Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter

Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter

Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter

Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter


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Drawing upon deep archival research and exclusive personal interviews—including unique access to Manson Family parole hearings—Lis Wiehl provides a factual account of Charles Manson’s horrific crimes.

In the late summer of 1969, the nation was transfixed by a series of gruesome murders in the hills of Los Angeles. Newspapers and television programs detailed the brutal slayings of a beautiful actress—twenty six years old and eight months pregnant with her first child—as well as a hair stylist, an heiress, a businessman, and other victims. The City of Angels was plunged into a nightmare of fear and dread. In the weeks and months that followed, law enforcement faced intense pressure to solve crimes that seemed to have no connection.

Finally, after months of dead-ends, false leads, and near-misses, Charles Manson and members of his "family" were arrested. The bewildering trials that followed once again captured the nation and forever secured Manson as a byword for the evil that men do.

Former federal prosecutor and Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl has written a propulsive, page-turning historical thriller of the crimes and manhunt that mesmerized the nation. And in the process, she reveals how the social and political context that gave rise to Manson is eerily similar to our own.

"Hunting Charles Manson the best true crime book you will ever read....Lock your doors, keep the night lights on, and read this book." - Linda Fairstein, New York Times bestselling crime novelist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400210268
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 06/25/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 536,472
Product dimensions: 5.45(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author Lis Wiehl is the former legal analyst for Fox News and the OReilly Factor and has appeared regularly on Your World with Neil Cavuto, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and the Imus morning shows. The former cohost of WOR radio's WOR Tonight with Joe Concha and Lis Wiehl, she has served as legal analyst and reporter for NBC News and NPR's All Things Considered, as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney's office, and as a tenured professor of law at the University of Washington. She appears frequently on CNN as a legal analyst.

Read an Excerpt



Charlie Manson began collecting impressionable young women, one at a time, as soon as he was paroled from federal prison in March 1967. He had served nearly a decade for driving stolen cars and prostitutes over state lines and stealing US Treasury checks.

Released from Terminal Island in Los Angeles, the thirty-two-year-old headed north to the Bay Area. There he picked up Mary Brunner, a young librarian who worked on campus at the University of California, Berkeley. Next, he recruited Lynette Fromme, a wild homeless teenager sitting on a curb in Venice. Then came Patricia Krenwinkel, a homely, insecure insurance clerk in Manhattan Beach. And Susan Atkins, a runaway-turned-topless dancer in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Mary was twenty-three; the others were nineteen.

Charlie made each one of these young women feel special, telling her she was beautiful — or whatever else she needed to hear — while making love to her. In less than a year, he'd lured a small group of women, ranging in age from midteens to early twenties, into sharing his philosophy and his nomadic life up and down the Pacific coast as he tried to break into the music scene in Los Angeles. They, in turn, spread his word to others, until he had a loyal flock of followers.

In between weekly check-ins with his parole officer in San Francisco, Charlie and his growing harem traveled in a bus, playing music for food and a place to sleep. As he strummed his guitar and they sang along to the dozens of songs he'd written in prison, his dream of becoming a rock star became theirs too.

Charlie gradually collected some receptive young men as well, offering them a cocktail of sex with his girls, hallucinogenic drugs, and rock and roll. Unlike most of the girls, the men often came and went, so the number of women in the group was always much higher.

By spring 1968, Charlie had transferred his parole case to Los Angeles County as he pursued his musical career and looked for a home base for himself and the young people he called his "children." He found it in the spacious Spahn Movie Ranch, nestled between the rolling green Santa Susana Mountains and the Simi Hills.

Spanning a vast five hundred acres, with an entrance at 12000 Santa Susana Pass Road in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, the ranch had a rural feel and an isolated location that offered Charlie and his people the freedom to do as they liked without outside interference.

The ranch's star-studded history added to its appeal. Silent movie star William S. Hart was the first to purchase the property, primarily for the stabling of horses used in movies. From there, it evolved into a film set.

After Hart died in 1946, George Spahn bought the place in 1948 and named it after himself, adding a children's pony riding ring and trail rides for adults.

Early on, directors shot scenes there for well-received Westerns such as Duel in the Sun in 1946, featuring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, and Lillian Gish. Later, popular TV series such as Bonanza and The Lone Ranger were filmed there, as well as Western-themed commercials for products such as Marlboro cigarettes. But over time, the roster grew more obscure, and the big-name projects were replaced with cheesy low-budget Westerns and exploitation films.

