Leslie Van Houten
|Leslie Van Houten|
Mug Shot taken in 1999
|Born||Leslie Louise Van Houten
August 23, 1949
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.
|Death, commuted to life imprisonment|
|Conviction(s)||Robbery, murder, and conspiracy|
Leslie Louise Van Houten (born August 23, 1949) is a former member of Charles Manson's "Family" who has served 44 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Van Houten was initially convicted at the main Charles Manson trial which was for murders committed on two consecutive nights. The case was a media sensation in the United States mainly due to the murder of pregnant Hollywood actress Sharon Tate and 4 other people at 10050 Cielo Drive, which Van Houten was not involved with. She was charged with participating, aged 19, in the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, her accomplices were Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson, who was the main active killer. Van Houten did not appear to take the court seriously and, conforming to Manson's wishes, she dismissed her first two lawyers for blaming her actions on drug use and Manson's control over her. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to be executed, although death penalties in the state were later commuted to life imprisonment. She was granted a re-trial due to lack of proper legal representation after her lawyer's death during the trial. She pleaded not guilty to first degree murder on the grounds of her diminished responsibility from chronic use of hallucinogens, but the jury could not agree on a verdict. At the third trial she was charged with felony murder, thereby preventing her previous defense that drug use affected her culpability. She was convicted and given a life sentence with eligibility for parole, which the prosecutor said she would one day be suitable for.
Van Houten's lawyer has adduced her unblemished prison record, work with other inmates, acceptance of responsibility for her crimes, and statements of regret and reform as demonstrating she was now worthy of parole. In 2002 the parole board acknowledged that no further course of study was available to Van Houten while rejecting the application and describing her expressions of remorse as superficial. She won a judicial order that the board ought to have given some indication of what further progress to rehabilitation was required. A higher court ruled that in deciding to deny parole, aspects of the crime committed by an inmate could outweigh any evidence of their subsequent reform. Some of those sympathetic to her rehabilitation in society question if there has ever been a real chance of Van Houten being paroled. In 2018 she will be eligible for what will be the 21st board hearing to consider her suitability.
Van Houten grew up in a middle class family, and had a conventional background although her father is said to have identified himself as an alcoholic, and her parents were divorced when she was in her teens. Initially a regular churchgoer, she began taking LSD, Benzedrine and hashish in ever increasing amounts around the time of her her Junior year of high school, running away to Haight-Ashbury with her boyfriend for a time, but returning to compete high school. Following an abortion at the age of 17, and during a period of interest in yoga, she went to college, where she stopped taking drugs for several months. She graduated from business college, but decided to become an itinerant hippy.
Delinquent from an early age, during his late teens Manson had been released from an institution to live with relatives in a West Virginia town, where though generally regarded as a criminal braggart, some law abiding people found him very likeable. Manson had a brief marriage to "a cute popular girl" between prison terms, before a spell as a pimp ended with a ten year sentence that like the rest of his 17 years incarcerated was largely because of his propensity for breaking Federal law (comparable crimes would have brought him no more than 5 years total in state courts). His IQ was well above average. In prison Manson went through enthusiasms for alternative philosophies like Scientology and Buddhism, and requested a transfer to Leavenworth (considered one of the harshest penitentiaries), because he said he would get fewer complaints about his guitar practicing there. In 1967 he completed the sentence and, protesting that prison was his home, Manson was released aged 32. He aspired to success as a singer-songwriter. In Berkeley, Manson met and moved in with 23-year-old library assistant Mary Brunner, who author Vincent Bugliosi described as "singularly unattractive" and probably never courted before. Brunner introduced Manson to environmentalist thought, which he incorporated with material drawn from his prison studies to present himself as a guru, denouncing American competitive consumer society. Manson preached the positive values of nature, sex, children, and how everything in life ought to be be fun. He was successful in gathering a small group of young largely female devotees, mainly from broken middle class homes.
