Hibbing native Bugliosi, famous for prosecuting Manson, has his own struggle
LOS ANGELES — Vince Bugliosi’s determination and zeal in prosecuting Charles Manson and four members of his cult led to convictions in the so-called “Crime of the Century,” while a 20-year dedication to solving the John F. Kennedy assassination led to writing what many consider to be the definitive book on the presidential slaying.
But the Hibbing native and famed trial lawyer has faced an even more dogged foe in recent years and is just now beginning to win that battle.
Until a little more than two years ago, Bugliosi, who turns 80 on Aug. 18, considered himself to be in the top 1 percent healthwise for people his age.
But after colorectal cancer surgery and a bout of pneumonia, his body went into septic shock that nearly claimed his life.
“I had never even been on a medication in my life, and a couple days later I was almost dead,” Bugliosi said earlier this year from his home in Pasadena, Calif. “I literally flat-lined and they brought me back. The word ‘miracle’ is constantly used by doctors at Kaiser Hospital that I’m alive.”
The man who won a Minnesota high school state tennis championship as a Hibbing junior in 1951 was unconscious for 70 days, spent seven months at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles and three more months at a rehabilitation center. His weight plummeted from 165 to 112 pounds.
Septic shock is a medical condition that can cause multiple organ failure and is fatal in about 40 percent of adult cases.
Bugliosi (pronounced bool-YOH-see) said his condition deteriorated so much that family members were notified to prepare for the worst.
“The doctors had concluded that I was going to die,” he said. “One morning they called my wife (Gail) and said, ‘You better hurry down here because your husband is dying.’ It was a fait accompli that I was going to die. One of the doctors said, ‘There’s only one other option: We can try putting him on an infant respirator, but it’s never worked with adults before.’
“For whatever reason — I joke that it’s because I have the mind of an infant — they put me on the respirator and, little by little, I came out of it.”
Believed now to be cancer-free, Bugliosi has yet to return to his former athletic self. He completely lost the hearing in his left ear and about half of the hearing in his right ear. His kidneys stopped functioning, and he undergoes 3½-hour dialysis sessions three days a week that leave him drained.
“If I went off dialysis, I’d live a week and a half, two weeks and flat-out die,” he said.
Bugliosi tries to walk every day for about half an hour but struggles to keep the same positive attitude he was noted for having when arguing cases in front of a jury.
“I don’t know if I have the same dedication to beating this thing,” he said. “When you are in the hospital for almost a year, you start wondering, ‘Am I ever going to get out of here?’ You lose a little bit of your spirit, but I never lost all of it. I kept fighting, but probably not as much as one might expect of someone like me. I did whatever was necessary, but not much more.
“Someone else in the rehab center had septic shock and he couldn’t talk because his mind was shot. I said to myself, ‘I still have my mind.’ If you lose your mind, you’re no longer the same person. I think my brain is still intact, and therefore I am the same person.”
Bugliosi hasn’t lost his sharp wit, his memory of cases past nor his upbringing in Hibbing, much of which he detailed in a recent four-hour conversation.
Tennis prowess led Bugliosi to California
Nobody could have predicted when a teenage Bugliosi left Hibbing for southern California that, less than 20 years later, he’d make national headlines for prosecuting Manson and his followers for the savage killing of actress Sharon Tate and six others in a two-night terror spree across Los Angeles.
The youngest of Italian immigrants Vincent and Ida Bugliosi’s five children, Vincent Jr. was born Aug. 18, 1934, and grew up across the street from the Hibbing Memorial Building. His father owned a grocery store before becoming a brakeman for the Great Northern Railroad, while his mother was a homemaker.
Growing up without a television in a town of about 16,000, Bugliosi, like many youngsters, couldn’t comprehend the large scope of the world that’s taken for granted nowadays.
“The biggest town in the country or world was Minneapolis,” he recalled. “Nobody talked about Chicago, New York or L.A. If you went to Minneapolis, you were going to the biggest city anywhere. Going to Duluth was going to a big town, and going to Minneapolis was like going to the capital of the world.”
Bugliosi said he played sandlot football and baseball in the summer and was a basketball player in the winter. But tennis became his favorite sport because he had to work hard at it.
“Tennis was a challenge to me because it didn’t come naturally,” he said.
Hibbing only had outdoor clay tennis courts at the time, meaning it was impossible to play the sport year-round. Bugliosi spent much of the time hitting a ball against an outside wall of the Memorial Building, an odd sight that people remember to this day.
“At that time, on the southeast corner of the Memorial Building, there was a tall wall, about 12, 15 feet wide and maybe 20 feet high,” said Jack Petrosky, a 1952 Hibbing graduate who played on the Bluejackets’ state championship hockey team that year and was a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team that took silver in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. “He used to bat the tennis ball off the wall so it would come right back to him and he could hit it again. You never knew quite where it was coming back depending on how he spun it. He spent a lot of time doing that.”
Bugliosi twice won regional high school championships in Duluth, even beating legendary hockey great John Mayasich of Eveleth along the way.
As a sophomore at the 1950 state tournament at the University of Minnesota, in between the morning semifinals and afternoon finals, Bugliosi walked close to a mile to have lunch at the campus cafeteria. He developed chills in the meantime and lost to David Ranthum of Rochester, Minn., in the finals.
“He probably would have beaten me anyway, but certainly I shouldn’t have walked a mile and filled myself up with pie,” he said laughing.
The following year, Bugliosi beat Ranthum in the semifinals and defeated Bob Reid, another Rochester athlete, in the finals. It took until 2002 when Duluth Marshall’s Pete Torgrimson won in Class A for another Northeastern Minnesota player to win a state singles title.
But Bugliosi didn’t stick around to try and defend his title. Long before transferring schools because of athletics came into vogue, Bugliosi left Hibbing and transferred to Hollywood High School in Los Angeles to spend more time on the court.
The elder Bugliosi didn’t work on the Great Northern during the winter, and two of his older sons lived in the Los Angeles area, so the family packed up and moved. Tennis became young Vince’s priority.
That dedication led to a partial tennis scholarship at the University of Miami.
Bugliosi’s biggest success while in Miami came when he pushed Gardnar Mulloy, then the top-ranked U.S. player and a former coach at Miami, to five sets. The youngster won two of the first three sets before conceding the final two.
But Bugliosi must have earned admiration from Mulloy, who went on to win 125 national tournaments, because it was the now 100-year-old Mulloy who helped his pupil land a job at Henderson Park, then the main tennis facility in Miami. Bugliosi served as an assistant to the pro and lived in the back room, but working 70 hours per week there meant he had to leave the college tennis team.
Two other important, life-changing events came out of Henderson Park: Bugliosi met Gail Talluto, 58 years ago and credits with keeping him in line through the years, and he narrowed his career choice via process of elimination.
“I didn’t have much of an interest in law school,” he said. “But I don’t like blood, so that knocked out being a doctor. I’m not good at mathematics, so that knocked out engineering. I can talk to a jury where you have a captive audience, but if I were a salesman and made a pitch and the person said, ‘No,’ I would immediately turn around and leave. The reason why law appealed to me is that there was an emphasis on words. The whole purpose of speech is communication.”
So after a stay at infantry officer’s training corps at Fort Benning, Ga., where he reached the rank of captain in the U.S. Army, it was back to southern California to enter UCLA Law School.
That started the wheels in motion for what would become Bugliosi’s shining moment as a prosecutor and a time when he would be inextricably linked to a madman for the ages.