Sharon Tate, Charles Manson
Sharon Tate (left). Charles Manson (right). Photo credit: Lily Laurent / Flickr and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / Wikimedia

The stunning results of a 20-year investigation into Charles Manson, the CIA, corrupt prosecutors, and the secret history of the Sixties.

Joan Didion famously said that the Sixties ended on August 9, 1969, with the murders of Sharon Tate and six others at the hands of the so-called Manson Family. For 50 years, the official narrative has held that the murders were initiated by Manson to appear as if they were committed by the Black Panthers with the goal of starting a race war. That was prosecutor Vince Bugliosi’s theory of the case. Bugliosi argued at trial that Manson had gotten this idea of “Helter Skelter” from a Beatles song.

That has remained the conventional wisdom — until now. Since it was first published, Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter has never gone out of print. It now appears that this version of the story may be just as fanciful as Quentin Tarantino’s fictional version, in his new hit film Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood.

In 1999, investigative journalist Tom O’Neill was commissioned to write a story for what was then Premiere magazine, marking the 30th anniversary of the Tate/LaBianca murders. Thus began for O’Neill a 20-year odyssey into the dark world of Charles Manson.

During his journey he has uncovered new revelations about the murders, about Manson, about a rogues’ gallery of cops, corrupt and violent prosecutors, drug dealers, celebrities, clandestine government drug researchers, secret agents, and a cover-up that points strongly to the FBI and the CIA.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with O’Neill about his investigation, as laid out in his new book CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. 

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Joan Didion famously said that, “The 60s ended 50 years ago today, when the young followers of Charles Manson murdered seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, making Manson one of history’s most infamous criminals.”

Jeff Schechtman: 20 years ago, investigative reporter Tom O’Neill received an assignment to take a look at the Manson murders 30 years after the fact. Thus began a two-decade journey into the heart of darkness of Charles Manson. What he found completely upends what has come to be the official narrative of Helter Skelter, put forth by the prosecutor at the time, Vincent Bugliosi. Instead, O’Neill takes us on a journey that has led him to dishonest celebrities, shadowy CIA mind control experiments, prosecutorial misconduct, corrupt cops and enough evidence to make us all rethink what had been a settled story in criminal history.

Jeff Schechtman: This 20-year journey is the story that Tom O’Neill meticulously tells in his long-awaited book Chaos. It is my pleasure to welcome Tom O’Neill here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

Tom O’Neill: Oh, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jeff Schechtman: A 20-year journey that began back in 1999. Talk a little bit about how you first entered this world that you spent 20 years in.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah. Well, I had been called by an editor I worked with at a different magazine than originally assigned this story. I believe it was March ’99. She asked me to do a story commemorating what was then going to be the 30th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family for Premiere Magazine, which went out of business a few years later.

Tom O’Neill: I didn’t want to do it. I had never read the book. I wasn’t interested in Manson or that type of case or crime story, but I needed the job and she wanted me to do it. She and I had a good history of working together at another magazine for about 10 years. I did say, “What can I say about this story that hasn’t been said a million times before?” And she said, “You’ll find an angle.” And, sure enough, I did, but it didn’t take the three months that it was originally supposed to take. It took about 20 years of my life, unfortunately. But I’m pretty happy with the outcome. I’m not sure it was worth it, but definitely not going to look back and regret doing it.

Jeff Schechtman: And it really started to unravel when you had an early conversation with Vince Bugliosi, who at that point you had a good relationship with in that initial conversation.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah. I mean, the very first time we met was April of ’99, so about a month after I got the assignment. He very graciously invited me to his home in Pasadena. We sat at his kitchen table, had coffee and cookies and talked. Then, we went out to lunch. Then, he gave me a tour of some of the locations associated with the crimes, and went back to his house and talked well into the late afternoon. Towards the end of our, what I believe was about six hours together, I realized, even though he had talked almost nonstop for six hours and was very generous with his time, he hadn’t really told me anything at all that he hadn’t told a million other reporters and written in his own book. That was my biggest fear as a journalist who wants to write something new and interesting about an old story.

