Extended interview: 50 years after the Manson murders, Tom O'Neill's disturbing new book CHAOS seeks to dismantle the myths of Helter Skelter

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      Terry Melcher was one of the key figures in the Manson Family saga, and his entire story—a new book argues—was bullshit.

      This isn’t quite news to anyone with a sincere interest in the events of that hot, mad summer in ’69 when a so-called hippie murder death cult slaughtered starlet Sharon Tate and her friends Voytek Frykowski, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger, along with another luckless visitor to their luxury Benedict Canyon residence, Steven Parent. The next day, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered in their Los Feliz home with the same appalling savagery. 

      The motive established in a hysterical 1970 trial, reinforced for the ages in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 bestseller Helter Skelter, held that the murders were ordered by a hypnotic cult leader called Charles Manson, carried out by his “Family” of stray, LSD–addled hippie children to trigger a race war he believed was predicted by the Beatles’ White Album. This has been the story for 50 years, repeated in innumerable books and movies, including 1976’s ratings-busting TV miniseries.

      Except it hasn’t been the story. While few would question the guilt of the participants, Bugliosi’s motive was attacked almost immediately in the fringe literature about the crimes, and it’s easy to see why. Putting aside the leap of faith required to believe that Manson could turn his followers into robotic killing machines, Bugliosi’s theory was riddled with loose ends, and one of the prosecutor’s clumsiest contrivances concerned Terry Melcher. 

      According to the official account, the location of the Tate murders was chosen to send a decisive and terrifying message to Melcher, the former resident of 10050 Cielo Drive, where the killings took place, and the man who famously auditioned and then rejected Charles Manson for a record deal. This already has little or nothing to do with race wars, but the official story has been more substantially eroded over the years by persistent and heavy rumours that Melcher seriously underrepresented his relationship with Manson and the Family. His lifelong silence on the matter only deepened the suspicion.

      Right or wrong, minority opinion about what really happened in the months leading up to August 9-10, 1969, has been relatively easy to ignore. The same can’t be said of CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, an epic howl of dissent now storming the mainstream courtesy of publisher Little, Brown and Company. The difference, critically, is how much L.A.–based journalist and author Tom O’Neill managed to get on the record over the course of his painstaking 20-year investigation. Not least of all, in 2003, he scored a haunting interview with none other than Melcher himself. 

      “I think he met with me thinking he could do damage control,” reasons O’Neill, during a call to the Georgia Straight from Philadelphia. “And when you read that chapter in the book, what he did was threaten these enormous lawsuits against me, and threaten to throw my briefcase off his roof, and then, in the same breath, ask me to write his memoir with him.”

      This was not an insignificant bargaining chip. Melcher was Doris Day’s son, a privileged child of Beverly Hills, one of Hollywood’s priapic “Golden Penetrators” alongside Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. At the time of the killings, he was a music-industry giant who'd produced the Byrds’ biggest hits, lost many a weekend with his pal Gram Parsons, and was signed to Apple by the Beatles. And he was willing, he promised the author, to finally tell all. It would make an amazing book.

      “He was basically selling his mother down the river,” remarks O’Neill, with a mirthless laugh, describing the dissolute character he encountered as “looking like this boy who never really grew up, overweight, dark glasses, long hair, and drunk in the middle of the day when I went to see him. He said, ‘People thought Doris was the girl next door, and she wasn’t.’ And I said, ‘Terry, I just basically questioned everything you ever testified to under oath, and you want me to be your official biographer?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, and then you can just forget this trash and write a book with me.’”

      CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties raises new questions about music-industry giant Terry Melcher's relationship with the Manson Family.

      Fortunately, cracks O’Neill, “I wasn’t actually broke yet,” and he and Melcher, who died a year later, never spoke again.