By the time Charlie and a few of his people showed up in the spring of 1968, the film business had declined, but the ranch was still generating income by renting horses for trail rides up into the hills. Charlie made a deal with George, who was then eighty years old and nearly blind, to let him and his friends stay rent-free in exchange for maintaining the property, feeding and caring for the horses, and leading trail rides. Charlie played down the number of friends as his group, later known as the Manson Family, continued to grow and change.

Most of the ranch's daily activity took place in and around the set, known as Lee's Trading Post, a replica of an Old West settlement. Comprised of two rows of squat buildings facing each other, the compact village included the Longhorn Saloon and Rock City Café, a horse corral, blacksmith's shop, tack room, stables, jail, trailer, and large horse barn.

A wooden boardwalk ran in between the buildings, parallel to a wide unpaved road topped by an inch of dust that got kicked up by passing cars or foot traffic. By the time Charlie arrived, the ramshackle structures were in severe decline, their weathered facades peeling paint and their signs faded, with letters missing.

George Spahn had left his wife and eleven children at his North Hollywood ranch to move here with Ruby Pearl, a former circus performer with long, stringy red hair known simply as "Pearl." As the forewoman, Pearl ran the place with a firm hand, dressed in cowboy boots, jeans, and a hat. "She didn't take no s*** from anybody," George's grandson later recalled.

George, who always wore sunglasses and a Stetson, lived in a run-down house in the village. It was more of a shack, really, with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a main room that served as the living room, kitchen, and dining area.

Initially, George enjoyed having Charlie's young hippies around, especially the girls, who spoke to him in soft voices and tended to him in his house. George listened to the radio and ate his meals in the main room, surrounded by newspapers soiled by the three yorkies that ran across the dining table and shared his half-eaten sandwiches. The room was so filthy the ceiling often appeared black, covered with flies.

Nevertheless, George's employees were attached to him and the ranch. Juan Flynn, a Vietnam veteran who arrived in 1968 to work as a ranch hand, "loved the place," he said. "It had the most beautiful trails ... Then Charles Manson and his people came and trashed [it]."

* * *

Early on, Charlie projected an aura of peace and non-violence, drawing in young people with talk of a communal lifestyle based on making love, playing music, and escaping materialism. In practice, this meant sitting around the campfire smoking pot, exploring hallucinogens, singing Charlie's songs, discussing his counterculture philosophy, and spending time in nature.

When Charlie smiled at his people, they felt an explosion of bright energy and benevolent kindness. He seemed so wise, so all-knowing. These young people, many of whom sought a higher meaning in life, gladly accepted the new names he gave them as a way to shed their inhibitions and former selves. They saw Charlie as their guru, even a Christlike figure. He called himself "the Infinite Soul," or "the Soul" for short, so they did too.

This was the loving atmosphere seventeen-year-old Barbara Hoyt found when she arrived on April Fool's Day in 1969. Having run away from her home in Canoga Park, she was picked up near Chatsworth by two girls who were staying at Spahn. One of them was Deirdre Shaw, the daughter of actress Angela Lansbury. Deirdre lingered on the periphery of the Family before her parents whisked her away, but Barbara quickly believed she had found a safe haven at Spahn.

Barbara met Charlie her first night at the ranch, when the group sat on the floor, eating casserole and salad with shared spoons. Everyone took a few bites, then passed the bowl to the next person. After the meal, they passed around marijuana joints.

Barbara felt accepted. Loved. And part of something special. Her parents didn't understand her. She felt this group, this family of hippies, knew where she was coming from. Ranging in age from midteens to midtwenties, they all seemed so welcoming — good, hopeful folks.

Leslie Van Houten thought so too. When the nineteen-year-old former Monrovia High School homecoming princess joined the group in the late summer of 1968, she truly believed that Charlie was going to help foster positive social change. Touted as an antiestablishment guru, his whole gig was about peace, love, and music. What could be harmful about that?

For members of the Family, who numbered about twenty-five or so at any one time, a certain rhythm developed at Spahn as people drifted in and out of the group. At fourteen, Dianne Lake was the youngest, and other than Charlie, who turned thirty-three in 1968, Catherine "Gypsy" Share was the oldest when she joined the group at twenty-six.

Everyone got up around 7:00 a.m. to feed the horses and saddle them up for the first trail riders by eight o'clock. The rest of the day's work consisted of scrounging for food, cooking meals, taking care of the children, leading trail rides, tending to the horses, and shoveling manure. After the day's work, members had sex with whomever they (or Charlie) wanted. At night, they took in the beautiful hills that surrounded them and listened to Charlie make his music.

