Chester's Published Articles

The Bizarre Case of Mass Murderer Charles Manson

From Web Mystery Magazine Fall 2004


Although the O. J. Simpson case ranked as the number one Trial of the Century in an NBC poll conducted at the close of the millenium, the designation of most unusual and bizarre would have to go to the 1970-71 trial of mass murderer Charles Manson and members of his nomadic hippie Family. The case spawned Helter Skelter, which has made publishing history as the top-selling true crime book. Helter Skelter has appeared in eight editions, including the 25th anniversary version published in 1994 with an afterword by the author, Vincent Bugliosi, chief prosecutor in the case.


The trial set several records, including the longest, lasting more than nine-and-a-half months. Its jury remained sequestered for a record eight-plus months. The main prosecution witness, Linda Kasabian, occupied the stand for eighteen days. Indicative of the savagery, though maybe not a record, a total of 102 stab wounds were counted on four victims of the vicious killings, 67 stab or puncture wounds on two others.


 The trial had other bizarre aspects. Manson and his three co-defendants were repeatedly banned from the courtroom for their outbursts and refusal to abide by the judge’s orders. Manson’s attorney, Irving Kanarek, helped lengthen the proceedings with his repeated and often confusing objections. By the third day, when the press quit counting, he had already made more than 200 objections. The judge fined him for contempt several times.


The trial involved seven murders committed over a period of two days, though the investigation suggested the Manson Family may have committed 35 or more murders.


The first slayings took place at a plush home in the Benedict Canyon area high above Hollywood and Beverly Hills shortly after midnight on August 9, 1969. Actress Sharon Tate, wife of movie director Roman Polanski, and four others, including Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger Coffee fortune, were the first victims. Early the following morning at a home in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were brutally stabbed to death. LaBianca owned an LA supermarket.


There were striking similarities in the two cases. At the Tate home, "PIG" had been scrawled in blood on the front door. Printed in blood on a living room wall at the LaBianca house was "DEATH TO PIGS." Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, a friend and celebrity hair stylist, were linked together by a rope that had been wrapped around their necks. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca had lamp cords tied around their necks.


The cases involved multiple murders of affluent Caucasians on consecutive nights, scores of barbaric knife wounds, no indications of robbery or ransacking, and nothing pointing to a conventional motive. Yet the following day, a Los Angeles Police Department inspector told reporters he saw no connection between the two crimes.


The investigation was hindered by several factors, including crime scene errors, police rivalry, and overlooked clues. One of the killers had left a bloody fingerprint on the push button that opened the electronic gate to the Tate property, but it was obliterated when an officer pushed the button to go out the gate. The police technician who took blood samples did not test many of them for subtypes, causing a problem when attempting to re-create the murders. Also, a .22 pistol used in the Tate murders was found by a young boy on September 1 and turned over to the police. But it was December 16, three and a half months later, before the detectives realized what they had.


More crucial was the rivalry factor. Separate teams of LAPD detectives investigated each of the crimes. The Tate case was handled by long-time veterans, while a younger, better-educated group dealt with the LaBiancas. The teams pursued separate paths and failed to communicate with each other. Cooperation between the two would likely have turned up the culprits much sooner. Neither group bothered to check with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office until two months had gone by.


The LaBianca detectives came up with a list of eleven suspects, including one Charles Manson. When they finally consulted the sheriff’s investigators, they discovered a murder being worked by the county involved multiple stab wounds and "POLITICAL PIGGY" written on the wall in blood. The deputies had recently raided an isolated ranch and arrested twenty-four members of a hippie cult called the Manson Family. It was the first big break in the case.


Charles Manson was a thirty-four-year-old, poorly-educated felon who had been in and out of prison since the age of thirteen on charges ranging from burglary to auto theft to forgery to Mann Act violations. In the mid-sixties he became obsessed with music of the Beatles, learned to play the guitar and aspired to be a song writer. Released from prison in 1967, Manson headed for San Francisco. In the Haight-Ashbury district, the city’s hippie haven, he gathered a group of primarily young, impressionable girls who became the nucleus of his Family. They engaged freely in sex and drugs like LSD.