      Prior to that, Melcher had done one Rolling Stone interview, in 1974, to promote his eponymous solo album. Then he went dark. Thirty years later, he was being confronted with evidence from more than one official source that he lied in his testimony to both the grand jury and at the trial about his dealings with Manson, and that he’d even visited the Family at their remote desert hideouts after the murders. It also appeared that he conspired in this effort with the man, Vincent Bugliosi, who would spend decades, until his death in 2015, collecting the royalties from Helter Skelter

      O’Neill was working from never-before-seen documents made available to him, among others, by an insider at the Los Angeles D.A.’s office who described Bugliosi as “a snake”. It’s one of the kinder words levelled at the prosecutor by former colleagues throughout the 500 pages of CHAOS. Realizing he’d been duped, Bugliosi’s coprosecutor Stephen Kay suggests to O’Neill that his information is enough to overturn the verdicts he helped win against Manson and the other members of the Family who faced trial. 

      “This throws a different light on everything,” gasps the shaken attorney. “I just don’t know what to believe now.” (Interestingly, the retired Kay maintains their guilt, never denied or even questioned in CHAOS, in a new interview that's appeared all over the news in the last few days thanks to the Associated Press. You can hear a clip from the author’s 2005 encounter with Kay at the Facebook page for the book. Shown strong evidence of duplicity about Melcher's activities in Bugliosi’s private notes, he’s heard to say, “I’m shocked, I’ve never heard a lot of this stuff that you’re saying… I guess if he changed one thing, then maybe he changed others.”)

      To the Straight, O’Neill describes his meeting with Kay as “a turning point for me and my reporting”. It came five years after blowing his first deadline on a Manson retrospective commissioned by Premiere magazine that he didn’t want to do in the first place. It would be impossible here to convey the scope of the book produced two decades later or the phenomenal cast of characters littering the story with walk-on parts.

      Here’s a single morsel: at one point, CHAOS has the Oscar-winning visual-effects cinematographer for Star Wars, Richard Edlund, pondering his enigmatic friend Reeve Whitson, whose job, it seems, was to infiltrate hippie groups for U.S. intelligence. Whitson’s social circle also included U.S. air-force general Curtis LeMay and notorious SS officer Otto Skorzeny. This was obviously no ordinary longhair.

      “His former wife and his only child were convinced that he had been working for the CIA,” says O’Neill. “She got to know him for the first time in her life in her early 20s, and when he died she said, ‘I still don’t know who he was or what he did.’” The author received a suggestive “neither confirm nor deny” response when he pressed the agency for records of Whitson’s employment. 

      O’Neill suspects Edlund and his wife were motivated by the same questions when they spoke up about their old acquaintance, then an influential behind-the-scenes figure in the film industry. “They knew that what they were telling me was explosive” he says. “And I think they did it because they were as mystified as everyone else by who Reeve was, and what he had told them before his death. They were hoping that I might find out the answers to it.”

      What Whitson revealed to the couple, along with his attorney and other “notable” Hollywood insiders like former MGM chairman Frank Rosenfelt, was devastating. It not only undermined the myth of Helter Skelter; it completely shattered it.

      “Just a couple of years before he died,” O’Neill begins, “Reeve told them that his greatest regret was that he had infiltrated the Family on an operation that he wasn’t allowed to discuss, and that he could have prevented Sharon Tate’s murder. But even more shocking was that he told them that he’d been to the crime scene after the murders were committed but before the police arrived. That was pretty stunning information.”

      O’Neill received corroboration on that last point from Sharon Tate’s friend and personal photographer Shahrokh Hatami, speaking publicly about the murders for the first time since the trial. Hatami claims that a distraught Whitson informed him of Tate’s death by phone, 90 minutes before the bodies were discovered at 10050 Cielo Drive by the Polanskis’ maid.

      Moreover, Whitson and Bugliosi floated threats of deportation in order to persuade the Iranian national to falsely testify that he’d seen Manson at Cielo Drive months earlier. “I was framed by Mr. Whitson,” Hatami tells O’Neill, who notes that Whitson is only mentioned in passing in Helter Skelter. Bugliosi would later claim to O’Neill that he “didn’t recall the name”. 

