Charles Manson, cult leader and killer, dead at 83

Notorious cult leader Charles Manson, who had been imprisoned in California since being convicted of orchestrating the slayings of actress Sharon Tate and six others in the summer of 1969, has died at age 83.

Imprisoned in California for decades for orchestrating murders of actress Sharon Tate, others

Charles Manson was arraigned in Los Angeles on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with killing of actress Sharon Tate and others in late 1969. (The Associated Press)

Charles Manson, the wild-eyed and diminutive cult leader convicted of orchestrating the gruesome slayings committed by his followers of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and eight others in the summer of 1969, has died.

Manson was 83. He had been in custody for what came to be known as the Tate-LaBianca murders since October 1969, most recently at California's Corcoran State Prison. 

Manson's last parole eligibility was April 4, 2012. (California Department of Corrections/Associated Press)

He died of natural causes at Kern County hospital, according to a California Department of Corrections statement.

While other serial killers were more prolific, Manson fascinated and horrified the public for his ability to influence others to do his murderous bidding. Several Manson Family members came from stable upbringings, homecoming queens and high school sports stars among them.

'I really believed he was Jesus'

He was able to prey upon a group of younger followers at a particular point in time when thousands were searching for answers and an unconventional life in the so-called Age of Aquarius.

"I think at one point I really believed he was Jesus Christ," Leslie Van Houten said in a 1977 interview with ABC News.

Former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten is seen during a hearing before the California Board of Parole Hearings at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif., last year. She was part of the so-called Manson Family. (Nick Ut/Associated Press)

Manson also remained relevant due to good fortune. The gas chamber loomed after his conviction but California would soon rule all death penalties cruel and unusual punishment. Life without parole didn't exist in California, so 12 Manson parole hearings would ensue, many of them descending into absurd theatre.

With a swastika tattoo between his eyes, the inmate also sat down for a series of memorable televised interviews, his motor-mouthed answers often nonsensical, or peppered with enigmatic riddles.

'You got a prison in your mind?'

He was asked in 1988 by Geraldo Rivera about the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

"What prison? You got a prison in your mind?" he responded. "You see what I'm saying, you're in prison, son. You're the one that's in jail because you think there is such a thing as prison."

Manson always denied ordering the murders. Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Tex Watson acted of their own accord, he said.

"If I wanted anyone killed, I'd kill them myself," he said at a 1978 parole hearing.

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, left to right, walk to a court hearing. The three were among various members of Manson's so-called family. (The Associated Press)

The most notorious of those murders occurred Aug. 9, 1969, when Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, was killed in her Bel Air home along with four others. Grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and wife Rosemary were slain in their home across town the next night.

'Death to Pigs'

They were variously bound, shot and stabbed dozens of times. Slogans and words were smeared in blood nearby — "Pig" at the 10050 Cielo Drive house, "Death to Pigs" and the misspelled "Healter Skelter" at the LaBianca scene.

Manson, 34, had already been in custody for two months for unrelated crimes — booked under the name: Manson, Charles M., aka Jesus Christ, God — when he was indicted for the murders. 

Charles Manson: quick timeline of infamous events

5 years ago
Duration 0:44
Recounting the Tate-LaBianca murders in October, 1969

Investigators had been skeptical Manson could exert such influence over about two-dozen followers. Just five-foot-two, he was found cowering inside a cupboard when apprehended.

Also, his considerable rap sheet was mostly characterized by non-violent crimes.

Manson, in an undated photo from one of his parole hearings, applied for parole many times but was always turned down. (The Associated Press)

Manson was born in Cincinnati on Nov. 12, 1934, to a 16-year-old girl who drifted in and out of crime and a father who was never in the picture. By 13, he had committed an armed robbery and was already exhibiting signs of narcissism and persecution complex, according to juvenile reports obtained years later. Loquacious but illiterate, guitar playing was about his only passion.

Manson made few attempts at honest work in early adulthood, with two failed marriages and at least one child fathered along the way. His crimes included theft, passing bad cheques and pimping.