After traveling about the West for a year and a half in an old school bus, they settled in at the Spahn Movie Ranch in Southern California during the summer of 1968. When the Beatles' White Album came out that December, it made a profound impression on Manson. Borrowing from the lyrics and from the Book of Revelations in the Bible, he developed a weird prophesy that he ingrained into his followers.


What Manson called "Helter Skelter," the title of a Beatles' song, would be an uprising in which the blacks would massacre the whites, then take over as the new rulers. Manson and his Family would take refuge in a bottomless pit in Death Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. When the blacks found they lacked the capacity to rule, they would turn to Manson as their savior. He liked to identify himself with Jesus Christ.


One of the Beatles’ tunes was titled "Piggies." Manson said "Pigs" meant the establishment. The word had been written in blood at the site of both murders. And at the LaBiancas, a misspelled "HEALTER SKELTER" was lettered in blood on the refrigerator door.


   Prosecutor Bugliosi learned about Manson’s strange ideas while questioning witnesses in preparation for the trial. The story was so bizarre he wanted several sources to tell it to convince the jury of its truth. Though small in stature, with long, unruly black hair, Manson had an almost hypnotic affect on his followers. Bugliosi needed to pound home the fact that Manson’s Family members were so dedicated to him they would do absolutely anything he asked.


   When the trial began on June 15, 1970, it took five weeks to seat a jury. This was a capital case and the judge sought to make sure the jurors had no objection to the death penalty. But Bugliosi carried the questioning one step further. As he wrote in Helter Skelter, he asked each prospect "if [he] could conceive of circumstances wherein [he] would be willing to vote such a verdict against (1) a young person; (2) a female defendant; or (3) a particular defendant even though the evidence showed that he himself did not do any actual killing."


   The reasons for his questions were obvious. The cult leader’s three co-defendants were females barely over twenty. Manson, himself, was the only one of the four not accused of taking part in the murders. But, as the testimony would show, he was the one who sent them on their mission of unthinkable violence.


   Witnesses testified that on the afternoon of August 8, Manson told his followers, “Now is the time for Helter Skelter.” He called Atkins, Van Houten, Linda Kasabian, and Charles “Tex” Watson aside. He told them to get a change of clothes and a knife. He instructed the girls to do whatever Watson told them. As they were leaving the ranch, Manson said, "Leave a sign ... Something witchy." That something was "PIG" written in Sharon Tate’s blood.


   The following evening, Manson called on the same group, plus Patricia Krenwinkel and another male Family member named Steve Grogan, to drive with him into Los Angeles. After a lot of wandering around, they stopped at the LaBianca home. Manson went in and tied up the couple, then sent Watson, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel in to finish off the LaBiancas.


Linda Kasabian was a witness to much of what happened at the two murder scenes, though she did not participate in the killings. With a promise of immunity from prosecution after her testimony, she told all to the jury.


Among the many strange aspects of the trial was the disappearance of Ronald Hughes, who started out as Manson’s lawyer and later defended Van Houten. Hughes failed to return from a recess the judge ordered prior to final arguments. It was never proved, but Bugliosi believed Family members murdered him after Hughes rebuffed Manson’s efforts to have Van Houten testify and claim Manson had not ordered the murders.


The question of the defendants testifying was another oddity. After Bugliosi closed the state’s case, the defense lawyers shocked everyone by refusing to put on a defense. The problem lay in the defendants’ desire to testify, which one lawyer said would amount to an admission of guilt. But after the defense rested its case, Manson and the three girls demanded they be allowed to testify.


Judge Charles Older, who had continually clashed with the defendants over their outrageous behavior, nevertheless agreed for them to testify without the presence of the jury. Manson was the only one to take the stand. Rather than having his lawyer question him, Manson wanted to make a statement. He rambled on for more than an hour about how the state had not proved its case.


The lawyers’ final summations lasted from December 21 to January 15, keeping the jury locked up over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. After a week of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: all defendants were found guilty of murder of the first degree.


During the penalty phase, the defense put several other Family members on the witness stand, starting with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. In his book, Bugliosi referred to them as a "parade of perjurers." They testified to how great a man Charlie Manson was, that he was just another member and not the leader.


The jury obviously did not buy any of it, sentencing all four defendants to death. In a separate trial later that year, the other Tate-LaBianca killer, Tex Watson, was also sentenced to death for the murders.


