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Bugliosi, Manson linked for the rest of their lives

Vince Bugliosi, a Hibbing native who was the chief prosecutor in the trial of Charles Manson and three young women who followed Manson, talks with reporters outside the courtroom on Jan. 26, 1971, in Los Angeles. The four defendants had just been found guilty of first-degree murder. (File / Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES — In his first five years with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Vince Bugliosi built a solid reputation as a tough prosecutor who excelled in front of a jury.

According to biographical information, Bugliosi won 104 of his first 105 felony jury trials.

That’s why when it came time to try Charles Manson and three members of his cult for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others during a two-night terror spree in the summer of 1969 — 45 years ago last weekend — Hibbing native Bugliosi was selected ahead of more senior members in the D.A.’s office. What ensued during the next 15 months, arguably, was the most talked-about trial in United States history and put Bugliosi front and center in the national spotlight. He’s been in that spotlight ever since, and he and Manson are inextricably linked until the day they die.

“It changed my life because the case doesn’t ever die,” said Bugliosi, who turns 80 on Aug. 18. “The Manson case happened 45 years ago, and people still talk about it. I still get calls from all over the world. The Manson case, arguably, was the most bizarre mass-murder case in American history, and people, for whatever reason, are fascinated by things that are strange and bizarre. It doesn’t get much more bizarre than the Manson case.”

It was Bugliosi (pronounced bool-YOH-see), the son of Italian immigrants and a Minnesota tennis champion while at Hibbing High School, who brought the bizarre aspects of the case to life through his tireless research and preparation. He recalled the case in a recent interview.

Bugliosi had opposition to ‘Helter Skelter’ theory

Though no physical evidence tied Manson to the murders because he wasn’t present when they were committed, Bugliosi weaved together a motive for the crimes that included the Bible, the Beatles, a black-white race war, a bottomless pit in Death Valley and, at the end of it all, Charlie Manson himself atop the war-torn political ladder.

Manson’s own phrase to describe the madness — “helter skelter” — was written in blood (albeit misspelled) on victims Leno and Rosemary LaBianca’s refrigerator door.

Taken from a song on the Beatles’ “White Album,” “Helter Skelter” later became the title of Bugliosi’s book on the case that set a record for true-crime book sales with more than 7 million copies printed since its 1974 debut.

Though motive is not needed in most instances to prove guilt when a defendant is on trial for committing the actual crime, it likely is needed to show a person’s guilt when they don’t participate in the offense. Manson, by all accounts, was not present at the murders of Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and the LaBiancas, but he had his followers do the killing under his instructions.

John DeSanto, who as a St. Louis County prosecutor tried Marjorie and Roger Caldwell for the 1977 murders of Duluth heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila, in the city’s most infamous murder trial, says motive is imperative in that instance.

“You have to (tell the jury), ‘Why would this person do this?’ (Bugliosi) had to have something that would make sense about why (Manson) would do this, as it was for me in a circumstantial evidence case like the Caldwell prosecutions,” said DeSanto, now a St. Louis County judge. “Why would Marjorie, who had a silver spoon in her mouth since the day she was adopted, do this to her mother? Because she was a spendthrift and overspent her means and was desperate for money (Roger Caldwell was convicted and Marjorie Caldwell found not guilty). Things like that become really important.”

Bugliosi ran into inevitable roadblocks when trying to connect the dots from a Mephistophelian guru’s belief that the Beatles were speaking to him through their lyrics to being able to force 20-year-old women to kill people they didn’t know. What he couldn’t expect was that those roadblocks began in his own office, starting with co-prosecutor Aaron Stovitz.

“I said to Aaron, ‘We don’t get to pick and choose the motive,’ ” Bugliosi said. “We’re prosecutors; we act on a set stage. If the motive is ‘helter skelter,’ we can’t say, ‘The jury is not going to buy it, so let’s come up with another motive.’ ”

Stovitz, who at first was Bugliosi’s superior, and the Los Angeles Police Department each suggested robbery as the primary motive.

“You don’t stab people 169 times and write words on the wall in blood for a couple of dollars and leave valuables all over (if it was robbery),” Bugliosi said. “As crazy as it was to a lay person, Manson used ‘helter skelter’ as a motive to work them up into an emotional lather that they would be willing to go out and kill for him. I didn’t have any choice. What was I going to say — that they got bad drugs and they stabbed them 169 times? There was no other motive, and the jury didn’t have any problem with it only because I offered enough evidence to support my position.”

