IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The devil's business

Nearly 40 years ago, Charles Manson and his cult following brutally murdered 35 people — leaving California's Death Valley paralyzed with fear. Could the desert yield more Manson family murders? Scientists are looking.

Paul Dostie: You're so far from civilization the rules don't count anymore. There's no one to hear you scream up here. 

And here they dig.  Down through the searing heat.  Down through the dry rocky sand.  One last attempt to find – What? Here at the graveyard of innocence.

Paul Dostie: You can do what you wanted to do, particularly in 1969.

Death Valley, Calif.  In the land of make-believe, this plays the part of the end of the world. Once it was the godforsaken Eldorado of wild-eyed gold prospectors, once a hideout for western outlaws, and once, for a time, in the twilight of the age of Aquarius, here up a gash in the valley's side, was the family home of that most dysfunctional of American families, the Mansons.

Bugliosi: These people liked to kill.  That was their religion, their credo.

Religion?  Yes, and it’s closing on a religiously mythic 40 years since the rumors began to swirl here in the desert. Are there macabre secrets still buried here? Is there more to learn about the crimes of Charlie Manson?

Bugliosi: 35 people. Many of the bodies are buried out in the desert and will never be found.

It was Vincent Bugliosi, the famous former Los Angeles county prosecutor, who wrote about the possibility of other Manson victims out here somewhere.

Bugliosi: Two boys and a girl were believed to be buried about eight feet deep behind Barker Ranch.

Here it is. Rotting now, a gallery of rusted things, bullet holes... Part of Death Valley National Park these days. This is one of two old homesteads in the Pamamit Mountains the Manson family haunted in their final days.

It's twenty miles off the nearest paved road, perhaps the perfect place to conceal evidence of a murder.

Dr. Marc Wise: It would be a very good place to bury someone.  You can dig a hole out there and that hole disappears as soon as you fill it back in.

Until - perhaps - now.  Could the desert finally yield up more dead... More Manson family murders? Scientists are out here looking.

Manson: We're convicting you for being Jesus Christ, we're convicting you for being the devil.

Bugliosi: The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil. Manson has come to represent the malignant side of humanity.  And for whatever reason there's a side to human nature that is fascinated by pure, unalloyed evil.

Manson: Did I kill anyone?

(Voice off-camera): Did you tie up the Labiancas?

Evil, yes, and still it lingers in the American imagination. Nearly 40 years on how could it not after the unspeakable events of August, 1969.

Manson: Maybe I should have killed 4,500 people, then I would've felt better.

Here is where it began, another secluded hideout: The Sphan ranch, an old movie set in the Santa Susana Pass, northwest of L.A.

Before the murders, this was the home of the "family," a ragtag collection of twenty or so anonymous dropouts. Their leader: Charles Manson a 34-year-old ex-con turned guru.

Friday night, August 8th.

Charles Manson gave four of them an address in an affluent part of the city called Benedict Canyon. Gave them detailed instructions and stayed behind as they headed away from Spahn Ranch.

Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, armed with a .22 caliber revolver and several knives, arrived around midnight.

10050 Cielo Drive, the sort of place you'd live if you'd made it here. In fact Manson and Watson had been here before - several times.  Manson was an aspiring musician, had auditioned for the home's former tenant, legendary music producer Terry Melcher, who lived here with his girlfriend Candice Bergen. The secluded location served Manson's purposes dreadfully well.

There is no evidence Manson knew or cared that Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate had taken over the house. He, the famous director. She, the riveting beauty who's star was on the rise since her role in “Valley of the Dolls.”

Polanski was in London finishing a movie. Tate, eight and a half months pregnant, was at home. Around midnight the four Manson family members parked at the bottom of the hill below the house. Tex Watson moved first. Watson, who was a high-hurdles champion in Texas, climbed up that telephone pole, cut all the phone wires going into the residence.

While kasabian waited near the car, the others crept onto the property, just in time to encounter a young man leaving in a car. Steven Parent. And then it began. Watson shot the 18-year-old dead. Inside the house, the intruders surprised Wojteck Frykowski, a friend of the Polanskis, who was dozing in the living room.

Tex Watson woke Frykowski up and he said, "I'm the devil, here to do the devil's work." 

Sharon Tate  and her other house guests -  hair stylist Jay Seabring, and Abigail Folger, Frykowski's girlfriend and heir to a coffee fortune - were herded into the living room. When Seabring protested the treatment of the pregnant Tate, Watson shot and stabbed him. Frykowski fought for his life with Atkins.

