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American horror: Charles Manson's celebrity murders re-examined

Charles Manson at a press conference in 1970. Photo/Getty Images

While Quentin Tarantino’s latest film turns the 1969 Manson murders into pulp fiction, writer Tom O’Neill’s new marathon investigation of the case re-examines its Hollywood and political connections.

It was Valentine’s Day in the year 2000 and American journalist Tom O’Neill had a date: a phone call from one of the world’s most mythologised criminals, cult leader Charles Manson.

Manson was 30 years into serving a life sentence for ordering the extraordinarily savage murders, in 1969, of seven people in two Hollywood houses over two consecutive nights, including director Roman Polanski’s heavily pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate.

The young, seemingly brainwashed “Manson Family” killers did not know their victims, and a cloud of terror immediately descended upon Hollywood.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Manson and three of his followers were sentenced to death in the sensational 1970 court case – when the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972, they were resentenced to life – with the prosecution led by Vincent Bugliosi, who later wrote the book Helter Skelter. Bugliosi framed the murders as intending to incite a race war engulfing the entire US, and this was long accepted as the official account.

In 1999, film magazine Premiere commissioned O’Neill to write a 5000-word feature on the effect of the murders on Hollywood. The piece was intended to mark the 30th anniversary of the killings, but he missed the deadline. No Hollywood stars would talk to him, and he kept uncovering omissions and discrepancies that cast doubt on Bugliosi’s narrative. He eventually concluded the prosecutor – and therefore the trial – was corrupt.

O’Neill hoped talking to Manson might provide some small clarifications, but his editor insisted he had to do it in the offices, for security reasons. So, there he was, alone in a darkened newsroom, waiting for the phone to ring at 9pm.

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Photo/Getty Images

“Then I started thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s Valentine’s Day and my date is Charles Manson. That is so tragic,’” O’Neill says, over the phone from Los Angeles. “It was kind of sad and comical. He had a guy on the inside who managed the phone calls called Pin Cushion, because he’d been stabbed so many times.

“Pin Cushion put Manson on, and after the first ‘Hello man’, everything went downhill from there. We ended up arguing, he got very upset and got off the phone. He thought I was trying to make him a snitch, which I guess I was.”

O’Neill never wrote the story for Premiere. His contract, which was extended from three to 18 months, ended when the editor-in-chief left. He continued his research as a freelancer, finding more and more questions that he couldn’t answer.

In 2005, Penguin Books signed him with an advance he describes as “almost record-breaking for someone who had never written a book before”. The signing was not announced, as O’Neill was waiting for the right time to confront Bugliosi face-to-face. “They were worried that if he knew this was such a big deal, he wouldn’t talk to me,” he says.

But the book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, which has just been released 14 years later, is published by William Heinemann, not Penguin, which cancelled the deal in 2015 because of budget cuts. He’s still paying back the advance.

Tom O'Neill. Photo/Supplied

Happily for O’Neill, Amazon “paid a very generous offer” for the film rights in April 2017, before the book was written and when he was driving an Uber to survive.

Coincidentally, Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, set in the Manson era and starring Margot Robbie as Tate, was announced in July 2017; it opens in the US this month (and in New Zealand in mid-August), just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the killings.

O’Neill was 40 when he started working on the Premiere story. The final edit from the legal read of Chaos came just before he turned 60. He’s made a lot of enemies during his 20-year investigation, which branched out in many directions, encompassing missing police and court files, Manson parole officers-turned-enablers, buried bodies, depraved rock stars, an investigation into government mind-control experiments via drugs and hypnosis, the death of an elephant injected with LSD.

Police at one of the crime scenes. Photo/Getty Images

“You didn’t throw the book at the wall and say, ‘Why am I reading this?’” O’Neill jokes. Well, no. His reporting is so measured, eloquent and meticulously researched, with comprehensive source notes and indexing, the incredible becomes perfectly plausible, even if it sometimes enters Maxwell Smart territory. The “Chaos” in the book title, for example, was the name of a secret CIA programme, launched in 1967, to surveil and undermine left-wing citizens.

