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Monday, November 14, 2011

THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER

For true crime aficionados, especially those of us who have a dark fascination with the crimes of Charles Manson’s “Family”, this documentary is absolute mecca.

As you can see here, THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER came as a double feature, the other film being THE BONEYARD. Originally a two-hour documentary in the Discovery TV series THE PROSECUTORS, THE BONEYARD tells the story of the white slavers & tag-team murderers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng. However, I’m not here to talk about that one.

Although I have seen both these documentaries paired up with a dramatized story about Ted Bundy in a different video package, I’ve not seen THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER as a single volume. That’s too bad, really, because I would like to see if it had bonus features and whatnot.

THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER Co-Executive Producer and Host Scott Michaels, who operates the Dearly Departed Tour in Los Angeles and created the Find-A-Death website (www.findadeath.com), takes us to locations that are key to the story of Helter Skelter – areas that most of us have never seen or been to before.

The film starts out at what I presume to be Scott’s (I’m going to use the familiar here) house or office space as he shows you some of his grim Hollywood memorabilia (a piece of John Denver’s airplane, some upholstery from Jayne Mansfield’s death car and a fragment of the stone fireplace from the Tate residence, to name a few).

Amongst the many sites you’ll see in THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER:

The house in L.A. where Jay Sebring lived with Sharon Tate prior to her marriage to Roman Polanski. He was still living there at the time of his murder. This is the same house where, in 1932, former MGM executive Paul Bern committed suicide allegedly because he could not perform sexually with Jean Harlow on their wedding night. Legend has it that Bern was impotent and thought that he could cure it by marrying Harlow. It didn’t work out; Bern supposedly tried to consummate the marriage by strapping on a rubber device and out the door Harlow flew. They were going to wait a respectable amount of time to divorce, but Bern cut things short with a gun and that was that. Anyway, Sharon claimed to have seen Bern’s ghost in the house on several occasions. The current owner/occupant of the house says that nothing supernatural has occurred to his family while living there.

Music teacher Gary Hinman’s house. He was murdered there shortly after Charlie cut Gary’s ear off (Susan Atkins sewed it back on using dental floss). Reports vary as to motive. One suggests Gary inherited money that Charlie wanted; the other concerns drug dealing of some sort. I wonder if the current house’s occupants know the history of what happened there.

Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s house. Family members moved into the house for a time and took just about everything Dennis had that was worth taking.

The former location of the Spahn Ranch where Charlie and company were living for a time. The ranch burned down in 1970, but there were still some artifacts scattered about that Scott and his assistant managed to recoup. They also located the small cave-like natural structure where one of the most famous photos of the Family was taken. All the land where the ranch was stood is owned by a nearby church and has never been developed.

Singer Jack Jones’ former house. This is a place where some of the Family did one of their “Creepy Crawl” invasions at night. (Footnote: I’d like to ask some of the still-incarcerated Family members just how easy it is nowadays to Creepy Crawl their own jail cells. Hmmm….)

The Barker Ranch in Death Valley. This was the place where, according to Scott, Charlie drew his last breath as a free man. The ranch was difficult for Scott and the crew to get to because of the dangerous terrain, but they managed to succeed. They found that many people had made pilgrimages to the ranch before in order to pay some sort of homage to the history of the place. A guest book was found there in what was left of the building where Charlie was found hiding in a small cabinet at the time of his final arrest. Scott also manages to locate Charles “Tex” Watson’s truck, or what was left of it, on the hill behind and above the crumbling ruins. You can still see the faded, painted words “Helter Skelter” on the back of the truck panel. Sometime after Scott left the site, the ruins burned down but probably not through a purposeful act. More than likely a fire was started by someone staying there overnight to keep warm and it got out of all control. However, we at least we now have this visual record of everything there and, as Scott points out, this is part of Los Angeles history although not something of which to necessarily be proud. History is what it is, I suppose.

Of course there’s sort of a visit to the former 10050 Cielo Drive in L.A., the site of the Tate murders. Although we see some grainy footage of the living room interior (where Sharon and Jay were found) when the group Nine Inch Nails were recording an album there, the house later met the wrecking ball in 1993. Another house, a big palace-looking structure, was built over the original site.