When Voytek Frykowski was running out of the living room, she stabbed Voytek in the leg-- three or four times to try and get him to stop.

Susan Atkins: And he and I got into a struggle. And I started screaming for help, um and when Tex Watson came and took him off of me. And he and I got into a struggle. And I started screaming for help, um and when Tex Watson came and took him off of me.

Frykowski made it to the front lawn before he was hacked to death by Watson.  At the same time, Abigail Folger tried to escape.

Steve Kay: Krenwinkel chased her out of the-- the living room with an upraised knife and ended up-- pouncing on her in the front yard, and-- and stabbing her, and and Watson came over and helped stab her 28 times.

Atkins: She was tied up, I believe she was tied up.

Q: Did she say anything to you?


Q: What she say?

Atkins: Oh God. She asked me to let her baby live.

Q: What did you say to her?

Atkins: I told her that I didn't have any mercy on her. She was tied up, I believe she was tied up.

Susan Atkins restrained the pleading Sharon Tate as Watson stabbed her and her unborn baby to death. Charles Manson had instructed his followers to leave a sign, "Something witchy", so Atkins dipped a towel in the blood flowing from Sharon Tates’ chest and used it to write the word "pig" on a door.

Then they drove back to Spahn ranch.

As the Manson family members rested that Saturday, they watched on television as Los Angeles learned of the carnage in Benedict Canyon.

Police: Where were the bodies found? All in one room?

A: No, two of the bodies were found inside the house, one in the vehicle and two on the front lawn.

Veteran Los Angeles TV news director Pete Noyes: From day one, It was a horror story.

Cop in driveway: The tentative identification of the persons are as follows: Sharon Polanski, Jay Seabring...

Pete Noyes: I remember when those cops came of that house up on Cielo Drive, the look on their faces.  It looked like they had been to hell and back.  I mean, it-- it was that bad.

It was about to get worse.

It was Saturday morning, August 9, 1969. Residents of Los Angeles woke to a darker world.

The news was appalling, terrifying, confused. That Sharon Tate and four others were dead was dreadful of course. But how they were slaughtered was the horror.

Roger E. Murdock, Chief LAPD: We have a weird homicide with two bodies inside, two bodies outside.  We don’t have anybody that we can talk to.

But Manson wasn't finished. That very night, at his headquarters on the old Spahn movie ranch, he assembled another raiding party. This time, he went along. Manson and six famliy members took a long meandering drive through Los Angeles. They stopped, apparently at random. 3301 Waverly Drive, Los Feliz. With Tex Watson, Manson broke in and tied up Leno Labianca, a 44- year old grocery chain owner, and his 38-year-old wife rosemary.

Then Manson went back to the car and before he drove away, ordered Leslie van Houten and Patricia "Pat" Krenwinkel into the Labianca home. 

Leslie Van Houten: Tex handed me a knife and he said, “'Do something.'" I went back in the bedroom and Mrs. LaBianca was laying on the floor on her stomach and I stabbed her numerous times in the back.

Patricia Krenwinkel:  I proceeded to get a fork and stab Mr. Labianca - who was dead, I assume, by the ti--on his stomach.  I wrote with his blood on the walls and refrigerator.

Here were the words she wrote: "Rise," "Death to pigs" and "Helter skelter." Then Watson carved the word "war" into Leno Labianca's stomach.

Leslie Van Houten: And, when we left, I believe that it was Tex who went into the refrigerator and got cheese and chocolate milk.  And we went and we hid in the bushes somewhere around the neighborhood. And then when the sun came up we hitchhiked back to the ranch.

And then it was Sunday morning.  And terror swept L.A. like a bad wind.

Bugliosi: It frightened-- LA. Particularly in-- in-- Belair, in Beverly Hills, the heart of the movie colony where the Tate murders-- happened.  Overnight  The sale of handguns and-- guard dogs rose dramatically.   

In the following days, as Sharon Tate and the six other victims were lowered into their graves, wild viral stories spread. 

Poisoned rumors about the victims - Sharon Tate and the others - how their Hollywood lifestyle might have precipitated the murders . That there'd been orgies, drugs, satanic rituals at the Polanski-Tate home. None of the rumors was true.  Just more pain for the heartbroken, as Sharon Tate's sister, Debra, remembers:

Debra Tate: I was just a couple of months shy of seventeen. And Sharon was my best friend.  The spin that the press and-- and Hollywood itself put on everything was absolutely horrific.

