What Would Charlie Do? Part 8: The Story That Is Never Done

This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.

The story of Tom O’Neill and his book Chaos is a unique one in the annals of journalism. In 1999, he was hired by a then popular glossy entertainment rag, Premiere Magazine, to write about the 30th anniversary of the Sharon Tate murder, with the angle being about how the event had changed Hollywood. O’Neil had no particular interest in the Manson murders, which he viewed as being an overreported and lurid carnival show.

But as he began to coach himself up on the basics of the Manson case, and after he read the definitive account, Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi, he noticed in his interview subjects a real reluctance to talk about the case. His reporter spidy-sense was triggered, and he began to dig deeper into the basics of the case and re-interview many of the people mentioned in Helter Skelter. He tracked down secondary sources as well, people that the police had never interviewed, and soon enough, he became convinced that the weakest part of the Helter Skelter narrative, the motive for the murders as put forward by the prosecution, led by Bugliosi, was simply too preposterous to be believed. O’Neil became convinced there was a lot more there and he kept digging until he had racked up 20 years of research. The quest had nearly bankrupted him, but what he produced was a book that seriously calls into question the prosecution narrative about the murders and opens more doors than it closes. It is a remarkable document.

The theory of Helter Skelter was allegedly something that Manson thought up. In this vision, the murders on August 9 and 10 were going to be blamed on black people, and this would start a race war that ultimately, black people would win, and then Manson and his (all white) family would emerge from a giant hole in the desert and take over from the easily led black masses. Here is a little summary of the theory:

According to Paul Watkins, Manson’s first use of the term was at a gathering of the Family on New Year’s Eve 1968 at Myers Ranch near California’s Death Valley. Watkins said the scenario had Manson as the war’s ultimate beneficiary and its musical cause. He and the Family would create an album with songs whose messages would be as subtle as those he had heard in songs of the Beatles.

According to Bugliosi, black men would thus be deprived of the white women whom the political changes of the 1960s had made sexually available to them and would lash out in violent crimes against white people.  According to Watkins and Tex Watson, frightened white people would retaliate with a murderous rampage, and militant black people would exploit it to provoke a war of near extermination between racist white people and non-racist white people over the treatment of black people. Then the militant black people would arise to finish off the few white people who survived and kill off all non-black peoples.  

Watkins goes on to say that in this holocaust, the members of the enlarged Family would have little to fear; they would wait out the war in a secret city that was underneath Death Valley which they would reach through a hole in the ground. They would be the only remaining whites upon the race war’s conclusion, and they would emerge from underground to rule the blacks who, as the vision went, would be incapable of running the world. At that point, Watkins says, Manson “would scratch [the black man’s] fuzzy head and kick him in the butt and tell him to go pick the cotton and go be a good nigger”.

Watson said the term “Helter Skelter” was from the Beatles’ song of the same name and that Manson interpreted it as concerned with the war.


The summary above was taken from the Manson trial as described in Helter Skelter and other well-known sources. What the theory of Helter Skelter is, what is stands for, has not been in question. But, was it the motive for the murders?

It’s a ridiculous scenario, and as a theory of murder, leaves a lot of the desired. Nevertheless, at Manson’s murder trial, this is what the prosecution put forward, and it worked. Manson was convicted and sentenced to die even though he was not present for any of the murders. He was convicted as the prime mover. The prosecution had to ask why he did this, and they went with the preposterous Helter Skelter theory and Tom O’Neil, writing from the perspective of 1999, wasn’t buying it.

O’Neil found that many of the police investigators who had worked on the case didn’t buy it either. And nearly all the police noted with amazement that none of it should have happened anyway because Manson was on parole, starting in 1967, and he violated that parole over and over. Why wasn’t he back in jail, how did he have such power over normal middle-class people, people like Leslie Van Houton and Charles “Tex” Watson, and why commit these outrageous crimes? The original prosecution didn’t answer any of these fundamental questions, though the narrative on Manson and the crimes had been told over and over for 30 years.

Here are a few of the relevant factors that O’Neil revealed in his research that clears up some things and raises new possibilities.

First, according to many police sources that O’Neill interviewed, the motive for the killings at the Tate house were quite simple to understand. A few days earlier, on August 6, 1969, Bobby Beausoleil had been picked up by the police in a stolen car. The car belonged to Gary Hinman, who was murdered by Beausoliul, Susan Atkins, and Manson’s first wife, Mary Brunner.  

