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Who Killed Sharon Tate? How The Manson Murders Went Down

Culture | July 26, 2019

Left: Sharon Tate circa 1968. Right: Charles 'Tex' Watson, one of the Manson Family members involved in Tate's murder. Sources: Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons

The Tate-LaBianca murders, which claimed the lives of Sharon Tate and six others, are a gruesome crime inextricably linked to Charles Manson and the end of the 1960s. In the early hours of August 9, 1969, Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, and her friends became the victims of the Manson Family, a cult lead by the depraved and desperate Manson.

The murders were the product of a strange Hollywood ecosystem where wannabe bad boys palled around with legitimate psychopaths in order to gain credibility. Tate’s death has been dramatized and sensationalized time and time again in everything from TV shows to the 2019 release Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood by director Quentin Tarantino. But the story of who actually killed Sharon Tate has more detail and intricacies than can be contained in one film. 

Before he was a cult leader, Manson wanted to be famous

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The story of Manson’s attempt to take over the Hollywood music scene of the 1960s is well trod territory, and the early chapters set up a standard rags to riches story. In the summer of 1968, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson picked up a pair of young hitchhikers, Patricia Krenwinkel and and Ella Jo Bailey, members of the Manson Family, and dropped them off after taking them home for “milk and cookies.”

After meeting the girls again, Wilson was introduced to Manson at a party at his own home in the Pacific Palisades. Manson reportedly knelt down and kissed the feet of the Beach Boys drummer, and for the next few months the two were inseparable. Manson leeched off Wilson’s fame while Wilson slept with the Manson girls. They attempted to collaborate on music, and Wilson even introduced Manson to Terry Melcher, a the producer for The Byrds.

When Manson showed that he was on a cult leader trip, that he was more interested in ripping apart the world that Wilson belonged to, the drummer split. He distanced himself from Manson and never saw him again. Melcher tried to work with Manson on a demo, but Manson was too hard to deal with and unwilling to compromise. Like Wilson, Melcher left Manson behind after a while.

Melcher and Wilson aren’t responsible for the unspeakable violence that occurred on Cielo Drive -- they only gave Manson a glimmer of hope that he could attain the rock god status that he so desperately wanted. Manson didn’t need Wilson and Melcher to set him off; with his temper, he would have found a way to ruin whatever shot he had regardless of the celebrity who offered to lend him a hand. Wilson and Melcher were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. After Manson’s falling out with his only connections to the rarified air of Hollywood stardom, he left the city and followed a depraved path to brutality. 

The Manson cult lived on an old film set

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After being kicked out of Wilson’s house, the Manson family moved to Spahn Ranch, named for its owner, the 80-year-old George Spahn. It’s here that Manson’s group coalesced from a group of acid-gobbling hippies into a militant unit of former flower children who were ready to jumpstart a race war inspired by The Beatles' “White Album.” Unlike the rest of the Bohemians in Southern California, the Manson Family wanted to help the world descend into chaos so they could rebuild it in Charlie’s image.

It’s believed that the Family was living on Spahn Ranch long before its owner knew about their presence. Once a popular set for western films, the Ranch was now a dilapidated skeleton of its former self by the late '60s, acting as a set for B-movies. After a while the Manson Family made themselves known when Lynne “Squeaky” Fromme approached George and spun a yarn about being stranded after their car broke down.

To keep their octogenarian landlord happy Fromme became Spahn’s primary caretaker, cooking and cleaning for him as well as making sure he stayed satisfied. 

Manson thought 'The White Album' held the secret to Helter Skelter

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Released in November 1968, The Beatles (also known as “The White Album”) isn’t just a seminal work by the world’s biggest rock group, it was the work of four separate artists following their muses without an editor. Each song belonged to a different member, making a fractured, albeit brilliant, masterpiece. Manson didn’t care about that. To him, the album was filled with secret codes that only he could decipher.

Manson believed that a particular set of songs were messages to him and his family. He was under the impression that The Beatles were not only sending the Family messages, but that the group was waiting for a response. Manson said that the songs “Piggies” and “Rocky Raccoon” were about the cult’s fear of an impending race war, and that “Honey Pie” was a message to Charlie that he needed to write his own album before meeting The Beatles in London.

