- Interview by
Let’s say you’re at a dinner party full of people skeptical of anything that smacks of “conspiracy theory” — and yet they want to know what your book CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties was about. How would you even begin to prepare people for the things you uncovered while researching the Manson murders?
I don’t talk about it at dinner parties. There’s no way to have that conversation in under five minutes; it’s just too complicated.
The easiest thing for me to do is just say that I found a lot of evidence that challenges the official narrative and present it in the book, but I leave readers to draw their own conclusions because I didn’t feel, despite twenty years of reporting, that I’d proven definitively one way or the other how something — and why something — happened.
The only thing I feel comfortable saying, that I proved beyond a reasonable doubt, is that the facts that were presented to the public are not true. And, in the case of the prosecution of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, many things were, in fact, deliberately lied about.
What does that official narrative entail?
In the prosecution of the Manson Family, deputy Los Angeles district attorney Vincent Bugliosi cited the motive of “Helter Skelter,” which is based on a small truth but embellished and enlarged to cover up a larger truth.
Without the context of what was going on culturally and socially in America in the 1960s, it’s really hard to explain how the antiwar movement and black activism — namely the Black Panthers — threatened the US government. The government was desperate to clamp down and stop them. So the CIA came up with something called Operation CHAOS, and the FBI came up with something called COINTELPRO, and these were meant to disable and neutralize a Left that the government thought was a threat to national security. Meanwhile, the MKUltra project that began fifteen years earlier was a direct reaction to the ongoing Cold War.
That’s why it’s so hard to explain all this at a dinner table conversation, because if people don’t understand the paranoia and the fear that characterized the world after Hiroshima and the Cold War began or know what was going on with drugs, free love, and youthful rebellion in the late ’60s, you have to explain all that first. And only then do you get to the actual Manson murders and have to explain what the Helter Skelter theory is without sounding like a mad person. It’s all so hard.
In this context of paranoia, we’re in the summer of 1969. What’s the rough chronology of events that summer surrounding the Manson Family?
Well, you have this isolated group that has been cut off from the world by its leader. The official narrative is that Manson was upset that he hadn’t gotten a record deal with this producer. Supposedly that was the reason the first murder site was chosen: to instill fear in the producer Terry Melcher. But according to the Helter Skelter theory, the larger reason for the murders was to ignite the race war that Manson had been prophesizing. That’s what I challenge in the book.
The narrative to which we’re referring is Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter theory. Can you walk us through who Bugliosi was and how he was able to sell people on Helter Skelter?
In his defense, Manson did preach Helter Skelter to his followers. But the extent that he actually really believed in it, the extent to which it was a motivating factor behind the crimes — I think all that was made up by Bugliosi.
After the convictions, Bugliosi actually told two journalists that he didn’t believe Manson truly believed in Helter Skelter — that he was far too smart — but that he had used Helter Skelter to get his followers to do what he needed done. I tend to agree with that. I think it’s likely that the women of the Manson Family had been brainwashed to believe Helter Skelter but that Manson never believed it for a second.
But what those journalists did not ask is why Manson sent those people to those places to kill people if he didn’t want to ignite a race war. If he didn’t believe that this was going to cause a race war, or even care about it, then why did the murders happen? I never got the chance to ask Bugliosi that; by the time I came across these interviews, Vince wouldn’t speak to me anymore.
He was a very brilliant, ambitious deputy district attorney who saw this as a launching pad to a career. He wanted to be district attorney of Los Angeles, then move on to either attorney general or governor. I believe he even had presidential aspirations — and he also wanted to be wealthy, God bless him. He had a coauthor in the courtroom even before the trial began, though nobody knew about it at the time. One of Bugliosi’s co-prosecutors said he had his coauthor, Curt Gentry, in the front row every single day taking notes for the book they were working on together.
Take us back to before Bugliosi even entered the scene. Before the final arrest of the Manson Family members, they were actually released a number of times from prison. How did Manson and his followers keep getting released following their arrests?
That was one of my early revelations when I was able to get access to Manson’s parole file after a couple of years’ worth of Freedom of Information Act requests to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the US Parole Commission. It was more than Manson having a lenient parole officer during the two years that he spent evolving from Manson the ex-con, who had been a fly on the wall his whole life, to this guru who could get people to kill for him. During the first year, he basically did whatever he wanted with the blessing of his parole officer, who would look the other way while he was recruiting underage women to follow him and steal for him.
He was arrested a few times that year. Roger Smith, his parole officer, should have recommended parole revocation and sent him back to prison, but he never did. Instead, he wrote to his superiors in Washington, DC, and tried to get Manson to be allowed to go live in Mexico, where obviously he couldn’t be supervised. They thought Roger was crazy. I have their letters back, basically saying, “This man gives us no reason to think that he’s not going to continue committing crimes without supervision. How can we do this to Mexico?”
