Listen Here: In this episode, we hear the story of the Tate-LaBianca killings from Charles Tex Watson himself. We’ll go through Vince Bugliosi’s cross examination, learn the verdicts, and uncover the Murderous Design of Tex and Charlie.
Got my head down to the drugstore; but I fell and I missed my flight.
Got my head back home to mama; she said Jesus Gonna Make it Alright.
Thought of myself as a hunter; a lion on the loose in the night.
Tex Takes the Stand
From the Defense perspective, and given the state of the evidence, Tex couldn’t persuasively say he wasn’t there and took no part in the killings. If he were to succeed, it would be because he convinced jurors either 1) he was legally insane at the time of the killing, or 2) that he did not have the required state of mind necessary to sustain a murder conviction. Certainly, his peculiar behavior in the months leading up to his trial were some evidence that he did suffer from a diseased mind. He would use that in conjunction with the powerful combination of drugs and Charlie Manson in his quest to avoid a conviction and the death penalty.
Tex began his testimony by going through his background: that he grew up in a small town in Texas called Copeville, went to the University of North Texas for 3 years, worked for Braniff Airlines, came to California, Met Charlie through Beach boy Dennis Wilson, became a member of Charlie’s family, and fell under his spell. His wig business failed and he couldn’t get into the Army because of his knee. He moved back to Spahn Ranch, and began the frenzied drug-induced preparations for Helter Skelter. Charlie was in Tex’s head, and according to the defensive theory, there wasn’t much of Tex left.2The background you’ve heard in the early episodes largely came from his testimony.
In his closing arguments in the trial against Charles Manson, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle, Prosecutor Vince Bugliosi famously reminded the jurors of the 7 emotional anchors of his case – he recited the list of victims in what he called the “roll call of the dead.” In his opening statement, Tex’s lawyer Sam Bubrick tried to head that dramatic argument off at the pass, saying “Tex is alive to be sure, but if Mr. Bugliosi in his summation to you, ever reads the roll call of the dead, and tells you that the victims of these homicides ordered by Charlie cry out from their graves for justice, I would ask that you add one more name to that list: Charles Tex watson.” Bubrick carried the theme into his examination of Tex, who described Charlie:
There was no wrong, everything was perfect. Not killing, not stealing. Nothing was wrong. There were no mistakes. Charlie was a perfect being, to me, like Christ. The people down the hill3referring to the people of LA. had so much fear. We did not. We had experienced true fear. And because we did, we weren’t afraid any more. Charlie was a supreme being that could see all of my thoughts. The longer I was around him, the more of my own thoughts I didn’t have anymore. I was becoming Charlie Manson and the girls. We were all becoming one.
This was the state of Tex Watson’s mind in August 1969: removed from his family, from his upbringing, living on the fringes of society, preparing every day for the race war to end all race wars. It was to be the war that would make his Family – now existing as “one” with Charlie – the leaders of the world. That’s the Tex Watson that woke up and opened his eyes to Spahn Ranch on August 8th, 1969. Before he would close them again, he would be a killer…a killer 5 times over. This is the story he told jurors.
Cielo Drive According to Tex Watson
Tex woke up on August 8, 1969 and took some belladonna – the same root that led to him crawling around on a sidewalk and subsequently to jail in April – and then took speed. After dinner, he says he took LSD. Charlie took him aside and told him to go up “where Terry Melcher used to live and kill everybody in the house.” Charlie wanted him to make it as gruesome as he could. Charlie told him to take the bolt cutters and cut the wires, and to wash off and throw away the guns, knives and clothes. Tex was to Write something on the wall, but Charlie didn’t say what. Tex got in the car with Linda Kasabian and Susan Atkins. They drive to Terry Melcher’s old house on Cielo Drive. Tex did as he was told and climbed up the pole. Linda handed him the cutters. He cut off the occupants of Cielo to the outside world. Tex Testified that at that point, “I just knew Charlie was there, I could see and hear him, hear his voice.”
They end up in the house. A man is asleep on the couch. He wakes up and another man comes in. Tex empties the gun in him. Then he went around the couch and started stabbing the other. Patricia Krenwinkle was already over there stabbing him. The man is Jay Sebring – the Korean war veteran turned barber-to-the-stars-extraordinaire, who took his last breath next to his friend Sharon Tate.
Just then, Susan Atkins hollered. She was fighting with a man going out the front door. She yelled “Tex, Tex!” Tex ran over and started hitting him with the butt of the gun. Susan Atkins was stabbing the man, too. Tex and Susan stabbed him to death while he was on the ground on the lawn. That man was Voytek Frykowski, the blonde haired blue-eyed, French-speaking friend of Roman Polanski’s.