Tom O’Neill: So I did what we called a “hail Mary” pass in journalism, which is, I asked him if there’s anything he could tell me not for attribution or off the record that could provide me with new insight into this, maybe a new angle, anything fresh that he had known about for years but had never shared. You never know how they’re going to answer. He sure enough seemed to struggle with that for a minute or two. Then, he finally just said, “Turn it off. Turn it off.” He told me something that was pretty shocking, and I wasn’t … the deal was I wasn’t allowed to attribute it to him.

Tom O’Neill: That kind of sent me off on a wild goose chase. It later does become part of the record because … Well, I’m jumping ahead of myself, but by 2006, when I pretty much conclusively had been able to prove that he had suborned perjury in the case, withheld evidence from the defense, done a lot of untoward things and fabricated a lot of the narrative during the prosecution and in his book Helter Skelter, we were, as he put it, adversaries at that point. When we met again six years later at his house, the same place, for about the same amount of time, it was a very different candor to the meeting. There was a lot of shouting and screaming and cursing and threatening. After the meeting, he sent a … I think it was 32 or 33-page single-spaced letter to my publisher at the time, Penguin Press, threatening to basically sue the company and me for everything we owned. He said it would be the most expensive lawsuit in the history of publishing. Vince had a way of talking in superlatives.

Tom O’Neill: In that letter, he described what he told me off the record six years earlier, which, as the lawyers told me, “If he’s putting this in legal letters to us, it’s no longer between you and him. So if you want to use it, you can.” So you’ll see what it is in the book. It’s kind of complicated to explain without providing context. But that was really where the ball of yarn started to unravel, as early as a month into my investigation. It took me into a lot of dirty, dark alleys, some dead ends, some not dead ends.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that overlays the whole thing is finding out more and more about what was going on with Manson, from the time that he got out of jail, out of federal prison in ’67. Talk a little bit about that. Take us back there.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah, yeah. Well, he was released in March of ’67 from Terminal Island, which is an island prison off of the coast of Long Beach in Los Angeles County. He immediately violated his parole. He went right up to the Bay Area and just turned up at the parole office there to announce that he was not going to live in Los Angeles, despite his orders from the prisons, and that whether they liked it or not, he was staying in San Francisco. I think Berkeley at the time was his first residence.

Tom O’Neill: Rather than immediately violate him and send him back to prison like they would any other prisoner, they didn’t. Vince Bugliosi kept that out of the trial and out of Helter Skelter. He said that he went there with permission, but I’ve got documents showing that it was the opposite of that. He was assigned to a parole officer named Roger Smith, who was a researcher getting his … I think it was his master’s or PhD at Berkeley School of Criminology. His special field of study was violence and drugs and gangs, mostly how gangs form, why some youths were more susceptible to becoming parts of gangs and becoming parts of violent gangs, and how drugs used by gang people kind of created even more violence. He was also involved with something called the San Francisco Project, which was a new federal parole and probation study about recidivism to see how differing treatments of paroled or probated prisoners was affected by their relationship with their probation or parole officer. So it was a special study that would have usually entailed a much closer observation and recordkeeping of a parole client.

Tom O’Neill: With Manson, what you’ll find out in the book and what I got through a very lengthy Freedom of Information Act process with the federal bureau prisons, I got his records of his parole during those two years. In that first year in particular, he was arrested much more than had ever been reported before, and was constantly not only relieved without charges, but not violated, you know, any of these charges including statutory rape, contributing to the delinquency of minors, narcotic possessions, et cetera, et cetera, grand theft auto, normally would send a person right back to prison. You don’t even need to have a trial for that kind of violation. But Manson had immunity from that. Roger Smith had him reporting for his parole appointments, his weekly appointments at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in the summer of ’67, where he was also preparing a study on amphetamines and communes in the youth of the Haight Ashbury during the Summer of Love.