(An interesting side note: Trent Reznor, lead singer for Nine Inch Nails, took the original front door of the residence with him when he moved out. This was the very door upon which the word “pig” was written in Sharon’s blood. Of course the blood had long since been scrubbed off, but I’m sure if one could spray luminol on it they might still see the remaining blood enzymes there. Maybe Trent took the door with him for “Show and Tell” at his Sunday School class??)

Scott shows you the 10050 Cielo Drive site from the driveway of the former home of silent movie screen idol Rudolph Valentino and, later, heiress Doris Duke (who died there under mysterious circumstances). A canyon separates the Valentino and Tate residences. I’m sure that whomever currently lives at the Tate property location (the address is 10066 Cielo Drive now, no doubt in an effort to discourage tourists) probably will not/would not allow curiousity seekers to get on their property and film/take photos.

This is funny to me because if one is going to buy infamous real estate such as the site of the murders, then he/she should be prepared to deal with unwanted intruders and such (Another side note: this seems to have been the case as well with the man who bought the “Exorcist” house in St. Louis County a few years back. He acquired the house because of his fascination with the story behind “The Exorcist” and now the police have had to chase off would-be devil worshipers and probably goth teens as well from the front lawn. Wonder what he expected with the purchase of the property? You can read more about this house and the real story behind it all at http://mikesbigblogorainydayfunexorcistkid.blogspot.com).

On August 8, 2007, the evening of the 38th anniversary of the Tate murders, Scott and some friends went up Cielo Drive at the approximate time of the killings, walking it just as the killers walked it. There only appears to be 5 houses along this road, ending with the one at 10066 where the pavement dead ends (so to speak). They got a little creeped out because, as Scott points out, there are many places along the road where people have hidden before in their attempts to get a look at the former 10050 Cielo Drive. They were a bit wary of what they might find, but they pressed onward.

They get to the gated area at the residence, but this is as far as they go. At other points in the film, Scott retraces the steps the killers took, to include disposing of the pistol Tex used that night. It wound up landing near the back yard of a family named Weiss. Little Steven Weiss found the pistol and this helped to break the case. Steven later claimed half of the 25K award put up by Roman and friends at Paramount Pictures for info leading up to the arrest and conviction. I don’t recall who got the other half.

The second set of murders happened the night following the Tate killings. The victims this time were Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Hence, “The Tate-LaBianca Murders” as it is now known in Los Angeles history. Scott takes us to the former LaBianca residence and outlines what happened. The house hasn’t changed much over the years, although a bit of landscaping had occurred at some point in the front area of the house.

We also get to see the strip mall where the grocery store that Leno managed was. Just a few doors down from there is the place Rosemary had worked as a waitress prior to her marriage to Leno. I was surprised to learn that Rosemary did quite well for herself through some wise investing she had done and was worth quite a lot of money at the time of her death.

Throughout spots in the film someone who works for the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office explains the nature of the wounds that each victim suffered. There are on-scene crime photos as well, but none on an autopsy table. I believe that a site called “rotten.com” does or did have autopsy table photos. I saw them once. Believe me, that was quite enough. Anyone who believes these killers ought to be paroled should be forced to view these photographs. Perhaps their minds would be changed then about mercy/parole for the murderers.

The mystery of what happened to Donald “Shorty” Shea’s body is also revealed in THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER. I don’t recall seeing any news reports of the discovery and recovery of his body prior to this documentary. Shorty was a ranch hand at Spahn Ranch who reportedly drew Charlie’s ire by being perceived as a snitch. Also Shorty had committed the “crime” of being married to an African American lady. Charlie didn’t like inter-racial couplings either and so ordered Shorty’s death.

THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER is well worth tracking down if you can find it. I imagine it’s still available out there somewhere. If you’re like me, you’ll be absolutely riveted to your DVD player.

If you have trouble locating this, I would check with your local library to see if they might have a copy on hand you could check out and see.

If it’s true that we, as a nation, lost our innocence when President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, then that very innocence HAD to have been absolutely cremated (and ashes disbursed) with the Tate-LaBianca murders and the aftermath. Things haven’t been the same since.

Recommended Reading:

HELTER SKELTER by Vincent T. Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, Bantam Books. Not exactly the granddaddy of all true crime novels (I reserve that title for Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”), but we can call this one a “great Uncle” of true crime books. To get a clear understanding of everything, one must start with this book. It’s a classic and the story will absolutely, as it says at the very beginning, “…scare the hell out of you.”

