Five to Die, 40 years later
As VCReporter contributor Ivor Davis rereleases his definitive tome on the Manson Family, he recalls the August 1969 murders that left America reeling in terror
By Paul Sisolak 08/06/2009
Cover Photo by Paul Harris
The roots of Ivor Davis’ association with the cinematic and pop music worlds are planted decades deep in media journalism. Long before he became a regular contributor to the VCReporter and its various sister papers, Davis was establishing contacts and getting interviews with the biggest names in Hollywood.
One early gig, and perhaps one of his most coveted, saw Davis travel the country on tour with the legendary Fab Four during the group’s first American tour in August 1964.
So when Tinseltown A-lister Sharon Tate and a houseful of party guests were brutally slaughtered one night in Benedict Canyon, five years later to the month, the subsequent Beatles connection became more than just wry coincidence to Davis.
Helter Skelter on the Beatles’ White Album had become the obsessive, driving force behind the modus operandi of one Charles Manson. Exploiting the ’60s counterculture to his own criminal advantage, Manson’s “recruits” into a self-styled family of killers were from the outer subset of the peace movement, wayward young hippies and drifters brainwashed into acting out Manson’s visions of instigating a race war.
Davis found himself plunged so far into the investigations of the Manson-led, Aug. 9, 1969, Tate murders and the LaBianca killings the following evening, that he managed to publish an exhaustive document on Manson and his band of killers before their trials had even begun.
Many have credited Davis’ 1970 book Five to Die, co-authored with the late Jerry LeBlanc, as the tool that helped Vincent Bugliosi prosecute Manson, long before the legendary attorney produced his own memoirs of the trial. It was a trial, Davis recalls in his coverage, that introduced some of the celebrity spotlight now regularly afforded to the legal system: attorneys who come and go, the crazed courtroom antics of the accused, the cult status attached to the incriminated.
Davis’ ultimate goal in rereleasing Five to Die was to revise and update a chronicle of events that still rank high in the annals of American true crime. New additions to Davis’ book include chapters examining the Manson trial’s legal underpinnings, and a where-are-they-now section on the key players in the events.
Davis is on a book and interview tour through the month of August and spoke with the Reporter from Los Angeles this week.
VCR: What were some of the reasons for your republishing “Five to Die”?
Davis: What happened was, we first published “Five to Die” January 1970, six months before the Manson/Sharon Tate murder trial began. And it got kind of swallowed up with the trial. Then, many years later, I was at the Ventura courthouse and I bumped into Aaron Stovitz. Stovitz was the chief district attorney prosecutor in the Manson trial. He was on the trial for three months. What happened was, he spoke to the media, broke a gag order, and three months into the trial he was pushed out and Vincent Bugliosi took over. So I saw Aaron Stovitz at Ventura because he was working part time for the Ventura district attorney. So we had a cup of coffee and he said, “You know, I never told you this, but your book, which came out six months before the trial was the blueprint for the prosecution. Your book laid out the motive, the Helter Skelter thing, and listed all the people who used to be members of the Manson family, and laid out their lifestyles and their bizarre practices.”
I hadn’t looked at the book for many, many years; I had a hard time getting a copy. I looked at it again, and then, as we were coming up to the 40th anniversary, I thought, let’s update it. And so I got into updating it, got fascinated because all the new stuff I found was just mesmerizing. And the book is the old book and about 25,000 words of new material, the trial which I covered, everything. Where are they now, all the Manson Family members in jail, what they’re doing. And that’s how it happened.
In the very last chapter of the book, you tell your readers you were reluctant to reexamine the Manson killings after all these years, and that your original coverage of the Manson family’s trial was an unpleasant time in your life. How did you come to reconcile with some of that inner conflict, revisiting it?
It’s one of those things. I’d been a daily newspaper reporter all my life, and I didn’t really want to go into it because it was a pretty unpleasant experience. But as I got into it as a journalist, I found it absolutely fascinating and I kind of got caught up, somewhat obsessed with finding out and revisiting. And so I guess what happened was my journalistic spirit overtook my apprehension.
How much of a part do you think the book played in the family members’ convictions?
The book is called “Five to Die: The Book that Helped Convict Manson.” When I spoke to Aaron Stovitz and he told me how it was their blueprint, I was amazed. And that was the reason why we did it again. And when I looked at the book again after 40 years, I discovered that we did have incredible detail on the Manson lifestyle, how he mesmerized these young women and men, how he came up with this crackpot, Helter Skelter, Beatles secret message to Charlie Manson about the black/white revolution, and it was strange.
Was your connection to the Beatles something that spurred you on to follow the case? Manson’s methodology was driven by the White Album, and you once ghosted a music column by George Harrison.