Tom O’Neill: So things… That mysterious year that Manson kind of transformed from this unremarkable federal parolee who could barely read or write, into the Manson we know today, or knew until he passed away as this kind of cult leader who had this charisma and magnetism and ability to get people to do whatever he wanted them to do, including kill complete strangers just because they were told to. That year was pretty much ignored by Bugliosi in Helter Skelter. I was wondering what happened that first year. So you’ll see I did a deep dive into Manson’s life in San Francisco and in the Bay Area in ’67 through early ’68. Well, he left there about May of ’68 and went down to Los Angeles. That’s a very important period in the life of him and his group and his followers. I think there was a reason Vince chose not to write about that. I think he gave it a page and a half in his otherwise pretty thorough account of the history of the Manson family.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the other odd things was that Roger Smith, the parole officer in this case, initially had a whole bunch of parolees that reported to him, but by the end he only had Manson. What was that about?

Tom O’Neill: Again, that’s something I can only speculate about, but he and the other people who were in the vicinity who saw Manson coming into the clinic, not just on a weekly basis to visit Roger on Roger’s orders, Roger Smith, but also because the girls were going there for treatment for STDs and pregnancy issues.

Tom O’Neill: By the end of ’67, early ’68, Manson was Roger Smith’s only parole client. Roger had a conflict of interest, because not only was he a criminologist, but he was doing drug research and exposing Manson to a lot of elements of society that as a parole officer he should have monitored more closely.

Tom O’Neill: I try not to indict him of anything, Roger Smith, but I show what I found that was very unusual and extraordinary, and let the readers make their own conclusions about what Roger might have really been up to during the period he was supervising Manson’s parole or not supervising.

Jeff Schechtman: Two other characters that play a significant role in this story are a guy named David Smith and another guy named Jolly West. Tell us who they were and the role they played.

Tom O’Neill: Well, David Smith was no relation to Roger Smith. He founded the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. He was also a drug researcher of pretty much… well, at least state-renowned. Everybody knew him in San Francisco and California by ’67 when he opened the clinic. He anticipated this big influx of youth, of kids who were migrating to San Francisco to live and experience LSD and free love and the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. It was either a beautiful time, depending on how you look at it, or a pretty dark and dangerous time. Because, for instance, at David Smith’s clinic, which he opened and raised money for, just as he said in all his early media interviews, it was just to give free medical treatment to these kids who otherwise wouldn’t get it.

Tom O’Neill: But what he didn’t tell was he was also researching the kids and keeping records of their behavior, their drug use, and sharing that with the federal government who were giving him grants, money to do these studies. One of the people who did the studies that summer and came there also right… well, he actually was on sabbatical from the University of Oklahoma, was Jolly West, Dr. Louis Jolyon West, who was a psychiatric researcher from Oklahoma who took a sabbatical in ’66, went to Stanford to study. He was never really clear about what he was studying there. He just was very vague and said he was going to write a book about LSD and its influence on youth. He went to the clinic and David Smith gave him an office in June of ’67 to recruit “hippies” to study for his LSD research.

Tom O’Neill: In later years, in ’77, he was identified by Seymour Hersh, a kind of groundbreaking New York Times journalist… in ’77, Seymour Hersh wrote a cover story [for] the New York Times, identifying Jolly West as one of six subcontractor researchers of the MKUltra Program, which was a CIA secret research project to create what’s popularly known as Manchurian Candidates, which are people who, through their unwitting… let’s just say without their knowledge are programmed to kill, to become basically hypno-programmed assassins. West was part of that project. Well, he denied it in ’77. He said he’d been approached by the CIA and refused to work for them and said he would never test LSD or use LSD on humans because it was dangerous and too unpredictable.