The secret messages didn’t end there, “Blackbird” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” both contained hidden stories about the black population rising up and killing everyone, while “Sexy Sadie” was simply about Susan Atkins and, well, how sexy she was. The most important song on the album, according to Manson, was “Helter Skelter.” This song provided the cult with instructions for finding a deep hole in the desert where they could hide until a race war ended. In Manson's interpretation, the song clearly said that the Family should hide in the hole until the race war ended so they could repopulate the Earth with their children.

It’s unclear whether, and unlikely that, Manson actually believed all of this, but his followers were definitely into it. By February 1969 everyone on Spahn Ranch was listening to the White Album nonstop and getting ready for desert survival.

Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, and Jay Sebring were in a love triangle while the Manson family were preparing to go to war

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Born in Houston, Texas, Sharon Tate was a military brat who was the ideal of beauty in the 1960s. After getting a taste of life on a film set in her teens she struck out the Hollywood at the age of 18 and scored an agent immediately. While she made small appearances on Green Acres and Mr. Ed she was also dating Jay Sebring, who would later serve as the inspiration behind Warren Beatty’s Shampoo.

Sebring was a hairstylist to the stars, and in the 1960s he practically reinvented the way men thought about taking care of their hair. With his shop, Seabring International, he reshaped the idea of what a haircut could be while partying hard and getting rich.

When Tate went to England to film Eye of the Devil she was introduced to Roman Polanski, with whom she began an on-and-off relationship. It was only after Sebring made a trip to England to meet Polanski in a showdown of the alpha males that Tate and the director solidified their relationship. Sebring and Tate remained friends, so much so that he stayed with the pregnant Tate in Los Angeles during a sweltering August in 1969. 

The death of a drug dealer jump started Helter Skelter

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As Manson prepared for Helter Skelter, he and the family got involved with a biker group known as the Straight Satans, an outlaw gang who liked to party with Manson because of his open ways with his drugs and his women. But after Manson bought a batch of speed from his dealer, Gary Hinman, and sold it to the Straight Satans for a grand, their relationship took a turn for the worse.

The Satans claimed that the drugs were bad and they wanted their money back. Hinman disagreed. He felt that the drugs were top notch, but Manson knew that if he went to war with the Satans that he’d lose big time. So he sent his follower Bobby Beausoleil to Hinman’s place to get his money back and to extract interest. By all accounts Bobby wasn’t a violent guy, but he was in the thrall of Manson so he did what he was told.

After a mutli-hour standoff with Hinman, he and Beausoleil fought over a gun before Hinman lost control of the piece. With his back against the wall he agreed to sign over the titles for his two automobiles, one of which was a dented Volkswagen van. After that Manson told Beausoleil to “handle” Hinman, but he didn’t want to hurt the dealer after the ordeal they’d been through. Still, Beausoleil ended up stabbing Hinman in the chest twice in order to keep the dealer from talking to the police.

Beausoleil tried to make it look like Hinman’s death was political. He threw Marxist papers across the floor, drew a paw mark on the door in blood and wrote “political piggy” on the wall. 

Manson decided to go on a crime spree to get Bobby Beausoleil out of jail 

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It’s likely that the deaths of Sharon Tate and her friends on Cielo Drive never would have occurred had Bobby Beausoleil not fallen asleep in Gary Hinman’s Fiat on the side of the 101 near San Luis Obispo and Atascadero. When Manson got word on August 5 that the police picked up Beausoleil he figured it was only a matter of time before his follower spilled his guts about the Hinman murder, in which Manson had played an integral part.

Someone in the Family - it’s not clear whether it was actually Manson - said that they should commit copycat crimes to make it look like Hinman’s killer was still on the loose, freeing Beausoleil and throwing heat off the cult. In the days before the Tate murders Helter Skelter was hatched in the open air of Spahn Ranch.

The idea, facilitated by cheap speed and hallucinogenics, was to launch a crime wave across the city that made it look as if the Black Panthers were starting a race war. 

On August 8, 1969 Sharon Tate went to dinner at El Coyote while Manson set his plan in motion

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August in Los Angeles can cook your brain. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the hills or the valley, the 100 degree temperatures can drive everyone a little crazy. After the murders at Cielo Drive, almost every celebrity in Hollywood claimed to be invited to dinner with Sharon Tate on August 8. Jacqueline Susann and Mama Cass claim to have turned down invitations to meet at El Coyote, while producer Robert Evans says that he skipped out because he was stuck in an editing suite.

