Over a 60-year career, Ivor Davis has seen and written about things most people only dream about: Touring with The Beatles in 1964, interviewing hundreds of celebrities and covering news stories for a variety of publications worldwide. But one story has left an indelible mark: his coverage of the notorious Manson Family murders.
The crimes, which happened 50 years ago on Aug. 8 and 9, 1969, were among the most brutal in American history. 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: The Book That Helped Convict Manson, which was released in 1970.
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 sat down with him to discuss the crimes, the courtroom drama and his recollections from a half century ago.
VCReporter: Give us a quick setup of what occurred on those two nights in August, 1969.
Ivor Davis: 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 [record producer] 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, 8 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 [Spahn 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.
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 and Patricia Krenwinkel . . . 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 refrigerator door but they spelled it with a H-e-a — incorrectly, so they’re obviously guilty of bad spelling.
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.” And 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.
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 murder 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 that they’d cracked the case.
What physical evidence had 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, the embarrassed police showed up and said, “hey this is the murder clothing.”
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 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 Boulevard 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.
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. I mean, very cleverly, a brainwasher. And of course what helped is that 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.
What facts of the case that are not well known might we 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 — 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” . . . [M]embers 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.
How did Manson and this story touch Ventura County?
Well, interestingly enough, the first time that Manson was arrested in California was in Ventura County. Charlie Manson was driving through Ventura County . . . in his famous bus . . . And for whatever reason he ran it off the road near Point Mugu in the Port Hueneme area and so they were stuck, they were trapped in that area one night and somebody complained to the sheriff’s department that there were about 20 young women running around naked with babies on the beach.
The sheriff came along and arrested them for vagrancy. . . . For the first time Manson got this mugshot taken in Ventura County, a year before the murders. They checked it out, the babies were given back, the bus was given back, and Manson went on his not-so-merry way.
Fifty years later, what do you think society has learned or how has it changed?
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. . . . 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 1960s era of love?
Oh, it was. It was. 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.
Ivor Davis will discuss his latest book and sign copies on Friday, July 26, at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 805-653-0323 or visit venturamuseum.org.
A Day in Court: March 3, 1971
Sometimes I’m reminded just how small the world is. Forty-eight years ago, I attended one day of the penalty phase of the Manson murder trial in downtown Los Angeles. Being all of 11 years old, I was introduced to a public spectacle unlike any that had come before it. And in that room was reporter and author Ivor Davis, who covered the trial for over 11 months. Little did we know that we would reminisce about that day, half a century later.
My friend Bryan’s father, Dr. Keith Ditman, was testifying about the effects of LSD. He was an expert on the subject and asked us if we wanted to ditch school for the day to attend the trial. We quickly said yes.
Walking up to the doors of the courthouse, we saw a group of young women sitting around a streetlamp. I thought this was unusual and later learned that these Manson Family members had held camp there each day throughout the trial.
After passing through unusually tight security (which required me to remove the Frye boots I was wearing) we entered the courtroom. When the three female defendants entered, they looked around to see who was present. My friend Bryan, who had long blonde hair, and I were distinctly different from anyone else in the room. The girls smiled at us and waved.
I sat next to a court artist, who was there because cameras were not allowed, and marveled at how fast and precise his pencil captured the events of the day. I recall that Charles Manson stood up several times and shouted at the judge. What he said is lost to me, but I do remember the judge, having had enough, admonishing Manson to sit down and behave — or else. He didn’t comply, and the judge threw Manson out of the courtroom. We next saw him on a small TV monitor as he sat in a room where he could watch but not interrupt the proceedings any further.
Ditman was being questioned by Maxwell Keith, Leslie Van Houten’s defense attorney. Keith preceded his questioning of the psychiatrist with a hypothetical question.
“Let’s assume,” he said, “that she [Miss Van Houten] went to a ranch where she met a small bearded man [Manson] who was ‘intelligent, articulate, persuasive and very much a philosopher,’ and assume that he told his followers that ‘killing is not wrong, to never be afraid of death.’ And assume that she was profoundly influenced by his views.”
After posing the question, Keith continued, “Having in your mind all these assumed facts and basing your opinion on reasonable medical probability, can you say whether Manson’s assumed influence and Leslie’s use of drugs led to her participation in murder?”
“Yes,” Ditman answered. “Being under the influence of the drug at the time would have a marked and profound effect on one’s behavior, and such things could occur.”
It’s a day that I will never forget.
— David Comden