olds out there who don’t know the havoc that Manson did, well, I said, I’m going to write another book.
Tell us how you became involved in covering this crime the day after the first night of terror.
I became involved when I saw that five people had been murdered in Beverly Hills and I went over to the house in the canyon and found press madness outside the gate. By pure coincidence, a soccer playing friend of mine lived two doors away so I went to the house and he told me who had lived nearby. And from that day onwards I followed the crime. The police didn’t solve the crime for four months.
How was the crime solved?
Pure unadulterated luck. One of the killers, Susan Atkins, was in prison — in jail at the Sybil Brand Institute in downtown Los Angeles. She was in jail not for the murders of Sharon Tate, but for the murder of Gary Hinman. Hinman was a musician who lived in Topanga Canyon and he was murdered on July 27, 1969. Murdered, tortured … brutally done — slogans painted on his wall. She was implicated in that murder with a guy called Robert Beausoleil. They were sent there by Charles Manson. In jail Susan Atkins started bragging, she started boasting to her cellmates, telling them about killing Sharon Tate. The cellmates never believed her but the story was so credible that after two weeks of bragging, they went to the prison authorities and said hey, our cellmate says she’s guilty of the Sharon Tate murders.
The cops wouldn’t listen to her until weeks later, they went out, interviewed Susan Atkins and she spilled her guts, and the cops heard it all. About two weeks later, they announced they’d cracked the case.
Tell us about some of the physical evidence that the local media found.
This was embarrassing for the police because Al Wiman, a young reporter for ABC Television in LA thought if I was a killer, where would I dump my murder clothing, where’s the nearest place? So he got into his car, went to Cielo Drive, drove about half a mile away and as soon as he could pull over in the canyon he pulled over. He looked down and lo and behold, there was a bunch of bloody clothing down in the canyon. Of course, he knew what he’d seen, he called the cops, and the embarrassed police showed up and said hey, this is the murder clothing.
How did Vincent Bugliosi become the lead prosecutor?
In legend today, Vincent Bugliosi is the man that got Manson — and he did. But Vince was originally the second chair attorney — he was a young, ambitious guy, a hard-driving guy who had success in many of his cases and by pure chance he happened to wander past the district attorney’s office. He popped his head in, said hi and said that he had just won a big case, a gang prosecution in the Valley, and the district attorney said, oh Aaron — Aaron Stovitz, the original chief prosecutor on the Manson case — you need a guy to help you … how about Vince? And Aaron said sure Vince you’re on the case. And that’s how he got on.
I mean, Vincent claims he was picked out of 500 attorneys. Not really. Again, right place at the right time, except he survived and poor old Steven Parent didn’t.
Now, it was said before the verdict that this was an unwinnable case. Why is that?
Well, it was unwinnable because Manson was not a participant in the actual murders. He was not at the Cielo Drive Sharon Tate house on the night of the killings. He went to the LaBianca house on the second night of the killings but he left — he didn’t participate in the actual murders. And, the cops were absolutely amazed, they didn’t have a case. Bugliosi was wandering and fishing around for a motive.
In the state of California, if you can prove a person was involved in the conspiracy of a murderous act, even if they didn’t wield a knife or pull the trigger, they can be found guilty of murder … and that’s what Bugliosi did with his incredible thesis on why Manson did it, which was Beatles lyrics made me do it.
Tell us about all of Manson’s music and connections in the business.
He was a musician. He learned to play in jail because Charles Manson was a child of the prison system, most of his life as a young man — as a child he was in jail, he was behind bars. He learned to play the guitar. He loved the Beatles music and he was so — some said he was a brilliant musician, some said he was an average musician. So he desperately wanted to become famous and somebody said that he wanted to be more famous than the Beatles. So that was the background to Manson’s music ambitions.
And while he was living at the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, he was able to entice a guy named Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day, to come and hear him perform. Now, I should say he’d met Melcher through another famous musician, Dennis Wilson, the drummer of the Beach Boys, who was a real druggie, a crazy man and a good musician who met Manson and invited Manson to stay at his mansion on Sunset Blvd. with the whole Manson clan … Manson and his girls moved into Dennis Wilson’s house.
So, Charlie Manson was making connections in the music biz. Dennis Wilson, who introduced him to some of the Beach Boys, who introduced him to Terry Melcher — and that was Manson’s ambition, to be a recording star.
In your book, you have a portion with quotes from Neil Young.
Well, Neil Young was one of the guys that Manson met at Dennis Wilson’s house on Sunset Blvd. in Pacific Palisades. And every time they went to Dennis Wilson’s house, the free entertainment was Charles Manson, and I think the judgment of his music was somewhat influenced by imbibing certain chemicals. So I think Mr. Young was enamored because he was probably zoned or whatever out of his mind and he actually said he thought Manson was kind of like a new Bob Dylan.
How do you think Charles Manson was able to convince all these people that became his Family to do the things they did?
Charles Manson was a survivor of the prison system and he was a shrewd, canny psychopath who was a narcissist and all the things that go into a manipulation of people. And he ended up having these young, most of them runaway girls who had family problems, and he was able to talk them into doing what he wanted them to do. I mean, very cleverly, a brainwasher. And of course what helped is he handed out drugs like candy and the combination of that and his mesmerizing skills — he was good at it, he was very clever. I mean, he studied all sorts of books when he was in jail — just a ton of stuff. And, he was a master manipulator. And most of the girls wanted to hear what he had to say and they swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
Are there other facts of the case that are not well known that we might find interesting?
