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- The Tate Murders of August 8, 1969, represented the apex of the Manson murder spree that marked the end of the 1960s.
- Their investigations were also almost bungled.
- Los Angeles police officers repeatedly made mistakes in their investigation, mucking up the crime scene and ignoring obvious clues.
- The city's law enforcement teams didn't cooperate with each other, slowing down the investigation and almost letting Charles Manson get away with murder.
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On August 8, 1969, five people were slaughtered — along with the sixties and everything for which it stood — at 10500 Cielo Drive.
The Charles Manson story has been told ad nauseam. More than a dozen movies and TV shows have been made about it over the decades. But not everybody knows how the Los Angeles Police Department almost screwed it all up.
Manson's "family" killed nine people in July and August of 1969. The Tate murders, that night, were the most gristly. Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, and Steven Parent were killed with bullets and stabs. Atkins scrawled the word "PIG" in Tate's blood on the front door of the house before leaving.
The 1974 book "Helter Skelter" by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and writer Curt Gentry shares disturbingly detailed, firsthand accounts of the murders and trials thereafter and is one of the best-selling true crime books in history.
It also divulges the LAPD's incessant misconduct, which almost led to Charles Manson's escape.
The LAPD didn't know how to handle the murders
The murder of Sharon Tate also marked the killing of an era. Flower power wilted into gutter mulch, Altamont claimed four lives, and the phrase 'serial killer' was not yet coined. It was an age of assassinations, civil unrest and unjust wars, but also a time of progression. An eruption of music and art laced with LSD emboldened the counter-culture at Woodstock the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalked. Times were a-changing, as the song goes, but no decade — especially one known for peace, love and space odysseys — came to as abrupt an end as the 1960s.
It began in Benedict Canyon, when the bodies were discovered by Winifred Chapman, the housekeeper who worked for Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. LAPD officer Jerry Joe DeRosa was first on the scene, and with his arrival came a deluge of disasters. He was joined by Officers William T. Whisenhunt and Robert Burbridge who, shaken by the horrific nature of the crimes, robotically went through the motions: question the hysterical housekeeper, scan the perimeter, search the residence, call for backup. The first faux pas pointed out by Bugliosi was committed by DeRosa.
While escorting a soon-to-be-inconsequential suspect down the driveway (William Garretson, the property's caretaker), DeRosa noticed blood on the button that opened the gate.
"Officer DeRosa, who was charged with securing and protecting the scene until investigating officers arrived, now pressed the button himself," Bugliosi writes, "successfully opening the gate but also creating a superimposure that obliterated any print that may have been there."
When questioned about this slapdash move, his excuse was: "I had to get out of there."
The crime scene wasn't preserved, slowing the case
Within hours, Cielo Drive was flooded with throngs of police officers and eager media personnel.
The more officers visited the property, the more contaminated the crime scene became. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses — which at one point was considered a crucial piece of evidence but was later dismissed as irrelevant — had been picked up from their original place on the floor and set on a desk. And two wooden pieces of a gun grip originally found by the entryway were "apparently kicked under the chair by one of the original officers on the scene," according to the LAPD report.
The missteps continued as several officers tracked the victims' blood from inside to outside, obscuring the crimson footprints left by the killers. This blunder wasted precious time that could have been spent pursuing the murderers instead of interviewing personnel who visited the scene to differentiate their footprints. What's more, an unidentified officer absentmindedly shared erroneous information with on-site reporters, mentioning that "it seemed ritualistic," which unleashed a torrent of preposterous headlines in the following days.
And it gets worse. Much worse.
Forensic science was in its nascency in 1969. Though the implementation of DNA profiling was still 14 years away, forensics did exist and was relied upon by law enforcement and the legal system alike. Blood and fingerprints were crucial in solving crimes. If either of those elements were damaged, an entire investigation could be upended.
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With five bodies that were either stabbed, bludgeoned or shot, the crime scene was awash with blood.
But officer Joe Granado, a forensic chemist at the LAPD, took samples from only one area. According to Bugliosi, he presumed all the samples would be the same, and relied on obtaining each victim's blood sample from the coroner's office a few days later, which he would attempt to match with the samples he had collected. He took a total of 45 blood samples but didn't run subtypes on 21 of them. The botched blood testing led to persistent problems throughout the police investigation and trial.