After dinner, Tate retired to her home on 1050 Cielo Drive at around 10pm with Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger (heir to the Folger’s Coffee fortune) and Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail's boyfriend.

At the same time Manson talked Watson into driving to Terry Melcher’s house to start trouble. No one knew that Sharon Tate was living in the house in Cielo Drive, and it’s likely that while they had a vague idea that famous people were there, that they still assumed Melcher was living in the home. With a head full of drugs, Tex, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krinwinkle, and Linda Kasabian dressed in black, grabbed their knives, and were told to write “witchy things” on the walls of Melcher’s home after taking all the money in they could find. They got in their car and drove to Benedict Canyon. 

The Manson Family killed Tate and her friends without mercy

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Tex and the members of the family showed up at 1050 Cielo Drive just after midnight on August 9, 1969. Tex climbed the telephone pole and cut the phone wires to give them as much time as possible in the house. When he came down Tex told the girls that they were going to kill everyone in the house, starting with whoever was coming out of the driveway.

Steve Parent was just a kid who was at the house to talk to the groundskeeper. Watson stopped Parent as he tried to exit the driveway and shot him four times. Then Tex crawled through a window and let the rest of the girls in in the front of the house while Kasabian stood at the gate as a lookout.

Frykowski woke up to find the group in the home. It took him a moment to figure out what was happening, and when he asked why Watson was torturing him he said, “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business.” As Watson assaulted Frykowski in the living room Atkins rounded up everyone in the house - Folger, Sebring, and a very pregnant Sharon Tate - where the cult members explained that they were going to kill all of them after taking their money.

The innocents in Cielo Drive only managed to scrounge together about $70 before the cult members began their massacre. Sebring was shot and stabbed in front of everyone. Frykowski tried to escape but Watson beat him with a pan and stabbed him to death on the front lawn. Folger was brought down shortly afterwards. In his autobiography Watson wrote of that night that his arm was “like a machine, at one with the blade.”

Susan Atkins says that Tate was the last person to go, that she begged and pleaded to be left alive for no other reason than for the survival of her unborn child. Atkins, Krinwinkle, and Watson each took turns in the violent assault that ended Tate’s life. Before they left the home Atkins dipped a towel in Sharon’s blood and used it to write the word “Pig” on the front door.

The Tate murders were only the beginning of the Manson Family crime spree

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After the murders, Watson and the girls drove back to Spahn Ranch where they presented Manson with the $70, claiming that Helter Skelter was underway. Manson, a petty thief at heart, wasn’t pleased with the small amount of cash that the group had stolen so he drove back to the house on Cielo Drive to make sure everything looked right and to see if he could find any more cash.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Manson was heartless at the scene of the crime. He draped an American flag near Tate’s body and brought a stray pair of eyeglasses to the house to leave as “evidence” that somehow tied Tate’s death to the Hinman murder, but he forgot to take any more valuables from the home.

Later that morning, a maid for the house arrived and found Manson’s victims. She called the police and the investigation was underway. News of the slaying spread throughout Los Angeles, but much to Manson’s chagrin no one pinned the crime on the Black Panthers. A race war didn’t magically spring from the ground. He decided that they hadn’t done enough.

That night he brought Watson, Atkins, Krinwinkle, and Kasabian to Waverly Drive in Los Feliz where they murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. As Manson left the family members to do his dirty work, Watson and the girls carried out crimes that were just as depraved as the night before. This time they wrote “Rise,” “Death to Pigs,” and “Healter Skelter” in the couple’s blood on the walls and refrigerator.

While this was happening, Manson drove to a neighborhood near Sylmar where they dumped Rosemary LaBianca’s purse out and he bought everyone milkshakes. Linda Kasabian was told to kill an actor she knew near Venice. She didn’t follow through with the murder, instead burying the gun on the beach and hitchhiking home.

Manson, believing that the war was on, moved his family out to Barker Ranch in Death Valley, where they lived until they were finally arrested two months later. 

Tags: 1960s News | 1969 | Charles Manson | Crime in the 1960s | Manson Family | Sharon Tate

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.