At Hinman’s house in Topanga Canyon, someone, possibly Atkins, smeared ‘political piggy’ in Hinman’s blood on the wall in an effort to frame the Black Panthers as the culprits. “Pig” was a term the Panthers used liberally.

After his arrest, Beausoleil called Manson from jail a day later, on the 7th or 8th, notifying him of his arrest, and Manson then ordered the murder at the Cielo Drive house in order to clear Beausoliel. They were to make it look like the same murderers, and since Beausoliel was in jail at the time they were committed, it would be clear that Hinman’s killer could not have been Beausoliel.

If this was indeed the motive, the Cielo Drive was selected because Manson had a beef with Terry Melcher, who used to live there. Who they killed was secondary. Much of what Manson did or ordered was the result of him being a career criminal who was having power and success for the first time in his life. He was a psychopathic personality with power, and he used it in a psychopathic way. The larger question is why this wasn’t presented as the motive at the trial, and was replaced with the crazy Helter Skelter narrative. Why the elaborate fantasy rather then the easy to understand and prove theory of covering for a previous crime?

Second, there is the distinct possibility that Manson had been working with the police as an informer at some point. He was not taken into custody for parole violations, and he was also let go multiple times when he was in police custody. Most prominently, O’Neill writes about a raid on the Spahn Rach on August 16, just a few days after the murders at the Tate and LaBianca houses. These raids were big, and staged by the LA County Sheriff, not the LPAD, and they netted Manson and all his crazy crew, including all the killers.

And yet, days later, they were all let out of jail and the subsequently fled to Death Valley. According to O’Neill and his sources, this was part of a pattern of behavior on the part of law enforcement that looks a lot like Manson had law enforcement or other connections, and he was being treated like an informer. Someone had a relationship to Manson that has never been disclosed.

And finally, there is the question of just how Manson got so good at what he was doing. His technique for breaking people down was incredibly effective. He used sex, drugs, and philosophy to get many people to radically change their lives and then perform acts for which they had no precedent.

Here, O’Neill offers his most controversial research that could answer the question about Manson’s skill. O’Neill points out that in the same period, two divisions of the government, the FBI and the CIA, were clearly running operations that involved experimenting with drugs on unwitting American citizens. These operations were focused on the use of LSD, and the effect of LSD on the personality. Could someone, using these drugs, induce someone to do something they might otherwise not do, and even not have any memory of it?

Also in the period, the same government agencies, in cooperation with local law enforcement, were tracking and spying on prominent members of the Civil Right movement as well as a few counterculture figures. They viewed Civil Rights and the counterculture movements as threats to the government over the long term, and they cultivated informers.

O’Neil offers as proof the proximity of the people who were involved in these efforts to Charles Manson. Manson was federal prisoner in the period leading up to the CIA and FBI operations, and he was at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic as a regular, where at least two doctors that were involved with the LSD research also worked. Tom O’Neil was never able to get one document with Manson’s name on it, or one person to testify that yes, Manson was an informer or an FBI science subject, but the existence of the FBI and CIA programs are not in doubt. They were the subject of intense hearings about a decade later, in 1977, and those programs were real. Manson’s relationship to them is not known, but if he was a subject of the experiments, it would explain his phenomenal success.

Charles Manson cut a wide criminal swath, and there are unsolved murders today that are suspected to be the work of Manson’s criminal enterprise. In the end, he went to prison and occasionally, he’d be interviewed, and he’d put on a crazy show for the cameras. The truth about the entire period will never be fully known, but at the least, O’Neil and his research exposed how incomplete the official story, as told in Helter Skelter, actually was.

If there is some document in a file somewhere that would shed further light on the subject, it has not been never found. Tom O’Neill did some very interesting work, but he was unable to prove what so many of the facts suggest. Charles Manson was not just a crazed racist psycho; he was a rare talent with an incredible will to power and a criminal mind. Further, he many have been professionally trained. His consequences of his life are still with us, and the full story has never been complete told.

Church Committee hearings on the MKULTRA program are here:


photos from the raid on Spahn Ranch, days after the murders. They are all here, and they were in police custody, but let go.
Mug shot form August 16, 1969

Next – Part 9: Siding With Charlie

Back – Part 7: Pagan Environmentalism

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