Tom O’Neill: He died in ’99, and through a long process I got access to his personal papers and found that he actually not only was a part of MKUltra, but he wrote the blueprint for how they were going to operate and hide their research; that it was going to be conducted at prisons and universities and psychiatric hospitals and in the general population. You’ll see in the book I have a lot of those documents… well, a few of them reproduced in the photo section. Then I have a chapter or two on them. I also have a website for the book on Instagram and Facebook if you just Google my name and “Chaos of Manson” and then Facebook or Instagram, you’ll get to the site. I’m trying to get all the documents scanned and up there so people who don’t have the book or just are interested in the story and don’t want to spend the money on the book can at least look at the stuff I found and see all the proof of the crazy stuff I’m talking about and writing about in the book.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about Manson when he gets to Los Angeles.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah, well, he penetrated the rock ‘n’ roll scene, because two of the girls are picked up hitchhiking by Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys, who was kind of the wild Beach Boy, you know, the one that was the real extrovert, the best-looking of them. According to legend, he was the only actual Wilson brother in the band who could surf, and he kind of was a fearless guy. He picked up two of the girls hitchhiking, brought them home, did what he did with them, and they went back to the Spahn Ranch, which was a kind of broken-down western movie ranch about 45 minutes outside of LA in Chatsworth.

Tom O’Neill: The girls went back there, told Manson about their experience with this rock ‘n’ roll guy. The girls said they weren’t really sure who he was, but Manson knew. So I think within a day or two days when Wilson was recording, he came home late at night from the recording studio and found the Manson family living in his house. Charlie came out and kissed his feet, welcomed him into his own home. And Wilson, rather than throwing them all out or calling the police, let them stay there for about three months. It was the summer of ’68. It was like an ongoing orgy LSD party with him and the girls, and he brought lots of his friends in there.

Tom O’Neill: One of them was Terry Melcher, who’s Doris Day’s son. Doris Day’s son Terry had a… in the official version, a fleeting kind of couple of encounters with Manson that ended well before the murders. But what I found was a record of documents in Bugliosi’s own handwriting showing that Melcher had a much more extensive involvement with the family that actually postdated the murders, continued after the murders, and included a visit out to Death Valley by Melcher. This was another thing that Vince covered up from the jury and from the readers of his book. It’s something that… some of the information I brought first to Melcher to get a comment. You’ll see in the book his reaction, which wasn’t too pleasant. Then, I brought the same information to Vince in 2006. Both of them actually threatened to sue me and do all kinds of terrible things to me if I published this.

Tom O’Neill: I think it’s a pretty interesting news story. It’s an alternative history that I think is documented … I only put in the book what I can document and what I found in corroborating papers at the DA’s files, the sheriff’s files, and the police files in Los Angeles. I got access to these papers and documents from that period that no other journalist had ever seen before me or, as far as I know, since I’ve been there.

Jeff Schechtman: And we should point out it was Terry Melcher that was living at the house on Cielo Drive where the murders later took place, and was living there with his girlfriend, Candice Bergen.

Tom O’Neill: Well, he moved in in ’66 with Mark Lindsay, who was the lead singer of Paul Revere and the Raiders. Melcher produced their records. When Terry got serious with Candy Bergen in ’67, Mark Lindsay moved out and Candice moved in. They lived there until they abruptly left the house in the first couple days of January 1969. Again, that’s another episode of this history that was covered up by Bugliosi and some law enforcement to make it seem like they just innocently decided to leave. And you find out it was very different than that.

Jeff Schechtman: And Terry Melcher testified at the trial.

Tom O’Neill: He testified not only at the Tate-LaBianca trial, but he testified at Tex Watson’s trial, too, and also at Leslie Van Houten’s retrial. She was convicted in just the LaBianca murders, but she was retried on a technicality. Her lawyer had disappeared right before the closing argument phase and was later found dead. She got a new lawyer just for the end of the trial. I guess a judge ruled that she deserved a new trial with a different jury and a different attorney, but she was convicted. Actually, it was two new trials. The first one I believe ended in a hung jury, and then they tried her again. But she’s now… she and Patricia Krenwinkel are the longest-serving women prisoners in the state of California, maybe even in the nation. I’m not sure. But the two of them have been in jail and prison since the fall of 1969.

