The vicious killers that crawled out of Spahn Ranch in the summer of 1969 at Charles Manson’s behest to kill innocent people didn’t just terrify California, but the entire country. The addled, apocalyptic death cult these murderers and their master were the faces of — a cult that embraced a pseudo-philosophy that had something to do with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and a race war — was terrifying precisely because it made no sense. The Manson “family” became another emblem of the strange years known as the ’60s, and many of its members are in prison to this day.
But Leslie Van Houten, a former member of Manson family who killed a married couple almost 50 years ago and wrote messages of revolution on the walls in their blood, may soon be on her way out. Hope for Van Houten came at the conclusion of a five-hour hearing at the California Institution for Women in Corona on Thursday, when a panel recommended parole for the 66-year-old convicted killer. She had previously been denied 19 times.
Van Houten said the decision made her “numb.”
“I don’t let myself off the hook,” Van Houten told the parole panel, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”
Unlike the 81-year-old Manson — who, even as he approached his ninth decade, called himself a “prisoner of the political system” and was caught with a contraband cellphone — Van Houten has long been known as a model inmate. Her attorney, Richard Pfeiffer, told the Los Angeles Times that 18 psychiatrists who have evaluated her over three decades found her suitable for parole.
“The opposition to parole has always been the name Manson,” Pfeiffer said. “A lot of people who oppose parole don’t know anything about Leslie’s conduct. Her role was bad. Everyone’s was. But they don’t know what she’s done since then and all of the good she’s done.” Commissioner Ali Zarrinnam told Van Houten that her “behavior in prison speaks for itself … 46 years and not a single serious rule violation.”
Van Houten was 19 when she participated in the murders of Rosemary and Leno La Bianca, a supermarket executive. Before the panel, Van Houten recounted how she held Rosemary down with a pillow and lamp cord as Charles “Tex” Watson, another Manson member, stabbed her. Then he passed the knife to her, and Van Houten proceeded to stab Rosemary 14 times, later using the blood of the slain La Biancas to write messages on the walls of their home. The word “WAR” was carved on Leno La Bianca’s stomach.
“I took one of the knives … and we started stabbing and cutting up the lady,” Van Houten testified in 1971, as the Los Angeles Times noted. At a parole hearing in 1991, Van Houten said of Manson: “I thought he was Jesus Christ.”
Van Houten, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, was a homecoming queen who fell in with the counterculture. Her parents divorced when she was 14, and her mother forced her to have an abortion when she got pregnant not long after. As Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi recounted in the true-crime classic “Helter Skelter,” a psychiatrist who interviewed Van Houten called her “a spoiled little princess” unable “to suffer frustration and delay of gratification” who once beat her adopted sister with a shoe.
“It is quite clear that Leslie Van Houten was a psychologically loaded gun which went off as a consequence of the complex intermeshing of highly unlikely and bizarre circumstances,” Joel Simon Hochman said.
Hochman also said that Van Houten was not as much under Manson’s spell as were other members of the family.
“She listened to [Manson’s] talk of philosophy, but it wasn’t her trip,” he said.
Van Houten’s attorney argued unsuccessfully that she and Manson’s other followers were merely pawns in his sick game and, as a result, couldn’t be held responsible for their actions.
“If you believe the prosecution theory that these female defendants and Mr. Watson were extensions of Mr. Manson — his additional arms and legs, as it were — if you believe that they were mindless robots, they cannot be guilty of premeditated murder,” Maxwell Keith said.
The jury didn’t buy it. Van Houten, who carved an “X” into her forehead during her trial after Manson did, was sentenced to death — reportedly the youngest woman in California history to be sent to death row. Her sentence was commuted to life in prison after a court decision temporarily ended the death penalty in California in the 1970s.
While behind bars, Van Houten has earned college degrees, organized self-help groups for women in prison — and found unlikely defenders.
“I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness,” filmmaker John Waters wrote in 2011. “Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do.” Waters added: “Leslie is hardly a ‘Manson girl’ today. Sixty years old, she looks back from prison on her involvement in the La Bianca murders … in utter horror, shame, and guilt and takes full responsibility for her part in the crimes. I think it’s time to parole her.”
Cory La Bianca, Leno and Rosemary La Bianca’s daughter, will urge Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to deny Van Houten’s parole — as he did that of Bruce Davis, another killer affiliated with Manson, in 2014.
“Maybe Leslie Van Houten has been a model prisoner,” Cory La Bianca told the Los Angeles Times. “But you know what, we still suffer our loss. My father will never be paroled. My stepmother will never get her life back.”
Cory La Bianca said while she does not “seek revenge,” she thought “it’s just for someone to do that to stay in prison.”