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Two Men in the Room: attending C.D. Watson’s parole hearing

Originally published as “Manson Family Killer to remain at Mule Creek” on November 18, 2011 in The Ledger Dispatch


Tex Watson

            “I’m the devil — and I’m here to do the devil’s work.”

            With these words, a man known as “Tex” Watson changed America, giving the visions of Charles Manson life by taking life, and exposing a lonely and terrifying detachment in the resin of the 1960s youth movement. His killings became a dark touchstone in the nation’s culture. Haunting. Perpetuating. Inescapable.

            On Nov. 16, 2011, a man known as Charles Watson walked meekly into a Board of Prisons hearing in Ione, California, looking down toward a file that showed his college credentials, his perfect work reports, his letters from Christian ministers, his accolades from correctional officers and the documentation showing him to be a model prisoner for 41 years.

            But, as the inmate who calls himself Charles Watson sat down to argue for his dream of freedom, a number of tributes to the Manson Family — including a gruesome homicide that happened 3,000 miles away — proved that the legacy of Helter Skelter is still a shuddering force in the world. Charles Watson quickly realized the shade of “Tex” Watson was very much present in the room.
           
            A raw wind swept south as officers guided Watson under the morning sky. Steam signaled steadily through his teeth. The walkway cut through two manicured lawns between C-yard and A-yard, and above Watson could glimpse high, blemished slabs of cement and sparks of light turning on helices of razor wire.  

            The group passed through a faded door. Moments later, Watson was ushered into an interview room where a host of faces flashed by him. To his left were five reporters, to his right a row of stern and apprehensive expressions. Watson’s eyes took in the sight of Debra Tate, the last living member of the Tate family. Debra is the sister of Sharon Tate, a model and movie actress who was pregnant on Aug. 9, 1969 — the night Watson and Manson-devotee Susan Atkins stabbed her 16 times inside her home on Cielo Drive. Tate was cut and strangled, even as she begged for the life of her unborn baby.

            Watson’s eyes glanced from Debra Tate to Margaret DiMaria, the sister of Sharon’s Tate’s longtime friend Jay Sebring, who had attempted to save the actress as Manson Family members stormed onto her property. Watson shot Sebring, stabbed him over and over, and then bludgeoned him to the point where Margaret DiMaria could barely recognize her own brother as he lay in his coffin weeks later.

            Behind Debra Tate and Margaret DiMaria was a family friend of Steven Parent, a teenager who had the misfortune of pulling up in front of Manson Family in his car as they were stalking out of the canyon brush into Tate’s driveway. Watson shot Parent four times as he was trapped in his vehicle.

            Sitting down near his attorney, Cheryl Montgomery, Watson saw that there were no family members present for Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee fortune, or Polish actor Wojciech Freykowski, both of whom had been butchered by the Manson Family on the grass in front of the house on Cielo Drive. According to pathologists, Watson, Atkins and cult member Pat Krenwinkel drove various stabbing objects into Freykowski’s body more than 57 times.   


Debra Tate and Patrick Sequeira

    

            Watson also found no children of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca anywhere in the claustrophobic dimensions of the room. The La Bianca murders began with Watson and Charles Manson kidnapping the couple in their home on Waverly Drive, in Los Angeles, on Aug. 10, 1969. Manson eventually gave an execution order that Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten carried out with knives and forks, thrusting the utensils until the point they were all covered in blood. The spattered imagery of the La Bianca death scene would soon be revisited in the hearing by Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Patrick Sequeira, as well as the parole commissioners who would decide Watson’s fate: John Peck and Mike Prizmitch.

            Watson’s hearing began with an announcement from his attorney that he was invoking his constitutional right to not answer direct questions from the commissioners. Montgomery did reveal that her client would be making a closing statement to all present.  

            Over the course of the next hour, Montgomery outlined psychiatric reports indicating that Watson took full responsibility for the Tate-La Bianca killings, showed deep remorse and profound insight into the crimes and posed little to no danger to the public. Montgomery drew the commissioners’ attention to nearly three decades of Watson doing Christian ministry for inmates and supervising a Christian book review within the prison. The attorney produced more than 20 letters of support for her client, some written by other Christian ministers and some written by correctional officers who praised Watson’s honesty, reliability and work ethic. She added that Watson had participated in many victims awareness programs and devoted much of his time to reaching out to other inmates to join Christian twelve-step programs to deal with substance abuse. Watson is also credited with helping save an inmate’s life during a medical situation.

            Revisiting Watson’s crimes came in the form of a psychiatric report being read into the record. In it, Watson told counselors that, the more time he had spent with Charles Manson in 1969, the more he felt the cult leader “was inside his head.” He began to believe Manson could read the thoughts of every person in the “family.” Watson often questioned whether he was losing his mind. That, Watson explained, combined with the use of LSD and methamphetamine, made him “quite gullible” to Manson’s command.       