A similar murder wasn't made known to investigators
As the autopsies were underway, another body was found. Two Los Angeles Sheriff's Office homicide detectives, Sergeants Paul Whiteley and Charles Guenther, told Sergeant Jess Buckles, an LAPD detective assigned to the Tate homicides, that they had discovered the body of 34-year-old music teacher Gary Hinman, who had been stabbed in his Malibu home.
What was remarkable about this case was that the words "POLITICAL PIGGY" were written in his blood on the living room wall.
"A little more than twenty-four hours after the discovery of the Tate victims, the Los Angeles Police Department was given a lead by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, which, if followed, could possibly have broken the case," Bugliosi writes. "Buckles never did call, nor did he think the information important enough to walk across the autopsy room and mention the conversation to his superior, Lieutenant Robert Helder, who was in charge of the Tate investigation."
Even when Whiteley mentioned the oddly specific similarities between the murders — the stabbing, the bloody message, the word "pig" — Buckles, according to Whiteley, "lost interest when he mentioned hippies."
"Naw," Buckles told Whiteley, according to Bugliosi. "We know what's behind these murders. They're part of a big dope transaction."
The Manson Family struck again. The LAPD didn't see the connection.
While the LAPD was still reeling from the so-called Tate murders, the Manson Family struck again less than 48 hours later.
This time, it was at 3301 Waverly Drive near Griffith Park. The victims were Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. It was on the couple's refrigerator that the book's eponymous phrase was written in blood: "HELTER SKELTER" (though it was misspelled as "HEALTER SKELTER"). Despite the staggering number of bizarre similarities between the Tate, Hinman, and LaBianca murders, the police consciously decided there was still no connection.
"I don't see any connection between this murder and the others," inspector K. J. McCauley told reporters, according to Bugliosi. "They're too widely removed. I just don't see any connection."
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The reason? After finding hashish, marijuana, MDA, and cocaine at the Tate-Polanski residence, police locked onto the theory that the Tate murders were a drug deal gone awry.
The victims were known for their rollicking hippie bacchanals (it was 1960s Hollywood, after all), and police delved into their backgrounds, interviewing past partygoers, friends, acquaintances, paramours, and colleagues. Those connected to Tate and Polanski's clique became consumed by paranoia. An anonymous film figure reportedly told Life magazine that "toilets are flushing all over Beverly Hills; the entire Los Angeles sewer system is stoned."
The LAPD was blinded by this theory. Death by drug-dealers was much more plausible than death by a far-out cult of brainwashed teenage runaways and the puppet-master who convinced them he was Jesus Christ and thought the Beatles' wrote the "White Album" for him. Even detailed confessions from Manson girl Susan Atkins — AKA Sadie Mae Glutz — were initially disregarded because they were too outlandish to believe.
LA law enforcement was a mess
In the first two months of investigations, there was no collaboration between the Tate and LaBianca detectives nor with the sheriff's department, even though they shared an office. Bugliosi said the groups had a bitter rivalry, the Tate detectives being the "old guard" who were around before formal police training was required, and the LaBianca detectives "young upstarts" who were more savvy and educated.
When the time came to submit the second progress report for the Tate and LaBianca cases on October 5 of that year, the Tate detectives turned in a lengthy document yielding no actual advancements in their investigation. The LaBianca report was shorter but contained a wealth of compelling information.
"The LaBianca detectives had decided — on their own, and without consulting the Tate detectives — to see if they could solve the Tate, as well as the LaBianca, case," Bugliosi wrote. "The second LaBianca report was interesting for still another reason. It listed eleven suspects, the last of whom was one MANSON, CHARLES."
When Bugliosi joined the investigation, he immediately noticed the discord between the Tate and LaBianca detectives. He also noted the difference in competence between the teams, saying the Patchett and Gutierrez of the LaBianca team provided him a detailed report on Manson's activities the week of the murders without much guidance, unlike the Tate detectives.
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A childish, jealousy-fueled rivalry between two generations of police almost obstructed justice. Eventually, though, the unshakable hubris and carelessness of the Manson Family transcended the LAPD's sloppiness, and Manson ultimately went to prison.
The litany of the LAPD's oversights enumerated by "Helter Skelter" continued beyond Manson's final capture and into the trial. But it was those first moments following the murders — the crime scene contamination, the laziness, the rivalry, the blind idiocy — that almost let Manson get away with murder.
Yet it also shows how much investigation methods have evolved. Despite their missteps, these officers were pioneers, unraveling a terrifying mystery that was so outrageous and bizarre that it's incredible it was solved at all.
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