Some 53 years after the heinous brutality Leslie Van Houten and her fellow Manson Family members inflicted on Los Feliz couple Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, and the August 1969 murders of Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and Folger’s Polish boyfriend, Wojciech Frykowski, in Benedict Canyon, the convicted murderer is slated to be released from the California Institution for Women as early as this month.
Her parole was set into motion with a Second District Court of Appeals for Los Angeles ruling that Governor Gavin Newsom erred when vetoing the Parole Board’s decision to let her out of jail last May and that the politician was wrong in deriding the now 73-year-old killer as an “unreasonable danger to society.”
The judges wrote that Van Houten “has shown extraordinary rehabilitative efforts,” and has outlined “realistic parole plans, support from family and friends, favorable institutional reports.” They also noted her age at the time of the spree killings, her history of drug addiction, what she claims was a forced abortion in Mexico, and the sway Manson had over his followers.
Van Houten and her fellow Manson Family members were sentenced to death in 1971, but the sentences were commuted to life in prison after capital punishment was ruled unconstitutional in 1972.
As midnight inched toward morning on August 9, 1969, Sharon Tate was entertaining friends as her husband shot a film in Europe. No one noticed the man, Charles “Tex” Watson, pulling himself up a telephone pole outside, where he cut the phone lines before he and a delusional coterie of miscreants led by race-baiting killer Charles Manson burst inside to commit what remains to this day Hollywood’s most notorious mass murder, an act of bloodletting so frenetic and chaotic it was memorialized in books and movies as “Helter Skelter.”
When the blood-splattered killers returned to their Spahn Ranch commune in Chatsworth where other members of the Manson Family—among them Van Houten, then 19, listened to their fellow cult members relive the brutality: the victims who begged for their lives, the knives plunged into the flesh of innocents picked at random so the group could “precipitate the race war” by killing whites “in such a way that Blacks would be blamed for the murders.”
Van Houten would later remember feeling “left out” by the revelry and told Manson she “wanted to be included next time,” according to court records.
She didn’t have to wait long. On the night of August 10, the Manson Family, this time with Van Houten, roamed the streets of Los Angeles for hours “selecting and discarding possible victims,” until Manson directed them to 3301 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, the home of Leno La Bianca and his wife Rosemary. Van Houten waited in the car with Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel until Manson emerged with an order for the women: “go into the house and do what Watson told them to do.”
Watson directed them to kill Rosemary La Bianca. And Van Houten, a pretty, petite brunette from Altadena, was happy to oblige, later admitting she was “completely committed” to Manson “and his cause,” and that she “had to kill [the La Biancas] for the beginning of the revolution.”
She pulled a pillowcase over the 44-year-old woman’s head, and as she wrapped a lamp cord around her neck to secure it, Rosemary heard her husband screams: “stop stabbing me!” With that, Rosemary snatched a lamp and “swung it at Ms. Van Houten,” who wrestled her onto the bed and pinned her down,” according to court records, as Krenwinkle plunged a knife so deep into the screaming woman’s collarbone it bent the blade.
Rosemary continued to struggle with her attackers. So Van Houten “called for Watson,” who “came into the bedroom and stabbed Mrs. La Bianca eight times with a bayonet.” But the horror wasn’t over, according to court testimony.
“Van Houten then stabbed Mrs. La Bianca between 14 and 16 times,” before wiping fingerprints off the Manson Family’s murder weapons as her cohorts wrote “RISE,” “DEATH TO PIGS,” on the walls and infamously misspelled “HEALTER SKELTER” in their victims’ blood on the refrigerator door at the murder scene.
The couple’s teenage son found his parents the next morning. His father had a “knife stuck in his neck, a carving fork protruding from his stomach, and the word ‘war’ carved into his skin,” Governor Gavin Newsom noted when he vetoed Van Houten’s parole last May, the third time the state’s top pol prevented her release. Van Houten has had more than two dozen parole hearings, and was recommended for release five times. Each recommendation was denied by Newsom or his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown.
Newsom said this time he would not contest the appeals court ruling or the Parole Board’s decision, but through a spokesperson said he was “disappointed.”
It’s unclear where Van Houten will live upon her release, and the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation did not return a request for comment. Van Houten told the Parole Board she plans to live in a residential transitional program run by a former prison employee.
Krenwinkel—who was there when Tate, her baby, and her friends were killed in addition to the slaughter of the La Biancas in Los Feliz—was denied parole by Newsom last year and remains incarcerated at 74 in the same facility her codefendant is about to walk out of. “Ms. Krenwinkel fully accepted Mr. Manson’s racist, apocalyptical ideologies,” Newsom said. “Ms. Krenwinkel was not only a victim of Mr. Manson’s abuse. She was also a significant contributor to the violence and tragedy that became the Manson Family’s legacy.”
Tex Watson got married behind bars and had four children before conjugal visits were outlawed in California in 1996, part of an extensively researched history of the case published by Los Angeles in July 2009, 40 years after the Manson Family’s rampage. He has also been denied parole dozens of times, and remains a prisoner at San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
Manson died in a Bakersfield prison hospital on November 19, 2017. The 83-year-old’s estate has been the subject of a contentious legal battle.