HUNTING CHARLES MANSON: THE QUEST FOR JUSTICE IN THE DAYS OF HELTER SKELTER
By Lis Wiehl with Caitlin Rother
Thomas Nelson, $29.99, 336 pages
Having read Los Angles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the Charles Manson trial, “Helter Skelter,” in 1974, I thought the case was closed on Manson. But then I read Jeff Guinn’s excellent biography, “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson,” (which I reviewed here in August of 2013).
And now I’m drawn once again to another book about Manson, who died in prison this past November. Lis Wiehl, a former prosecutor and legal commentator on Fox News and other networks, and Caitlin Rother, a true crime author and investigative reporter, look back on Manson’s life and crimes in “Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter.”
“In taking on the quest for justice in the tragedy that was the summer of 1969, I thought about what made Charles Manson do what he did,” Ms. Wiehl writes in the opening of the book. “Those killings changed American culture. People who didn’t have home alarms quickly bought as fancy a system as they could afford. Mothers began walking their children to school. And parents and children alike had trouble falling asleep at night. Charles Manson and his ‘children’ robbed America of its innocence.”
Ms. Wiehl goes on to note her appearance as the only reporter who attended the parole hearing of one of Manson’s followers, Charles “Tex” Watson, nearly 50 years after the horrendous murders. Despite her being raised in a law enforcement family and her own background in law enforcement, she, like many others, remained bewildered at why the murders occurred.
“The mystery is part of the reason behind this reexamination of arguably the most notorious crime in America history,” Ms. Wiehl explains.
“Hunting Charles Manson” covers Manson’s terrible childhood and his early incarceration. The book also covers how after being released from prison after seven years in the 1960s, the ex-con and aspiring musician employed hallucinogenic drugs and pop psychology he learned from books he read in prison to induce vulnerable young women and some young men to do his criminal bidding in California.
Setting up as a commune on the Spahn Movie Ranch, a site previously used by Western film and TV productions in the San Fernando Valley, Manson and his roughly 20-plus followers, whom Manson called his “children,” lived in a drug-induced fog and near squalor. From the ranch, Manson sent his followers off to dumpster-dive for discarded food, as well as to steal, scam and, eventually, to murder.
Manson used the drug-addled and promiscuous young girls to attract the attention of people in the music industry, such as Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and record producer Terry Melcher. But when he did not receive a music contract and he found he was no longer welcome at the homes of the music industry people, Manson felt betrayed and belittled.
Manson was teaching his followers his spacey ideas about a coming race war where blacks would kill the whites. He told his followers they were to hide out in the desert until blacks discovered that they unable to rule properly, which is when they would turn to Manson for leadership. He claimed to be the fifth Beatle and said the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” described the coming race war.
“Hunting Charles Manson” explains what led up to the death of pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski, and the other victims. The book also describes in detail the horrific murders.
“According to Tex, Charlie took him aside and told him to take the girls to kill people on Cielo Drive, a narrow road that wound through the secluded, woodsy neighborhood of Benedict Canyon on the west side of Los Angeles,” Ms. Wiehl writes. “Go up to the house where Terry Melcher used to live. Kill them, cut them up, pull out their eyes and hang them on the mirrors,” Charlie said, his dark, hypnotic eyes flashing. “As gruesome as you can.”
“Hunting Charles Manson” also covers the flawed police investigation and the various trials, which Manson and his followers turned into carnivals. Manson first entered the courtroom with an “X” carved into his forehead, just above the bridge of his nose.
In Vincent Bugliosi’s opening statement, he asked the jurors what kind of diabolical mind would contemplate or conceive of the seven murders.
“We expect the evidence at this trial to answer that question and show the defendant Charles Manson owned that diabolical mind. Charles Manson, who, the evidence will show, at times has had the infinite humility, as it were, to refer to himself as Jesus Christ.”
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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