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Helter Skelter revisited: Inside the Manson family murders

The cult leader was the mastermind behind a series of gruesome killings in 1969, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate.
/ Source: TODAY

Charles Manson had such persuasive power over his followers that he never carried out any one of the heinous murders for which he was originally sentenced to death.

Instead, he commanded disciples from a group that called itself the Manson Family to carry out a killing spree in the summer of 1969.

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As part of a weeklong series examining some of most infamous crimes and cults of the 20th century, TODAY examines the man who orchestrated the murder of actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, along with four others inside her Southern California rental home.

On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson Family members stormed Tate’s home and stabbed the eight-month pregnant actress to death.

Her husband was in London filming a movie at the time, but Tate had several guests with her, all of them killed: writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring.

Charles Manson heading into a California court hearing in December 1969. Harold Filan / AP file

A fifth victim, 18-year-old Steven Parent, was shot to death as he tried to leave the property after visiting the home’s caretaker.

Outside the home, one of the killers used blood to write the word “pig” on the front door before leaving the site.

The grisly scene continues to haunt first responders nearly a half century later.

Authorities take away the body of actress Sharon Tate, who was found murdered inside the Beverly Hills home she rented with her director husband, Roman Polanski. AP

“It’s something that's stuck with me ever since that day,” said Jerry Derosa, the first Los Angeles police officer to arrive at the site.

"A lot of things go through your mind. You're kind of thinking, what happened? Was this some kind of a party that went bad? Was this some kind of a drug deal that went bad?"

The next evening, Manson led followers to the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, and ordered his disciples to kill the couple. The words “rise” and “death to pigs” were scrawled in blood on the walls.

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, left to right, on their way into their 1970 trial for killings that included actress Sharon Tate.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Investigators eventually linked both murder scenes to a cult led by Manson.

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Manson ordered the killing spree with the belief it would trigger a racial uprising he called “helter skelter,” a concept he took from the title of a Beatles’ song. He failed to express any remorse about what happened even years later.

"There's no need to feel guilty. I haven't done anything I'm ashamed of,” he said during a 1987 interview with TODAY. “If I wanted to kill somebody, I'd take this book and beat you to death with it and I wouldn't feel a thing."

Sharon Tate was eight-months pregnant when she was fatally stabbed inside her California home by Manson family followers in August 1969.Getty Images

In January 1971, Manson and his accomplices were convicted on multiple murder charges and sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted a year later to life in prison after California’s Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

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Today, the families of Manson’s victims continue to fight to tell their loved one’s stories — and keep their killers behind bars.

"I do not want one family, not one single family, to go through what my family did,” said Debra Tate, who lost her sister.

Manson follower Susan Atkins, 21, at a December 1969 news conference. Atkins, who admitted to killing actress Sharon Tate, died behind bars while serving time for the murder.Wally Fong / AP

She and others regularly testify at parole hearings against the release of any of the Manson defendants, all of whom remain in prison, except for Susan Atkins, who died behind bars in 2009.

Among other Manson family defendants behind bars is 69-year-old Patricia Krenwinkel, the longest serving female inmate in California. Her story was told in a 2014 documentary, "Life After Manson."

"The thing I try to remember sometimes is that what I am today is not what I was at 19,” she said in the film.

Krenwinkel’s latest parole hearing was postponed until June.

Other Manson accomplices remain in prison, including Leslie Van Houten, whose recommendation for release last year was reversed by the California governor.

Charles "Tex" Watson is led back to jail from a courtroom after his conviction of seven counts of first degree murder and one of conspiracy to commit murder in the Tate-LaBianca slayings. George Brich / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Meanwhile, Manson, now 82, was reportedly taken to a hospital earlier this year for treatment of a serious illness but is now back in prison.

"We hold no delight in his demise, or his suffering or his death or in any of those people,” Di Maria said. "We just want them to live the rest of their lives behind bars."

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