Keith Morrison: And rumors are flying.

Debra Tate: The rumors were unbearable, for my parents, especially.  I knew that the rumors of witchcraft and devil worship and all of that were absolutely unfounded.

Polanski's own career seemed to fuel the darkest stories.  His most recent hit was "Rosemary's Baby," about a woman who gives birth to the devil's child.  He'd made "fearless vampire killers" in which he'd appeared with Sharon Tate.

Gene Gutowski, Polanski spokesman: Sharon and all other three friends were rational people with no interest in mysticism or anything occult.

Gene Gutowski: It was a tragic thing impossible for any of us to understand, the victims were generally nice people, not hippies, cultists or anything peculiar as some media have tried to make them seem.

Polanski: There was a lot of blood, all over the place. Baby clothes and that's all.

And then, from Polanski himself, this:

Polanski: In my house were parties where people did smoke pot. Sharon not only didn't use drugs, she didn’t touch alcohol, she didn't smoke cigarettes.  Her greatest picture, she was doing was her pregnancy.

Was anyone safe?  It did not help that the police investigation crawled glacially down disappointing dead ends.

Pete Noyes: People were terrified. People in Hollywood were calling security companies.  Some were getting guards. I've been covering news in LA for 52 years and I-- I had never seen a reaction to a murder-- a group of murders like this. It was just unbelievable. 

The cops announced that -- in spite of shrieking similarities ... There was no connection between the Tate and Labianca slayings.

Pete Noyes: The cops were very slow to release details of what happened.

Keith Morrison: And they seemed to be going in the wrong direction--

Pete Noyes: They were going around in circles.

Not exactly law enforcement's finest hour. And, to make things worse they kept arresting and then releasing Charles Manson and his followers for other crimes: 

- On August 16, more than a hundred officers raided Spahn ranch and busted Manson and 25 others for car theft, burglary and weapons possession. But the search warrant had the wrong date and everyone walked.

- Less than a week later Manson was picked up for marijuana  possession.  And then, in short order, freed again.  He went back to Spahn ranch where he and several others murdered movie cowboy Shorty Shea.

Pete Noyes: All these murders happened very fast.  And then, they fled town.  They left.  Thought, well, they could find happiness in Death Valley.

And so they took the long, heat-seared drive northeast, through the baking floor of Death Valley, and up a steep walled canyon called Golar Wash.  But escaping the law was only the half of it.  There were reasons for coming here.

Now the family went to ground here in the desert, preparing for the end of the world as they knew it.  Building up their desert stockpile of cars and weapons and food. It was not the end of the world of course, but it was for the family.  An ending that was, simply, banal. In mid-October, some L.A. lawmen were just beginning, tenuously, to   connect Manson with the Tate and Labianca murders.

And just about that time, coincidence, really, the local sheriff raided Barker Ranch. Twenty-four family members were arrested. Not for the murders but on utterly unrelated charges ... Arson and car theft. Among those swooped up was Susan Atkins.

Reporter: How are you this morning Susan?

Susan: I'm perfect.

And back in L.A. County jail she couldn't stop talking. Telling first two cellmates, then a grand jury all about Charles Manson, the murders already committed, the murders still planned.

Bugliosi: they were planning to go after people like Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor.  Richard Burton.  Steve McQueen. Tom Jones.

And finally, nearly five months after the Tate and Labianca killings, the police were able to announce an arrest.

Edward Davis, LAPD Chief: They appeared to live together in what might be described as a commune. It perhaps could have some religious connotations connected with it depending on your frame of reference.

And now, in morbid fascination, the whole world watched the spectacle. Heard about the sickening crimes. And the depraved theories of the man who inspired them.

Reporter: Are you sane?

Manson: Sane, that's relative.

Steve Kay: Life Magazine put a picture of Charles Manson on the cover.  People have just been mesmerized by that picture, and, by the trial, where the defendants became more known than the victims. 

Here it is: The image that washed a career dirtbag with the gloss of evil… That lured a horrified nation to his circus of a trial.

Manson: I don't have any guilt, I know what I've done. And no man can judge me.

Pete Noyes: It was a nightmare. The O.J. Simpson case attracted a lot of press.  But, it was nothing compared to the Manson case.

Manson and family.  Seven counts of capital murder.

Vincent Bugliosi: It shocked the nation because hippies up to this point were associated with peace, love, sharing, drugs.  And then the Manson family comes along, looking like hippies and living like hippies, but mass murderers.

