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Charles Manson, 'Helter Skelter' mass murderer, dies at 83

SAN FRANCISCO -- Charles Manson, a small-time car thief with wild eyes, had the monstrous ability to bend followers to unspeakable evil.

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Steve Rubenstein
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- Charles Manson, a small-time car thief with wild eyes, had the monstrous ability to bend followers to unspeakable evil.

He used that ability to remake himself into perhaps the most notorious mass murderer in California history, terrorizing Southern California in 1969 with a string of nine savage slayings -- including that of a promising young actress named Sharon Tate -- that earned him a death sentence and made his name synonymous with depraved wickedness.

Manson, who spent the last 48 years of his life behind bars, died Sunday night at a Kern County hospital, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said. He was 83.

The prison agency said Manson died of natural causes at 8:13 p.m. He had been housed at California State Prison in Corcoran from 1989 until falling ill several days ago.

Manson launched his horrific paroxysm of violence in hopes of igniting a race war. He called it ``Helter Skelter,'' a name that, like so much else in his life, he stole.

``Helter Skelter'' was the title of a Beatles number that Paul McCartney once described as an attempt at creating a song as ``rough and screaming'' as possible. At the scene of one of the murders, the killers scrawled those two words on the door of a refrigerator using a slain victim's blood.

It was a motive that mixed evil, grandiosity and delusion. Manson promoted the public perception of his derangement in his relatively brief time in the spotlight and seemed to miss the attention on the rare occasions when reporters came to talk to him in his later years.

``You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something,'' Manson said in a 1994 prison interview. ``Nowadays, everybody's crazy.''

Manson, a native of Cincinnati, was raised by an aunt and uncle after his mother was imprisoned for holding up a filling station. Between prison stints, he stole cars, robbed liquor stores, conned parole officers, pimped a prostitute and cashed stolen government checks. He also wrote undistinguished songs and tried, without success, to launch a music career.

In the late 1960s, his weirdly charismatic nature enabled him to attract a small cult of followers, mostly young women, whom he plied with hallucinogenic drugs and called the ``family.''

In the summer of 1969, after spending time in San Francisco and on ranches near Death Valley, the cult moved to the Los Angeles area and took up residence in a ranch that had been used for filming Western movies. Late that July, under Manson's orders, the group killed a 22-year-old music teacher and acquaintance of Manson's named Gary Hinman, after Manson became convinced that Hinman had inherited money.

Two weeks later, on Aug. 9, the group went to the Benedict Canyon home that formerly belonged to a record producer who had thwarted Manson's career. There, they killed five people, including Tate, who was married to movie director Roman Polanski and was eight months pregnant. Four of the victims were stabbed a total of 102 times.

Susan Atkins, one of Manson's followers, recalled in 1977 how she ordered Tate at knifepoint into the living room and watched another Manson follower, Charles ``Tex'' Watson, stab her to death. Then, Atkins said, she grabbed a towel, dipped it in the actress' blood and wrote ``Pig'' on the front door.

``For the first time in my life, I was deeply aware of evil,'' Atkins said. ``I was evil.''

The next night, Manson and six followers went to the Los Angeles hillside home of supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, and stabbed them to death, inflicting a total of 67 wounds on the couple. A prosecutor said the family selected the LaBiancas because their home was next door to the site of a party that Manson had once attended.

The killings, which seemed unconnected, initially stumped detectives. It took months for police to piece together the clues that led them to Manson and his followers.

For the police, their big break came when they raided a desert ranch where Manson was running a stolen-car ring. The cops found Manson hiding beneath a sink.

There followed an eight-month murder trial of Manson and three family members that captivated the nation. Daily trial updates went viral decades before the Internet.

``Sanity is a small box,'' said Manson who, at the trial's beginning, carved a small ``X'' on his forehead. ``Insanity is everything.''

But in court, Manson did not claim to be not guilty by reason of insanity, only not guilty.

As details of the killings emerged from the witness stand, largely from a family member, Linda Kasabian, who had been offered immunity in exchange for her testimony, the defendants and other cult members attempted to disrupt the trial with chants, giggles, protests and outbursts. At one point, Manson leaped over a table and tried to attack the judge, Charles Older. After that, the judge came to court with a pistol under his black robe.

``Some people are just bad human beings,'' prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said of Manson. ``And he's a bad person.''

After the jury found Manson guilty and while it was considering whether to impose the death penalty, Manson shaved his head. That prompted his three female co-defendants -- Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten -- to shave their heads, too.

``I am the devil,'' Manson said. ``And the devil always has a bald head.''

The jury chose death over prison for Manson. In 1972. that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after the California Supreme Court annulled all existing death sentences.

Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten were convicted of murder. Krenwinkel and Van Houten remain behind bars, their repeated parole requests denied. In September, a two-member parole board deemed Van Houten suitable for release. Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a similar finding last year, has until early February to decide whether to let her go free.

Atkins died in prison in 2009. Watson and family member Bobby Beausoleil, convicted of murder in separate trials, remain in prison.

Manson spent the rest of his life behind bars, where he continued to break such rules as he could by dealing drugs, threatening other inmates and using contraband cell phones. With scant opportunity as a prisoner to continue to outrage the civilized world, he found yet another way to do so, by replacing the carved ``X'' on his forehead with a swastika.

Manson's imprisonment failed to deter his followers. One of them, a former child folk dancer named Lynette ``Squeaky'' Fromme, was in Sacramento in September 1975 because it was close to Folsom Prison, where Manson was being held at the time. In a park next to the state Capitol, she pointed a .45-caliber pistol at then-President Gerald Ford.

There were four bullets in the gun, but none in the firing chamber. Fromme was subdued and convicted of attempted assassination. She was released on parole in 2009.

Manson petitioned for parole 12 times, but was denied each time, most recently in 2012.

``This panel can find nothing good as far as suitability factors go,'' said John Peck, a member of the 2012 parole board.

The next petition for release was scheduled to be heard in 2027, when Charles Manson would have been 92.

``Maybe I should have killed 500 people,'' he said in 1987. ``Then I would have felt better. Then I would have felt like I really offered society something.''

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