Showing posts with label Tate-LaBianca murders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tate-LaBianca murders. Show all posts

02 April 2020

Chaos



I probably wouldn't have read Tom O'Neill's Chaos, Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties if he had not appeared on Eye 94, a book show on WLPN-Chicago radio. This is a low power station and the show ( full disclosure here) is hosted by three book geeks, one of whom is our son. It tells you something about the state of the publishing business that a huge variety of authors, from local first timer to literary translators to Pulitzer Prize winners, is willing and eager to share the mikes.

Still on the face of it, another book about the Sixties did not appeal. Great music, sure, and some high ideals, but also a lot of self-absorption, pretension, and outright bad behavior, some of which still haunts us now.

But O'Neill was so down to earth, unassuming, and informative that I cracked the covers. Four hundred and thirty-six pages plus notes later, I know a lot more than I knew before, and I have a lot more questions about what I thought I knew previously.

Chaos, I think, will appeal to two different sorts of readers. Conspiracy buffs and true crime fanciers will have a field day with this exploration into the muddy waters of the Tate-LaBianca murders and their perpetrators. Along the way, O'Neill turns up a bizarre gallery of spy agency and FBI operatives (worried about anti-war protests and Black Power), dodgy psychiatrists, mind-control specialists, ambitious or anxious politicians, and cops both frustrated and corrupt. There's an appearance by Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, along with links to the CIA and illegal human experimentation. You couldn't make this stuff up!

The milieu really requires a Thomas Pynchon to do it justice, and, come to think of it, Pynchon's early novels were contemporary with the drugs, anxiety, and paranoia of the Sixties. Unsurprisingly, O'Neill had trouble digesting all these strands, and what had begun as an article for an entertainment magazine on the lasting impact of the Manson case on Hollywood morphed twenty years later into a book so long and complicated that he took on a collaborator, Dan Piepenbring to help him out of the documentary thicket.

And that brings me to the second group of potential readers: fellow scribblers. While Chaos is a convincingly-researched true crime account, it is also two other things: a critique of what might be called the official story, the late Vincent Bugliosi's best selling Helter Skelter, and the narrative – and it honestly is an epic– of O'Neill's twenty-year pursuit of information.

Anyone who has done even modest amounts of research will be sympathetic to O'Neill's obsessive pursuit of just one more document, one more interview, one more angle. He was warned at the start that the Manson case had the potential to devour his life and that warning proved prescient. Again and again, he worries that he is going down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, and that he is becoming so overwhelmed not just with information, but with conflicting information, distortions and outright lies, that he will never finish.

It was a near thing. Before he was done, O'Neill was half a million in debt. Premiere, the original commissioning magazine was defunct, and his first publisher had washed its editorial hands of the book and was threatening to sue for the return of his advance. The lot of the writer, like Gilbert and Sullivan's policeman, is not always a happy one.

Thomas O'Neill
O'Neill is candid about these tribulations and about his anxiety concerning his debts, especially to his devoted parents. Along the way he is threatened with retribution of one sort or another and with suits, including several times by Bugliosi, who had some violence issues as well. More than once, O'Neill questioned whether or not devoting his life to the aftermath of  several sordid murders was worthwhile.

Part way through the investigation someone asked him just that, and he records his answer at the end of Chaos: "This has been the most exciting thirteen years of my life. There's nothing like the adrenaline rush of catching these people in lies, and documenting it – knowing you've found something no one else has found."

There speaks the true researcher and one of the truest sorts of detectives.


Good Eye 94 discussion with Tom O'Neill

31 July 2014

The Road to Damascus


by Eve Fisher

Every once in a while there's a high profile parole hearing, where everyone gets geared up on one side or the other.  (And yes, we just had one up my way.) They're usually murder cases, sometimes horrific.  There is press coverage, rehashing the crime in all its gory details.  The family (usually) protests vociferously to any parole.  The character witnesses for the prisoner are generally considered either bleeding hearts and/or easily gulled and/or sincere but mistaken. And usually the prisoner is not released.  Contrary to the television world, I would say that 90% of all violent offenders do not get released their first time up for parole, or second, or third.  And many violent offenders do not and perhaps will never get released.