Obsessed with The Beatles

Behind bars from 1960 until March 1967, he became obsessed with The Beatles, a fellow inmate later said. According to Helter Skelter, the book written by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the criminal begged not to be released.

He met Mary Brunner upon release in San Francisco, with whom he eventually fathered a child, and his circle grew. He found an audience with a unique rap that blended elements of streetwise know-how, Dale Carnegie teachings, Scientology and mysticism.

Ritualistic drug use, including hallucinogens LSD and mescaline, polyamorous sex and criminal activity bound the group as it increased in size. They squatted wherever they could, often in the California desert.

Manson played mind games with the group, at times nurturing and at other times doling out discipline. He performed hypnotic songs, claimed he was a messiah and railed about a looming race war called Helter Skelter — named after the song on The Beatles' so-called White Album.

Night of carnage

In a 1989 CNN interview, former Family member Paul Watkins, who left the group before the murders began, tried to explain how the "ethical and moral deterioration" took place.

"The group is cut off from communication with the outside world and their families and the leader begins to interpret reality to the members of the group, their perception of reality, their perception of themselves begins to change," he said.

Soon after Manson's attempts to launch a music career were rebuffed by industry people he had met, and for reasons that have been widely debated, the murders commenced.

Along with Tate, hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and Polanski friend Wojciech Frykowski were killed on the first night of carnage. Steven Parent, 18 and unconnected to the rest, was fatally shot outside the residence.

Trials were a spectacle

The LaBianca killings were investigated separately by the LAPD, but their connection was confirmed four months later.

Tate, married to director Roman Polanski, was more than eight months pregnant when she was found dead in August 1969 along with four others in her Bel Air home. (William Milsom/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The subsequent trials were a spectacle. Manson Family members not in jail camped out at court in support of the defendants. Manson lunged toward the judge once and tried to intimidate Bugliosi, while Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten sang in the hallways, held hands and shaved their heads.

Adding to the sense of menace, Van Houten's first attorney went missing. (His body was found as the trial was winding up; opinions vary as to whether it was a camping mishap or nefarious.)

The four were convicted in January 1971, with Watson later tried separately and convicted.

Manson was also among those convicted for the 1969 murders of musician Gary Hinman and stuntman Donald Shea.

Alluring to some

Despite all this, he held an allure for some. He was referred to as a "cool dude" by one street interview subject in the 1973 documentary Manson, with others suggesting he was framed. 

Manson T-shirts were sold in underground shops for years after the killings while Guns 'n' Roses recorded one of his songs. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails chose to live in the Cielo Drive house and set up a recording studio there, and he was the source for half of Marilyn Manson's stage name.

There were two TV-movie versions based on Helter Skelter the book, which the New York Times deemed the best-selling true crime book ever upon Bugliosi's death. In addition to countless documentaries, the murders featured in the series Aquarius with David Duchovny, while Canadian director Mary Harron has been attached to an upcoming Manson movie.

Much has been written and broadcast over the years positing that the Manson murders also killed the hippie dream. The opinion ignores the fact that communes, alternative religions and cults — mostly peaceful groups — remained popular well into the 1970s; one survey of experts in 1978 put the number of cults then in the thousands.

Manson Family carried on

Even the Manson Family, as it were, carried on for a time. A few members tried to hijack a plane in a futile attempt to free their imprisoned friends, while Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme pointed a gun towards U.S. President Gerald Ford, earning a decades-long prison term.

As recently as 2008, investigators descended on Barker Ranch, where the Family once hunkered down, to pursue leads into the disappearance of two hitchhikers that year. No new evidence was announced publicly.

Five Family members or associates remain imprisoned to this day, while Atkins died of cancer in 2009.

California prison officials were loath to discuss details, but it was widely believed Manson received an uncommon amount of mail from the outside.

As recently as 2014, one 26-year-old woman who struck up a correspondence was briefly engaged to marry Manson.

Vincent Bugliosi talks about Charles Manson

41 years ago
Duration 1:14
In this Nov. 24, 1981 interview, Vincent Bugliosi talks to the CBC's Hana Gartner about his impressions from working on the prosecution of Charles Manson.

With files from The Associated Press