Patricia Krenwinkel came over to Tex and said “there’s one over there.” There was a woman lying in the grass with blood all over her. Tex stabbed her and killed her. The woman was Abigail Folger, the coffee heiress and Harvard Graduate nicknamed Gibbie.
He said under oath that they all had no forms, no faces, no expressions, that the victims were just blobs.
They all meet up in the car at the bottom of the hill, where they meet with Linda and all get in the car. They change clothes and drive off. A little while later, they stop at a house and start using the hose to clean up. A person appears, and asks them what they are doing. Tex tells him they are getting a drink and will leave. They throw the clothes and weapons out along the way, and get back to Spahn Ranch. Charlie was at the Ranch dancing around naked. Tex tells jurors that the two didn’t talk. He went to sleep.
He denied having a rope with him, and denied tying up Mr. Sebring and Sharon Tate. He also denied writing anything on the walls or doors of the Cielo Drive house.
3301 Waverly Drive According to Tex Watson
He said he slept most of the day on August 9th. Charlie gave him acid and a knife that night. He left the Ranch with Charlie, Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Steve Grogan – the man referred to as “Clem.” The 7 drove around for “a long time,” eventually arriving at the LaBianca house. He told jurors he’d never been there before. He went in with Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten. Right when they walked in, he and Patricia started “stabbing the body on the couch. It was covered, the head was wrapped in something.” He claims he couldn’t see whether it was a boy or girl.
Leslie hollered and screamed for him. She was in the bedroom down the hall stabbing another person. This person’s face was covered but her hands weren’t bound. He got up from stabbing the female when Patricia came running in and told him to go to the person on the couch. He went back to the living room and began stabbing the person on the couch.
They all changed before they left. It was still dark outside. They went walking and got lost, and slept under a tree. The next morning they got back to Spahn Ranch. Charlie told him to go up to Olancha for a couple days. Sometime towards the end of his 10 days in Olancha, he called his mother and told her that the end of the world was coming, and they were going to be the only ones left on earth in the bottomless pit. And he told her that he found Jesus.
Not Jesus the son of God. He meant Charlie.
He wandered around the desert searching for the abyss to no avail. He eventually got money from a Western Union wired to him by his parents. He went back to Texas. He told jurors he left California because Charlie asked him to kill again. This time it was the Highway Patrolman and Forest Ranger they had come to know on their travels around the desert and Goler Wash.
Back home in Copeville, all he was talking about with his parents was Helter Skelter. Charlie was “still in my head all of the time.” He claimed he never used drugs besides weed after the killings. But the draw for Charlie was too strong. Tex left his parent’s place, going to Mexico, back to California, to Hawaii, then back to California. He explained to jurors that he even walked 50 or 60 miles to the Goler Wash. But he didn’t find anyone. He gave up, and went back to Texas and stayed there until he turned himself into the Collin County Jail, and began the extradition process.
As the testimony of a defendant in a criminal trial winds down, two diverging thoughts are occurring just feet from each other. The defense lawyer knows they must reluctantly let their client be cross-examined and want desperately to make sure they’ve done everything they can to protect him. Meanwhile, the prosecutor knows that the jurors are expecting knockout punches. The good cross-examiner will have some lines of questioning scripted ahead of time. But the best cross examiners use two tools so often ignored by lawyers: their ears.
Bugliosi is, in my estimation, more of an engineer than a performer like so many larger than life trial lawyers you might have heard of before.4You can watch him deliver a closing argument in the 1986 mock trial he did for the BBC. He “prosecuted” Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Legendary trial lawyer Gerry Spence represented Mr. Oswald. The video is available here on YouTube. Bugliosi won. He’s cool, calm, and meticulous. He’s like an exacting robotic instrument on an assembly line, perfectly conjuring an intricate piece of machinery. Each fact presented and each question posed with precision and purpose.
And on September 2, 1971 Bugliosi was listening with that same precision and purpose, listening attentively to what Tex said on direct examination, and how he behaved while testifying. To Bugliosi, Tex’s less than truthful answers in court revealed a guilty conscience.
According to Bugliosi, Tex was still trying to get away with murder.
He began by asking a simple question, and given Tex’s previous testimony, Bugliosi knew what the answer had to be. In every murder trial, there is at least one picture introduced of the victim as they appeared when alive. Bugliosi held up all 7 of these pictures, and asked him, “Did you kill all 7 of these people?” Yes. He then pointed out that Tex raised the wrong hand – the left one – when he took the oath. “Are you trying to manipulate these jurors?” Whether Tex was or was not was inconsequential – it was a peculiar act that even if the jurors missed it, they knew then.
