With the recent uptick in interest in Charles Manson, capped by the cloying, threadbare David Duchovny cop drama Aquarius, it's easy to forget that the seven brutal slayings known as the Tate-Labianca murders remain perhaps the most nightmarish killings in the history of American crime. The trial received an incredible amount of publicity, and was the most expensive criminal proceeding to date when it finished in 1971, having lasted nearly ten months—a record at the time.
Late on Monday, just a week shy of the trial's 45-year anniversary, we learned that Vincent Bugliosi—the prosecutor who made his name putting Manson and his followers in prison—passed away. He died Saturday in a Los Angeles hospital at the tail end of a multi-year battle against cancer. He was 80.
Every young person of a particularly morbid disposition goes through a Manson phase at some point or other. I've been deep in my own for about five years. I collect ephemera, read the books, and force my long-suffering wife to watch innumerable documentaries and TV movies. In the four and a half decades since the trial, there's been enough written about the so-called "Manson Murders" to last a lifetime. Through them, Manson has been transfigured into a mythological figure, rendered demon-like and illusory through rumors of the occult, human sacrifice, ritualistic drug use, and savage orgies.
Bugliosi, on the other hand, has remained a real and tangible person, and a key point of interest for those fixated on the national Manson nightmare. Even if you believe, like myself, that the lessons we can learn from the Manson family are more nuanced than the simple reassurance that good will eventually triumph over evil, it's clear that Bugliosi is one of the most impressive figures in the entire story. Manson called him a genius, and Bugliosi reportedly gathered much of the evidence himself.
It's difficult to imagine a deputy district attorney as cutting or intelligent as Bugilosi. When I think of him, I like to recall his performance in Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick's Oscar-nominated 1973 documentary Manson. The film is notable for its many direct interviews with members of the family—it was shot after Manson was in jail, but before much of the family had left the Spahn Movie Ranch. In it, Bugliosi is young and animated, still buoyed by his success in the trial. He stalks through the courtroom where he prosecuted Manson, speaking in a high, staccato tenor as he recalls his victory:
"Sharon Tate's husband, movie director Roman Polanski, could not himself have conceived of a more monstrous, macabre scene of human terror and massacre than that which took place at his own residence in the early morning hours of August the ninth, nineteen sixty-nine," Bugliosi says.
I love listening to him speak: His tone and diction are sharp as a tack, and he's able to condense the ethical complexities of such a nuanced case into clear, plain English. Here he is speaking on the case during the trial:
It's worth remembering what happened that night to understand what Bugliosi, then an unknown, was facing in his signature case. Under the cover of darkness, four young men and women had piled into an old Ford and driven toward the Bel Air residence of the gorgeous blond actress Sharon Tate. Her husband, Roman Polanski, was out of town at the time on a location scout in London. Seeing as she was eight and a half months pregnant with her first baby, Tate had entreated two friends to stay with her in her husband's absence, including Voytek Frykowski and his lover, Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee empire. They were joined by another friend, hairstylist Jay Sebring.
Just before 1 AM, the intruders cut the phone lines and jumped the fence at the bottom of the property. A car pulled up the driveway, and the only man in the group, Tex Watson, pulled a gun and blasted four shots into the window, murdering an 18-year-old named Steven Parent, who was unconnected with Sharon Tate. They entered the house and slaughtered everyone inside. Police discovered a total of 102 stab wounds on the four victims, and on the wall, in Tate's blood, one of the intruders wrote the words "PIG."
The next night, another carload of young men and women traveled to the Los Feliz home of Leno LaBianca, a supermarket executive, and his wife, Rosemary, a dress-shop co-owner. A similar scene took place, with the intruders scrawling the words "RISE," "PIG," and "HEALTER [ sic] SKELTER" on the walls in blood.
Originally, Bugliosi, then 35 years old, was assigned to a team of prosecutors run by a more experienced lawyer named Aaron Stovitz. But when Stovitz was removed for making inappropriate remarks to the media, Bugliosi took his place. It is Bugliosi's prosecution from which much of the narrative of the Manson story is drawn. During the trial, he called 84 witnesses and presented 290 pieces of evidence.
Most obituaries, including this one, focus on Bugliosi's relation to the Manson case. It is, by far, his career-defining moment, and his excellent book about the experience, Helter Skelter, remains the best-selling true-crime book ever published. Bugliosi, however, had a long and eclectic professional life. In addition to running for public office and practicing law, he authored many books on crime, including studies of O. J. Simpson, George W. Bush, and the Kennedy assassination.
But Manson always remained at the forefront of his reputation and career. In 2009, he reflected on his cultural legacy in an interview with NPR:
If I were to give you what I believe to be the single most important reason is that the murders were probably the most bizarre in the recorded annals of American crime. I mean, the incredible motive for the murders: to ignite a war between blacks and whites, that Manson called helter skelter, would be the last final destructive on the face of this Earth, according to him.
Who were the killers? Young kids from average homes of fairly good backgrounds, completely different from what we would expect of mass murderers. The very thought of young women dressed in black, armed with sharp knives entering the homes of total strangers in the middle of the night, is really so horrendous a thought that it's difficult to contemplate a thought like that.
In part because of the story Bugliosi told, Americans today can contemplate thoughts like that. He translated the darkest elements of our national consciousness into legal reality, and the story he told during the Manson trial, as well in his subsequent writing on the subject, has seeped irreversibly into our cultural imagination, my own included. He won't be soon forgotten.
Bugliosi is survived by his wife, Gail, to whom he was married for nearly 60 years, and two children, Wendy and Vincent Jr.
And, of course, Charles Manson.
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