THE FAMILY by Ed Sanders, Avon Books (look for the updated version, which tells what became of some of the lesser known or remembered “Family” members). Sanders tells the story of the genesis of the Family with power and sometimes acerbic wit.

CHILD OF SATAN, CHILD OF GOD by Susan Atkins. Written from her prison cell, this tells the story of how she got caught up with Manson, the murders, her death sentence, the commutation and finally her conversion to Christianity (this, too, has happened to Family members Bruce Davis and Tex Watson, so they’ve said; in fact, Tex has or had a prison ministry). Apparently prison was the best thing to happen to Susan because it led her to be born again. She died as a result of her brain cancer sometime ago, bloated because of the medications and barely recognizable. Here’s what she looked like in her last days:



From what I understand, she was married prior to her death but did not get to enjoy conjugal visits. Come to think of it, neither did her victims after the night of August 8th, 1969. But that, by no means, evens the score.

Blood Family by William Zamora, Zebra Books. Zamora was one of the jury members in the Manson trials and tells of his experiences during and after his service to the people of Los Angeles.

I understand that former Family member Paul Watkins wrote a book, too, but I’ve never seen it before, so I have no opinion one way or the other.

Recommended Viewing (aside from THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER):

MANSON – A documentary film done quickly after the trial had wrapped up. I have an old, beat-up video of this somewhere and haven’t seen it in years. Commentary and interviews by Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, along with music from Paul Watkins and fellow former Family member Brooks Poston. Also some interviews with Sandra Good, whom I really wanted to rap right across her big mouth at several points in the film. One really gets a good idea of just how much of a moron that Steve “Clem” Grogan was at the time. And, you get a really good still shot of Clem looking like the Devil himself. Clem was paroled many years ago and no one really knows what became of him after his probation check-ins concluded. Might be working the graveyard shift at a White Castle for all we know.

HELTER SKELTER – I’m talking about the 1976 television version with the late George DiCenzo as Vincent Bugliosi and the unsettling performance of Steve Railsback as Charlie. Mr. Railsback, in subsequent interviews, indicated that he had been contacted by Family members, asking him to take Charlie’s place as their leader. It was a good career move on Steve’s part not to accept that kind of acting gig. He would go on to play Wisconsin grave robber and cannibal Ed Gein in the film of the same name. Eddie G was one of the inspirations for the character of “Leatherface” in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

It’s worth mentioning here that the 2004 television remake of HELTER SKELTER should be skipped altogether. The actor playing Charlie here, Jeremy Davies , lacked any real ability to make me scared of him. In the game of “Dueling Charlies”, Steve Railsback wins, hands down. Davies lacks any of the real menace that Steve showed in the 1976 version.

Items of Interest on Facebook:

There is a Facebook page for THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER under that exact title. It’s one of those pages on which you have to hit the “Like” button to participate.

There are a couple of very active Facebook pages, “Sharon Tate” and “10050 Cielo Drive” (use these exact words in your FB search engine and you should find them with no problem) which celebrates Sharon’s life in photos. I see new postings and pictures almost weekly on “Sharon Tate”, but not so much on “10050 Cielo Drive”.

Many of the pictures on her page really capture an innocence that Sharon had – even in some of the more erotic photography. After seeing these shots, I really have to question what Polanski was thinking when he was allegedly unfaithful to her. I can’t imagine why any man would wind up in another woman’s bed when he had Sharon Tate waiting at home for him. She was angelic looking which, I suppose, is what made this crime all the more horrifying.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A CHRISTMAS FAMILY TRAGEDY



Every once in a great while, quite by accident usually, Karen or I will stumble across a documentary about a murder case with which we are completely unfamiliar. Such is the case with “A Christmas Family Tragedy: Legends of the 1929 Lawson Family Murders”. Karen found this DVD at one of the St. Louis County Library branches and immediately grabbed it. In turn, it “grabbed” us as well as we sat down to watch it.

It tells the story of Germanton, North Carolina, tobacco farmer Charles (Charlie) Lawson and how, one cold and snowy Christmas morning, he blitzkrieged his family and, climactically, turned the shotgun on himself. He also used the firearm as a bludgeon during the attacks.

