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Jewish Journal

Manson Rampage Revisited

by Tom Tugend

August 11, 2009 | 7:18 pm

Los Angeles was gripped by a fear extraordinary even for a city famed for its odd inhabitants and spectacular Hollywood escapades.

Newspapers dusted off their largest headline fonts, celebrities rushed out to buy handguns and police detectives pored over every wrong clue.

That was 40 years ago, but the ripple effects of the terror wreaked by Charles Manson and his gang are still with us today, according to a journalist who covered the unfolding drama from the beginning.

During the late evening of Aug. 9, 1969, actress Sharon Tate, director Roman Polanski’s wife, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, had been stabbed and hacked to death in a mansion off Benedict Canyon, along with four others.

The following night, supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were murdered in much the same manner in their Los Feliz home, and the fear among wealthy Angelenos reached panic proportions.

Meanwhile, Ivor Davis, a British-born journalist in Los Angeles, filed a quick report on the sensational killings for the London Daily Express, and got a call back from his editor to stick with the story and report every detail.

Davis, moving faster than the police, tracked down members of The Family, slavish young followers of Manson, at the rundown Spahn Ranch near Chatsworth.

Davis followed every twist and turn of the gruesome story, and within a few weeks he and co-author Jerry LeBlanc had enough material to rush out a book on the case, even before the trial began. Titled “Five to Die,” the book met with modest commercial success, but found one key reader in Aaron Stovitz, initially the district attorney’s chief prosecutor in the case.

Davis was a daily presence in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom during the lengthy trial, which started in June 1970. After 10 months, Manson and three of his female acolytes were found guilty and sentenced to death.

While the killers were waiting on death row, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the California death penalty and the sentences were changed to life imprisonment.

Many years later, Stovitz ran into Davis — now a contributing writer for The Journal and active in the Ventura Jewish community — and casually mentioned that “Five to Die” included many leads and insights into the mindset of the Manson Family which served as a blueprint for the prosecution’s strategy.

The remark triggered a reevaluation of the Manson case in Davis’ mind. What happened to the protagonists in the intervening years? Were there long-range implications, even for today, in the Manson Family rampage?

After months of research, Davis decided to reissue the book with a new 2,000-word introduction, which expanded into a 25,000-word rewrite, including two new closing chapters.

The revised book, titled “Five to Die: The Book That Helped Convict Manson” (Thor), will be released next week.

“The Manson murder spree served as the punctuation mark to the decade of the 1960s and spelled the end of the Haight-Ashbury and flower children age of innocence,” Davis said in an interview.

Manson found his first followers in the drug culture, permissiveness and music of that San Francisco milieu. He was obsessed with The Beatles, and twisted the lyrics of “Helter Skelter” as prophesy of an apocalyptic race war between blacks and whites to be fomented by his followers.

Manson still lives, both in body and spirit. At 74, he resides in Corcoran State Prison, his hypnotic eyes dimmer, his long, wild hair gone or turned grey. His 11 appeals for parole have all been rejected.

But, surprisingly, his name and fame live on, mainly through the Internet, as a pop icon for a segment of today’s teens and 20-somethings.

Even while in prison, Manson has established his own Web site and a thriving business sending his photos to latter-day admirers throughout the world, who can also contribute to his trust fund.

Business is so good, Davis writes, that Manson has enlisted a cohort of fellow inmates to autograph his photos and spare him exertion.

Manson’s attraction is not limited to his native country. When Davis tweeted a short announcement of his upcoming book, he received some 700 instant responses from Australia.

There has been one feature movie about the Manson gang, two TV dramas, and a “South Park” episode, titled “Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson.”

By coincidence, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of Manson’s most devoted followers, is due to be released from a federal medical center in Texas on Aug. 16.

It was Fromme, sitting daily outside the Los Angeles courthouse during the Manson trial, head shaven and an “X” engraved on her forehead, who threatened to ram a butcher knife down Davis’ throat after his book first came out.

Fromme proved her devotion, and mental state, in 1975, when she pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford in San Francisco. She was instantly tackled by Secret Servicemen, who took her gun and found that there was no bullet inside.

For more information and to order the new “Five to Die,” visit www.mansonbook.com.

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