A half-century of Helter Skelter … and it isn’t over yet

Leslie Van Houten, one of Charles Manson’s concubines and mesmerized butchers, was denied parole on Monday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Van Houten’s mugshot

Van Houten was sentenced to be executed for her part in the grisly slaughter of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their Los Angeles home in 1969, when she was just 19 and under the sway of LSD and Manson’s wicked charisma. Her death sentence was overturned in the mid-1970s—even though California had built a special gas chamber for her—and she eventually got a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 1978.

Last year, the California Parole Board recommended she be released. Van Houten, now 69, had a glimmer of hope until Monday when Newsom snuffed it out.

 “Ms. Van Houten and the Manson family committed some of the most notorious and brutal killings in California history,” the former San Francisco DA said in a statement. “When considered as a whole, I find the evidence shows that she currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time.”

She’s had other chances but has always been denied. In fact, no Manson followers involved in the Tate-LaBianca killings has been released.

Manson died in prison in 2017.  Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, A Manson follower who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford, received life in prison, but was paroled in 2009. She now lives in upstate New York.

Will Leslie Van Houten spend the rest of her life in prison? She should, but that remains to be seen. Anything is possible in California, which gave us Manson to begin with.

LaBianca house today

This year, August 8-9 mark 50 years since one of American’s most grotesque crimes— the two-day slaughter of eight people—captured headlines and our most primitive and prurient curiosity. A half-century of Helter-Skelter later, bestselling books and blockbuster films still fascinate. Any news about these sadistic psychopaths immediately moves above the fold.

We are enthralled and intoxicated. It’s a national sickness that transcends the simple interest in crime history. We have had a crime buff-crush on a few of Manson’s girls, especially the skank-hottie Van Houten, who is reported to have been mostly rehabilitated in her 50 years behind bars.

But prison isn’t just about rehabilitation. It’s about the vague notion of “paying a debt to society”—which is variously and endlessly interpreted by radicals on all sides of crime and punishment issues. And it’s a civilized society’s form of revenge, exacting a pound of figurative flesh instead of … well, the kind of butchery in which Van Houten participated.

Charles Manson

We’re not there yet. A jury once determined Van Houten should be removed from this world. Van Houten was spared by coincidence, not a brilliant legal argument. It saved her life, maybe it even rehabilitated her. But she has neither paid her debt to society—what exactly has she given us?—nor do we believe officially that she should live among civilized people.

Nobody who transformed our fears into an endless nightmare in those two August nights will ever truly repay us for what they took.


Bestselling crime writer Ron Franscell is the author of The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Los Angeles.

COVER IMAGE: Manson’s followers scrawled “Death to Pigs” in blood on the wall before they fled the LaBianca home (LAPD crime scene photo)

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