The best way to show that Tex knew the difference between right and wrong was to show that Tex tried on many occasions to avoid being caught. When he was approached by law enforcement officers a few days after the killings on a matter unrelated to the Tate-LaBianca Murders, he ran away from officers and hid in a bush. On the stand, Tex tried to explain that he wasn’t hiding at all, that he just had to go to the bathroom. But, Bugliosi pointed out for jurors, Tex gave the wrong name: Charles “Montgomery” instead of “Watson.” Bugliosi next asked him about all of those worldly travels in the months after the killings, from Texas, to Mexico, to Hawaii: “Were you hiding from the police? Running from them?” Tex said, “No, I was looking for Charlie.” Bugliosi: Did you think Charlie was in Hawaii?
In order to show Tex’s guilty conscience and defeat his insanity and diminished capacity defenses, Bugliosi also focused on Tex’s inconsistent beliefs about the killings. Tex testified that because of his infatuation with and belief in “Charlie the Deity,” he thought that killing “was perfect,” that there was no wrong. But, according to Tex, in all of his travels, and in all of his time after the killings in the free world, in all his interactions, he never told anyone about the killings. Bugliosi asked, “If they were perfect, and not wrong, why didn’t you tell everyone you met about them?”
Planning and premeditation defeat insanity and diminished capacity, too. Tex testified that he didn’t use the gate at Cielo drive, that he jumped over the fence. Bugliosi pointed out that Tex had been to Cielo Drive before on numerous occasions, and would have known that if you pushed the button for the gate, that a bell would have gone off in the house. And if the bell went off, then Tex and his other killers would have lost their element of surprise. Bugliosi also pointed out that Tex cut the correct wires – the phone lines that lead to the house that “Tex wanted to keep quiet.”
Finally, Bugliosi set out to prove that Tex was embellishing his mental problems. He acted mentally ill when describing the victims as “things” and “blobs.” “Those were human beings!” exclaimed Bugliosi. And he pointed out to the jurors that Tex slipped up by referring to the victims as “he” and “she,” obvious references to people.
The Cross Examination concluded, and Tex returned to counsel table. The trial was over, and after arguments of counsel, jurors returned a verdict of Guilty. On October 19, 1971, jurors rejected Tex’s Insanity Plea; 2 days later, they sentenced him to death.
The Murderous Design of Charles Tex Watson
“Everyone is one with each other within the family. Coupled with Helter Skelter and the end result, what do we have, Ladies and Gentlemen? What do you call this? It is a religion. It is a religion and who was the messiah? The God of this religion? Manson. Watson and all those who believed, who swallowed everything Manson told them at the Spahn Ranch, Ladies and Gentlemen, they were religious zealots. With a devil as their God and their Heaven was a bottomless pit in the desert.”5Vince Bugliosi, Closing Argument, The People of California vs. Charles Denton Watson.
In as much as Tex admitted to the physical acts, his defense “fell back on his motives and intents…[retiring] into that invisible region, the secret corners of his own mind, where he knows he cannot be effectually pursued”6Burrill, Alexander M., “A Treatise on the Nature, Principles and Rules of Circumstantial Evidence.” P. 308. by Prosecutors Bugliosi and Kay. Insofar as the thought processes and mental desires lie exclusively within the province of one’s head, they are not, by themselves, discoverable. But the commission of the crime of murder is a physical act; the crime scene and the clues it contains speak its motive into existence.
There is not one single piece of evidence that will reveal a killer’s true identity or motive; it is the power created by the connections between two or more pieces of evidence that masterfully expose the thoughts driving the murder. They come together in the same way an artist paints: one stroke at a time. No single brushstroke creates a picture. Added together, however, and properly analyzed, they create a crystal clear reflection of the human intellect. From all of the evidence gathered at Cielo Drive, Waverly Drive, Spahn Ranch, Abbey Road, and the Apocalypse of John, Revelation 9, we have this, the Murderous Design of Tex and Charlie:
First, a unique or idiosyncratic motive – Helter Skelter – was expressed by the killers in the crime (Pigs, Piggies, Rise, Death to Pigs). Tex subscribed to, practiced and believed in it. The aim of the motive in this case was to start a race war by committing a horrific murder. This was in their head, the driving force, and had been there for some amount of time well in advance of the killings. This unique motive originated in the mind of Charlie Manson. He, or those connected to him, must have committed the crime. The next step meant tying Tex to Charlie and to the motive. Tex worshipped and considered Charlie to be Christ-like. He lost his identity to Charlie, becoming “one with him” and his beliefs. Tex told numerous people, including his own mother, about Helter Skelter, and recruited his friend David Neale to join the Family.