Manson's presentation of himself
Actor Al Lewis, who had Manson babysit his children on a couple of occasions, described him as ' A nice guy when I knew him'. Through Phil Kaufman, Manson got an introduction to young Universal Studios producer, Gary Stromberg, then working on a film adaptation of the life of Jesus set in modern America, with a black Jesus and southern redneck 'Romans'. Stromberg thought Manson made interesting suggestions about what Jesus might do in a situation, seeming strangely attuned to the role; to illustrate the place of women he had one of his women kiss his feet, but then kissed hers in return. He also kissed the feet of Dennis Wilson during their first meeting. At the beach one day, Stromberg watched while Manson preached against a materialistic outlook only to be questioned about his well-furnished bus. Nonchalant, he tossed the bus keys to the doubter who promptly drove it away, while Manson watched apparently unconcerned. According to Stromberg, Manson was a dynamic personality with an ability to read a person's weakness and 'play' them. Trying to co-opt an influential individual from a motorcycle gang by granting him access to 'Family' women, Manson claimed to be sexually pathetic, and convinced the biker that his outsized endowment was all that kept the 'Family' females at Spahn ranch. On one occasion the enraged father of a runaway girl who had joined the 'Family' pointed a shotgun at Manson and told him he was about to die, Manson quietly invited him to shoot, before talking to the man about love and, with the aid of LSD, persuading him to accept the situation.
Recruitment of Van Houten
In San Francisco during the summer of 1968, Leslie Van Houten met two of the most articulate members of the 'Family', Catherine Share and Bobby Beausoleil, and was told of a counterculture guru with all the answers called Charles Manson. His ideas in 1968 were similar to the cultural utopianism that circulated throughout the hippie subculture that Van Houten moved in. She was captivated by Manson and joined his 'Family' which maintained itself by freeloading and eating out of garbage bins, which was presented as a form of environmentalism. They also went without washing facilities because he taught that filth was natural. Manson pulled their at their hair or hit them for not obeying his orders. In addition to decided when they would eat, sleep and have sex and with who they would have sex, he controlled the taking of LSD. Manson gave followers larger doses than he himself took. According to him "When you take LSD enough times you reach a state of nothing , of no thought". According to Van Houten, she became 'saturated in acid' and could not grasp the existence of those living a non-psychedelic reality.
From August 1968 they were based at the Spahn Ranch. Manson ostensibly ran his 'Family' based on hippie-style principles of acceptance and free love. But at the remote ranch, where they were isolated from any other influences, no other opinion but his was heard. At every meal he would lecture repetitively. Violence was also used, and there were beatings and whippings. Van Houten said Manson's attitude to her was she "belonged to Bobby", who was valued by Manson, because of his musical gifts and contacts and recruiting of girls who could be sexually exploited. According to Van Houten, she and other Manson followers looked to 13 year old 'Family' member Dianne Lake as the "empty vessel" epitomie of what women were supposed to be in the Manson system of values. Van Houten's position in the Manson 'Family' was interpreted as her being a "leader" by Barbara Hoyt, when Hoyt spoke at Van Houten's parole hearing in 2013.
Manson's core followers, who numbered just over a dozen, believed that he possessed extraordinary knowledge and wisdom. At the ranch Manson indoctrinated the 'Family' into a synthesis of the Book of Revelation and the White Album.:311–2 By early 1969 the Family were spending much of their time reading the last book of the Bible in the light of now Manson's fully-formed theory. This was that mainstream authoritarian society, which he identified with the subject of the Beatles song Piggies, would be overthrown by a black uprising that would be caused by the world-changing pop album Manson would record. Blacks would win and have their turn at running America. Manson, lectured that the Family would be joined by the Beatles, and escape to a bottomless pit, which they could enter through a 'hole in the ground'. They would emerge and be acknowledged as the rightful rulers after 150 years at the center of the earth, where the family would have grown in number to 144,000 and their bodies taken on new forms.:238–44 Manson, who had already disappointed in a 3 hour professional recording session, pursued contacts made during a friendship with Dennis Wilson, but was rebuffed at Terry Melcher's former residence at 10050 Cielo Drive, which had by then been rented by the husband of Sharon Tate. Melcher was interested in Mason's music, but became chary after a trip to the Sphan Ranch.:238–44
By April 1969 Manson had involved followers in criminal activity such as auto theft and residential burglaries, and Van Houten (who burgled her father's home twice) had been arrested and spent a few days in jail. the same month Manson shot a black man over a drugs dispute and, becoming increasingly paranoid about Black Panthers exacting vengeance, he brought a motorcycle gang to the Spahn ranch, and posted armed guards around the clock. Preparations for violence included Tex Watson demonstrating how to kill with a knife. The irrational nature of the motive for the murders Van Houten was convicted of was later adduced by an appeal court as a factor that would weigh against her being paroled, as was the attempt to create racial animus.