In the end, all that matters is if an attorney can convey his message clearly to a receptive jury, not necessarily to his own staff, according to semi-retired appellate court judge Jim Randall, who worked as a public defender in Hibbing for 17 years.

“I can’t speak for what goes through a prosecutor’s mind other than to say that a professional attorney on a complex case can sometimes do something that appears to go against the grain of his support team or support staff,” Randall said. “Sometimes a lawyer gets a gut feeling for what happened or what he can tell a jury.”

Despite law enforcement’s reluctance to accept the “helter skelter” theory, Bugliosi says Manson’s followers were all in.

“His ‘Family’ bought ‘helter skelter’ hook, line and sinker — they’ve said that in their books, and I believe that,” he said. “Manson believed in some aspects of ‘helter skelter.’ He believed the Beatles were sending out hidden messages in the lyrics of their songs, but many people believed that. I think he believed he might be able to ignite a war between blacks and whites in L.A. — four years earlier, we had the Watts riots — but I don’t think he believed in any bottomless pit in the desert or in a worldwide revolution between blacks and whites.”

Instead, it was Manson’s passion and lust for death, blood and murder, Bugliosi says, that led to killing innocent victims.

“He had a tremendous hatred for the establishment — he called the establishment ‘pigs,’ ” he said. “To Manson, in my mind, the Tate home was symbolic of the establishment, and he knew establishment people were in there. These victims were representative of the establishment that Manson hated.”

Bugliosi is steadfast That manson received fair trial

Working as many as 100 hours during a seven-day work week, Bugliosi, as was his norm, put everything he had into researching and prosecuting the case. He often took the unusual step of joining police in the investigative end and did so again when questioning fringe Manson cult members while developing his motive theory.

“When a prosecutor becomes an investigator, most of the time the police, for sure, but even most prosecutors, would think he’s stepping out of his role as a prosecutor,” said Joe Daly, professor emeritus of law at Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

Daly, a former prosecutor with no ties to the Manson case, believed it was good practice to go out to the scene of a crime, go to an autopsy or even interview witnesses, but he says Bugliosi’s style was more characteristic of a civil law system used in areas of Europe and South America where the judge also acts as an investigator.

“In some ways he’s taking on the civil law system versus the common law system,” Daly said. “In some ways he would be substituting himself as a judge in the civil law system, but that’s not our system. From my own perspective, he was crossing over into a new system and adopting some of the civil law concepts.”

Also unlike most prosecutors, Bugliosi says he would go to great lengths to defend the defendant, sometimes more than their own attorney would. He often cautioned judges that defense attorneys were getting into areas of law that would open legal doors that were normally closed to prosecutors.

“It may have had some element of practicality,” Randall said. “The last thing you want is reversible error built into the record. The last thing you want is incompetent counsel, and on appeal you don’t want to be accused of opening doors. He may have been very careful that there wasn’t any error built into the trial.”

Bugliosi’s steadfast belief in conducting a fair trial didn’t go unnoticed, even by Manson.

“I told Manson, ‘Charlie, I’m going to convict you … but after you get a fair trial,’ ” Bugliosi recalled. “He said afterward that I gave him a fair trial, but now he’s saying that I didn’t in an interview in Rolling Stone. But I always gave defendants a fair trial.”

In the end, Manson and co-defendants Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie van Houten were found guilty and sentenced to death. Their sentences, along with fellow murderer Charles “Tex” Watson, who was prosecuted by Bugliosi and convicted in a separate trial, eventually were commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty, as is, was unconstitutional.

“The fact that he survived for 15 months and got through the trial and got convictions, it’s a credit to his durability, intensity and preparation,” Randall said.

Bugliosi says he rarely discusses his biggest case unless asked about it from members of the media (and he still is). But he knows in a ghoulish sort of way that he will be connected to Manson for the rest of his days.

“The only way that it bothers me is in the sense that I can no more escape Manson than I can jump away from my own shadow,” he said. “No matter whatever else I do — and I’ve done a couple of things — I am the Manson prosecutor. It tends to limit who you are. No matter what I did, it would take a back seat to the Manson case.

“I’ve been trying to rewrite my obituary with other things, but I’ll never be able to do that.”

In the years since Manson, Bugliosi began a career as a defense attorney, twice ran unsuccessfully for election as Los Angeles District Attorney and authored several more nonfiction books based on cases in which he was involved.

One case, in which he wasn’t involved until being contacted by a British television company, ended up consuming a large portion of his later life.