Charles Manson, the hippie cult leader who became the hypnotic-eyed face of evil across America after orchestrating the gruesome murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969, died Sunday after nearly a half-century in prison. He was 83.
Manson, whose name to this day is synonymous with unspeakable violence and madness, died at 8:13 p.m. of natural causes at a Kern County hospital, according to a California Department of Corrections statement.
Tate's sister, Debra Tate, received a call from Corcoran State Prison telling her Manson had died. She knew he had been sick for a long time and was "expecting" this.
U.S. & World
News from around the country and around the globe
Tate said she will make sure all of Manson's followers who remain behind bars stay there for the rest of their lives. "I've forgiven them, but that does not mean I've forgotten what they did," she said. "I will never forget."
Manson was recently taken to Bakersfield Hospital where he was being treated for intestinal bleeding since January. Surgery was recommended but it was later deemed too risky.
California Corrections spokeswoman Vicky Waters said it's "to be determined" what happens to Manson's body. Prison officials previously said Manson had no known next of kin and state law says that if no relative or legal representative surfaces within 10 days, then it's up to the department to determine whether the body is cremated or buried.
It's not known if Manson requested funeral services of any sort. It's also unclear what happens to his property, which is said to include artwork and at least two guitars. State law says the department must maintain his property for up to a year in anticipation there might be legal battles over who can make a legitimate claim to it.
He had been locked up since his arrest in December 1969 following his conviction for orchestrating the murders of Tate, who was pregnant, and six others. One of his followers, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, attempted to kill President Gerald Ford, and was later released on parole in 2009.
At a former movie ranch outside Los Angeles, he and his devotees — many of them young runaways who likened him to Jesus Christ — lived commune-style, using drugs and taking part in orgies. Children from privileged backgrounds ate garbage from supermarket trash.
"These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them; I didn't teach them. I just tried to help them stand up," he said in a courtroom soliloquy.
It was the summer of the first moon landing. War raged in Vietnam. Hippies flooded the streets of San Francisco and gathered in upstate New York for the Woodstock music festival. But many remember the time for Los Angeles' most shocking celebrity murders.
Fear swept the city after a maid reporting for work ran screaming from the elegant home where Tate lived with her husband, "Rosemary's Baby" director Roman Polanski. Scattered around the estate were blood-soaked bodies.
The beautiful 26-year-old actress, who was 8½ months pregnant, was stabbed and hung from a rafter in her living room. Also killed were Abigail Folger, heiress to a coffee fortune; Polish film director Voityck Frykowksi; Steven Parent, a friend of the estate's caretaker; and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, killed by Manson follower Charles "Tex" Watson, who announced his arrival by saying: "I am the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's work."
The next night, wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, were stabbed to death in their home in another neighborhood.
The killers scrawled such phrases as "Pigs" and "Healter Skelter" (sic) in blood at the crime scenes.
Three months later, a Manson follower was jailed on an unrelated charge and told a cellmate about the bloodbath, leading to the cult leader's arrest.
The slayings horrified the world and, together with the deadly violence that erupted later in 1969 during a Rolling Stones concert at California's Altamont Speedway, exposed the dangerous, drugged-out underside of the counterculture movement and seemed to mark the death of the era of peace and love.
"Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969," author Joan Didion wrote in her 1979 book "The White Album."
Why he ordered the killing of strangers remained a mystery. Prosecutors said Manson wanted to foment a race war, an idea he supposedly got from a twisted reading of the hard-rocking Beatles song "Helter Skelter." Others said he was getting even because music producer Terry Melcher, who once lived in the house Tate later occupied, had refused to record Manson's music.
Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of DA's believes Vincent Bugliosi, the LA County district attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson, had the most accurate summation: "Manson was an evil, sophisticated con man with twisted and warped moral values."
"Today, Manson's victims are the ones who should be remembered and mourned on the occasion of his death," Hanisee said.
Manson's childhood was a blueprint for a life of crime. He was born in Cincinnati on Nov. 12, 1934, to a teenager, possibly a prostitute. When he was 5, his mother went to prison for armed robbery. By the time he was 8, he was in reform school. He spent years in and out of penal institutions.
"My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system," he said in a monologue on the witness stand. "I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you."
Manson's chaotic trial in 1970 transformed a courtroom into a theater of the absurd.
He and three female followers, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, sang and chanted, and Manson at one point launched himself across the counsel table at the judge. Many of his followers camped outside the courthouse, threatening to immolate themselves if he was convicted.
When Manson carved an "X'' in his forehead, his co-defendants did the same, saying they were "Xed out of society." He later changed his "X'' to a swastika.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, he maintained his innocence.
"I have killed no one, and I have ordered no one to be killed," Manson said.
He and the three women were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Another defendant, Charles "Tex" Watson, was convicted later. All were spared execution and given life sentences after the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. Manson also was convicted in the killings of stuntman Donald "Shorty" Shea and musician Gary Hinman.
Manson and his female followers appeared sporadically at parole hearings where their bids for freedom were repeatedly rejected.
At a 2012 parole hearing Manson boycotted, he was quoted as telling a prison psychiatrist: "I'm special. I'm not like the average inmate. ... I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man." The parole board decided he should stay behind bars for at least 15 more years.
He made headlines in 2015 when he applied for a marriage license to a 26-year-old who wrote to him in prison, but the wedding never happened. He was also cited for assault, possession of a weapon, threatening prison staff and possessing a cellphone, which he did on three different occasions, during his time in prison, according to the California Department of Corrections.
He was next up for parole in 2027, when he would have been 92.
The killings inspired movies and TV shows, and Manson's face has appeared on T-shirts. The macabre shock rocker Marilyn Manson borrowed part of his stage name from the killer.
"The Manson case, to this day, remains one of the most chilling in crime history," prominent criminal justice reporter Theo Wilson wrote in her 1998 memoir, "Headline Justice: Inside the Courtroom — The Country's Most Controversial Trials."
"Even people who were not yet born when the murders took place," Wilson wrote, "know the name Charles Manson, and shudder."
Linda Deutsch, the longtime courts reporter for The Associated Press who covered the Manson case, said he "left a legacy of evil and hate and murder."
"He was able to take young people who were impressionable and convince them he had the answer to everything and he turned them into killers," she said. "It was beyond anything we had ever seen before in this country."
Associated Press writers and NBC Los Angeles' Rosa Ordaz and Whitney Irick contributed to this report.