            “He was aimless, angry, impressionable and lost,” Montgomery said of her client. “And, unfortunately, he met up with a group of individuals who were just as low — and he met with the horrific influence of Charles Manson; and that influence has been repeatedly documented as being powerful by doctors working in our prisons.”
           
            Alluding to the fact Watson had married, and had been allowed conjugal visits between 1979 and 1996, Montgomery stressed her client had a strong support network waiting to help him ease into mainstream life. The commissioners who denied Watson’s parole in 2005 noted his recent divorce as a particular cause of concern about his ability to adjust. “They divorce was something the commissioners brought up a lot in the last hearing,” Montgomery told Peck and Prizmitch. “You’ll notice you have a letter of support from Mr. Watson’s ex-wife, who stresses she had a very strong marriage with my client for more than 24 years, and that she is extremely supportive of his release. You’ll also see that you have letters of support from his daughter, and his sons, one of whom lives here in this community and speaks with Mr. Watson on a weekly basis.”

            With measured precision, Montgomery cited a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling, known as “the Lawrence Case,” in which the state justices ruled that parole decisions for serving life sentences should be based on whether the inmate poses a current danger to society if released. The circumstances of his or her original crime cannot — alone — justify denying parole.
           
            “I think when you look at Mr. Watson’s record and what he’s accomplished, you can’t escape that he deserves a date,” Montgomery said. “His last denial in 2005 was before the Lawrence ruling. We now have the guidance of the State Supreme Court in this matter.”           

            Watson then sat up to speak for himself. “For the past four decades I’ve spent countless hours thinking about these crimes,” he read, a baritone drawl from southeastern Texas filling the room. “I am so deeply sorry I allowed myself to get into a place where I didn’t value human life. I understand completely the outrage the family has toward me … I know I devastated their lives by causing such tragedy and agony … since I can’t apologize to your loved ones directly, I try to honor their memory by living a clean and sober life … no matter how far I come in my relationship with Christ, these crimes will always remain a source of profound humiliation for me. I am truly sorry.”  

            But the Los Angeles County prosecutor soon offered a very different view of Watson for the commissioners. “The Manson Family believed in a very specific philosophy,” Sequeira said. “They believed there was going to be a race war between blacks and whites, and they took active, pre-meditated steps to incite this war by committing murders they hoped would be blamed on black people. There’s a common belief that these were just a bunch of drugged-up hippies that got weird ideas in their heads and committed these crimes. In reality, they made deliberate plans to spark racial violence and commit terrorists acts.”   

            Debra Tate broke down in tears as Sequeira continued. “The La Biancas pleaded for their lives,” the prosecutor recalled. “Pleas that went unheeded … Mr. La Bianca had the word ‘war’ carved into his chest with, forks and knifes sticking out of it.”

            Sequeira turned his attention to Watson’s highly touted work as a minister. “I think the psychologist missed the boat in a lot of respects. In addition to being a terrorist organization and a crime family, Manson’s followers were also a quasi-religious group.” Sequeira’s voice drew down into calm, careful inflection. “All of this talk of inmate Watson’s involvement with religion, it’s not really new to him. I don’t think that it’s much different than where he was before: Tex called himself the devil once. Manson occasionally claimed to be Christ. Watson’s always been fascinated by religion.”       

            A stony chill frosted through the inmate’s eyes and mouth. His stare clamped then constricted, yet he followed the commissioners’ orders and did not look at Sequeira.

            But Sequeira was gazing at Watson. Focused. Unapologetic. Ready to remind the parole board there is reason to believe that Watson was involved in a murder for which he has never been charged. Donald “Shorty” Shea was a cowboy handyman who worked at Spahn Ranch, the remains of a western movie set that stood below the cave-pocked desert ridges of the Santa Susanna Mountains. The ranch belonged to George Spahn, an elderly, blind man who operated a pony-riding ring for children. Feeble and longing for company, Spahn allowed the Manson Family to move into a rundown line of huts beyond the dusty clutter’s carriage house. For weeks Shorty Shea could see Manson performing his songs for Watson and the girls at night in the movie set’s café. He watched from a distance as the family went hiking through the Chaparral and rocky outcrops on the south side of the property. Shea was still working on the ranch, and living in one of its houses with his African-American wife, Magdalena, when Manson launched his wave of carnage on Los Angeles County. The nightmare started when the cult’s chief disciple Robert Beausoleil, along with Bruce Davis and two of the girls, tortured musician Gary Hinman for hours in Topanga Canyon. They eventually slit his throat. Next, Watson and the girls carried out the murder sprees at the Tate and La Bianca residents. Not long after the Manson Family’s victim total reached eight, Shorty Shea — whom Manson considered a race traitor and suspected to be a potential “snitch” — was never seen again at the old hitching posts and broken corrals of Spahn Ranch.  
           