Tex’s actions preceding the killing showed a plan requiring foresight, thus revealing premeditation. He planned to cause a certain result, aiming to succeed without being caught. First, the isolated location of the house and the time of the crime at nighttime reveal that Tex must have known that the killing would be loud, and that they were going to be successful. The cover of darkness offered the element of surprise and an escape route. Tex knew the logistics of ingress and egress, avoiding the bell at the gate in order to further maintain the element of surprise on his victims. The clothes were dark so as to remain unseen by any potential casual observers, either in approaching or leaving an area where people would be present.
Tex cut wires beforehand. Not just any wires, but the specific telephone wires leading to his target house. He knew people would be inside. And he knew that there would be a desperate reason for the people inside the house to make a call. Additionally, Tex cut the wires using a tool that he brought along with the other weapons meaning that he and the others planned on cutting the wires and disarming the occupants of the house well before they set foot on the Cielo Drive property. They were so intent on the surprise attack, they were willing to risk being seen. The wires were outside, and the pole high. Tex also knew ahead of time that he needed lethal instruments – knives and guns – to achieve his goal of murder. They were not used for self-defense. Nor were they used to steal. They were used for one purpose – killing – and then immediately dispatched and discarded. Not only did he bring with him these murderous instruments, he practiced and mastered the craft of his killing: bullets were recovered from Spahn Ranch indicating target practice, and he shared his stabbing techniques with his accomplice.
Tex’s actions during the killing also reveal his murderous intent. Consider first the manner and means of death: Tex and the others made numerous attempts at killing considering the number of victims, shots fired, stab wounds, strangulation, and blunt force trauma. They followed through with their plan until the desired outcome was obtained, even though they were outnumbered and unattacked. The injuries Tex inflicted far exceeded incapacitation. The group could have accomplished burglary, robbery, theft, sexual assault, and still left their victims alive. But they didn’t. They never abandoned their goal until it was obtained: to leave as many dead as they could find.
After the killing, Tex’s actions also proved he knew right from wrong. He and the group destroyed clothes, knives, and threw the gun in the canyon. He knew that someone might tie the objects to the murder and tie him to those objects, so he had to eradicate the connection. The only group he could have been worried about making those connections were law enforcement. Tex and the family also eradicated evidence from the crime scene in order to avoid criminal liability. The evidence showed that the handle on the knife, fork and refrigerator door was wiped clean. Tex knew the criminal consequences of leaving fingerprints at the crime scene. Finally, we know that Tex knew right from wrong because he became angry that his conspirator left a murder weapon behind, the buck knife because he wanted to make sure that all the weapons were accounted for and destroyed.
The fingerprint on the front door of Cielo Drive provided further circumstantial evidence juxtaposing Tex with the killing very close in time and space. In time because the housekeeper recalls cleaning the front door the day before the killing; in space because the front door with the fingerprint was in the middle of the bodies of the victims. The orientation of the print is also consistent with someone opening the door from the inside on the way outside, meaning Tex was inside the house and traveling a path towards Mr. Frykowski’s body. Putting these facts together, the timing of the print, it’s location and orientation, the fingerprint put Tex right in the middle of this killing.
Finally, the fingerprint provides objective corroboration of the accomplice testimony coming from the mouth of Linda Kasabian. The orientation, location and appearance all precisely match and verify her description of the offense.
Tex Post Script
When the Supreme Court of California ruled their death penalty unconstitutional, Tex’s death sentence was commuted to life. In prison, Tex became a born-again Christian, and as a prison chaplain, Baptized inmates, led bible-study groups, and preached. He founded “Abounding Love Ministries” with his Norwegian wife, Kristin. They married in 1979 and had 3 children. He receives $1,500 a month from people on a national mailing list to whom he sends religious cassette tapes and a Christian newsletter. Per a report on a parole board hearing, his steward became Suzanne LeBerge, Rosemary LaBianca’s daughter from a relationship prior to Leno’s. She began visiting Tex in 1987 and made an impassioned plea for his release.
Pleas for the release of her mother’s killer.
Her pleas have gone unanswered. Tex remains in a California prison.
It may be something in his charismatic, enigmatic personality, some intangible quality or power that no one has yet been able to isolate and identify. It may be something he learned from others. Whatever it is, I believe Manson has full knowledge of the formula he used. And it worries me that we do not. For the frightening legacy of the Manson case is that it could happen again.7Vince Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter, The True Story of the Manson Murders, (1994) p. 485.