Manson follower's tapes may yield new clues, LAPD says

The official record says that Charles Manson and his cult followers murdered eight people during their reign of terror across Los Angeles more than 40 years ago.

But for those involved in bringing members of the Manson family to justice, there has always been the lingering suspicion that their trail of death was longer. Over the years, questions have persisted about a man's apparent suicide in England, the drowning of an attorney and whether bodies are buried under the California ranches the cult called home.

Now, Los Angeles police hope that they have stumbled on a trove of new clues that could shed more light on the Manson murders.

A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Texas this week granted a request from the LAPD to review eight cassette tapes containing hours of conversations between one of Manson's most fervent followers and his late attorney. The lawyer made the recording while interviewing Charles "Tex" Watson after he and other Manson family members had been arrested in 1969.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said that Paul Dostie, a retired Mammoth Lakes police detective, searched the Barker Ranch in Death Valley with cadaver-sniffing dogs in 2008. The search was in 2007.



No one knows what's on the tapes, but they possibly represent the first new clues concerning the Manson murders in years. That was enough for the LAPD to take another look at the case, and it has Manson scholars excited about the possibilities.

Detectives believe that Watson may have discussed "additional unsolved murders committed by followers of Charles Manson," according to a letter sent to the U.S. Justice Department by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

"Do we expect to find something in the recordings? We just don't know," said LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith. "But we're going to check just like any good investigator would."

Among Manson murder experts, there is much debate about what — if any — dramatic new revelations the Watson tapes will yield in the much-chronicled and much-investigated case.

One of Manson's prosecutors, Stephen Kay, said Manson had bragged about additional murders over the years but it was impossible to know if he was telling the truth.

"Manson told one of his cellmates his followers committed as many as 35 murders," Kay said. "He provided no particulars, no names and no dates. He just fueled the fear that he craved.... Criminal defendants are known to lie to their attorneys. But maybe these tapes will reveal something."

Kay said he has always believed that the Manson family was responsible for one additional murder.

In 1969 — just months after the murder rampage — Joel Pugh, the 29-year-old boyfriend of Manson clan member Sandra Good, was found dead in a London hotel. The young American's death was listed as a suicide by Britiish authorities, who said Pugh had been depressed.

But Kay and others think that he was killed by a Manson family member.

"Manson despised him," Kay said. "People who Manson hated ended up dead."

Paul Dostie, a retired Mammoth Lakes police detective who has studied the murders, believes bodies of Manson family victims could be buried under the Barker Ranch in Death Valley.

It was there that Manson was arrested after the murder rampage. After much research, Dostie decided to check the property out. In February 2007, cadaver-sniffing dogs led by his black Labrador Buster became agitated at two sites on the decrepit ranch. About a year later, Inyo County sheriff's investigators dug up the ranch and used ground-penetrating radar to search for bodies.

They found none, though Dostie thinks that searchers didn't delve deeply enough.

The murders for which Manson family members were convicted all occurred during a frightening period in the summer of 1969. In late July, Gary Hinman, 34, a musician, was stabbed to death for refusing to turn over his money and property to Manson.

About a week later in early August, four Manson followers — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Watson and Linda Kasabian — dressed in dark clothing and armed themselves with knives and made their way through the Hollywood Hills to the Benedict Canyon estate rented by actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski.

Steven Parent, 18, a friend of the caretaker, was the first to die. Before being stabbed to death, Tate, 26, begged for her unborn child to be spared. Also killed were hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35, Voytek Frykowski, 32, a friend of Polanski, and Abigail Folger, 25, a coffee heiress and Frykowski's girlfriend. Tate's blood was used to smear the word "PIG" on the front door of the home.

Later, Manson himself entered the Los Feliz home of Leno LaBianca, 44, owner of a small supermarket chain, and tied up LaBianca and his 38-year-old wife, Rosemary. He left them to die at the hands of Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, who butchered them with knives and forks from the LaBianca kitchen.

Donald "Shorty" Shea, a hand at the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, where the Manson family lived for a time, would be killed later and his body concealed on the ranch for years. He was the last victim whose murder yielded a conviction.

An additional death that some have considered suspicious occurred during the Manson murder trials.

Ronald Hughes, a 35-year-old attorney, had been hired by Manson as part of his defense team for the "family." But in court, he ended up strongly defending Van Houten, who was also on trial for murder, and his defense of Van Houten seemed to come at the expense of Manson.

In late November 1970, as the trial neared its end, Hughes disappeared.

Four months later, his body turned up wedged in a rocky creek in Ventura County.

In his bestseller "Helter Skelter" and in later interviews, Los Angeles County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi suggested that Hughes had been killed at the behest of Manson. In an interview with a TV reporter several years ago, Bugliosi said one member of the Manson family described Hughes as "the first of the retaliation murders."

Kay said he was "on the fence" about whether Hughes was a victim of Manson's group. But he added that the cult leader was plainly angry at Hughes.

"The last thing Manson said to him was, 'I don't want to see you in the courtroom again,'" Kay said. "And he was never seen again alive."

But Charlie Rudd, an 83-year-old retired Ventura County sheriff's sergeant, said Hughes' death probably had nothing to do with Manson.

When Hughes disappeared, Rudd was assigned the investigation. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department heard a rumor that Hughes had been taken to the Barker Ranch, but no evidence was found there.

Hughes' body was found near Sespe Hot Springs in the Los Padres National Forest, and Rudd said there was little evidence of foul play.

Rudd believes Hughes had gone camping and got caught in a powerful rainstorm that nearly stranded other people. The creek swelled dangerously and Hughes died either because he drowned or because he was battered to death by debris and rocks, Rudd says.

"He was hit by some debris or lost consciousness and drowned and drifted down the river quite a ways," Rudd said. "There was nothing else to indicate otherwise and the medical examiner couldn't come to a conclusion of anything other than that."

Three years before Hughes disappeared, Rudd met Manson after he had been arrested in Ventura County on a minor offense. It was there that Manson appeared in possibly his most iconic mug shot, his eyes as wild as his hair. Rudd, a court officer at the time, said he chatted amiably with Manson about his "harem" of women and his way of life. There was little hint of a Pied Piper who would lead his followers to murder.

As time has passed, Rudd said he's not surprised that many still believe the Manson family's ledger of victims was longer.

"Those people were capable of a lot of things," he said.

Simon Wells, author of the Charles Manson biography "Coming Down Fast," said he has long suspected that the Manson family was responsible for the November 1969 slaying of John Haught in Venice. Authorities concluded that Haught died accidentally while playing Russian roulette with a revolver. Wells has investigated the case and found that Manson family members were present when the shooting occurred.

Watson is serving a life sentence in prison for killing Tate and four others at her Hollywood Hills home. Detectives had until now not been able to get the tapes, but Watson's attorney died in 2009 and the law firm filed for bankruptcy. Watson's decision to sell the tapes to a coauthor of his 1978 book "Will You Die for Me? The Man Who Killed for Charles Manson Tells His Own Story" waived his attorney-client privilege, the LAPD argued in court.

With the judge's ruling, detectives could get the tapes in two weeks, barring a legal challenge by Watson.

hector.becerra@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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