            Summoning Shea’s memory during the parole hearing, Sequeira acknowledged that in 1970 there was only enough evidence to charge Manson and cult members Clem Grogan and Bruce Davis with Shea’s killing and decapitation; but the prosecutor quickly added that subsequent investigation suggests Watson was part of the four-man hit team that carried out the execution, telling the commissioners, “Inmate Watson certainly had knowledge of this crime and the whereabouts of Mr. Shea’s body for years. Once he was convicted of the other murders, he was certainly in a position to help, and yet he did nothing to assist law enforcement in finding Mr. Shea’s body.”

            Shorty Shea’s skeletal remains were located in 1977 on in steep, grassy gully off the Santa Susana Pass. It was Clem Grogan who had finally led authorities to the murder site. The discovery was made without the help of Charles Watson — and it was made some three years after Watson claims to have devoted his life to Christianity.

            “If he truly has remorse,”Sequeira observed, “why has he never come forward to tell law enforcement about this, and other crimes, committed by the Manson Family? That doesn’t strike me as remorseful. His decision not to speak about the other crimes to date, and his decision not to speak to any of us here today, makes him unsuitable for parole, not only because of his criminal history but because of his very nature.”


Mule Creek State Prison

            The prosecutor ended his comments by touching on the problem Watson and the Manson cult pose as a collective, messianic symbol to psychopaths around the United States. “We also have to consider what effect his release could have,” the prosecutor ventured, “on individuals who might have the kind of twisted values that were shared by the Manson Family.”

            The parole commissioners turned to Montgomery. She quickly offered a rebuttal to the issue Shorty Shea, telling the commissioners, “I know that when you make you’re decision, you’re not going to consider a crime for which my client hasn’t even been charged. If that’s the way the D.A. feels, then I guess we should all head back to court and have another trial — otherwise, he shouldn’t even be mentioning it.”
           
            The attorney took a moment to study the papers in front of her. She focused on a closing statement. “The D.A. says this psych report is somewhat lacking, but it’s 21 pages long,” she point out. “The D.A. fails to offer what the law requires, a rationally articulated nexus between the crimes and a current risk to the public. It’s not because he missed it. It’s because it is not there … Mr. Watson’s gains have stood the test of time.”

            Montgomery chose not to address Sequeira final point about how Watson’s release might strengthen the cultural hypnotism the Manson Family still holds over loners, drifters and troubled youth. It was, however, an idea that would be broached again within minutes — and remain ever-present in the room for the entire hearing.   

            One of the first victims’ family members to speak was Anthony DiMaria, the nephew of Jay Sebring. “There is no way to describe what Charles Watson’s crimes have done to my family,” he said in a shaky voice. “But our family’s involvement in these hearings has nothing to do with hatred, anger or vengeance toward Mr. Watson.”

            Listening to this, the inmate turned and whispered, “Thank you.”

            Commissioner Prizmitch rebuked him. “Mr. Watson, Please….”  
           
            DiMaria did not appear to notice the exchange, sniffling and pausing for long breaths. “Rather,” Sebring’s nephew went on, “We’re here out of love for those who can’t speak for themselves.” DiMaria then talked to the commissioners about the slaying of 16-year-old Jason Sweeney in 2003. A teenager from the Philadelphia suburbs, Sweeney had been murdered by four adolescents, ranging from 15 to 17, in a crime that a judge described as “something out of the Dark Ages.” Sweeney’s four killers claimed to have been inspired by the Manson Family. They were ultimately convicted of luring their victim into the woods along the Delaware River and inflicting more than 12 blows to his skull with a hammer, a hatchet and a brick. “The prosecutor in that case said, ‘it is incredible that teenagers living decades apart, and thousands of miles away could still be transfixed by the Manson mythology,’” DiMaria read out loud. “’It is a powerful legacy.’” He looked up at Watson. “His danger is very real, and it’s still with us.”          

            The commissioners also heard a victim’s-impact statement from Margaret DiMaria, who began with memories of her late brother’s friend and fellow victim, Sharon Tate. “My son did a good job of describing my brother. So, I thought I’d talk a little about Sharon. Of course, when you met Sharon, you were immediately struck by how beautiful she was,” Margaret remembered. “But I want you to know that she was equally as beautiful on the inside. Someone with the kind of looks and glamour Sharon had could have been really full of themselves; but she was the exact opposite. She was a sweet, kind and extremely thoughtful woman; and she wanted more than anything to be a mother. When these crimes happened, she was expecting. I was also expecting. I …” Margaret became overwhelmed.

