This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Lots of people are interested in serial killers. And right now, in the wake of the death of notorious 1960s cult leader Charles Manson at the age of 83, pseudo-psychological op-eds are being written in newsrooms around the globe, frantically trying to explain why.
But what’s it like to be so interested that you decide to become pen pals with a killer? Here’s Rocco Casella, who, briefly, became just that with Manson.
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VICE: How did you come to be interested in Charles Manson and the Manson Family?
Rocco Casella: When I was 17, I read Helter Skelter [the 1974 true crime book, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry]. I also saw the 1970s miniseries with Steve Railsback in it. I was a pretty average kid. I was on the football team, a C student, interested in computers and art—but I was really into horror movies at the time. This would have been around 1988. But this stuff scared me much more than horror movies. Manson and his followers were real, whereas Jason and Freddy were fiction.
Did you have an interest in serial killers in general?
Charles Manson was the first killer I was interested in. I knew of John Wayne Gacy because I lived in Chicago. He was local, and all the kids would share stories they’d heard about him. But no, I wasn’t interested in this stuff before I read about Manson and his followers.
When did you decide to write to him?
It would have been that same year, so 1988. I worked in a bookstore at the time, and someone came in asking about a book called The Garbage People, which is a book by John Gilmore and Ron Kenner about the Manson Family. He came in the next week with the addresses of the institutions where they were being incarcerated. I think he was trying to show off or something. I sent mail to the entire Family—Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Lynette Fromme, and Manson. Only Manson and Fromme wrote back to me.
What did you say in your letter to them?
I sent basic letters detailing what I had read about them. But I wanted to know what happened from their perspective, in their words. I heard back from Manson and Fromme about four months later. I wanted to know if the media got it wrong back then. I’d watched a documentary about the Family, where the girls said that a lot of what was said about them wasn’t true. I was interested to know what they thought the truth was.
What did Manson say in his letter?
Manson sent a photocopied drawing and the single phrase: "Look down at me, and you will see a fool; look up at me, and you will see your lord. Look straight at me, and you will see yourself."
Did that creep you out?
When I saw the letter, I was disappointed more than anything. I’d already heard what he wrote in an interview. I think it was a go-to saying of his. There was nothing original or personal to the letter at all.
There’s a website address on the photocopy. What’s that about?
It was for the Family's conservation project. It’s no longer a reputable address. ATWA is short for air, water, trees, animals. I think Manson valued those things more than most humans, to be honest.
What did Lynette say?
Fromme responded with a postcard. She said, "I like—and I think most people like—to hear from the principles of any news story, rather than hearing an interpretation of what was said from the reporter. Reporters used to be much worse in always leaving out what was actually said. I’d like to see newspapers phased out as they are notoriously inaccurate, are produced from vast quantities of trees, and are effemeral [sic]."
I’m not sure "effemeral" is a word. Do you think she meant "ephemeral"?
I don’t know what she meant!
Sorry, go on. What else did she say?
She said, "Today’s news is tomorrow’s trash. That leads to more incredibly bad reporting. As for my opinions—they haven’t changed much from the day I came to jail—but I’ve seen more to support them. Lynette."
Did your friends or family know you’d written to them? What did they think?
My friends at the time knew. I showed my mom the letters when they arrived; she called me an idiot. That said, she was a bartender and took them to work to show everyone.
Did you ever consider keeping up the correspondence?
I never contemplated writing to any of them again. Around that time, I got interested in the new FBI personality profiling they were doing on all the living killers, a project Agent John Douglas was conducting [the inspiration for the Netflix TV show, Mindhunter], and I kind of wanted to do that for a job. When I got the kooky letters from them, I thought it was a waste of time if I wasn’t getting paid for it. I realized, if I wanted straight answers from these two, I’d have to dedicate more time to get through the babble. I grew into other interests, like girls, and my hobbies of rollercoasters and travel. The only regret I have in writing them is that I put more time into them than they deserved.
What did you feel when you heard that Manson had died?
I was a little sad when I heard he died. I wasn't sad for Manson, but for the families whom he hurt with his masterminding. And knowing what I know from reading about them so much, he was a deeply troubled person from the start. He never actually had a chance to be normal from birth. He was in abusive foster homes, and in and out of boy’s homes and juvenile detention his entire childhood. I think that shows that he just couldn’t adjust to what real life was. He was in jail or in institutions for 68 of his 83 years of existence. It was all he ever knew.