Jeff Schechtman: And you found out quite a lot about the house and what had gone on there and its history from the guy that owned the house, who was an interesting character, this Rudi Altobelli. Tell us about him.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah, again, that’s what I guess sometimes the advantage of years gets you. Rudi wouldn’t talk to the press for 30 years. He was the principle prosecution witness for Bugliosi at the trial in 1970. He owned this beautiful house and lived in the guest house, and would rent the front house out to… before Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen and before Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, I think Cary Grant lived there, Katharine Hepburn, a whole lot of illustrious movie stars in the 40s and 50s.

Tom O’Neill: Rudi was a real character. He often became friends with his tenants, and he became very close to Terry. For whatever reason, in 1999 he said he’d talk to me. I would take him out to dinners. At that point, he was an elderly man. He had lost his fortune, sold the house, the house had been demolished and it broke his heart. He lived in a converted garage in Van Nuys in a not-very-safe neighborhood. I think he was just lonely, and he liked having someone not only listen to his stories at night, but also take him to fancy restaurants, because I had an expense account from the magazine.

Tom O’Neill: So he started giving me this new information that at first I didn’t believe about Terry and some other people who were involved with the family. But once I started looking into it, I found that everything he told me was true. I found proof in these files that I got access to anywhere between a year and two years after I had begun my original reporting. So Rudi was a very important source. He passed away, too, about three or four years ago.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about Bugliosi and, when he was confronted by you with all of this, a little bit about his reaction and how he tried to explain it, if he did.

Tom O’Neill: Well, it was difficult, and I knew it would be difficult because he was a good prosecutor, he was a good attorney, and he had been for many years. I knew that he was monitoring what I was doing, because people would tell me that he would call them and say, “What’s O’Neill asking?” — that type of thing.

Tom O’Neill: It was a pretty contentious meeting. We both had two tape recorders going when we finally met in 2006 at his house. He actually had what he called himself an “opening statement” prepared before I had this big interview, before I showed him the documents I have that implicated him in crimes. He wouldn’t allow me to tape-record that. He also insisted that his wife Gale be in the kitchen listening, because, he said, “I don’t want you to misrepresent this in this book, because I know you’re a liar and you will, so I need her here as a witness since I’m not going to let you tape- record it.”

Tom O’Neill: I said, “Well, you have two tape recorders, Vince. We’ll both tape it.” He said, “No, I don’t want this on tape.” So I didn’t have any choice. Gale came in and listened. For a half hour he made what was essentially an opening argument as if it were a trial. He had notes, he had all these books he kept referring to where other authors credited him with being this great prosecutor. At the end of that half hour, he dismissed Gale, who said she had a headache — and I did too at that point. She went off to bed. Then, we turned our recorders on, his two and my two, and I started asking him my questions.

Tom O’Neill: You’ll see in the book there’s a lot… the material from that meeting where he would deflect and avoid. He was pretty good at not answering questions, which is why I really wish he was alive now, because I knew I was never going to get a lot of stuff from him, but I was hoping that if he were alive when the book came out, mainstream reporters from the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, who he’d have to answer to would confront him with the same charges I made. But, unfortunately, he passed away about three or four years ago.

Tom O’Neill: Also unfortunately, a lot of people think that I held off publishing the book until he died, which is crazy, because I basically have been dead broke for five or six years. I would have loved to have published it five or six years ago before he died so I didn’t have to drive an Uber and teach English as a second language and sleep on friends’ couches and Airbnb my apartment. It was not something I wanted.

Tom O’Neill: But he’s not around, and I’m hoping still that the findings and revelations in the book will cause some journalists to take a new look at the case and maybe pick up some of the loose threads that I put out there and follow up, use their resources to get access to information I couldn’t get access to, interview people who are still alive that wouldn’t talk to me, and find out what really happened.

Jeff Schechtman: How much do you think Bugliosi was covering up versus protecting himself and his theory of the case and his reputation tied to that theory of the case?