            She turned her thoughts to 1972, the year the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment. Watson, Charles Manson and the Manson girls were part of a group of 107 inmates who saw their death sentences commuted to life. When the California legislature re-instated the death penalty just four years later, the Manson Family was legally protected from being returned to death row. Margaret DiMaria made it clear that, for her, there is always a twinge of irony when attending a Manson Family parole hearing. “I feel like they have already been shown mercy,” she said. “They were all originally sentenced to death. By virtue of living, and being able to have a family, I think Mr. Watson was already granted his second chance.”

            Margaret eventually brought herself to the topic of to the undying fascination around The Manson Family. “Our youngest daughter has experienced seeing students at her junior high wearing T-shirts with these murderers on them, thinking it was cool,” she emphasized. “She went to a concert once where the lead singer of the band was wearing Charles Manson clothes. She had to leave the concert … I just think we have to be very careful about the message we’re sending our young people.”        

            The last statement came from Debra Tate. “We’ve fought hard for years so that victims and their families would have the right to be heard at these hearings,” she reminded all present. “Personally, I was close friends with all of the victims that were murdered on Ceilo Drive, with the exception of Jason Parent, whom I never had the opportunity to meet. I didn’t just lose my sister that night: I lost an entire support system of incredible people.” Tate spoke without notes, the quiver in her voice over-ridden by steady and tested determination. “I’m very proud of all inmates who better themselves in a controlled environment, but I don’t think that can be compared to life in the outside world.”

            Debra also made it clear to the commissioners that she remained doubtful of Watson’s true remorse, saying that his crimes had “essentially killed” her mother, and that when Watson finally wrote to the Tate family as a born-again Christian, he asserted that Sharon and Debra’s mother had died because she did not have forgiveness in her heart. “Does that seem like a Christian thing to say?” Debra asked out loud. “That, and given he’s never shared information with authorities about other crimes he’s aware of, I think he’s an inmate-hypocrite who’s unsuitable for parole.”

               With Debra’s closing remarks, the parole commissioners excused the gathering to deliberate. Family members of the victims were led out the left door toward a special observation room. An ABC television reporter and her cameraman, a newspaper journalist, a photographer from the Associated Press and a documentary filmmaker all stood up. They were led out the right door and escorted into a dreary white hallway. “How long will it take for them to decide?” the television reporter quickly asked one of the prison officials. “They want me on the four o’clock show. I mean, I might have be on the 5 o’clock show’ but they want me on the 4 o’clock show.”

                 “It takes as long as it takes,” the official responded politely. “But I know the commissioners plan to be done no later than 2 p.m., because they have more parole hearings this afternoon.”

            “So I might end up on the 5 o’clock?”

            The official shrugged.

            The television reporter tussled her hair and watched anxiously as the official left through a door.  “You don’t think they’ll let him out, do you?” she asked, turning to the other media. “They can’t right? I mean, it’s political, isn’t it?”

            “He’s not going anywhere,” the TV cameraman said, glancing up from his rig.  
            “No, he’s not,” the photographer agreed. “And the reason is, the whole time we’ve been watching, there’s been two men in that room. There’s a quiet, 65-year-old who hasn’t been in trouble in four decades, and there’s a 23-year-old psychopath lingering over his shoulder. When the old man talks you hear one voice. When the district attorney talks, and the family members start crying, you feel the other’s presence. And they’re both in there right now.”

            The filmmaker and newspaper journalist glanced at each other.
“There’s no getting around it,” the photographer muttered to the group. “There’s two men in that room.”
           
             The minutes passed by. The prison official shuffled back through the sterile silence of the hallway. “They’re ready,” she announced.

            The media members slowly headed back into the tight confines of the interview space. Victims’ family members, the prosecutor and the defense attorney walked in through the door to the right. No one spoke as Watson was escorted inside by the officers, slowly lurching down into his chair.
           
            “Mr. Watson, Commissioner Peck and myself have decided to deny your parole at this time,” Prizmitch said almost immediately. Watson’s face slackened. His eyes slipped into a dull, cloudy void. “If any crime can be defined as ‘the crime of the century,’ — I mean, a truly heinous act,” Prizmitch went on, “this is certainly it. And it’s hard to escape that.” He paused to glance at Peck. “You have a right not to answer our questions,” Prizmitch went on. “But that makes it hard to be comfortable with the level of insight and honesty you have toward what you’ve done.”

            Peck made a few comments of his own, mirroring Prizmitch’s concerns that Watson had not entered into blunt dialog with the commissioners about the murders and his feelings about the murders. Peck turned the floor back to Prizmitch. “This crime of yours, it’s known world-wide,” the commissioner remarked. “It’s influenced teenagers to commit brutal acts … there was a lot about the nature of the act itself you seemed to gloss over in your statement to us … we just didn’t get an idea whether you’re understanding the enormity of this crime.”

            Watson quietly thanked the commissioners before getting up to leave.