Well, I touched upon one of the items. In my opinion, Vincent Bugliosi prosecuted successfully and convinced a jury that Charles Manson was guilty of these murders and the reason he did the murders was to trigger a black and white revolution that he believed the Beatles predicted in their White Album, songs like Helter Skelter and Piggies and Revolution. He thought they were sending him messages and he got this to be believed by his followers.
But the true reason why Manson sent his people out to kill was to get his buddy Bobby Beausoleil off the hook for the murder of Gary Hinman. I honestly believe that, but the point is Vincent Bugliosi wasn’t going to run with that because that was a tough one to prove, so he went with the theory of the Beatles made me do it — lyrics, revolution, and he was backed up because many of the witnesses who were members of the Manson family said Charlie did tell us there was a revolution with blood going to flow in the streets of America. They believed it and so did the jury.
Fifty years later, what do you think society has learned or how it’s changed after this episode?
Well I think today people are much more cautious. I mean it seems a silly thing to say cautious. Back in the ’60s, security was a word nobody knew. I mean, the only security I can remember is the Bel Air Patrol. Roman Polanski (Sharon Tate’s husband who was in Europe at the time of the slayings — people could walk into people’s houses, they didn’t have sophisticated security. You actually gave people rides in your car — hitchhiking was fairly popular. I don’t think it happens much today.
And it was a whole different free spirit, peace and love California surf time … and today, unfortunately and maybe we live more carefully but — we live with our doors locked most of the time and burglar alarms and we can be in Timbuktu and we can see what’s happening in our neighborhood from our cellphone. Times have changed.
Is it possible that these events led to the end of the era of love? The ’60s?
Oh, it was … It was the end of the era of love and peace in 1969, the ’60s which was an open society. I mean, you were young but you remember and it was a complete — I mean it — not only that but when the murders took place the whole city was terrified because they said people living in safe neighborhoods are no longer safe? It had become a myth. You know, it was an illusion that was shattered, destroyed by Manson and the gang.
Tell us about some of the people that were involved in the Manson saga that came from the greater Pasadena area.
Well first of all, the most well-known is Leslie Van Houten who has been in prison, the youngest girl to participate in any of the Manson murders — I think she was 18 or 19 at the time. She lived — she was born in Altadena. She moved to the suburbs of Monrovia … a nice home, a very simple home, free and easy in an era when society was open and security was an unknown word in homes, in residences — burglar alarms, no way.
So, she grew up in that society. She grew up in a society, however, where her family dynamics fell apart. Divorces, father went away, she got hooked into drugs at high school in Monrovia … Monrovia High School. But Monrovia was also an open neighborhood — people wandered into each other’s house. It was a free and easy back then. And she grew up there, but she had inner demons. Her family broke up, she became pregnant when she was very young, had an abortion at the behest of her mother because back then if you had a child it was embarrassing, it was scandalous — a single young woman having a child, not even married … leave the house, what an embarrassment for the parents.
So she ended up taking drugs and got sucked into that whole Manson gang. She was a homecoming princess, she was a great student, and she’s now still fighting for the 25th time to get parole to get out of prison after a lifetime in jail.
They’ve recommended her for parole several times …
And what has become of that?
Each time the parole board says she’s ready, she’s reformed, she’s done wonders behind bars, she’s been a model prisoner. But each time the governor of California — Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom — say no, you’re in jail. They don’t want to let her out. It’s a political thing.
Personally I think in her particular case, it would be OK [to let her out] but that’s my opinion and a lot of people will jump on the wagon and say you must be kidding, she’s a murderer. What mercy did she show for her victims. Why should we show her mercy? So that’s Leslie Van Houten.
Prosecutor Bugliosi lived in Pasadena, correct?
Yes. I mean, Bugliosi lived in Pasadena but he hardly went home. He lived, ate, breathed that trial for a year. I think Gail, his wife, forgot what he looked like because he was impassioned about the case. He knew instinctively that this was going to make his reputation and he was right. And he was single-minded and ego-driven. His colleagues hated him but he did the job. He got a conviction so you know, the – what is it? The end justifies the means.
Patricia Krenwinkel grew up in West LA, in Westchester, near the airport. Again, she got hooked into a bad scene, family broke up, met the wrong people, I think it was her sister who was on drugs and as a result she got hooked and they were looking for a father figure. They were all looking for a father figure and along on his white horse came Mr. Charles Manson and he could see them coming a mile away. He knew how to deal with them. He said the right things and they believed him. He was their messiah, you know – he said he was Jesus and they believed him.
Even until today.
Until his death, people were writing Manson letters and sending him money …
They were. They wrote letters to him. It’s scary the number of people that wanted to make the connection with Manson before he died and there are – it’s amazing the number of people today who say, ‘You know he’s innocent. He never killed anybody.’ I mean, I can give them chapter and verse of the people he did kill that were not high-profile but they are willing to believe he was a scapegoat.