It was June 1970. Prosecutors Vincent Bugliosi and Steve Kay laid out the gruesome story, but the more people learned about the family, the harder it was to comprehend. The accused ringleader turned out to be a life-long loser: petty car thief, check-kiter, pimp.

He lived with an aunt and uncle in this house, Manson never knew his father. His mother was a prostitute who spent time in prison.

His attitudes molded by a life in reformatories, jails and prisons.

In his last years in prison Manson began studying off-beat religions. He read books about influencing people and he took an interest in music.

But Manson's followers, who at times numbered as many as fifty, at first blush, could be the kids down the street. Manson started collecting them after he got out of prison in the San Francisco summer of love.

Bugliosi: Manson was able to detect weaknesses and fears in people and exploit those-- exploit those weaknesses and fears.

Catherine "Gypsy" Share: Who is Charlie Manson? He's your brother and he's your father, and he's your little boy. He's all men.

Bugliosi: He would give anyone what they were lookin' for.  If they're lookin' for a father figure, he was their father.  If they were lookin' for Jesus, he was their Jesus. By his own admission he said, I'm a man of a thousand faces.

And it was with the certainty of true believers that some Manson family members belittled his arrest by donning their finery and parading past news cameras at Spahn ranch. Who were they? Where did they come from? A Berkeley librarian named Mary Bruner was his first recruit.  And then...

Steve Kay: Susan Atkins - he met up in the Haight-Ashbury district. She was a topless go-go dancer at Big Al's in North Beach San Francisco.

Sandra Good, Manson Family Member: That's what attracts people, he's completely happy. gentle, he dances, he sings, he looks beautiful, he looks happy, and this draws a lot of people just like people are drawn to little babies.

Sandra Good, his most devoted follower, came from a wealthy family with assets of her own.

Kay: The Manson family lived off of that trust fund, mainly.

Librarian, stripper, trust fund baby, Manson had something for all of them. There were more than a dozen young women eventually.

Kay: Although he collected women, at first he used the women to get men. 

Among them - Charles Tex Watson --  smalltown football hero --   sucked into Manson's vortex.  His was a restless commune.  They drifted to L.A., perhaps for the sex, drugs and rock and roll... Or perhaps for Manson's own ambitions.

Kay: He was a fairly talented guitar player.  And-- The Beach Boys, before the murders, did record one of his songs. 

Ah, the improbabilities... Beach boy Dennis Wilson had the bad luck to pick up two hitchhikers, who turned out to be Manson girls. And before long, the family literally moved in with Wilson.  After they'd gone again, the beach boys released a version of a Manson song "Cease to Exist"  ...only the Beach Boys called it " Never Learn Not to Love."

Bugliosi: As bizarre as this case was, we go to trial and it's almost equally bizarre.

Manson: Always good. Everything's good. The judge made a fool of himself this morning. And then he questions my sanity. I question his.

Pete Noyes: Every day, the Manson followers were-- picket the building.  It was really a freak show.  And-- and the girls would come into court swaggering, Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins singing.

At the start of the trial, first Manson, then his co-defendants and supporters carved “X”s into their foreheads. Prosecution witnesses were threatened. A defense lawyer showed up quite mysteriously dead. Manson tried to stab the judge.  Even the president of the United States weighed in.

Bugliosi: Nixon gets into the act and he starts talking about the Manson case, ‘cause it's on the news every night. And he says, "I think Manson's guilty."

Which actually - for a day or two - put the case in some jeopardy.  But the bigger problem for prosecutor Bugliosi and his team was proving motive.  Why, in heaven's name, would anyone commit such heinous crimes?

Bugliosi: That motive was Helter Skelter to ignite a war between blacks and whites. And when the words Helter Skelter were found printed in blood at the murder scene, I told the jury that was the equivalent of Manson's fingerprints being found at the murder scene.

The trial was drama, farce, horror show. This was 1970, summer.  Charles Manson and his disciples Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie van Houton faced seven counts of murder. And prosecutors found themselves arguing one of the strangest motives in the history of American jurisprudence.

Helter Skelter:  the title of a song-- the words -- misspelled -- written in blood on Rosemary Labianca's  refrigerator. The Beatles had recorded Helter Skelter on their white album.  The song was, frankly, innocuous, the title, the lyrics, referred to an English carnival ride. For Manson, prosecutors said, that song was the apocalyptic answer to all the world's mystery.

