Thursday 22 August 2019

Manson prosecutor believes surviving gang members should never be released

It is 50 years since the Manson ‘family’ carried out brutal murders in California.

Charles Manson en route to court in Independence, California, following his arrest at nearby Barker Ranch (Harold Filan/AP)
Charles Manson en route to court in Independence, California, following his arrest at nearby Barker Ranch (Harold Filan/AP)

By John Rogers, Associated Press

The prosecutor who helped jail members of the Manson “family” says the surviving members of the gang should never be released from prison.

Stephen Kay was a fresh-faced lawyer just 27 years old and three years out of law school when circumstances handed him the Charles Manson “family” murder case.

Over the next half-century, it would come to define his career and lead to death threats that to this day he worries a Manson sycophant might try to carry out.

“I don’t dwell on it, but I’m careful. I always look around to see if I’m being followed or anything,” the 76-year-old retired prosecutor said recently as he paused to discuss the case that punctured the peace, love and happiness movement that flowered in the late 1960s.

Mr Kay helped lock up Manson family members but never really relinquished the case in his nearly 40 years in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

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File photos showing actress Sharon Tate, left, and at right, her body being taken from her rented house in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles (AP)

He has attended some 60 parole hearings over the years where he argued the killers should never be released.

“The crime was simply too heinous,” Mr Kay said.

It was 50 years ago this week that Manson, a small-time career criminal who had reinvented himself as a hippie guru, dispatched a band of disaffected young followers on a deadly weekend rampage that would terrorise Los Angeles and forever imprint on the American consciousness the image of the slight, steely-eyed cult leader as the face of evil.

On that first night, August 8 1969, Manson sent a handful of his young, mostly female followers to the palatial hilltop estate of actress Sharon Tate with orders to kill everyone there.

The 26-year-old actress and four friends were bludgeoned, shot and stabbed scores of times, and their blood used to scrawl the words “Pigs” and “Helter Skelter” on the walls.

Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, was eight and a half months pregnant, and her killers later gave evidence that she pleaded in her last moments for her unborn baby’s life.

I admit that she's (Leslie Van Houten) a model prisoner, and I commend her for that, and I think she should keep doing her good work in prison Stephen Kay

Others killed were coffee heiress Abigail Folger, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring and Wojciech Frykowski, an aspiring screenwriter and friend of Polanski, who was out of town.

On the way into the estate, the attackers crossed paths with 19-year-old Steven Parent, who was leaving after visiting an acquaintance who lived in the guesthouse.

Parent was shot to death.

The next night, Manson himself led a handful of followers to the home of wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, tying up the couple and leaving the others to butcher them with knives.

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Charles Manson sticks his tongue out at photographers (George Brich/AP)

Authorities would say later that it was part of a plot Manson hatched to persuade gullible young followers to launch a race war that only he could hide them from.

He had got the premonition, they said, from a twisted interpretation of the Beatles song Helter Skelter.

The killers went on trial the following year, and Mr Kay joined the prosecution team two months later after the original lead prosecutor was dismissed and Vincent Bugliosi took over.

Mr Bugliosi’s subsequent book Helter Skelter became one of the best-selling crime tales of all time.

Mr Kay says the Manson trial was “definitely the most bizarre” case he ever tried, adding with understatement: “It was almost a circus.”

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File photo of Stephen Kay (Eric Risberg/AP)

The cult leader and his followers carved Xs into their foreheads to show their disdain for society.

At one point, Manson leaped over the defence table with a pencil in hand and shouted at the judge that someone should cut off his head.

At another, he grabbed a newspaper with a headline declaring President Richard Nixon had concluded he was guilty and held it up for the jury to see.

Outside the courthouse, Manson followers not implicated in the killings gathered daily to sing songs and even threaten to set themselves on fire.

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File phot of Leslie Van Houten (AP)

One day, two young female followers sneaked up alongside Mr Kay in the courthouse parking lot.

“They said they were going to do to my house what was done at the Tate house,” he said, adding both he and Mr Bugliosi, who died in 2015, retained bodyguards throughout the trial.

Over the years, Manson, who died in 2017, would threaten Kay’s life from behind bars.

When that trial was completed after nearly a year, Manson and three followers, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, were sentenced to death but later had their punishment reduced to life in prison.

Atkins also died while serving her term, in 2009.

Another disciple, Charles “Tex” Watson, fled to his native Texas after the killings and fought extradition for nearly a year.

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The home of actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski, after Tate and four others were murdered (AP)

When he returned, Mr Bugliosi and Mr Kay, now co-counsels, won his conviction.

Van Houten, whose lawyer vanished during the first trial and was later found dead under mysterious circumstances, was granted a retrial in 1976.

By then Mr Bugliosi had left the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, and Mr Kay was the sole lead prosecutor.

After a hung jury, he won a conviction in 1978, and Van Houten returned to prison, where she has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counselling and leads programmes to rehabilitate fellow inmates.

She was recommended for parole three times in recent years, but each time the governor blocked the recommendation.

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American actress Sharon Tate and Polish born film director Roman Polanski skip downstairs after their wedding at Chelsea Register Office in London, 1968 (Eddie Worth/AP)

“I admit that she’s a model prisoner, and I commend her for that, and I think she should keep doing her good work in prison,” Mr Kay said.

“But you know, the victims in this case were dead and buried in 1969. They don’t get any parole.”

Retired for several years now, Mr Kay still keeps in touch with Sharon Tate’s younger sister, Debra, having grown close to the family during the trials and numerous parole hearings.

Meanwhile, new books and films about Manson seem to come out every year, but Mr Kay says people should not expect one from him.

“It would be nice if it would just go away,” he said of the public’s continuing fascination with Manson.

“But,” he quickly added, “it’s the case that never goes away.”

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