This may not be a bad thing:  Charles Manson leaps to mind.  He is currently 80 years old, still residing in Corcoran State Prison in California, and that's fine with me.  The members of his "family" who participated in the Tate-LaBianca Murders (mostly tried in 1970, one in 1971) were:

  • Susan Atkins - 17 parole hearings, all denied; 22 years old going in; died at 61 in prison.
  • Patricia Krenwinkle - 13 parole hearings, all denied; 23 years old going in; currently 67 years old.
  • Tex Watson - 14 parole hearings, all denied; 25 years old going in; currently 69 years old.
  • Leslie Van Houten - 19 parole hearings, all denied; 19 years old going in; currently 65 years old.

Everyone agrees that they were manipulated by Manson; that he masterminded the horrible murders; that they were under the influence of drugs.  All had/have, over their 40+ years in prison, claimed to become born-again Christians, and/or worked with AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or transformed.  It is extremely doubtful that any of them will ever be paroled.  The crimes were too horrific (although no more horrific than others that have been committed against less famous people) and received too much publicity.

Okay.  So what about these cases?
  • A 16 year old tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole for shooting a taxi driver in cold blood in order to get the taxi and use it to flee from the scene of a robbery the kid had just committed.
  • An 18 year old Native American killed another man in a drunken brawl and was sentenced to life without parole because "he would never be a decent member of society."
  • Any of the many "three strikes and you're out" life convictions for committing three felonies.

What if they clean up their act, sober up, get saved, whatever, study, work hard, participate in AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or were transformed in various ways?  Two questions:
  1. Is there really such a thing as repentance and transformation?
  2. Does it matter?
First one:  Can people really repent, change, transform? You would think, given the title above, that everyone who claims to be Christian would say yes.  However, after years working in the judicial system, I can tell you that most people don't believe it, at least not for certain crimes and certainly not for others.  Why?  Well, here are a few options:
  1. They've - we've - all been taken one too many times; we've all been screwed big time and haven't gotten over it.
  2. They can't imagine another person's life, much less that life actually changing.  How can someone, anyone, think/feel/act differently than me without being dangerously crazy, and in need of serious treatment and/or incarceration? (Well, that's what fiction is for, to explain it.)
  3. Life is much easier when you maintain the "once a ___, always a ___" attitude.
But okay, say we do believe that people change.  Comes the second question, does it matter?  In other words, what is punishment really about?  I've read that it's a three-fold concept, incorporating
  1. retribution and/or incapacitation (as in Old Testament/Sharia law); 
  2. deterrence (although there have been studies that prove people aren't deterred by the severity of punishment; certainly in Restoration/ Victorian England, where people were hanged for stealing a handkerchief, there were still plenty of thieves because poverty was so endemic); and 
  3. rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation is the interesting one:  if rehabilitation (i.e., transformation) is the goal, and if people are capable of rehabilitation, does that mean we still execute them and/or keep them incarcerated for life? And if they are rehabilitated/transformed, shouldn't we let them out, to try again, to live again?  Or is rehabilitation, while a sweet dream, an ideal outcome, irrelevant to punishment as a debt that must be paid, using time instead of money?

(Although, speaking of debts, we all know, don't we, that prison is extremely expensive? Which is part of the push towards private prisons which, frankly, scare the hell out of me, because private prisons have quotas for occupancy...  And then there's the whole thing of trying to pry all the costs for our court system out of the accused and arrested - whether or not they are found innocent.  And then there's the infamous case of the woman who died in jail because her children skipped school and someone had to pay the truancy fines and they didn't have the money, so she got to go to the equivalent of debtors' prison in Pennsylvania.)

Look, I believe in rehabilitation.  I believe in transformation.  I am not the same person I was in my teens (thank God).  And yet, I have no answers, just questions.  There are some crimes for which I'd lock people away for life.  But they may not always be the same crimes that someone else would lock a person away for life.

And then there's Saul.  He was guilty, at the very least, of accessory to murder (he held the coats as Stephen got lynched), and he was going to kill as many heretics as he could find.  And then Saul got knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, and became a believer overnight, blinded and restored to sight by a miracle.  He eventually had to leave Damascus - in the middle of the night - and went to Jerusalem, with a new name - Paul - but that didn't fool anybody. The disciples didn't want anything to do with him, because they didn't believe that he had changed.  It was a big risk. They took some convincing.  So do we. So do I.  The question is, when is the risk worth taking? Is it worth taking? How do we know?