And then we have Susan Atkins, who was one of the main murderers that first night at the Tate house, and, prior to that, in the murder of Gary Hinman. Her parole officers recommended the revocation of first her federal parole, then her probation: the first prior to her meeting Manson, the second afterward because she had violated her probation so often and with complete abandon. Both times, the case went before the original judges who had sentenced her to parole; in both cases, the judges not only didn’t violate her but ended her parole and probation, respectively, early. It was almost like she was rewarded for her bad behavior.
At the time I found this out, everybody involved was dead except for one of the parole officers, a woman who had recommended I get in touch with a couple of the officials who were peripherally involved. All of them said they had never seen anything like that before with a person who was so clearly in violation.
So, even in 1968 and 1969, it sounds like the law enforcement officers who were on the ground with the Manson Family seemed to have a sense that there was something kind of fishy going on.
A year into my reporting, I brought all the information I had on Manson’s get-out-of-jail-free card — which he seemingly wielded from 1967 until he went to jail for the last time in 1969 — to a retired deputy DA, who had actually gone on to become a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court. In an interview with me, he said, while looking through all this, “You can often blame things like this on bureaucratic red tape or incompetency. But what you’re showing me here is a pattern — and it’s a joke. It’s clear they deliberately wanted him out of jail and free.” He says, “I can’t tell you why this happened, but it isn’t a mistake. Somebody wanted him out there. And what you need to do is find out who it was.” Was it the FBI? Was it the sheriff’s department? The LAPD? Some powerful agency didn’t want him behind bars.
That’s a great segue into talking about what Operation CHAOS was and where that enters the story.
CHAOS was an operation started by Richard Helms, the director of the CIA circa 1967. It was created to basically neutralize the Black Panthers, the black activist movement more broadly, and the antiwar movement that was really starting to explode in 1967 in the Bay Area. It was launched by Helms with the knowledge of both President Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California. Meanwhile, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had something called COINTELPRO. Now, COINTELPRO had actually existed during the 1940s and 1950s, ironically created to clamp down on the Ku Klux Klan in the South and the Midwest, but it had since gone dormant. Hoover revived it in 1967. Around the same time, CHAOS began infiltrating left-wing groups, trying to get them to commit crimes.
COINTELPRO was specifically targeting the Panthers in Los Angeles. A year before the Tate-LaBianca murders, they infiltrated a group called Satan’s Slaves, who were jockeying for power with the local Panthers. The CIA instigated the murder of two members of Satan’s Slaves on the campus of UCLA by making the Panthers believe that a meeting they were having or were going to have was going to be attacked by the Slaves. They made sure the Slaves and the Panthers were at the same place at the same time, both thinking they were about to be attacked by the other. Two people ended up dead.
Less than a year before the Tate murders, Hoover wrote a memo. He was upset with all the support the Panthers were getting from the left-wing Hollywood community. They had started something called the White Panthers, which was a group of celebrities — Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Donald Sutherland — who were organizing to raise money for them. Hoover’s memo basically said, “We have to make these whites believe that, once the revolution really does begin, they’re going to be the first ones lined up against the walls and slaughtered.”
They used propaganda to do that. They had informants infiltrate and then agitate to get the Panthers or other groups to commit crimes — and to get either arrested or killed in the process of committing those crimes.
Why would Manson be useful to a program like Operation CHAOS?
I haven’t definitively proved that he was part of CHAOS or COINTELPRO. However, what he did aligned with the objectives of both those groups, which basically wanted to turn society against the young hippie movement. They wanted people to think of them not as harmless young kids with long hair, smoking pot and experimenting, but rather as dangerous bogeymen, out to kill your daughters or abduct your kids.
The FBI, and in particular COINTELPRO, was trying to make whites really fear the Black Panthers — to make them think that the Panthers were much more dangerous than they were. According to Bugliosi’s narrative, Manson’s murders were committed to implicate the Black Panthers and ignite a race war by making the whites think that Black Power activists had killed Sharon Tate and their friends, and then, the next night, the LaBiancas.
So was Manson a tool, or was he a product? I don’t reach a conclusion in the book. I’m not saying that things happened this way or that way; I’m just presenting my case for the Helter Skelter explanation being untrue.
A shadowy man named Reeve Whitson appears throughout your book. Was he possibly a CIA agent working on CHAOS?
I’m working on a follow-up book, and I’m still reporting on Whitson, so I don’t want to give too much away from the new stuff I’ve found. In the first book, I do show that he was working with the police closely from the day the bodies were discovered at the Tate house onward.
He’s called “Walter Kern” by Robert Helder, who was the head of the Tate homicide investigation team for the LAPD and later wrote an unpublished book with Paul Tate, Sharon Tate’s father, who investigated his daughter’s murder himself with Kern. Helder says that he was some kind of groupie or informant, but he didn’t know who exactly Kern was. He said, “Every time we would get to a witness or learn something, Kern would always beat us to it. He somehow had an inside track.”
