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Behind the Madness

Theo Wilson, celebrated national trials reporter for the New York Daily News, ignored Charlie Manson's threats to her and other newswomen in courtroom. Her upcoming book recounts the Manson and other trials she covered

The murders of Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and four others, which occurred 25 years ago this month, remain among the goriest of multiple homicides. As Charlie Manson himself predicted, to the world he has remained a monster.

Theo Wilson, the celebrated national trials reporter for the New York Daily News, covered the 10-month trial from April, 1970, to February, 1971. Wilson and reporters from all over the world sat through day after day of stomach-churning and increasingly bizarre testimony. Sometimes the only way to relieve the pressure was to engage in a little black humor. Reporters didn’t write about it at the time because they would not have wanted anybody to think they were uncaring.

Wilson, now living in the Hollywood Hills, has covered the trials of Dr. Sam Sheppard in the 1950s to Claus von Bulow and John DeLorean in the 1980s. She recounts these and other famous trials in her upcoming book, “Hot Copy,” for Thunder’s Mouth Press of New York.

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The main reason why the Charles Manson trial was totally different from any other I ever covered was because it was the only one where every body went a little bonkers--judge, jury, reporters, lawyers, deputies and spectators.

The four defendants were that way already, only more so.

Charlie was the weird end product of our prison system, having been institutionalized since he was 8 years old, and the three Manson Family “girls” were as nutty as street drugs and garbage food could make them.

But why did the rest of us go a little mischuga ? Maybe the length of this trial and its total unpredictability did it. . . .

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Ten months in that gloomy old Hall of Justice in Downtown Los Angeles listening to testimony that went from horrifying to ludicrous. . . .

The testimony itself punctuated with flare-ups from the defendants, supplemented by outbursts from the audience. . . .

Threats of self-immolation and other destruction on the sidewalks around the Hall of Justice where the Manson Family members still at large held their daily vigil, the girls’ shaven heads turning burnt orange from the sun.

Defense attorney Ron Hughes disappearing, his drowned body discovered the very day, many months later, that the defendants received sentences of death from the jurors. . . .

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Witnesses on the stand with names like “Lotsapoppa” and “Snake” and “Ouish” and other witnesses describing themselves as “an emissary from God” or a “horse manure shoveler. . . .”

The jurors, ranging in age from 25 to 74, locked up so long in hotel rooms that one of them threatened to tie sheets together and escape out of a window. . . .

The Sylmar earthquake hitting the Los Angeles area a few hours before the women defendants, defying their lawyers, took the stand and described in horrible detail how they butchered their victims, in an effort to save Manson from a guilty verdict. . . .

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Those of us who covered the Manson trial became like wartime buddies, friends forever who went through the battles and survived.

Names that mean nothing now to anybody else, like “Elmer” and “Herman’s Kids” and “Julie Shapiro,” send us into joyous recall. “Elmer” was the pet marijuana plant that was nurtured at Spahn’s Ranch, the Family’s country residence in Chatsworth. “Herman’s Kids” was the name the jurors gave themselves in honor of their foreman, Herman Tubick, a retired mortician.

As for “Julie Shapiro,” she was the beauteous spectator who came to Los Angeles from Chicago and became a faithful attendant at the trial. Julie first attracted attention when she came to court in a see-through blouse with nothing under it but lots and lots of Julie.

The court did not look kindly on this distraction--the court was notably humorless, high-strung and touchy as all get out--and some hapless deputy was told to give Julie the word that she was not to come to the trial bra-less anymore.

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Julie obeyed the judicial edict and came properly attired after that. She didn’t cause any more trouble until many months later, when she took issue with the prosecutor during his closing arguments and from her seat in the spectator section angrily called him a liar.

Superior Court Judge Charles H. Older told his deputies to arrest her, book her and hold her for a contempt of court hearing when the day’s session ended. As Julie was being hustled out, obviously startled that she had created such an uproar, she plaintively asked her reporter friends: “What’s the matter? Why can’t I stay here? I’m wearing a brassiere.”

During the contempt hearing, we learned that Julie was studying witchcraft here under Morlock the Warlock. Those of us who had deadlines ran to the telephones with this wonderful little story about what I called the “witchlet.” The editors loved it. The news copy desk borrowed my “witchlet” description for the headline, and it was displayed nicely for our delighted East Coast readers, who by this time were convinced that what was happening at the trial of Manson and his three helpmates--Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten--represented the ‘60s, the druggies, the dropouts, the flower children and the whole West Coast at its zaniest.