Tom O’Neill: I would say, you know, it was all pretty even. The case as he told me… he goes, “This is my legacy. What you’re trying to do is destroy my legacy.” So, yeah, he looked at the whole thing as his reputation. But he cheated and he lied and he had other people lie for him. So I said, “Vince, I don’t have a legacy, but I’m a reporter and I’m trying to be as objective as possible. I’m just asking for answers.” What I wanted to find out was why he did that when he didn’t have to do it. I mean, I truly believe that the people who went to prison for the murders were guilty.

Tom O’Neill: And I don’t know, and this is a theory I hate to even hypothesize, but I think one of the reasons he might have made up the sensational motive of Helter Skelter was to sell books. He had a coauthor under contract with him before the trial began, and that coauthor, Curt Gentry, sat in the front row of the trial every day. So he was playing not just to the jury, but to his future readers. He wanted to be a bestselling author. He wanted to get involved in film and TV. He also wanted to get involved in political office, and because of some other stuff he did on the side, which you’ll see about in my book, actual crimes he committed in his personal life involving other people, he lost his… I think he ran for office three times: attorney general of the state of California, and district attorney of Los Angeles. This stuff all came out in the ’70s, of these escapades he’d been involved in that were pretty dark stuff. That’s why he never was elected to office.

Tom O’Neill: So I think it’s a combination. He didn’t want this stuff to come out again when I was writing the book, and he also wanted to protect his verdicts and his reputation, and he wanted to be sure that his book continued to be regarded as the only true account of what happened.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do you think that there was a nexus, if at all, or maybe they were just operating on parallel tracks, between the truth and the facts behind Manson himself and the motives and the reality of Manson and the family, and the way in which Bugliosi prosecuted this case?

Tom O’Neill: Bugliosi said that the murders were committed to ignite a race war, that Manson sent the women to the Tate house with Tex Watson to kill whoever was there, who were supposedly strangers to them, in the most horrific way possible, and to leave some kind of sign implicating the Black Panthers.

Tom O’Neill: So I believe, and this is one of my biggest regrets… is I thought that I had read every interview Bugliosi had ever given and every article about him when I was doing this in the first 10 years. But I missed one very important story, which was an interview he gave Penthouse magazine, I think it was ’73 or ’74, probably right before Helter Skelter came out. That journalist asked him if he believed that Manson really believed in Helter Skelter, that there was going to be a race war and that there was a bottomless pit in the desert that had rivers of gold and fruit trees that would sustain them until the race war ended. And Bugliosi answered that reporter, he said he didn’t think that Manson believed it, but the girls believed it.

Tom O’Neill: Now, that reporter should have followed up and said, “Wait a minute then. Okay, it explains why the girls went and killed them. But why would Manson send them there if he didn’t believe that he was going to ignite a race war? There had to be another reason.” And the journalist didn’t ask Bugliosi that. And my mistake was not seeing that article during the period that I could ask Bugliosi myself that follow-up question. But, unfortunately, I didn’t see it until about 2008 or ’09, at which point Bugliosi wouldn’t talk to me anymore.

Tom O’Neill: So if Bugliosi thought that Manson didn’t believe in the “Helter Skelter” motive, the big question is, “What did he believe in and why did he send people there if it wasn’t to do what Bugliosi told the jury it was to do?”

Jeff Schechtman: Which really brings us back to Manson. Talk a little bit about the raid of the Spahn Ranch, literally a week after the murder.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah. Well, that was August 16th. It was the biggest raid in the history of California to that point, of more than 200 law enforcement officers from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. They actually had an assist from the LAPD, and they rounded up 33 people — children, women, men, and Manson — and took them all into custody on the charge, or what was going to be a charge, of grand theft auto. They found stolen vehicles, stolen license plates. And also, Manson was identified in, I think it was a 16-page search warrant, as the leader of this theft enterprise. He was also identified as a federal parolee who was having sexual relations with underage runaway girls and using narcotics, and that there were not only weapons at the property, but a submachine gun.

Tom O’Neill: All of that evidence was taken into custody and everybody was held for three days and then released without charges. Bugliosi wrote in the book that the reason they were released was the warrant was misdated. I found a copy of the warrant, and it wasn’t misdated. It was dated August 13th, but a warrant is good for 10 days on either side of the date in California, so it was a valid warrant. So the question is then, “Why were they all released?” That also ties into, “Why was Manson released through all of his other arrests?”