Bugliosi: He used it to describe a war between blacks and whites, which he was going to ignite by these murders.

It was the coming Helter Skelter that kept the Manson tribe returning to the Barker ranch out on the edge of the Mojave Desert. In Manson's crackpot cosmology, Death Valley was a sacred place and any student of religious history would recognize the kind of fraud perpetrated many times over the centuries. The prophet messiah who leads his ragtag band of followers to the desert to await the coming of the new age.  Down there in the cabin, Manson told his followers a story that nearby here was a kind of hole in the universe and they, the elect, would enter it to a subterranean world fed by a life-giving spring, a new Eden for the family.

Steve Kay: And they were gonna live in the bottomless pit for 50 to 100 years.  And by that time, they would've grown to 144,000 like the 12 tribes of Israel. 

Keith Morrison: They took this physically, seriously.  It wasn't just--

Steve Kay: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.  And they bought gold rope at a sporting goods store in Santa Monica.  Because they thought you had to be lowered into the bottomless pit by golden rope.

But Manson's version of apocalypse was truly diabolical. Helter Skelter, his version of tribulation, and the bizarre motive for all those ghastly murders. The writing in blood, the mutilation and extraordinary violence ... Was intended to incite a war between blacks and whites.

Steve Kay: Manson wanted to blame these murders on blacks so that white people would start killing blacks indiscriminately.  And Manson and the family felt that the-- the blacks would win this race war.

Manson was telling his followers, said co-prosecutor Steve Kay, that they'd be safe in their underground Eden ... While blacks took over the country.

Steve Kay: Manson being a racist thought that the blacks would immediately run up to him and turn over power.

Keith Morrison: He would be the messiah?

Steve Kay: He would be the king-- and-- and the messiah, yes, 'cause he said he was Jesus.  And-- but this time, he was coming as the devil.

Manson in his twisted mind perceived the Beatles as the fulfillment of bible prophecy.  Imagine that.

There's a story that Charlie would sit in the bathtub and because he wasn't much of a reader himself, he'd have his girls read to him from the Bible. His favorite book was Revelation, he liked Chapter 9.   "And he opened the bottomless pit and there came out of the smoke, locusts upon the earth, and they had long hair like women".  Aha! thought Charlie, long-haired locusts? Must be the Beatles.

That white album was, to Charles Manson, a new revelation.

Bugliosi: There's another song in that White Album called Piggies.

To Manson, Piggies meant the white establishment.  And the Beatles are sayin' that the piggies need a damn good whacking.  And he spoke about wealthy husband and wives eating out at fancy restaurants at night clutching their forks and knives, and the killers left a knife and fork protruding from the body of Leno Labianca.

The jury bought the prosecutors' Helter Skelter motive and in January 1971, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and van Houten were convicted of the murders.

Marie Mesmer, Juror: In my verdict I wanted to protect the society, after all this is the United States of America and we have a heritage and this is something we must protect and something for a lot of people to think about.

Reporter: Have you talked with Charlie himself recently? Have you gotten any feedback from him?

Sandra Good: He feels good, he always feels good.

Charles Tex Watson would be convicted in a separate trial. 

Bugliosi: Gentlemen in view of the incredible brutality of these savage nightmarish, murders the death penalty unquestionably the proper verdict in this case.

By now, mostly likely, they'd all be long dead.  Except... How curious fate can be.

Garrick Utley, NBC newscast: "The California Supreme Court ruled today that the death penalty is unconstitutional.”

And just like that, their sentences were reduced to life. Manson was interviewed just after he learned he'd evaded the gas chamber.

Reporter David Burrington: Should there be a supreme penalty for committing a crime?

Manson: What do you think?

Burrington: I'm the one that’s asking you.

Manson: Yeah, but if I don’t give the answer that you want.

Burrington: It doesn't matter to me, it's your opinion.

Manson: I don't have the authority to say anything like that.

Burrington: You have the authority to believe.

Manson: I believe what I'm told to believe, don't you?

For the prosecutors, it was like a defeat.

Steve Kay: He always said that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in-- in prison.

Manson: I said, I can't handle the maniacs outside, let me back in.

But - as Manson from his prison cell taunted the outside world the secrets festered,  and out in the desert, the story grew and in some quarters began to harden into belief. What else might the Manson family have done?

Charles Manson and his killers have been behind bars for nearly four decades now. But his hold on the popular imagination refuses to fade away. There was the 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter,” a Guns and Roses recording of Manson's music, countless books, Manson Web sites, and until the state of California grew weary of his act, Manson's regular appearances as a TV bogeyman.

