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‘The Demon of Death Valley’: Read TIME’s Original Report on the 1969 Manson Family Arrests

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

Charles Manson turned to crime early in his life, but his name will likely always be most associated with one particularly shocking period in the late 1960s—a period that’s now the subject of the Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

Manson had been drawn to San Francisco in 1967 as the city was swept up in the year of its Summer of Love. By that point, he had already served time. He quickly began to amass a following, a group of people who trailed him to Los Angeles the next year.

In mid-1969, the group moved to Death Valley where, as TIME put it, “they holed up in run-down cabins and led an indolent, almost savage existence, singing Manson’s songs, dancing, swimming in a small pool, stealing cars for cash and picking through garbage for food.” Though locals reported clashes with their unpleasant new neighbors, it was clear that the people who had followed Manson saw him differently. As one of his followers told TIME, “He gave off a lot of magic.” That woman, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, would be better known within a few years for her attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

It was that December when Manson and his “family” made that first appearance in the pages of TIME Magazine, in the wake of the 1969 killings that made Manson a figure of global infamy. At that point, though the “Demon of Death Valley” headline clearly referred to him, Manson was still an unknown quantity:

“That man has wronged me. Society has wronged me. We’ll kill whatever pigs are in that house. Go in there and get them.” With those raging orders from their Rasputin-like leader, a band of hippies, clad in black, allegedly broke into a secluded Los Angeles home last August. In the orgy of hacking, stabbing and shooting that followed, Starlet Sharon Tate, 26, and four other people were killed. It was one of the grisliest, bloodiest, and apparently most senseless crimes of the century.

Last week Los Angeles police announced that they had solved the five murders and three others as well. If they are correct, the alleged murderers were even stranger and more bizarre than their crimes. The police case was based on the tale of an accused murderer, Susan Denise Atkins, 21. She sketched out a weird story of a mystical, semi-religious hippie drug-and-murder cult led by a bearded, demonic Mahdi able to dispatch his zombie-like followers, mostly girls wearing hunting knives, to commit at least eight murders and, police say, possibly four others.

Three members of the gang were arrested last week: Charles Watson, 23, Patricia Krenwinkel, 22, and Linda Kasabian, 20. The police also were seeking murder indictments against two other “family” members. The suspects, as well as the thin, vacuous Miss Atkins, were all members of a hippie-type gang who styled themselves slaves to their guru-type leader. Miss Atkins, a prosecution witness who hopes to save herself from the gas chamber, claimed that she was present but did not participate in the murders committed by the gang. At least eight members took part in one or another of the murders, say police, although the leader, Charles Manson, 35, did not participate in the killings himself, but confined himself to directing them.

Miss Atkins said that Manson had ordered the Tate murders on Aug. 9, the murder of Musician Gary Hinman on July 25, and those of Mr. and Mrs. Leno LaBianca on Aug. 10. Hinman was allegedly murdered because he would not turn over $20,000 that Manson thought he had. Miss Atkins and another Manson follower are charged in that murder. The LaBiancas were picked at random from among the affluent, she said, the night after the Tate murders, just to prove that the killers had not lost their nerve. The Tate victims did not even know Manson. They died, she said, because Manson, an aspiring songwriter, nursed a grudge against Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, who refused to have one of Manson’s songs recorded. Miss Tate had rented the Melcher house, and Manson ordered everyone in it killed, presumably not even knowing who the tenants at the time were—or caring.

Read the rest of the report here, in the TIME Vault.

At the time, Manson was in police custody in connection with a different crime (auto theft) but police were hoping to bring charges against him for conspiracy and murder in these cases. They did so shortly after, and Manson was found guilty of those crimes in early 1971. He was serving a life sentence at the time of his death in 2017.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com