Tom O’Neill: Bugliosi doesn’t report in Helter Skelter that a week after the raid — August 25th, so about a week and a half after — Manson was arrested again and held for two days and released. The girl he was with, Stephanie Schram, was charged with marijuana possession, and Manson had originally been charged with it too. But, again, for whatever reason, the federal parolee was let go without being charged, and Stephanie Schram was taken into custody, charged, and sent to her parents’ house, which she ran away from a few days later. So Manson basically had a get-out-of-jail-free card until he finally was arrested for the last time in October in Death Valley.

Jeff Schechtman: What do you make of this catch-and-release history with Manson from the time that he was paroled? You’ve mentioned several occasions where he was arrested and released. What do you make of that?

Tom O’Neill: Well, that’s where I try not to… I want the readers to reach their own conclusions. But I took the documents I have that showed a pattern of the catch-and-release to a retired district attorney named Lewis Watnick, and he’d been the DA of Van Nuys. I laid out all the documents in front of him and he studied them very closely. He basically shook his head and he said, “You know, sometimes this is explained by just pure incompetence, you know, bureaucratic mix-ups. People get… But this is not that.” He said, “This man was deliberately released again and again and again, when not only should he have been charged, but he should have been violated by his parole officer.” He goes, this is all in his words, he kept saying, “Chicken shit. This is chicken shit.”

Tom O’Neill: And I said, “Well, why would they do that?” And he said to me, “Well, clearly Manson was more valuable to them outside than inside,” meaning out on the streets than inside jail or prison. And I said, “In what capacity?” And he said, “Well, he was working for someone. He was sharing information with some agency: federal, state, city, local; that he was getting… this was his reward, no charges.” I said, “How can I prove that he was an informant, if that’s what you’re saying?” And he said, “Well, that’s why they call them informants, because you’ll never be able to prove it.” But he goes, “I can tell you from my experience that that was the case with this.”

Tom O’Neill: So I could never prove that Manson had that kind of relationship with… Watnick told me it was either the FBI, the sheriff, the LAPD, or another federal agency, someone with the power to have him released. I could never prove it, except by a circumstantial case, and by a lot of experts and authorities like Lewis Watnick, who looked at the same record and said, “Yeah, there was something going on here that they didn’t want out at the trial or since then.”

Jeff Schechtman: And you did talk to Manson. Talk about that.

Tom O’Neill: Yeah, I actually talked to him pretty early on, in 2000. You know, he played his game, he danced around my questions with silly, non-sequitur riddles, nonsense. That was very frustrating. He wasn’t allowed to have visitors at that time, because he was in solitary confinement for misbehaving. He was allowed out of solitary, like, one or two nights a week to make phone calls. So I could only talk to him on the phone. It was just a real exercise in futility, because he’d get angry at me and get off the phone, and he’d put his bodyguard — a guy named Pincushion, who was called Pincushion because he was stabbed so many times — on the phone, and Pincushion would yell at me. I just didn’t get anywhere, really. It was really, really frustrating.

Jeff Schechtman: Tex Watson has never talked. What do you think he knows and why has he never talked, to the best of your knowledge?

Tom O’Neill: Well, he has… you know, he did write a book in the mid-70s after he became born again. He’s written another kind of book that’s published online, and he answers follower’s questions… I shouldn’t say “followers,” but other Christians’ questions. But he’s never told the truth and he never will. You’ll see in the book that I found these audio tapes that were made by his first attorney in Texas, before he was even identified as a suspect, or any of the Manson family members were identified as suspects in Tate-LaBianca murders, Watson’s attorney, Bill Boyd, recorded him on audio tape for what he told me. Bill Boyd worked 20 hours with Tex describing how he joined the family, what they were doing, why they killed, who they killed. He, according to Bill Boyd, described other people that the family had killed that had never been discovered by the police.

