50 years on from the Manson murders Debra Tate speaks out about her sister Sharon’s murder

Still haunted by her sister's murder, Debra is continuing the fight to keep her killers behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Sharon Tate

In the strangely hot summer of 1969, the hills above Los Angeles offered a sanctuary, not only from sweltering workplaces and smog-wreathed freeways, but the ominous flow of bad news spilling through the vast metropolis.

At her home on Cielo Drive, a steep, winding road behind Beverly Hills, 26-year-old Sharon Tate, one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars, kept the windows open and padded around the secluded property dressed as lightly as possible.

Things were going well for Sharon. After a hesitant start, her career had taken off, and a year earlier she had married the newly fashionable French-born film director Roman Polanski, whose worldwide hit Rosemary’s Baby had rocketed him into the big league.

Best of all, Sharon was eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child.

As the weekend of August 9-10 approached, Sharon learned that Roman had been delayed in London and wouldn’t be home as planned. Instead, she invited friends over for dinner and a chill-out at Cielo Drive.

None of them would survive what the Los Angeles prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, later characterised as “perhaps the most bizarre, savage, nightmarish murder spree in the recorded annals of crime”.

Sharon three days before the murders.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Fifty years on, the killings, orchestrated by hippy cult leader Charles Manson and largely carried out by his female followers, have lost none of their power to terrify and astonish.

Six people, including Sharon’s unborn child, died at her house, and two more were slaughtered the following night. The murders marked the end of the freewheeling idealism of the 1960s, bringing fear and paranoia into Hollywood and darkening America’s sense of itself.

The anniversary has predictably triggered a rush of new films, books and TV documentaries, but for Sharon’s younger sister, Debra, no reminders are necessary.

“I live with it every day,” she tells The Australian Women’s Weekly, sitting in a Los Angeles coffee shop not far from the courthouse where Manson and his disciples were tried.

“I understand why it still resonates, why people still talk about it, but I don’t need anyone to explain it to me.”

If anything, the fascination with Manson’s demonic rampage has continued to grow over the years, fuelled by the internet, where his short, twisted time as a self-made messiah is exhaustively debated and analysed.

An illiterate petty criminal, largely raised in institutions, “Charlie” was released from prison in 1967, found himself blinking into the California sunshine at the height of the Flower Power era, and set about developing a following of mostly young, middle-class women, who he called his Family.

He convinced them that an apocalypse was coming, and when it didn’t happen, sent them out to start one.

Three of these disciples – Susan Atkins, 20, Linda Kasabian, 21, and Patricia Krenwinkel, 21 – accompanied by Manson’s male sidekick, Charles “Tex” Watson, arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive shortly after midnight on August 9.

Susan was a former choirgirl from northern California, Linda a high-achieving college student from a small town in New Hampshire, while Patricia, an insurance salesman’s daughter, had given up a regular office job in a Los Angeles suburb to follow Manson after meeting him by chance.

Sharon’s house guests that night were Abigail Folger, heiress to a coffee fortune, her raffish Polish lover, Wojciech Frykowski, who had written scripts for Roman, and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring.

The Polanskis had chosen their house carefully, seeking both privacy and proximity to the happening Hollywood scene, but also a cosiness that would suit their new life as a family.

A former occupant, actress Candice Bergen, later remembered the place as “surrounded by tall, thick pine trees and cherry blossoms, with rose-covered rail fences and a cool mountain pool grown over with flowers, it snuggled up against a hillside – a gingerbread hideout that hung high above the city.”

Charles Manson being led from a courthouse in December 1969

(Credit: Getty Images)

Manson, a would-be musician who thought he should be “bigger than The Beatles”, saw the house and its occupants as symbolic of an aloof show-business establishment which had failed to recognise his genius.

In the driveway, his murderous envoys first encountered 18-year-old Steven Parent, a friend of the estate’s caretaker. Watson shot him dead at the wheel of his

car, before leading Atkins and Krenwinkel, armed with knives, inside.

The slaughter that ensued was beyond the imaginings of any horror film director. Abigail was stabbed 28 times, Wojciech 51 times and finished off with a bullet.