Besides Julie Shapiro, there was another disruptive spectator we all remember, a talented artist who had been doing sketches inside the courtroom for magazines (no cameras allowed in those days) and who freaked out one day.

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This was toward the end of the trial, in the third day of an excruciatingly boring summation by Manson’s defense attorney, Irving Kanarek. By then, the deputies who secured the courtroom weren’t as skittish as they had been at the outset of the trial. They also were soporific from the less than dazzling oratory. When the artist opened the doors and marched into the trial room holding a Bible and chanting, “I am the Whore of Babylon! I have come to defend my brother . . . " she practically got down to the well of the courtroom before the deputies roused themselves and ran over to her.

“Arrest that woman!” our judge hollered, his cheeks flushed. He was the only judge I knew who took these things personally.

Now early in the trial, disruptions like this were big news, but we had had months of weird behavior to write about, especially with the defendants breaking into song, leaping at the judge and smacking out at the prosecutor, so we were a little jaded. Where once we would have dashed out after the artist, now we began bickering: “You go get the background on her. No, you go. No, you go.”

As we were hissing and muttering, one of the deputies who had schlepped the artist out of the courtroom returned to his seat near ours. “Got any information on that lady?” somebody whispered to him. He shook his head. Then, with a perfectly straight face told us: “We just ran a check with the Babylon P.D. and they don’t have a thing on her.”

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During the many months of the testimony, you could always depend on something to happen that would respark national interest in the trial. You never knew when it would happen or where it would come from. A good example was Richard Nixon’s unexpected involvement in the case, when our then-President, in the course of a press conference in Denver, noted that while in California he had been inundated with Manson trial coverage.

“Front page every day in the papers,” Nixon told political reporters. " . . . Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason. . . .” And so on in this manner for a minute or so.

Paul Healy, the New York Daily News reporter traveling with the President, realized instantly that a terrible presidential boo-boo had been made and notified our news desk in New York.

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The Daily News sent an urgent message on my telex in the courthouse pressroom. I always filed at lunchtime, which was deadline for me because of the three-hour time difference between Los Angeles and New York. No one else was around. As soon as the lawyers came back, I assured the desk, I would get reaction from them.

As luck would have it, the first lawyer who got off the elevator on the eighth floor of the courthouse was Ron Hughes, the 250-pound, golden-bearded, prematurely bald flower child of a defense attorney.

Poor Ron, who lived in somebody’s basement and had to borrow a jacket when he went into the judge’s chambers, was always in hot water with the judge. His wreck of a car kept breaking down, making him late for the sessions, and he wasn’t given to lawyer-like demeanor in the courtroom. Judge Older had put him in jail for contempt for once telling the prosecutor he was “full of s---" during an argument at the bench.

“Ron!” I yelled to him. “Quick. I’m on deadline. President Nixon just made a speech and he called Charlie guilty. We need a statement from you.” I read him the Nixon quotes. “Come on, Ron. What’s your reaction?”

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“Well, f--- him!” said Ron. “That’s my comment. F--- him!”

“Oh for God’s sake, Ron!” I said. “I can’t send that. Now come on, aren’t you going to consider asking for a mistrial? Aren’t you dismayed that the President of the United States, a lawyer himself, would violate a defendant’s rights and call him guilty while he still is on trial? Aren’t you angry that the President would jeopardize a lengthy and expensive trial with such a thoughtless remark? Isn’t that what you want to say?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ron cried, all fired up by my remarks. “And f--- him, too!”

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We were glad that Ron Hughes was still alive when we threw the trial party that was, like the Manson trial itself, unlike anything else. The invitations to the “Helter Skelter Party” were illustrated with a sketch of Manson by a courtroom artist. The venue was listed as the “bottomless pit,” Charlie’s proposed desert hiding place when the race war he expected broke out. The date (“we have no calendars”) and the time (“night is day and day is night and I am you and you are me”) were both memorable quotes from the Manson Family.

The party was held in a suite at the Hilton in Downtown Los Angeles, which was decorated with such things as a hotel plant that resembled “Elmer” and a toy replica of Spahn’s Ranch, where Charlie and his group lived.