The victims were Charlie’s wife, Fannie, and six of their seven children: Maybell (7), Mary Lou (4 months), Marie (17), James William (4), Raymond (2) and Carrie (12).

The oldest male child at 16, James Arthur Lawson (yes, there were two boys in the Lawson house named James), aka “Buck”, had been sent into town just minutes earlier to purchase more shotgun shells, not knowing that his father would pretty much use up the shells he’d had on hand then and there to commit the murders.

Had Buck returned to the farm just a bit sooner, he, too, would have been a victim. As it turned out, Buck, in the years that followed, had a hard time living with what happened and it drove him to drink. He was killed at the age of 32 in 1945 in a truck accident.

Ironically, the name Buck Lawson would be used as the “hero” for Billy Curtis’s character (a coinkydink, I’m sure) in the all-midget Western, “The Terror of Tiny Town” in 1938, some 9 years after the Lawson tragedy.

A ballad was written about the Lawson murders the year after the murders. It was recorded a number of times and in the end credits of the film, you hear a woman singing it acapella.

“A Christmas Family Tragedy” is a fascinating work overall. It has its flaws, though, one of them being poor sound quality in spots. Another thing that I thought was pointless was apparently cutting the movie’s running time down and switching some of the removed footage over to a “bonus features” setting. I’d rather not have bonus features on a disc if you have to sacrifice the ebb and flow of your movie just to pander to the demand for extra stuff.

There is a lot of on-camera speculation as to Charlie’s motive in exterminating his family. There were no tangible clues left behind as to what might have caused it. I think that sometimes we look for deeper meanings to some things that do not appear kosher on the surface. Sometimes, though, it’s just better – maybe more difficult – to accept the fact that something this cruel is little more than just plain meanness and leave it at that. God knows that the human race has excelled in treating each other terribly.

I also found it a bit odd to hear bluegrassed-up versions of Christmas hymns being placed over recreated scenes/photos of the murders. Seemed a bit over the top to me.

Then are location shots of the Lawson family burial site at Browder Cemetery in Germanton. They were interred next to each other, decked out in the finest clothes they ever had. The clothes were new; they were killed while wearing them.

A weird, probably manufactured, twist to the story of their gravesite is told at the end of the film.

A man who is interviewed and otherwise provides commentary in the documentary, mentions that he once shuffled some leaves over to cover Charlie’s resting spot as well after having allegedly discovered that leaves were everywhere but there. He put a stick on top of the grave to keep the leaves intact. According to this gentleman, as he walked away and then looked back some 20 seconds later, the leaves were all gone, the stick had been moved and there was nothing but bare grass once again over Charlie. Good story. If it’s true.

The DVD was released by “Facets Video” of Chicago. I don’t know if this movie is still available or how you may wind getting your hands on one. The back of the box shows a phone number of 1-800-331-6197. There is a website listed, too:
www.facets.org. If you order it, tell ‘em Mike at the Detective Magazine Heaven site sent ya!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

TOO YOUNG TO KILL

The newest true crime thriller from M. William Phelps, who has become one of the most important and prolific chroniclers of our time.

If you watch Investigation Discovery Channel or any of a number of other stations featuring true crime shows, you've probably seen Mr. Phelps being interviewed or otherwise providing commentary. In the back of TOO YOUNG TO KILL, it was announced that he will have his own series on ID next year. It is to be called KILLER INSTINCTS. Watch for it and set your Tivos.

TOO YOUNG TO KILL is about a fatal falling out between two teenage girls, former friends, one of whom kills the other. As always, Mr. Phelps tells the story in a precise, suspense-building fashion that makes it hard to put down (unless, like me, you've been on pain meds recently and can't read more than 3 or 4 chapters before the drowsiness kicks in). Otherwise you may have a couple of all-nighters ahead of you with this book.

TOO YOUNG TO KILL is well worth checking out. If you don't believe me, look to the book's cover for a quote from the legendary Vincent Bugliosi.

Please check out the Facebook site, "M. William Phelps Fan Club". It's run by a nice lady, E.S. She does a great job of keeping the page up to date and there are constant postings from members there.

Visit http://www.mwilliamphelps.com/ for further information.

INSIDE DETECTIVE: WAS VENGEANCE BEHIND THE NUDE'S STRANGLING?