I went on the first-ever Beatles trip tour in America, which was actually in August 1964. In February 1964, they’d come over and been on the Ed Sullivan Show. They went back to England and then they came back to San Francisco in August ’64, and my editor in London said, “Go out there, cover the tour, 35 cities in 32 days,” or some ridiculous timetable, “and also, we want you to write George Harrison’s column.” So I knew about the Beatles, and in those days, you could hang out with the Beatles. And I did. We ate with them, we drank with them, we played cards with them, we played Monopoly with them, we knew their thinking. And then when I saw this stuff about “Helter Skelter” was a call to revolution between blacks and whites, I went back again; I looked at it and thought, “This is a total load of rubbish.” And indeed, if you look at the lyrics of “Helter Skelter,” it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s a revolutionary song.
Knowing the Beatles, knowing their mindsets, I just thought it was ridiculous. And then I saw Paul McCartney a few years later and I asked him about it. And he also said the same thing. There were no secret lyrics. And John Lennon, of course, said people who look at the lyrics and think it’s to call people to stab people to death, ‘I mean, they are barmy,’ he said. That’s a slang British expression for crazy. They both said it was a load of old rubbish.
And Bugliosi’s later document he ended up calling “Helter Skelter.” People seem to give a lot of credit to his book; do you feel in any way it overshadowed yours?
I think Bugliosi’s book was a superb book, a brilliantly detailed book. Bugliosi, of course, had every single crime file on the Manson/Sharon Tate event at his fingertips in his office. And even today, I still think the Helter Skelter theory is a bit crackpot. And he went with it because the members of the family told him that was Manson’s theory. Bugliosi’s book, of course, is a tremendously well-detailed book, and I’m not casting aspersions on that. I’m just saying he went with that theory. Even his office told me that the theory of Helter Skelter they thought was a bit crazy, and if he went after that, the jury would think everybody was insane and acquit them. But of course they didn’t, because
Bugliosi really sold the whole thing incredibly well to the jury.
One other thing that didn’t help the defendants was their bizarre behavior during the trial. Manson stood up and pretended he was up on the cross, and the three girls stood up and did the same thing. So the jury could see, wow, whatever Manson does, they copy, and this must be the way they lived and the way they operated. So Bugliosi sold it well, but I still think, even today, the motive is a little bit odd.
He’s known as the main attorney, but one of the new chapters in your book chronicles the never-ending, revolving door of attorneys that floated in and out of the trial. Do you think that set a precedent in the legal system of big murder trials having big legal teams, attorneys coming in and out?
Yes, I do. But the thing is, the district attorney had two or three key attorneys. Manson and the girls had, over a period of the trial and before the trial, about 30 different attorneys because the same attorney couldn’t represent everyone. And many of the attorneys in L.A. were looking for space. They knew that this trial could make their careers. So they were hammering at the door, hammering at the cell door of Manson and trying to get him to hire them.
And of course, they ended up representing some of the other girls in the trial. So it was a revolving door.
The other thing about the attorneys was that many of the attorneys who represented the girls in the trial were not competent. Leslie Van Houten’s attorney, Ronald Hughes, was a total novice. He hadn’t even handled a drunk driving or misdemeanor event. That gives you some idea of the caliber of the attorneys, which was pretty poor for the most part.
There’s some local resonance, too. You mention about Van Houten’s attorney, his mysterious death near the Sespe Hot Springs, for example.
Yes, believe it or not, Manson and some of the family were arrested in Ventura County on minor charges, and in fact, they were booked into the Ventura County jail, but the charges were dropped, and they went on their way to do what we know they did. The thing with Ronald Hughes was, he went for a vacation to Ventura County, to Sespe, and never was seen alive again. What actually happened was, supposedly, he was caught by a flash flood. One of the district attorneys told me he’d heard Manson threaten Ronald Hughes the same weekend he disappeared. Even to this day, they do not know if Hughes was murdered or if it was an accident. It’s still up in the air. He never showed up again at the trial. Many months after he disappeared his decomposed body was found in Ventura County, and the coroner could not pin down the cause of death.
It’s the end of the ’60s, and the decade ended with events like the Manson murders and Altamont Speedway. What was the chain of events, socially, that led some of the counterculture to resort to violence in a decade associated mostly with the peace movement?
It’s a very bizarre situation, but there’s no doubt that the Manson/Sharon Tate murders ended that decade of love and flowers and peace and all that sort of stuff. What had happened was that Manson, who was a very canny convict, went to San Francisco, saw this love and peace and flowers, and hooked into the girls that way. Really, it was a period where everybody trusted everybody to a degree, the hippie movement, and then all of a sudden, you’re writing a finish to the ’60s with this horrible, gruesome murder. And it all sort of ended the whole era, that murder case did.
What kind of shockwaves did it send through the Southern California area? Were people locking their doors more? Was that level of trust people had diminished, knowing these killers were rampant?