In keeping with the theme, we were all dressed like hippies and had “X” marks on our foreheads just like the defendants and the Family followers. The Hilton house detective became extremely nervous as he saw us going through the hotel. As we were setting up the party, he came roaring into the suite and warned us “hippies” he was keeping an eye on us.

The chief prosecutor and the defense attorneys engaged in a few acrimonious exchanges during the party. But, like all trial parties, it was fun. And, like all trial parties, it was strictly off the record.

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After being at the trial for months, I couldn’t take seriously the myths about Charlie Manson and his scary eyes and sexual prowess. Once, during a recess when the judge was off the bench and the jury was out of the room, Charlie stared at the four women reporters chatting together and called out something about our “karma coming down” on us.

“Oh shut up, Charlie!” I snapped at him. What we didn’t know until later was that a young man sitting behind us, a new reporter on his first day of the trial, ran to his phone to report to his wire service that Manson had threatened women reporters.

We found out about it later when our editors asked us why we had neglected to mention in our reports the frightening threats. We had to explain that it was just old Charlie yakking, to forget it, there was no story. Thank God the kid ran out before he heard me tell the evil defendant to “shut up” or he would have put that on the wire, too.

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My room at the Hilton was tiny, with a walk-in closet as its only asset. But it soon became the after-hours press headquarters for both the local and out-of-town reporters, where we could meet after everybody had filed their stories, have drinks and plan where to go out for dinner. The hotel added a small bar to my room, and after awhile I had so much stuff in Room 905 that it was a true home away from home.

Within walking distance was a small market where I was able to buy fruit, cheese and crackers to set out for the gatherings.

Early on in the trial, as I walked to the market, I passed a vagrant sitting in a little open area where there was one bench, one tree and a lot of pigeons. He was your typical Skid Row denizen: the tattered coat held together with a safety pin, the unshaven chin, the watery eyes, the broken-down shoes, the straggly hair.

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Since street people somehow get attracted to me, I wasn’t surprised when this one nodded to me, got up and walked into the grocery store the same time I did. Once inside, he gallantly got a shopping cart for me and pushed it wherever I went.

He never said a word. Neither did I. As we walked past the wines, he reached over and put into the basket a small bottle of the cheapest wine on the shelf. He looked at me for a reaction and I just walked on, finishing the shopping

At the checkout counter, he left the cart and waited for me as I paid. I had the wine put into a small paper bag and, after we left the store, I handed it to him. Still neither of us spoke. He went his way and I walked back to the hotel. From then on, every time I went to the market, which was about once or twice a week, the guy was there and we repeated the whole silent episode.

One day he wasn’t there. I looked up and down the street, but my poor smelly wreck of an unkempt, unwashed “private bum"--as the other reporters referred to him--was not in sight. I went into the grocery and got my goodies. As I pushed the cart to the checkout counter, the clerk there looked up, glanced around, noticed that my usual escort was missing and asked me: “Where’s your husband today?”

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I never remember when anything happened, but the date of the big earthquake is unforgettable. It was Feb. 9, 1971. I went to bed the night before and the next thing I remember was seeing wild lightning-like flashes outside my window and thinking, “My God, the astronauts have fallen on the hotel!” (The Apollo 14 mission was under way at the time.)

Then I heard a grinding within the walls and my big bedside lamp started to fall on me. As I sat up and grabbed it, I saw all my clothes in my closet suddenly sway up, up, up until the hems were almost vertical to the ground and then, just as slowly, the dresses swung back to the other side. It was 6 a.m. Just as I thought the room would crack apart, it stopped.

I reached over and put on the all-news radio station. Nothing. I tried to telephone. Nothing. By this time there were only a few aftershocks and I went for a glass of water. Dark brown water poured out of the faucets. But the lights stayed on. The hotel was standing.

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Finally, I was able to telephone New York and get dressed to go to the Hall of Justice for the trial. In the old court building were huge cracks, plaster on the floor, people in little knots.

Outside the Hall of Justice, Manson’s girls, X-marks on their foreheads, were proudly telling anyone who would listen:

“Charlie predicted this earthquake. He told us about this two days ago.”

That very morning, the women defendants, one by one, confessed to the murders on the witness stand. It was just another bizarre turn in the Manson trial.

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(Copyright) Thunder’s Mouth Press of New York


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