Many of them slept in sleeping bags on the floor of buildings in or near the village or in the trailers and cabins scattered around the property. Others camped in the hills behind the village, looking up at the moon. Charlie slept wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and with whomever he wanted.

* * *

Charlie's strong personality, bolstered by his confidence, persuasive philosophy, and charisma, commanded attention, loyalty, and obedience. Whatever he said, went; whatever he disapproved of was rejected, if not forbidden.

Members were told to let go of their need for worldly goods and to cast off all their inhibitions. They were asked to contribute whatever of value they could get — clothing, cash, or their parents' credit cards — which were used to buy gas and other items Charlie said they needed. If they had nothing to give, they were asked to procure items by borrowing or stealing from friends, family, or strangers.

Later on, Family members were barred from leaving Spahn without Charlie's permission, but at first, when the group was more nomadic, somewhat fragmented, and still in recruitment mode, such restrictions were more lax. Charles "Tex" Watson, for example, who joined the Family in the spring of 1968, left for several months to sell drugs. Bobby Beausoleil, whom Charlie met playing music in Topanga Canyon in 1967, often went off to do his own thing. And Bruce Davis, a welder who also met Charlie in Topanga and was also older than most of the group, left for a period of months as well. All three were welcomed back by Charlie, who had few men on whom he felt he could rely.

Charlie himself loved to travel, so he often left on jaunts alone or with small groups, frequently without the permission or knowledge of his parole officers, and often bringing another young girl or two back with him. Others traveled in small subgroups by hitchhiking or borrowing old cars from one of the ranch employees to run an errand for Charlie or to go to a specific destination.

The rules governing life in the Family could change at a moment's notice, on Charlie's whim, but some remained constant: He allowed no clocks or watches on the ranch, and although there was a TV in one of the trailers, he did not want anyone reading newspapers. He also discouraged communication with relatives. He wanted his followers isolated, free of the materialistic, bureaucratic, and chemically hygienic ways of mainstream society, so he could reshape them. They even had to give up their birthdays.

Touting environmental causes, Charlie wore jeans or buckskin leather pants that the girls sewed for him, stitched together with leather cords. He also wore a leather thong around his neck. The girls wore whatever shoes they found lying around, but most of the time they went barefoot, not minding the manure that piled up everywhere.

* * *

Charlie designated subgroups to do different jobs. The women cared for the children, cooked, or went into town to get food. They hit up road stands, sneaked behind grocery stores that didn't lock their trash bins, scrounged for day-old bakery goods, or dived into dumpsters looking for discarded produce, meat, and packaged food that was off-color, in dented cans, or had recently expired freshness dates.

But most importantly, the underage girls and young women were expected to be submissive and to serve Charlie and the other men, which meant they could be asked at any time to have sex with someone whom Charlie wanted to please.

The few men in the Family were tasked with odd jobs around the ranch. They also fixed cars, procured drugs and more young women, and later, obtained knives, guns, and communication devices such as two-way radios and battlefield phones. Tex, who walked around the ranch with a gun and a knife in a scabbard, both tucked into his waistband, always seemed to know how to get drugs or cash in a pinch.

Charlie garnered sympathy and respect from these young people with tales of his upbringing, saying he was raised with no real family of his own and that he was a product of reform schools and prisons, not the blood relatives who had rejected and abandoned him. In so doing, this group of lost souls, many of whom had come from broken families, became his new Family.

Members of the communal group spread his philosophy by word of mouth, inviting those who seemed like-minded to come meet their "guru." Charlie had the girls administer LSD to men he wanted to recruit, then have sex with them in group sessions he orchestrated, hoping to produce children for his growing Family, the "chosen" ones. But he was especially partial to underage girls and runaways who seemed malleable or open to his wiles. He depended on Family member Paul Watkins to find "new love" on the Sunset Strip and bring girls back to Spahn for him.

Over time, those who stayed at the ranch, or lacked the emotional strength to leave, tended to be the most vulnerable to suggestion, or had the weakest personalities. The longer they stayed, the more entrenched in Charlie's philosophy — and the more inured to outside forces — they became. Those who didn't feel comfortable doing whatever immoral, illegal, or sexual acts that Charlie ordered were ousted or left of their own accord.