Charles Manson’s grandiose scheme for achieving ultimate power through Helter Skelter achieved nothing but the vicious, brutal stabbing deaths of seven innocent people, giving him the reputation of being one of America’s most heinous mass murderers. When the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty a year later, the five murderers’ sentences were reduced to life in prison. This made them eligible for parole, though the horrendous nature of their crimes has prevented that. Manson was turned down for the tenth time in 2002.


In his afterword which culminates the 25th Anniversary Edition of Helter Skelter, Bugliosi notes that carnage by demented killers hardly shocks the public any longer. He adds: "But fortunately, as of this date, the singularity of Manson’s evil and the particular brand of demonic murders he authored have not again been inflicted upon our nation. We can only hope that the ensuing years will be the same."


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Religion in Mysteries Can Be Fun

From Mystery Readers Journal, Summer 2004


I got the idea for Secret of the Scroll while returning from a trip to the Holy Land with my brother’s Sunday School class in November of 1998, shortly before things got decidedly unholy there. The suspense/thriller involves a fictitious Hebrew parchment that tells about rescuing and burying the ten golden lampstands from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Sound like the beginnings of a Religious Mystery? I guess it depends on your definition. Maybe a mystery with religious roots?


Regardless of what it might be called, the religious aspects of the book gave pause to my editor. The opening finds retired Air Force OSI agent Greg McKenzie, my protagonist, and his wife, Jill, on a trip similar to the one I took. They are members of a fictitious United Methodist Church in the Nashville suburb named Hermitage after Andrew Jackson’s nearby mansion. Since Jill’s strong faith is dealt with several times in the book, after his first reading, my editor said I needed to more clearly establish Greg’s religious beliefs. He cautioned that making Greg overly religious could turn off a lot of mystery readers.


Being an active Methodist myself (I’ve served on several committees, spent many years on the Administrative Board, wrote a book on my church’s 150-year history), I found it quite natural to include religious references in my fiction. But I didn’t want to alienate a large number of potential readers, so I pondered a bit on how to handle Greg’s relationship. I finally decided to make him a reluctant worshiper. At one point, he explains it this way:


“I had grown up in a church-going family, but I got out of the habit after going off to college. My experience in law enforcement also left me skeptical. Jill had found getting me back into a pew a major challenge, and it wasn’t until we had settled in Hermitage and joined the Sunday School class that I began attending services regularly.”


The book includes some violence, though a lot of it is off-camera. There’s no sex, however, and not an excessive amount of profanity. Greg has toned down his four-letter vocabulary at Jill’s insistence. But I doubt the novel would have made it through the doors of a Christian publishing house. The good guys aren’t squeaky clean and the bad guys get downright nasty. Yet the subject matter definitely puts Secret of the Scroll in the realm of a mystery dealing with religion.


There is, of course, the scroll, which is the work of a first century Jewish scribe. Besides the Palestinian terrorists who trick Greg into bringing the document to the U.S. where their comrades will try to recover it, he is forced to contend with a group of radical, far-right Israelis who want the scroll for their own purposes. They are agents of an organization devoted to building a Third Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Muslim’s Dome of the Rock currently stands. The story also deals with the Bible Codes, since the scroll contains a secret written in a biblical code called Atbash.


The story begins in the Holy Land and winds up there, with scenes taking place at such biblical sites as the Garden of Gethsemane and a church built on what was believed to be the location of the High Priest Caiaphas’ house. In Nashville, Greg visits an Old Testament professor from the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. And to round out the religious slant, Greg’s main antagonist turns out to be a Jewish fanatic who gets into a shouting debate with a Messianic Jew.


After I finished writing Secret of the Scroll, I realized I was too fond of Greg and Jill to let them slide off into the garbage heap of abandoned characters. So I decided to keep them going in a series. I enjoyed writing about their religious inclinations and continued it with the new book, adding a little humor wherever possible.


The second Greg McKenzie Mystery, Designed to Kill, relegates the religious angle to more of an undertone. When Greg and Jill journey to Perdido Key, FL to look into the reported suicide of a friend’s son (which they believe was murder), one of their early moves is to call on a Methodist preacher friend in search of information on a couple of suspects. He’s the Rev. Charlie Brown, a former newspaper reporter. They interact with him on several occasions, including a Sunday sermon that seems based on their plight.