Tom O’Neill: When I found out these tapes existed, I tried to get them. It’s a long story, it’s in the book. But Boyd had died and his law firm went into bankruptcy, and the tapes did still exist in a safe, and they were in the care of the trustee. I spent I think almost a year emailing back and forth with the trustee trying to get her to release them to me. Because I said if the attorney who made those tapes was telling the truth, there are identifications of other kids who were killed by the Manson family who are buried places that the family never found out. When she finally decided to release them to me, she ended up going behind my back and contacting the DA’s office and telling them she’d release them to them.

Tom O’Neill: I kind of understand why she did that. She said later to me in an email that, “I did realize that if this was criminal evidence I shouldn’t release it to a journalist, I should release it to law enforcement.” So the DA’s office was going to get it right away, but they didn’t, because Watson found out about it and went to court to stop it, and the LAPD and the LA DA’s office fought Watson for a year in the Texas courts. The judge finally ruled in Los Angeles’s favor and released the tapes to them, and they had promised to share them with me as soon as they got them, because they wouldn’t have even known they existed if it weren’t for me. And, of course, as soon as they got them and heard what was on them they wouldn’t release them to me, wouldn’t let me know what was on them. To this day they’ve been under seal, and they won’t let anyone hear them.

Jeff Schechtman: What did Manson’s attorney Irving Kanarek know and why didn’t he do more?

Tom O’Neill: Well, it’s a difficult question to answer. I mean, Irving was brilliant, but I do believe he was mentally ill, even at the time of the case. I think that’s exactly why Manson chose him. I mean, Manson famously said he wanted the worst attorney in Los Angeles to represent him. Irving was… he was a real character. He gave me a lot of leads. Again, like Rudi Altobelli, the old guy that owned the house, he’d shared information with me that I was very skeptical of at first, and then found out it was all true. But he’s still alive.

Tom O’Neill: I mean, I’m on the East Coast now, but when I go back to LA, I do want to get back in touch with him. I have no idea what kind of condition he’s in now. I heard he’s living with either his daughter or his granddaughters. He’s about 92 or 93. He was in bad shape the last time I saw him, 10 years ago — mentally and physically. I hope he’s alive. I’d love to talk to him again. But he still knows a lot of stuff, I think. There’s a number of people out there that could be very helpful — other people that refuse to talk to me or other journalists. But he’s a real character, Irving.

Jeff Schechtman: Are you still pursuing threads of this story, Tom?

Tom O’Neill: I thought I wouldn’t be. But, yeah, I guess it’s almost … it’s like an addiction, you can’t stop. I’m not doing it as much, but there’s … I’m talking to my collaborator about possibly doing a follow-up. We’re not sure what we’re going to do, but we have so much information that didn’t end up in the book, and a lot of information that came to me too late to get into the book that is just as compelling as some of the stuff we reported. So I might be doing it a number of years more, but I want to be shot if it’s longer than three or four. I don’t want it to be another 20-year project.

Jeff Schechtman: And given the age of some of these people and the people that have passed away already, do you think there’s a lot of new information to get, or has it reached the end of the line?

Tom O’Neill: No, I think there’s a lot of old information to get from people who’ve never shared it. I could give you the names of six or seven people, but the most important ones are Linda Kasabian, who testified for the state and got full immunity even though she drove the killers to the Tate house the night of the Tate murders and stood lookout, and she drove them to the LaBianca house the second night. She’s never told the truth about the murders, why they happened, what she knew. She wouldn’t talk to me. I spent a week in Tacoma trying to get to her, and through her family was told to get lost.

Tom O’Neill: There are people alive who have answers to this stuff. But, yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to go back to these people now, because I’m exhausted by that. I’ll probably just share a lot of the information that we had to cut from the book for space purposes.

Jeff Schechtman: Tom O’Neill, the book is Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

Tom O’Neill: Thanks Jeff. I really appreciate you showing such interest in the book. It’s great.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Jeff Schechtman: If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from California / Wikimedia, George W. Bush White House Archives, and Lily Laurent / Flickr.


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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