Charlie was the absolute leader of the Family. After personally initiating new members — which for the girls meant having sex with him and discussing his teachings for an entire day — Charlie put them through indoctrination and programming. He called the entire group together for these sessions aimed at preaching his message to the new members and modifying or fortifying it for the others.

Sitting the young people in a circle around him, he had them open their mouths and placed a hit of LSD on their tongues. They were expected to sit and listen to him until he was finished, which sometimes took as long as seven or eight hours.

Some sessions were interactive. Telling them he had to strip them of their personalities, Charlie often singled out individuals to mock and humiliate, as he tried to break them down. On one occasion, he made twenty-one-year-old Patricia Krenwinkel, whom he'd renamed Katie, stand naked in front of the group while he called her ugly and pointed out what was wrong with her body.

Soon enough, members didn't need Manson to humiliate or program them; they did it to one another. "We became our own enemies," Leslie Van Houten said.

Charlie also ran the group through what he deemed fear-deprogramming exercises. He ordered the group to scream at a specific member, for example, which he claimed would expel their fears and direct them into that person.

He also claimed members could rid themselves of fear by sending it to Charlie. "Give it all to me," he would say. "Just let it go and be free."

Some sessions led his followers to believe he had special powers as Charlie tossed drugged cats into the air to prove they could stop reacting with fear. He also picked up birds that he claimed were dead, blew on them, and they magically flew away. "I believed that he had some kind of alternative source of power," Katie said. "I believed that he could blow life into dead birds, that he could control the weather."

Occasionally, Charlie put on a white robe to lead a session. With his long chestnut hair and his skin tanned from riding the horse trails and working outside, his followers thought he looked like Jesus, his face shining with light, even more so after he gave them the acid. He even carried out elaborate crucifixion reenactments so his drug-addled followers believed he actually was Jesus Christ.

Charlie also tested members' love and loyalty. "Do you trust me?" he asked, expecting them to respond in the affirmative. "Do you love me enough? Will you die for me? Will you be my finger on a hand? Will you be me?"

Other nights, he'd simply have the group sit around the campfire while he played his guitar and they sang along in a Family jam. With Charlie, you never knew what to expect.

* * *

As spring turned to summer in 1969, a darkness steeped in paranoia seemed to settle over Spahn Ranch. Leaving the Family was now no longer an option as Charlie became increasingly preoccupied with a twisted perception of death and its relationship with fear.


Excerpted from "Hunting Charles Manson"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Lis Wiehl.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Prologue xi

Chapter 1 Charlie the Guru 1

Chapter 2 Indoctrination at Spahn Ranch 8

Chapter 3 The Gary Hinman Murder 13

Chapter 4 Lotsapoppa 22

Chapter 5 "Political Piggy" 27

Chapter 6 "Do whatever Tex says." 33

Chapter 7 The Sole Survivor 44

Chapter 8 The Bloody Aftermath 50

Chapter 9 "How could anybody be so cruel?" 58

Chapter 10 "Call the police!" 69

Chapter 11 Drug Burn or Robbery Gone Wrong? 75

Chapter 12 Raid at Spahn Ranch 84

Chapter 13 "I felt I could conquer the world." 93

Chapter 14 Doing Hard Time 100

Chapter 15 The First Family Members 106

Chapter 16 "Dennis Wilson: I Live With 17 Girls" 117

Chapter 17 Searching for a New Home 125

Chapter 18 "Somebody dropped the ball." 131

Chapter 19 Looking for Terry Melcher 137

Chapter 20 The Murder of Shorty Shea 144

Chapter 21 Hiding Out in Death Valley 152

Chapter 22 Connecting the Dots 161

Chapter 23 The Dominoes Begin to Fall 169

Chapter 24 Forced to Cooperate 175

Chapter 25 The First Death Sentence 183

Chapter 26 "Mockery of justice" 191

Chapter 27 The Trial of the Century 198

Chapter 28 Ronald Hughes Disappears 207

Chapter 29 Folie à deux 216

Chapter 30 Death Penalty Overturned 225

Chapter 31 Manson Comes up for Parole 233

Chapter 32 Alternative Scenarios 242

Chapter 33 The Fight Against Parole 250

Chapter 34 Jason Freeman: "Charles Manson III" 260

Chapter 35 Manson's Legacy 269

Chapter 36 "I'm dying." 277

Epilogue 285

Acknowledgments 289

Sources and Methodology 291

Cast of Characters 305

Index 309

About the Author 319

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