      A spook with extreme right-wing sympathies, disguised as a hippie, at ground zero of the peace movement? Inserting himself into the event that, as countless pundits have robotically repeated ever since, “ended the ’60s”? Legendary political researcher Mae Brussell was talking about that very thing in the wake of the Manson trial—albeit to a vastly smaller audience. 

      “I’m not the first to report it,” says O’Neill, who goes to appropriate lengths to describe the known history of covert action deployed against the ’60s counterculture. While the FBI ran COINTELPRO—an effort to target, discredit, and disable leftist groups and civil right leaders—a concurrent program was illegally launched by the CIA to achieve the same ends. It lends its evocative name to O’Neill’s book: Operation CHAOS. Extracting Reeve Whitson from this ferment—an agent of actual chaos working hard in the shadows of Bugliosi’s drug-crazed Helter Skelter psychodrama—constitutes a heroic act of sleuthing. Amazingly, O’Neill found more.


      IT'S PROBABLY WORTH mentioning that the Tom O’Neill who visited UCLA in the early 2000s was a successful journalist with a solid mainstream career behind him. Now, gripped by obsession, he was digging into the private files of a decorated academic whose reputation as a conspiracy theorist’s bogeyman was almost cartoonishly oversized. The head of UCLA’s psychiatric department, Dr. Louis Jolyon West had long been associated with MKULTRA, one of an array of notorious CIA projects exploring what has been politely called “mind control”. 

      He denied it, of course, right up till his death in 1999. “I found it because he mistakenly left some documents in his files,” explains O’Neill, who, after “a summer of miserable, tedious digging”, stumbled upon correspondence dating back to the ’50s between West and MKULTRA head Sidney Gottlieb. This was dynamite, not least of all because a nervous CIA had destroyed all its files on the program in the ’70s, securing deniability for everyone involved in one of the agency’s grossest abuses.

      “It was misfiled, and accidentally left behind, so it would take someone with no life like me and nothing better to do with their summer,” quips O’Neill, who ploughed through some 120 incorrectly labelled boxes of paperwork. “But it was worth it in the end, and it shows that he was an integral part of it, and that he lied about it for 30, 40 years.”

      Oddly enough, O’Neill had once interviewed West for a feature on celebrity stalkers. “He was an expert on all things violent, psychotic,” he says, adding that he knew nothing of MKULTRA when they met. “I just didn’t like him or trust him then, and didn’t even transcribe that interview. So I had this sixth sense that there would be something in those files. When I found it, it was a real eureka moment, but it also made me have to look at the [John F.] Kennedy assassination and his relationship as a psychiatrist to [Lee Harvey Oswald killer] Jack Ruby. You know, you can’t learn that this guy’s secretly working for the CIA the very year that he’s also treating Jack Ruby, and the very day that Jack Ruby has a psychotic break.”

      To borrow a phrase, coincidence theorists might want to jump off at this point. Readers with a more robust appreciation of America’s hidden history will allow that O’Neill has marshalled a highly compelling scenario when he places the Family in extreme close proximity to “Jolly” West in San Francisco, via his office at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. 

      As CHAOS notes, not long after supervising an effort to infiltrate and influence teenage gangs in Oklahoma City with a CIA–funded project named Mass Conversion, West had grown the de rigeur beard and moved in with SF's flower children. Ostensibly, he was studying the effects of narcotics on the blooming alternative community, speed in particular. The Free Clinic was running similar studies. And the Family were regular, even somewhat exalted visitors.

      Even more compelling: Manson’s parole officer, Roger Smith, was also working out of the Free Clinic. As O’Neill amply demonstrates, Smith went to extraordinary lengths to keep Charles Manson and his roving gang of horny criminals out of jail and on the street, and even fostered one of Manson’s children. It was a bizarre situation by any reasonable standard, never explored in Helter Skelter, and it presented O’Neill with yet another opaque, unknowable player in the form of Smith.

      “He’s like a living and breathing Reeve Whitson” is the author’s assessment, having tracked down and interviewed the former parole officer. “I still don’t have a firm grasp on him and I’m frankly shocked that I haven’t heard from him.”

