What You Think You Know About the Manson Family Murders May Be Wrong

What You Think You Know About the Manson Family Murders May Be Wrong

For those who consider Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter—his 1974 book about Charles Manson, the murders he ordered, and ensuing trial—to be canon, Tom O’Neill’s new book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixtiest History of the Sixties suggests a rift in the fabric of the universe as we know it. The product of some 20 years of exhaustive, obsessive research, Chaos suggests that the case made to the court by Bugliosi, who prosecuted the case before he wrote the definitive book about it, was fraudulent and that the entire “Helter Skelter” motive, which stated that Manson attempted to kick off a race war via the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, does not hold up to scrutiny in light of unearthed evidence. For one thing, according to O’Neill’s report, the relationship between Manson and record producer Terry Melcher (a previous resident of the house on Cielo Drive where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent were murdered), was more involved than it was conveyed during the trial—O’Neill says he found notes from two witness interviews that placed Melcher in the presence of Manson after the murders. This information was suppressed from the trial because, O’Neill suggests, it did not square with another part of Bugliosi’s suggested motive: Manson ordered murders to scare Melcher, who had refused to record the cult leader’s music.

Down the rabbit hole O’Neill goes, examining procedural mishandling (Manson Family member Susan Atkins’s lawyer was unceremoniously changed before her trial); evidence that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office already had eyes on Manson well in advance of the culture-upending murders; and possible Manson connections to the then-secret government programs of COINTELPRO, CHAOS, and MKUltra (the last of which centered on mind-control programs). O’Neill’s book is provocative and suggestive without being definitive—it is a piled-high pasta plate of loose ends. “My goal isn’t to say what did happen—it’s to prove that the official story didn’t,” O’Neill concedes in the book. “I’ve learned to accept the ambiguity.”

O’Neill hadn’t even read Helter Skelter—the premier gateway drug for many a Manson obsessive—before he was assigned by the now-defunct Premiere magazine in 1999 to write a retrospective piece about the chilling effects of the Manson murders in Hollywood pegged to the 30th anniversary of those crimes. That anniversary came and went. O’Neill stayed on the story for so long that, in his account, he parlayed his findings into a book deal with a massive payday, but then that deal was canceled when a chronicle of his findings failed to materialize (that deal, with Penguin, resulted in a lawsuit). Chaos, which is finally being released June 25 by Little, Brown and Company just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders, chronicles O’Neill’s struggle to cohere his scraps of evidence into a book. Along the way came threats from his sources (including Bugliosi, who died in 2015), false leads, and a general sense of paranoia that he was becoming a conspiracy theorist.

Chaos’s title describes not just the CIA’s domestic espionage program of the ‘60s and ‘70s—it also describes the book’s aesthetic. Reading it made me feel like my brain was melting out of my ears. Earlier this week I talked to O’Neill by phone; our conversation, edited for length, clarity, and flow, is below.

JEZEBEL: At points in the book, you express a certain paranoia of becoming a conspiracy theorist. Do you think that’s ultimately a fair description of you?

TOM O’NEILL: No, I don’t think so. If I were you would have gotten a final answer in the book, and I have pretty strong ideas on what did or didn’t happen. I won’t put them in because I can’t substantiate them. A couple of them conflict with each other. If I were going to start saying, “This is probably what happened,” or “…likely to have happened,” then they would call me a conspiracy theorist. Instead I’m saying, “There are possibilities, and here’s what backs up each possibility.” It might sound like a copout, but then I back off and the readers can decide.

Helter Skelter has a way of consuming readers and making them interested in Manson and this case for the rest of their lives. You are sort of embodying the an extreme reaction to Manson exposure.

It’s ironic. I ended up becoming as addicted to trying to find out what happened as any of those Manson followers were in believing he was God. He consumed as much of my life… although they got away with only two years, most of them. They were then off in prison or living different lives. I had to be with him for 20 years, every single day thinking about him.

I ended up becoming as addicted to trying to find out what happened as any of those Manson followers were in believing he was God.