Gary Hinman, known to be soft hearted and a dispenser of handouts to acquaintances Beausoleil and Mary Brunner, was held captive and murdered. According to testimony by Brunner at Beausoleil's trial, Beausoleil killed Hinman because he would not join Manson's pop group. The words "Political piggy" were written on a wall in Hinman's blood. On August 6, 1969 Beausoleil was arrested in possession of Hinman's car and the bloody murder weapon. Two days later Brunner was arrested for credit card fraud. That evening Manson ordered the deaths of Tate and her housemates. The following night, August 9, 1969, Manson drove Van Houten, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, Steve Grogan, and Linda Kasabian around, and at one point was apparently about to shoot a man at traffic lights when they changed, before going to a house near 3301 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Manson entered the house with Watson and handed him the leather thongs from around his neck telling the LaBiancas that it was a robbery and no harm would come to them; he then left the house, instructing Krenwinkel and Van Houten to go inside and join Watson.
Krenwinkel and Van Houten found Rosemary LaBianca in a bedroom, to which she had retired while her husband had fallen asleep while reading in the living room. Watson put a pillowcase over Leno and Rosemary LaBianca's heads, and then tied the electrical cord from a lamp around their necks. Rosemary LaBianca started struggling; meanwhile, her husband, who had been tied up in the living room, started screaming as Watson began stabbing him. Rosemary grabbed the lamp and swung it at Leslie, who fought with her and knocked the lamp away. Van Houten then held LaBianca down while Krenwinkel tried to stab her in the chest, but the blade bent on LaBianca's clavicle. Van Houten called for assistance from Watson, who entered the bedroom and stabbed Rosemary LaBianca several times. He then found Van Houten, handed her the knife, and told her to "do something" (since Manson had instructed Watson to make sure everyone actively participated) Van Houden stabbed Rosemary over a dozen times in the lower back. The autopsy indicated that some of the 47 stab wounds Rosemary suffered had been inflicted post-mortem. Items taken from the house included a wallet with a credit card that was discarded on Manson's instructions; his rationale was that a black person would pick it up and implicate themselves in the murders of the LaBiancas by using the credit card.
On August 16 Van Houten was one of those booked after a raid on the Spahn Ranch by police investigating thefts. Manson suspected ranch hand Donald Shea and had him tortured and murdered. The 'Family' partially moved to the Barker Ranch, where they drew attention to themselves by vandalism. Manson was arrested on October 12. By this time the motorcycle gang had informed on the Manson group for the Tate killings. Van Houten was not sought by police at first, she stayed with another woman at a remote location, and spent part of her time in the desert searching for the 'hole in the ground', before being arrested for murder in December 1969.
Tex Watson, who had shot or stabbed all of the victims at the Tate and LaBianca murders and was the primary inflictor of fatal injuries, was not arraigned at the main 'Manson' trial, which covered both the Tate and LaBianca murders. Manson was accused of orchestrating both attacks, but the only defendants whose murder charges were for actually inflicting injuries on the LaBiancas were three women: Van Houten, Krenwinkel, and Atkins. Manson's defence was that the three women had committed the crimes out of love for Watson.
Unlike the others, Van Houten was not accused of the murders of Tate and her friends, and she was the youngest, which might have aided her to receive a recommendation for mercy. However, the female defendants made a disturbing impression, Krenwinkel; and Atkins interrupted the prosecutor, and Atkins knocked over his notes during his closing argument. Van Houten did not appear to take the court seriously (she later claimed to have been supplied with LSD during the trial) and giggled during testimony about the victims. A psychiatrist, noting that she had admitted to hitting her adopted sister, characterized Van Houten as "a spoiled little princess" who was bad tempered and impulsive. Manson opposed his the three female co-defendants running a defense that he asked them to commit killings, and Van Houten dismissed two lawyers for blaming her actions on Manson's control over her. She insisted her crimes were not due to drugs or Manson, but to the influence of television and the Vietnam war. Her third lawyer had began to use a similar defense to her previous attorneys when he was drowned hiking.
On March 29, 1971 she was convicted of murder with the other defendants, and sentenced to be executed. The death sentences were automatically commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court's People v. Anderson decision resulted in the invalidation of all death sentences imposed in California prior to 1972.