In the third book of the series, now under construction and as yet unnamed, Greg and Jill use members of their Sunday School class in a sort of sting operation. Keeping the light-hearted touch, I used this exchange when they appear in church one Sunday (written in first person from Greg’s point of view):


Our pastor, Dr. Peter Trent, knew us both better than I would have preferred. He greeted us with his usual exuberance.


“It’s great to see you this morning, Jill. I see you brought Sherlock with you. Is he behaving himself?”


She smiled. “You know Greg.”


“I’m no worse today than yesterday,” I said, “and expect to be no better tomorrow.”


The good reverend laughed. “You make incorrigible seem like a nice word.”


I’ve always felt that God has a sense of humor, else why would he have made us like we are. So I’m having fun with the religious aspect of my mysteries and hope the readers will, too.


Chester D. Campbell has authored two Greg McKenzie Mysteries published by Durban House. Designed to Kill has just been released. The first, Secret of the Scroll, won a second place Bloody Dagger Award and was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s 2002 Mystery Book of the Year.


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Discord in Music City

From Mystery Readers Journal, Spring 2003


When I say “Nashville,” what do you think of? Probably not Palestinians and Israelis. So why did I pick Music City as the primary locale for a suspense/thriller titled Secret of the Scroll (Durban House, October 2002)? For starters, it’s where I’ve lived most of my seventy-six years. My only addresses outside the old hometown came during military service and a few years of schooling and work in Knoxville. After serving as an Aviation Cadet in World War II, I attended the University of Tennessee, majoring in journalism. I worked as a reporter for The Knoxville Journal during most of my undergraduate days and a couple of years afterward. Then the Korean War took me off to Seoul, where I was an intelligence officer at Fifth Air Force headquarters.


Back home in Nashville, I worked as a newspaper reporter, advertising copywriter, public relations man, speech writer for a governor, magazine editor and manager of a statewide trade association. I watched the town shift from the leisurely paced “Athens of the South”–known for its colleges and universities, its love of the arts, its full-size replica of the Parthenon–to the present-day “Music City, USA,” one of the nation’s major centers of music publishing and recording.


I saw the pace of life pick up markedly since the time when Nashville was known as the “Son-in-Law Town.” Back then young outsiders came to Vanderbilt University, graduated and married daughters of the city’s movers and shakers, taking over cushy jobs in family businesses. In the intervening years we added lots of new subdivisions, new buildings, new industry, new millionaires–including a corps of muscular young men clad in the NFL regalia of the Tennessee Titans. But Nashville still retains much of its Old South charm. The people are polite and friendly and grits and gravy embellish the restaurant menus.


Although the “Athens” reference is rarely heard these days, the city still loves its cultural classics–art, literature and music. Nashville boasts an outstanding Symphony Orchestra, a well-established professional repertory theatre company and a first-class art gallery. It has also produced its share of noted writers. They range from the famous Fugitives group at Vanderbilt in the early twenties that included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, to such notables as Alice Randall, the author who attracted a recent lawsuit from the Margaret Mitchell Estate over The Wind Done Gone. And Nashville has a great current crop of mystery writers, including Sallie Bissell and Steven Womack, an Edgar winner. I, by contrast, am a Johnny-come-lately, with my debut thriller just out.


Which gets us back to the business of why I set Secret of the Scroll in Nashville. Religion is prominent on the local scene, with the United Methodist Church’s publishing house and several other boards and commissions located here. The Southern Baptists also have their publishing arm in Nashville. And Vanderbilt houses a divinity school. That fact provided me with a handy source for translating the ancient Hebrew document.


Greg McKenzie, my protagonist, is originally from St. Louis, but he’s married to Jill Parsons, a Nashville native. So, after Greg’s retirement as an Air Force OSI agent, they move to the Hermitage suburb (named for Andrew Jackson’s famed homeplace). The idea for the book came from a Holy Land tour I made in 1998 with my brother’s Sunday School class from Brentwood United Methodist Church. I used a fictional church, however, to sponsor Greg and Jill McKenzie’s identical trip to Jordan and Israel.