Is part of what makes this story so difficult to pin down that the man at the center of it was one of the most extraordinarily mentally ill people that the American public has ever been exposed to? So that when you talk about motive and rationale, those things, as we know them, don’t even necessarily apply?

That’s a misconception. [Manson was] never diagnosed as mentally ill. He never submitted himself to a true psychiatric examination. The few professionals who say they believe he’s schizophrenic do that once or twice removed from reading other reports. He was really clever. My best example of that is I interviewed him in 2000. He was in solitary and I think allowed out once a week to make phone calls. I had two or three phone calls with him. He was answering questions with riddles and stupid silly rhymes, and it was getting really frustrating and I was getting angry and then he got pissed off with me. It was a three-way call: He had a guy on the outside who handled all his business, Gray Wolf, and then he had a guy, Pin Cushion, on the inside who handled his business and was like his bodyguard.

After all that, Manson said he wasn’t going to speak to me, he said he was furious, and Gray Wolf called me and was explaining this to me, saying I upset the old man. Gray Wolf recorded all his calls with Manson so after I got off the phone with Manson, he started telling Gray Wolf what he was upset about with my questioning and it was an entirely different human being. Instead of all the craziness, I hear Manson’s voice telling Gray Wolf, “You know, Tom seems like a nice guy but I wish he wouldn’t ask me about Terry Melcher,” or this that and the other thing. I said, Gray Beard, “Where’s the coherent person I’m hearing now when I talk to him? You just kind of gave him away by pulling the curtain back. He’s playing crazy. That’s an act.”

You thought it was entirely an act? Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve watched so many interviews with him and to me it just seemed like unadulterated disturbance.

It’s another one of those things that I wouldn’t say for sure. I think I have that tape. I started a Facebook and Instagram for the book and all I’m putting on it are documents and videos and audio stuff that’s not in the book. I should look for that and put it up. It’s pretty fascinating to hear Manson talk like a logical, rational human being.

Another interesting thing is Bugliosi was asked by an interviewer in the ‘70s whether he thought Manson believed in Helter Skelter and believed that there was going to be a race war and that he had this secret place in the desert where he was going to hide the Family, and Bugliosi said, “No. Manson doesn’t believe that. The girls believe it. He taught them to believe it, but that whole thing was just a way to control them.” The interviewer didn’t follow up and ask the logical question: “What was the reason he sent them?” You’re telling us how he told them to do it, but why then if not to start a race war? Unfortunately I didn’t see that until after Bugliosi wasn’t speaking to me and not taking my calls, so I couldn’t ask him.

Isn’t the motive presented by Bugliosi in court contradictory and muddled on its face? There’s Helter Skelter, and there’s also the idea that the murders were performed in the house that Terry Melcher once lived in to scare Melcher. I know the connective tissue is that Manson supposedly wanted to take down the establishment and that Melcher was representative of that establishment, but provoking a race war and scaring a record producer are two very different objectives.

The motive, when you look real closely at it, starts to fall apart. I do agree the girls, the hardcore followers, probably do believe they were sent to start a race war, but I think there was some other reason sent there. I’ll give you a hint of the stuff we didn’t get finished in time to make the book: I found pretty compelling evidence in the original police reports that the people who were killed the first night—Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger—there was an attempt on them the night before at Jay Sebring’s house. They had dinner at Sebring’s house—and this is part of the official narrative—and they were sitting down to watch a movie after dinner and all of a sudden there was a big surge of power and the floodlights went really powerfully on and off. He lost his TV, half the power in the house went off. I found a police interview with the guy who did the wiring for Jay’s house and put the cable TV in. He told me that at Jay’s house [later] he saw the cut wires and said, “These wires were deliberately cut. I could tell by the gradations in the wiring and the severing.”