She was granted a retrial in 1977 due to the failure to declare a mistrial when her lawyer died. Van Houten's defence argued her capacity for rational thought had been diminished due to LSD use and Manson's influence. The jury could not agree on a verdict. According to what the jury foreman later told reporters, they thought it was difficult on the basis of the evidence to determine whether Van Houten's judgment had been unimpaired enough for a verdict of first degree murder rather than manslaughter. It was reported that she could go free if she was convicted of manslaughter (this assumed her first hearing would have granted her parole). With either a manslaughter or first degree murder conviction she was eligible to apply for parole by 1978, because she had already served seven years.
The prosecution in 1970-71 had emphasised that the killers' motive had nothing to do with robbery, and they had ignored valuable pieces of property. At Van Houtens second retrial the prosecution altered the charges by using the theft of food, clothing and a small sum of money taken from the house to add a charge of robbery, whereby the felony murder rule tended to undermine a defence of reduced capacity. She was on bond for a few months before being found guilty of first degree murder. Van Hooten was given a life sentence that entailed eligibility for parole, which the prosecutor said she would one day be suitable for.
By law life sentences are required to have the possibility for parole, and a parole board rejection of an application is phrased as allowing for a different decision in future if the inmate makes sufficient progress. Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel (who were originally convicted along with Van Houten and Manson at the main trial) had both been found guilty of the most notorious crime, the murder of five people, including the eight-and-a-half months pregnant Sharon Tate, at 10050 Cielo Drive; in addition Krenwinkel was also convicted of the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca while Atkins was also convicted of murdering Hinman. In consequence Atkins and Krenwinkel were not generally thought to have a chance of release. Van Houten has been thought to have a chance of obtaining parole, by comparison to Atkins and Krenwinkle. Manson's male followers have been been relatively successful at parole hearings. Clem Grogan, convicted and given a death sentence by the jury for the torture-murder of Donald Shea with Manson, was freed in 1985. Bruce Davis, also an accomplice of Manson in the killing of Shea, and with a second murder conviction for the Hinman killing, was given a parole board recommendation for release in 2010 although very few inmates with conviction on a charge of murder had been able to obtain parole in California before 2011 (when policy was charged to save money).
After receiving her thirteenth rejection, in which the hearing concluded she posed "an unreasonable risk of danger to society", Van Houten took legal action. Judge Bob Krug said the board's reasoning turned solely on the unalterable gravity of her offense and effectively gave her life without parole, a sentence unauthorized by law. The judgement was overturned by a higher court, which said although parole hearings must consider evidence for an inmate being rehabilitated, a hearing had discretion to deny parole based solely on a review of the circumstances of the crime, if “some evidence” supported their decision.
Van Houten was denied parole in 2004. In 2006 she was informed she might re-apply in one year (as opposed to the usual two years), which seemed to indicate that the board thought she was making progress that might outweigh the heinousness of her crimes. However, in 2007 she was again unsuccessful, and rejections in 2009 and 2010 followed. In 2013 she told her 20th parole hearing that she has changed and is trying to live a life for healing. In announcing a decision to deny parole, the commissioner of the parole hearing board said that she had failed to explain how someone of her good background and intelligence could have committed such "cruel and atrocious" murders. The commissioner also said "The question is whether the good will ever outweigh the bad. It certainly didn't today". Van Houten will next be eligible to apply for parole in 2018.
In the media
Van Houten's parole hearings appear o Court TV and attract nationwide media attention on comment from former prosecutors and relatives of her victims, and relatives of the victims of other killers. Filmmaker John Waters has actively advocated for Van Houten's parole although he acknowledges that the horror in which Manson's female accomplices are still held means public support for her release may be used to her disadvantage.
Leslie Van Houten was portrayed by actress Cathey Paine in the highly acclaimed made-for-TV film Helter Skelter. The 2009 film Leslie, My Name Is Evil (released in some countries under the titles Manson Girl and Manson, My Name Is Evil) is partially based on Van Houten's early life and stars actress Kristen Hager as Van Houten. In Helter Skelter (2004 remake of the 1976 film) Van Houten was portrayed by actress Catherine Wadkins. A year earlier, in 2003, Amy Yates portrayed Leslie Van Houten in the film The Manson Family. Tania Raymonde will portray Van Houten in the 2014 film, "Manson Girls".
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