The US in the late 60s was a society undergoing a deep schism; the Manson Family was but a symptom.

O’Neill’s narrative required a retelling of what happened on the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969, in Cielo Drive, home to Tate, Polanski (who was overseas) and various hangers-on, and in Waverly Drive, the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Fifty years on, the details still have a horribly sad resonance.

“It’s the only time we know of, at least in US history, that a guy such as Manson, who was barely literate, was able to take control of a bunch of young people’s minds in just under two years and get them to do whatever he told them, including going out and killing strangers horribly, with glee,” says O’Neill.

“Manson Family” members Lynette Fromme (left) and Sandra Pugh. Photo/Getty Images

“Even when they were being tried, they celebrated what they had done, singing and dancing and skipping in and out of the courtroom every day. That is what caused the public not only to be appalled and horrified, but also obsessed with how that could have happened.”

A key figure in the Manson saga was record producer Terry Melcher, son of wholesome Hollywood sweetheart Doris Day. Melcher produced records for the Beach Boys – who also had strange connections to Manson – and the Byrds.

Melcher lived at the Cielo Drive house with actor Candice Bergen before Tate and Polanski, and rejected Manson’s push for a record deal, supposedly ending the relationship after the murders – a lie Bugliosi concealed during the trial.

After several phone interviews, O’Neill managed to engineer a face-to-face confrontation with Melcher in 2000 on the roof of his apartment. “It was one of the most bizarre interviews I ever did, and there were quite a few,” he recalls.

“He was pretty drunk when I got there: bloated, slurring, pasty. I don’t know what to say: it was a curse to be the son of Doris Day; everyone wants something from you. But I had a job to do and he had to answer these questions about perjury in a capital case.

Three suspects sing on their way to court. Photo/Getty

“That ended up with him threatening me with these enormous lawsuits, then he was saying, ‘I could take your briefcase with all your notes and throw it off the roof.’ In the next breath, he was asking me if I would write his memoirs, offering me millions, saying, ‘I can tell stories about Doris that would shock you.’ You walk away from something like that thinking you’re on to something, but still trying to figure out what.”

The most confrontational meeting, however, finally happened with Bugliosi in February 2006, after numerous phone chats. By that time, O’Neill had learnt that Bugliosi’s “go-to weapon” when confronted “was to damage anyone who came after him”, citing two earlier cases involving the lawyer’s mistress and a milkman. It was that absurd.

And so it was with O’Neill, too. “He insinuated he had this damaging information on me,” says O’Neill. “But he wouldn’t tell me what it was. That was when I first got in touch to ask for this meeting. He pretended not to know my name, although I knew he had been monitoring me the whole time.

“When I got him, he was like, ‘Tom? Who?’ Then within two minutes he was saying, ‘I’m not going to talk to you because I’ve heard such horrible things I can’t repeat them.’”

O’Neill, who is gay, discovered through a source that Bugliosi intended to smear him by accusing him of raping young boys. “Once I knew that, I actually laughed. I said to him, ‘Come on, please, did you really think you were going to get away with that?’”

The six-hour meeting with Bugliosi was highly adversarial and unpleasant. “But what do you do when you find out a prosecutor cheated in a trial? I found holes in the prosecution, which he had to be aware of, that weren’t mistakes; they were deliberate.”

Bugliosi died in 2015, and now, says O’Neill, “I’m getting a lot of hate correspondence … it’s easier to publish a book like this with him gone, but it’s unfortunate. I always expected him to be alive and I wanted him to be accountable for this stuff.”

As for Manson, he died in November 2017. In the epilogue of Chaos, O’Neill writes that although he “slipped too easily into our understanding of the criminal mastermind … the full extent of that evil isn’t in what we know about Manson. It’s in what we don’t know.”

O’Neill believes he presents a strong case that the narrative was not as we were told: “I leave it up to the readers to decide which scenario was most likely.”

CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill & Dan Piepenbring (William Heinemann, $40)

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.