The next night, they were killed. [Family member] Tex Watson before the murders climbed up a pole, didn’t cut the lights, but cut the phone wires. So the question is: Was it a coincidence that someone went to Jay Sebring’s house and cut wires and 24 hours later at Sharon’s house, the wires are cut? That would upend the whole Helter Skelter motive that says [the victims] were strangers to their killers, that it was the house, that they were trying to send a message to Melcher, who used to live there, and to Hollywood. If this is true, and all this adds up, it means they were stalking them. And even more interesting, Manson was away during those 24 hours the night before. He wasn’t at the ranch. So then it brings up the question of maybe this whole thing was organized by Watson for other reasons.

Did Bugliosi’s death have anything to do with you taking so long to publish the book?

No. I lost my publishing deal from Penguin—and he sent them really serious, scary letters, I’m actually going to publish parts of them on the Facebook—but I trust Penguin didn’t publish not because they were scared of him and his lawsuit threats but because it was a business decision and Penguin was merging with Random House. As far as Bugliosi dying, I was really, really upset because…well, you don’t want to see anybody die, but [also] I wanted him to be alive for this. I wanted him to answer questions, to be called out on this stuff. Where I couldn’t get him to answer questions at his house in our last big face-to-face confrontation, well, if he were alive for the book and healthy, he’d be out there trying to explain himself and I’d give my left nut to watch that. I resold [the book] in 2017, which would have been a year or two after he died. I don’t think his death factored in. I do know though, having gone through a pretty rigorous legal read with the Little Brown lawyers, it would have been a lot harder with him alive. I would have maybe had to qualify a lot more stuff, but I don’t think I would have had to take anything out. Everything is heavily sourced that I had about him and that he objected to and didn’t want in there. Everything’s on paper.

Given the unwieldy structure of your book, what would you highlight as the most important of your findings?

It’s a couple of things. It’s not just about the Manson case or the Tate-LaBianca murders, but it’s about what the government did with people during that period, with the secret programs MKUltra, COINTELPRO, CHAOS. The fact that they’ve never been held fully accountable. The MKUltra records were destroyed by Sid Gottlieb, who ran it, and Richard Helms, the director of the CIA, when the two left in ’72 or ’73. The only records that remain were accidentally found in the storehouse and they were financial records that just gave a little bit of information about what the program was. That led to congressional hearings and investigations by Seymour Hersh and John Marks, and they tried to fill stuff in but they never really could. I would love for this book to create interest and compel other writers, investigators to try to get information about MKUltra. My letters between Dr. Louis Jolyon (“Jolly”) West and Sidney Gottlieb are completely non-redacted. They were not intended to be left where I found them by West because he denied having anything to do with this program his whole life.

I just think it’s important that people know that while I could never put Dr. West in the same room as Manson, he was definitely in the same facility at the same time that Manson was there everyday and becoming exactly what the CIA was trying to create. He spent his career trying to cover up everything he did. Also, when he treated Jack Ruby, the same day he treated Jack Ruby, he had a nervous breakdown and was never the same. Jolly West was a part of the MKULTRA program and in the letters I found, he said his plan was to learn how to induce insanity in a person without their awareness.

This book is a fascinating commentary on the concept of narrative. In this book, you admit frequently that you have loose ends, false leads, and no real firm conclusion tying everything together. Perhaps a key reason behind the success of Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is its simplification of a more complicated narrative.

I think that’s why it took 20 years to do the damn thing. I thought I was going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a pretty strong conclusion. I was chasing that conclusion for a number of years and chasing down this pretty incredible evidence, evidence that was taking me in different directions about sub-category stories. And then I had to figure out a way to weave it all together. When I finally had to accept that I might not find a smoking gun—I found a lot of smoking pistols but not the big kahuna—[I had to ask] if people are going to be interested in the book if they don’t get everything answered in the end. That was really frustrating for me and a conversation between my agent and myself for years. He was urging me to stop the reporting. He said, “Hey, you found so much. If you can just unravel what people think they know about the case and present all your evidence of that and then let them draw their own conclusions at the end, you’ve found enough. You might never find what you’re looking for.” I finally had to reconcile myself to that.

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