There’s a long story to how I even discovered who Whitson was. He had died a few years before I began my reporting, but I learned that he had told the people closest to him — his attorney and a couple of family members and close friends — that his dying regret was that he had been involved in an operation against the left-wing movement, that he had infiltrated the Manson Family and been involved with them prior to the murders, and that he felt he could have prevented the Tate-LaBianca murders. He even said that he was at the crime scenes before the bodies had been discovered.
I did FOIA requests to every federal intelligence agency in the United States. The CIA responded that they could neither confirm nor deny that he was part of their organization.
I am also curious about Dr “Jolly” West, who was involved in MKUltra. Can you tell us a little bit about where he enters the story?
MKUltra was first exposed to the public in 1976 by a whistleblower — a State Department guy — and then reported by the New York Times, which dropped the bombshell that there had been this secret program conducted by the CIA to learn how to control people’s behavior using drugs, sensory deprivation, and hypnotism. The article named eight or nine scientists, psychiatrists, and drug researchers who had been contracted by the CIA to conduct experiments on people without their knowledge or informed consent.
One of them was Dr Louis “Jolly” West. West was a psychiatrist who came out of the Air Force. In the early 1950s, he had been based at Lackland Air Force Base, where he served as the head of the psychiatry division. After that, he started the psychiatry department at the University of Oklahoma, ran it until 1969, and then was recruited by UCLA to run the psychiatry department in their neuroscience center. West told the New York Times that they had asked him to be a part of the program but he had refused and told them that it was not safe to use LSD on human beings. He went to his grave denying that he had ever been a part of MKUltra or used LSD on humans.
And yet I discovered that he had been in the same place at the same time that Manson became who he was: someone able to control people’s behavior and get them to commit the murders of strangers on command.
Nobody had ever been able to prove West’s involvement in MKUltra, though it had long been rumored. When I found out he died, I contacted UCLA and requested access to his papers. And over the course of a summer, I found the proverbial needle in a haystack: letters between him and Dr Sidney Gottlieb, who ran MKUltra — who, in fact, started MKUltra in 1950. West was there from 1952 or 1953. He was the main researcher for the program.
I reviewed all this correspondence showing that his whole career had been based on lies. West had been secretly funded by the CIA for about twenty years to do these Nazi-style experiments on patients and other people. He opened a kind of safe house in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 — around the same time Manson emerged there — and maintained an office at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, where he regularly recruited subjects for his research. And it was the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic where Manson was directed to go for his weekly meetings with his parole officer, Roger Smith, the same PO we were talking about earlier, who declined to revoke Manson’s parole despite his escalating criminality. Smith was actually doing amphetamine research through the Free Clinic at the same time he was supervising Manson’s parole. Or, rather, not supervising it — instead letting him do whatever he wanted while he formed his group of sociopathic killers.
The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic was run by David Smith (no relation to Roger Smith). Despite his claims that he never accepted any government grants, I’ve seen the funding papers: he and Roger were both being funded by the government, which the CIA was using as a cover for their research grants. West once called the place “a laboratory disguised as a hippie crash pad.”
Another psychiatrist there, James Allen, told me, “We all saw Charlie every day.” According to him, there was no way Jolly didn’t know who Manson was, given that Manson was going to the clinic two or three times a week with his girls to get treatment for STDs, pregnancies, things like that. Of course, it wasn’t like Manson innocently wandered into the clinic. He had to go there once a week for parole meetings.
Do you think Manson was using MKUltra techniques he learned at this clinic to exert influence over his followers?
I never answer that question. What I like to do is quote someone who was a lawyer and a psychiatrist, Alan Scheflin, who wrote one of the first books on MKUltra, called The Mind Manipulators. I once asked him, “Do you think Manson was a CIA experiment gone wrong? Do you think Manson somehow had access to what the CIA was doing?” Maybe the technology was shared with him, or maybe he was part of an experiment. But obviously, I don’t think the CIA would have wanted what happened to happen the way it happened. You know, an actress eight months pregnant, stabbed seven or eight times. Scheflin said, “I don’t think it was an experiment gone wrong. I think it was an experiment gone right.”
I think there is a good likelihood that Manson is a product of MKUltra, whether he was knowledgeable about it or not. But I haven’t been able to definitively prove it. I chased this story for twenty years, hoping to get conclusive information one way or the other, but I could neither disprove it nor prove it to my satisfaction. Finally, I thought, “Well, at the very least, I want to get everything that I did find out there.”
What’s it like, trying to thread the needle of an actual conspiracy amid all the wild conspiracy theories that have followed the murders?
It’s horrible, because you feel like you’re losing your mind when you start suspecting that stuff that sounds so crazy and so conspiratorial actually might have happened.
It was exciting to make major discoveries. But nine out of ten times, you’re hitting dead ends. I wouldn’t recommend it.