I can’t tell you how terrified everybody was after the murders, first of all, of Sharon Tate, and then of the LaBiancas, because within hours, everybody thought, “We could be in our houses, and then one night somebody could come in and kill us all.” So there was an incredible run on guns. I remember Warren Beatty put out a $25,000 reward for the arrest. I was talking to Dennis Hopper a few days ago, and he said the night of the killings he and a bunch of friends were at the Daisy nightclub in Beverly Hills, and they were all going to go to Sharon Tate’s house for a party, but for some reason they didn’t. After the murders, he said, everybody was in a terrible panic. I mean, people thought, “Are we safe in our houses?” The frenzy of fear was so high that people just freaked out.
Did you ever interview Roman Polanski on how he felt? He subsequently fled to France years later and must have felt much of that fear himself.
First of all, as soon as he came back after his wife was murdered, and of course, she was two weeks away from delivering their son, he came back and everybody looked at him and thought, “Roman Polanski could be responsible for this.” Of course, he was terribly distraught and upset by that. And they all said, “Well, Polanski could be guilty because he made that movie Rosemary’s Baby about the devil fathering a baby,” [and] that he was responsible. He was furious. And many years later, I went to France to interview him, and even then, 25, 30 years later, it was greatly difficult and painful for him to talk about the murders. He’s married, he’s got a couple of young kids now, but he had great difficulty talking about it. And finally, at the end of our conversation, after he told me how awful those days were, he said, “Please, can we talk about something else?” So even 30, 35 years later, Polanski was scarred.
And Manson’s presence is still pretty prevalent, too. On your Web site and in your book you talk about the “Manson Industry.” To what extent do you think he still puts that cult influence to work and keeps himself in the public eye despite being incarcerated for so many decades?
Manson makes quite a bit of money selling photographs because people write to him and he sells them his pictures and he gets other inmates in jail to sign the autographs, of course, so another con operation. And a lot of young people don’t know him, don’t know the actual gruesomeness of the murders. So they write to him, they go on his Web site, a lot of rubbishy terminology and Charlie Manson thinking. Vincent Bugliosi told me that hundreds of people from all over the world write to him regularly. They want to get a letter back; maybe they’ll save it and sell it on eBay. But the trend, it’s grown with the Internet so that Manson today, people don’t know, in a way, why he’s in jail, but they write to him. And it’s rather a horrendous situation, but it exists.
The newest mug shot of Manson reveals that he has aged and he no longer has that crazed look anymore. It almost looks like he could pose little threat to society now. What are the chances of parole for him at this point in his life?
I think the chances of Manson getting out of jail in his lifetime are nil. But that picture of him which was released earlier this year was kind of freaky because I remember him looking the way he looked 30 years ago. And today he looks like an old geezer, but he’s still got the scarring on his forehead, the swastika. I don’t think he’s ever going to get out. I’ve spoken to prison authorities and they said, you know, he does run into a few problems in jail. He’s kept in a special area with 20 other prisoners, a special protection unit. And he has a Web site and a Twitter line, I believe. So he keeps busy.
Charles Manson is on Twitter now?
Yeah. I called up the jail and said, “Does he have a cell phone?” They said inmates in Corcoran Prison do not have cell phones. But then when I checked further, I found that in the State of California, in the last year, prison authorities confiscated 2,800 illegal cell phones. So, officially, he may not have a cell phone. But unofficially, he can buy it from somebody, and who knows who he has bought it from.
As we speak now, Susan Atkins has been denied a compassionate release even though she’s dying from terminal cancer. What about other members of Manson’s family who remain incarcerated, Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme? Could they be paroled and used as examples of successfully rehabilitated felons?
I do not think so. Susan Atkins is very ill, supposedly with a brain cancer that Teddy Kennedy has. Van Houten is the only one who might get out, but I don’t think so because there’s such resentment to them all. What happens is, they all do good deeds in prison; they’re all members of groups that help African Americans, Hispanics. Every group in prison they work for to build up a résumé of good deeds in jail in the hopes that they’re going to get out. At the moment, I cannot see it happening. Tex Watson also has a Web site. He shows religious sermons on the Web and, of course, found religion many years ago.
Looking back, 40 years later, where do the Tate/LaBianca killings stand in the U.S. criminal lexicon, considering all of the serial killings, mass murders, since?
Strangely enough, or maybe not strangely enough, they are some of the most notorious murders in the 20th century. You can look back at some of the other serial killers, Son of Sam. Could you say that O.J. Simpson was notorious because he was acquitted? (laughs) So, I think, looking back, they were certainly the most horrendous and incredible murders in U.S. history, and that’s going back quite a few years.
For more information on, and to order Ivor Davis’ “Five to Die,” visit either www.mansonbook.com or www.mansonfivetodie.com.