Tom Snyder: If you got out of here there are lot of people who thought you'd go killing people again.

Manson: Again? You guys are misinformed, I haven't killed anyone.

Heidi Schulman: Why should anyone care what Charles Manson thinks?

Manson: Why should they care what I think? Because they're all in my brain, they're all in my thoughts. I took your heads.

With the commutation of their death sentences, as if to rub salt into the wounds of their victims families, came the specter of parole for the killers. It shook the family of Sharon Tate.

Debra Tate: Justice wasn't served.

Keith Morrison: What do you mean?  They were-- they're in jail, these people. 

Debra Tate: They're in jail.  With the exception of Charlie and Charlie doesn't want out. They're using-- good church going people against the system. They've got a lot of support from-- from various religious organizations. It is unacceptable for a just society to return serial killers back into society.

The prospect of freedom for these killers helped midwife the crime victims rights movement that swept California and then the whole nation. Sharon Tate's mother, doris, took the lead against parole for any of the Manson family in 1982 when it appeared Leslie van Houton might get out.

Co-prosecutor Steve Kay represented the people of Los Angeles.  Kay left the L.A. D.A.'s office, works for another city now. But keeping the Manson tribe in prison was and is more than just his job.

Steve Kay: It's the case that never goes away. I mean, from that point on.  I've done four Tate-Labianca murder trials, one Hinman and Shea - murder trial, 60 parole hearings. I felt that I owed it to the victims families.

The years went by, and - one by one Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkle, Leslie van Houton and Susan Atkins all became born-again Christians. Watson set up a prison ministry, got married and fathered four children before the system caught on and denied conjugal visits.

Steve Kay: All of these people know that their only hope of getting out is to be model prisoners, so they're all model prisoners except Manson, who's a terrible prisoner. I mean he threatens to kill the guards, he throws hot coffee on staff members, he's been caught with a knife in his shoe, razor blades.

Keith: He has a reputation to uphold.

Kay: Oh yeah.

Manson: Hmm. I wouldn't do anything I'd feel guilty about.

And Manson? He is 73 years old now. He's been behind bars for most of his life; more than 50 years. Buried deep inside the protective housing unit at Corcoran State Prison. A carefully guarded man, not because of what he might do, but because of what could be done to him.

Kay: They have to keep him in a single cell because there are so many life prisoners that would want to kill him to make a reputation for themselves.

And in fact some have tried. Several times.  Once, in 1984, somebody threw paint thinner on Manson and set him on fire, turned out improbably to be a Hare Krishna angry at some Manson insult.

There are rumors the old man is sick now though prison authorities won't comment on that or on anything to do with the life and activities of Charlie Manson here at Corcoran State Prison.

Keith Morrison: Manson gets on the average four fan letters a day.  People write--

Keith Morrison: Kinda sick, isn't it?

Steve Kay: Yeah, it's-- it's sick, but what he does with those letters shows-- what a con he is, because people will get those letters answered.  And they'll open the letter and they'll say, "Wow, I got a letter from Charles Manson, and it's signed by Charles Manson. This is gonna be valuable."  Manson passes out those letters to other prisoners and he has them act as his correspondent secretary.

Sixty-year-old Susan Atkins has brain cancer, has had a leg amputated. She is reported near death.

Keith Morrison: She may only have a few months left.  Should she be granted clemency?

Steve Kay: My position on that is no, emphatic no.  I remember that when Sharon Tate begged for her life and begged for the life of her baby, Susan Atkins showed her no mercy at all.

So far the state of California has agreed with Kay. In July Susan Atkins’ request for compassionate release was denied. Lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi became an accomplished and successful author in the wake of the Manson trial.  His account of the case, the book "Helter Skelter," sold an astounding 7 million copies, and is still selling. He went on to write eight more books, including his latest, “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder," a controversial critique of the president's Iraq policy.

But it keeps coming back to Manson.

Keith Morrison: Whatever happened to all those people?

Vincent Bugliosi: They've all gone their separate ways. The Manson family ended for all intents and purposes in 1971 when Manson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

But is it over? Here in Death Valley it is, as always, blistering hot. The trail from the valley floor winds up a rutted canyon road through ancient cathedrals of cactus-studded rock. And here at the top of Golar Wash, near the ranch that served as an apocalyptic church of mass murder, 21st century science is about to take a run at the last of Charles Manson's unholy mysteries.