Jay and Sharon were tied together with a three-ply rope looped over a beam and knotted around their necks. Jay was then stabbed seven times and shot in the head. Sharon, the last to die, dressed in floral pyjamas, was stabbed 16 times, pleading for the life of her child.

“Sharon was a beautiful person in every way,” says Debra, 66, whose fine features echo those of her actress sister.

“She was kind and loving, and it would never have been in her to hurt anyone. Everyone who met her recognised the sweetness in her. This is why the story still haunts us. It is the good against the darkness and the evil, the sum of our fears.

Debra campaigns tirelessly against the release of Family members.

(Credit: Getty Images)

“We were amazingly close as kids. Our dad was in the military, and we were always upping and moving home, so the only real constant Sharon and I had in our lives was each other. When she became a star she didn’t change at all. Everyone knows that Hollywood can be a cruel place and, God knows, there’s a lot of dishonesty and double-crossing, but Sharon never played that game. I’ve met so many people over the years who met her, maybe even just once, and remembered something nice she had said or done.

“She told me if she hadn’t become an actress, she’d have liked to have been a psychologist. Definitely she had an ability to know what people were thinking, and that helped her to steer her way through the business.”

Sharon had made early waves as a child beauty queen, and by the time she arrived in Hollywood, in her late teens, she had the show-stopping looks of a born movie siren. The powerful agent Hal Gefsky, who took her on his books, confessed later: “She was so young, so beautiful, I didn’t really know what to do with her.”

For the first few years of her career, this presented Sharon with a problem. Directors took the view that no actress so beautiful could also be talented,

and she found herself marooned in a cycle of routine B-movie roles.

Everything changed in 1967 when she landed a part in Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s blockbuster novel. Critics differed over the movie, but they swooned for Sharon.

“Astoundingly photogenic, infinitely curvaceous, Sharon Tate is one of the most smashing young things to hit Hollywood in a long time,” raved Newsweek magazine.

Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski at their celebrity-packed wedding in 1968.

(Credit: Getty Images)

In 1968, she married 35-year-old Roman, whose dark cinematic eye was attributed to his having lost most of his Polish-Jewish family in the Holocaust.

A London society writer who attended their celebrity-packed Chelsea wedding called them “the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford of our time… cool, nomadic and nicely shocking”.

“Sharon was completely crazy about Roman,” says Debra. “Of course she was! He was charming, smart, funny, brilliant. He still is. I speak to him on the phone quite often, and although he has moved on, as he had to, what happened back then is always with him. He loved her very deeply, but to this day he can’t talk about it. He probably opens up to me more than anyone because we share the same sense of loss, but basically he can’t go there.”

Roman’s Paris lawyer, Hervé Temime, confirms that the director “will be making no statement on what he considers to be a private matter”.

Eight years after Sharon’s death, Roman was arrested in LA for having sex with a 13-year-old girl at actor Jack Nicholson’s house. He fled the United States after a plea-bargain deal negotiated by his lawyers unravelled and he was told to expect 50 years in jail.

Now living in Paris, his greatest regret, says Debra, is that he cannot visit the grave of his wife and unborn son.

Although her health is shaky, and she receives regular death threats from the dark extremities of the Manson-worshipping web, Debra campaigns relentlessly against the release of the imprisoned members of the Family.

“It isn’t personal,” she says.

“I don’t feel hatred for them. When Charlie died [in 2017, aged 83] I actually shed a tear for him. But we are fooling ourselves if we think these people are no longer dangerous. When has any of them shown real regret? Why do they keep in such close touch with each other? I hear their lawyers saying they are reformed and shouldn’t still be paying for their youthful mistakes, and I think, bull.”

Manson family members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie van Houton in 1970.

(Credit: Getty Images)

We have spent the morning at a parole appeal brought by 69-year-old Leslie Van Houten, one of Manson’s key followers, who has been in jail for 48 years, and shares with Krenwinkel the distinction of being America’s longest-serving female prisoner. (On June 4, California Governor Gavin Newsom denied parole for Van Houten, citing concern for her “potential for future violence”.)

Van Houten, a teenage runaway from a strict Christian home, played a leading role in the second night of Manson’s murder rampage.