Their problems balloon when they return home with a “souvenir” that turns out to be a genuine first century parchment scroll, wanted by rival groups of militant Palestinians and Israelis. When Jill is taken hostage, Greg roams familiar parts of the city in his quest to rescue her. My references to the music business are few, though at one point he travels along Music Row en route to a key rendezvous. And a character who bedevils him runs a trucking business that transports props and equipment for traveling music acts. To add to Greg’s difficulties, I saddle him with the fallout from a missing person case similar to one that still merits an occasional headline in the Nashville papers.


In short (but, as my editor would probably say about here, not short enough), Nashville is a great place to live and write and offers a lot as a setting for a mystery novel. I’ve already finished Designed to Kill (due out in 2003), a PI story featuring Greg McKenzie and set partially in Nashville. And I’m halfway through another in the Greg McKenzie series with an almost completely Nashville backdrop. My wife and I travel to Perdido Key, Florida (the other locale for Designed to Kill) for two weeks each fall and spring, but we’re always happy to get back home to Nashville. So, I guess it’s no mystery that this is where we’ll stay.


(Secret of the Scroll is available at most online sites and at most bookstores–at least if you ask for it. Visit the author’s web site at www.chesterdcampbell.com.)

 


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Golden Grad Starts New Career as Novelist

From the (University of) Tennessee Alumnus, Winter 2003


UT Golden Grads have been off The Hill for many years, but if you think they’re “over the hill,” think again. Take my case. Though graduating in 1949 with the first class to complete the journalism curriculum on the Knoxville campus, I recently started a new career at age 76. My thriller novel, Secret of the Scroll, was published in October 2002 by Durban House.


The plot involves retired Air Force criminal investigator Greg McKenzie and his wife, Jill. They are caught in a struggle between militant groups of Palestinians and Israelis over an ancient parchment scroll the Americans unwittingly bring back from a Holy Land tour. The action takes place in Nashville and Israel.


In one respect, my new career culminates a 55-year apprenticeship that began during the summer of 1947. That’s when I wrote my first book while living in the basement of the old Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity house at 944 Temple Avenue (now Volunteer Boulevard). Looking back, the book was awful, but it hooked me on fiction.


I was studying journalism under legendary Prof. Willis Tucker and served as news editor of the Friday edition of the campus newspaper, The Orange and White. That fall I had the choice of moving up to managing editor or taking a job as reporter for The Knoxville Journal. The lure of a weekly paycheck was too much–I picked the morning daily.


A full load of daytime classes and a full schedule of night work at the newspaper ended any further fiction attempts for a time. But I learned a lot in both places that would help greatly in the years ahead.


Receiving an Air Force commission on graduation, I joined the Air National Guard and was called to active duty in December 1951. Shipped off to Korea, I served as an intelligence officer at 5th Air Force Headquarters in Seoul.


After Korea, I got married and moved back home to Nashville. There I became involved in various phases of writing–another try at fiction (short stories), reporting for The Nashville Banner, free-lancing articles for national magazines like Coronet, The American Legion Magazine and The Rotarian, work in advertising and public relations, speech-writing for Gov. Buford Ellington. I founded Nashville Magazine in 1963, serving as editor until 1969. From 1970 until retirement in 1989, I worked as executive vice president of the Tennessee Association of Life Underwriters, editing its bimonthly magazine.


Around 1970 I turned out another novel, amassing a colorful collection of rejection slips. But by then my family had grown to include four kids–Steve, Mark, Anne and Betsy, all later UT Knoxville graduates–limiting my time for outside writing.


Retirement brought a new opportunity to create plots and characters. Booting up the computer, I began writing almost a book a year. However, I made no sales. My wife Alma’s death in 1998 after a long illness set back my efforts, but the new millennium brought a change in my luck. I completed Secret of the Scroll in mid-2000. After revisions suggested by a professional editor, the manuscript was bought by Durban House of Dallas. Their list appears at www.durbanhouse.com.


I had retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel, which led to my fictional hero, Lt. Col. Greg McKenzie. I’m featuring him and his wife in a new mystery series. The first, Designed to Kill, is set for release by Durban House in 2003.


When people ask, I say I’m retired. But don’t believe it. My new wife Sarah and I live in Madison, Tennessee, where I’m hard at work on the new career.


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