Jan 28, 2018

The Manson Curse: why former cult follower Leslie Van Houten was denied parole

Leslie Van Houten speaks to the Parole Board at the Institution for Women in Corona, California, in 2002. (DAMIAN DOVARGANES AFP/Getty Images)
Leslie Van Houten 

Brent Bambury
CBC Radio

January 26,2018

Listen 7:53

It's an unlikely friendship between a convicted former member of the Manson Family and a journalist who wrote about her trial.

Linda Deutsch is now retired from the Associated Press, but she spent two decades reporting about Charles Manson and his followers, the murders they committed, and their ensuing trials.

But throughout, Deutsch wrote extensively about one specific member of the so-called Manson Family: Leslie Van Houten.

She was "different," says Deutsch.

"She was the youngest involved in the killings," Deutsch tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "She was the most incomprehensible participant in this."

Van Houten, despite being recommended for parole multiple times, has remained in jail for 48 years.

After her retirement as a journalist, Deutsch paid her a visit. The pair shared their thoughts on aging and what's changing in the world.

"We were two women talking about a lot of things — not just the killings … we got to be friends, basically."
Manson reporter

As an AP reporter, Deutsch covered the Manson trials throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

"This is crazy," she recalled saying to another reporter.

Manson's trial lasted from late 1969 to 1971, but it wasn't only the cult leader who interested Deutsch. She was also interested in Van Houten, a young woman "brainwashed" by the killer.

"She was not present at the Sharon Tate murders, which were the most publicized," says Deutsch. "She was ordered by Manson to go and do whatever Tex Watson told her to do. He was the Manson lieutenant who led the group and he told her to stab Mrs. [Rosemary] LaBianca."

Van Houten claims that LaBianca was already dead when she stabbed her. Regardless, Van Houten was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, which was later changed life in prison.

"It's the felony murder law. Basically if you're there and you participate you're as guilty as everyone else."
Parole denied

Van Houten has served 48 years in prison and became eligible for parole in 1979. Earlier this month, she was denied parole for the 20th time despite a parole board recommendation. The decision came down to the state's Governor Jerry Brown.

"Even today, five decades later, Van Houten has not wholly accepted responsibility for her role in the violent and brutal deaths of Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca," Brown wrote in his decision.

'The prosecutors eventually said that she would be the first one released but that just has not happened.'- Linda Deutsch, former AP reporter

But this isn't necessarily the case, says Deutsch.

"She has many times said in her parole hearings — she said to me — that she does accept responsibility. But she does place some blame, as she must, on Manson," Deutsch says.

"She has said to me: 'I could not have lived if I did not pay for what I did.'"

Brown's decision came as a surprise for some. California's parole board recommended Van Houten be released in three consecutive hearings and the 68-year-old is said to be a "model" inmate.

Van Houten has completed two degrees in prison — a Bachelor's and a Master's degree — and, according to Deutsch, she counsels women.

"The prosecutors eventually said that she would be the first one released but that just has not happened."
Unlikely friendship

Deutsch made headlines when she retired as a crime reporter for the Associated Press in December 2014. Those headlines caught the attention of Van Houten.

"I covered the original trial, the second trial, the third trial until she was convicted and then I went to all the parole hearings. We never spoke," Deutsch recalls.

From jail, Van Houten reached out.

"She sent me a letter and said she wanted to thank me for being fair to her over the years in my coverage," says Deutsch. "And she said some of the stories stung, which she said they should because, 'I deserved that.'"

Never one to reject a scoop — she says both O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson reached out to her after their respective trials — she asked to meet.

"I went and we sat and talked for about four hours. We had gone through this saga together, basically, but had never met."

Both being close in age, their meeting sparked an unlikely friendship.
Politics at play

As a reporter, Deutsch says she never picked sides in the trials she covered. But now retired, she's spoken up about Van Houten's parole denials.

In the L.A. Times, Deutsch wrote: "I believe that Van Houten, who was just 19 at the time of the killings and is now 68, has earned her freedom."

Now, she says, there's only one thing keeping her behind bars: it's the name Manson.

Van Houten's parole was denied by Brown for political reasons, Deutsch says. The longstanding Democratic governor is soon to leave office and she speculates that he doesn't want his legacy to be the release of a Manson Family member.

But, with Charles Manson dead, she wonders why his impact continues to affect Van Houten.

"It's like he's haunting the justice system, even in death."

To hear the full segment with Linda Deutsch, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.


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