This time the victims were Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, the owners of a small chain of grocery stores. They were neither famous nor particularly rich. It was their very ordinariness that made them targets.

Throughout 1969, a turbulent time of anti-Vietnam War protests, political upheaval and race riots, Manson had been telling the Family that America’s blacks were about to rise up and turn on their white “oppressors” in a mutually destructive conflict that would destroy the world’s existing order and bring the Family to supreme power.

When this prediction failed to materialise, Manson – fearful that his credibility was slipping – decided to trigger the race war himself.

The Tate/LaBianca murders were duly choreographed to look like the work of Black Panther radicals, with political slogans like “Death to Pigs” written in the victims’ blood. The LaBiancas were repeatedly stabbed and bayonetted by Watson, Van Houten and Krenwinkel, and the word “WAR” crudely etched on Leno’s stomach with a carving fork.

A botched police investigation, conducted against a climate of hysteria in Hollywood, failed to make any breakthroughs or even link the murders. As the weeks went by, increasingly frenzied theories were circulated, implicating Satanists, the Mafia and even Polanski himself.

Then in late October, Atkins, who had been arrested on unrelated drug and car theft charges, told a cellmate of her involvement, and Manson and his co-killers were rounded up and charged.

(Credit: Getty Images)

The trial was a global media sensation, with Manson, a diminutive but mesmerising presence, portraying himself as a father figure to troubled young people American society had rejected.

“These children who come at you with knives, they are your children,” he told the court. “You taught them, I didn’t teach them. I just helped them stand up.”

On the street outside, dozens of “Charlie’s girls” (as they became known) shaved their heads, sang his songs and held vigils.

Much of the continuing obsession with the case revolves around how – or if – Manson was able to possess his followers’ minds to the extent that they would carry out acts of such incredible savagery. Debra has long been sceptical of the “brainwashing” argument peddled by defence lawyers.

“This is what I have to keep fighting against,” she says, with a crockery-rattling slap on the table.

“The idea that Charlie so controlled them that they didn’t know what they were doing is absurd. It’s impossible. If it’s true, why did some of them refuse to take part? He chose the ones he knew had it in them, and when he said, ‘Will you kill for me?’ they willingly said yes.

“These people are sociopaths. They knew what they were doing. I’ve read all the psychological reports. They belong in jail.”

Polanski has never visited the grave

(Credit: Getty Images)

After the murders, Debra’s mother, Doris, founded a victims’ rights group that won a pioneering legal right for the families and relatives of crime victims

to make representations in court. Since Doris died in 1992, Debra has kept up the fight.

“I saw the complete devastation it caused in my own family,” she says.

“My mother basically lost her mind for years afterwards, and was never the same… My dad became very withdrawn and started drinking. My little sister Patti [who died of cancer in 2000] took it very hard and it affected her badly growing up.

“I get abused, threatened all the time. There are a lot of people out there who still venerate Charlie, who want the Family out of jail, so I have to keep fighting. Otherwise Charlie gets what he wanted, which was to have recognition, to be a superstar.”

Many of the lingering questions about the case will be aired in the crop of new films marking the anniversary – notably Quentin Tarantino’s star-laden Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Australian actress Margot Robbie as Sharon.

(Credit: Getty Images)

The film has been attacked as “exploitative” by Polanski’s current wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, but Debra is supportive.

“Tarantino came to see me and was extremely respectful,” she says.

“He listened to my point of view that the victims’ families should be treated with consideration. He let me see the script, and we spent a long time talking about the project. He wasn’t going to give me any control, which I accepted, but I do think he’s handled things sensitively. It helps that I’m a big admirer of his work, and I also think Margot Robbie is perfect as Sharon.”

The house on Cielo Drive was demolished in the late 90s, to be replaced by a larger, Spanish-style villa, but tour buses still pass by and fans lay flowers by the gates.

Debra says she would prefer her sister to be remembered in a different way.

“I’d love people to take a closer look at Sharon’s life, and see she is a perfect role model for today’s young women. She captures the idea of being able to achieve your dreams and believe that you can be a wonderful person and still succeed. To recognise that would be the best tribute to her.”

Related stories