      Along with Free Clinic founder David Smith, also interviewed, Roger Smith claims to not remember a particularly odd incident. Days after the Family was arrested for the Tate-LaBianca murders, all the files pertaining to the clinic’s “Amphetamine Research Project” (or “ARP”) went missing, never to be seen again. It had been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

      “Yeah, that’s pretty bizarre,” sniffs O’Neill. 

      What does he make of this double case of amnesia? 

      “I was used to it by then,” he answers. “I was used to hearing that.” 

      Indeed, there’s a moment during the Straight’s conversation with O’Neill when he jokes that the book might have been called The Absence of Things. There should be an avalanche of paperwork on Manson from that time, and yet his complete parole file has never been made public. What little has been released is extensively redacted.

      “What was withheld?” asks O’Neill. “Why was it withheld? Manson had no privacy rights and, of course, now he’s dead, so they might be even more obligated to release what they didn’t release to me in the early 2000s. That’s one the objectives of the book. I’m hoping that other people can report on some of this stuff.”

      CHAOS provides fertile ground for that. Once again, it appears that Manson was surrounded by deeply reactionary figures who adopted groovy hairstyles and presented themselves as objective, even sympathetic “participant observers”. And at least one of them, Louis Jolyon West, was professionally committed to the technology of inducing madness.


      BUGLIOSI'S PERENNIAL BESTSELLER Helter Skelter might also be retitled The Absence of Things. O’Neill wisely stops short of spinning any definitive theories from his material. His goal, as he writes, “isn’t to say what did happen—it’s to prove that the official story didn’t.” And it was Bugliosi’s preposterous book—with its harebrained theory about Manson’s motive, its omissions and contradictions, and its grandstanding tone—that first aroused his suspicion.

      In contrast, CHAOS vibrates with staggering new insights, including a bombshell concerning the Family-related Gary Hinman murder provided to O’Neill by one of the L.A. County Sheriff Office’s most respected detectives, who bitterly remarks that Bugliosi “made up” the race-war/Helter Skelter motive to “sell books”. He adds: “No one in law enforcement believed it.”

      With his perennial bestseller Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi popularized the idea that the Manson Family hoped to launch a race war with a string of savage murders.

      There has always been a catalogue of credible countertheories about the murders, one of the most persuasive arguing that Manson and company were pimping the girls and supplying narcotics to an orgiastic elite of Hollywood party animals. The entertainment industry naturally closed ranks and denied everything, this theory goes, when a mundane drug burn triggered the slayings. 

      In his essential 2011 update of The Manson File, Nikolas Schreck also suggests that an undercover FBI operation implicating Paramount studios and the Mob in this super-decadent Hollywood drug scene was carefully occluded from the official record. 

      Others have charged that an even spookier scenario prevailed: Manson and the Family were studied, infiltrated, and manipulated by those same forces who unleashed COINTELPRO, Operation CHAOS, and MKULTRA, providing, by their considerable means of subterfuge, an unforgettably traumatic nightmare Hollywood ending to the Summer of Love.

      Maybe it was all of those things, but whatever the reason: the Helter Skelter motive, in total, looks very much to its skeptics like a cover-up orchestrated by Bugliosi, presumably at the behest of the same people or organizations that inexplicably protected and then jettisoned the Manson Family. In CHAOS, O’Neill’s seriocomic dance with the former prosecutor reads like a mothballed Coen brothers script, as the vainglorious Bugliosi alternately cajoles, deflects, lectures, defames, threatens, and otherwise buzzes around the author in an effort to defend both Helter Skelter and his reputation. It becomes clear that he was rattled enough to keep a quiet tab on O’Neill’s research. So who or what was this guy?

      “That’s the question,” replies O’Neill, with a laugh. “He was compromised, ya know, before he even got the assignment to do the Tate-LaBianca murders. The D.A.’s office should have fired him, and he should have been disbarred when they found out what he had done in the milkman case in ’68. So, if anybody was ever easy to be leveraged, it was him.”

      The “milkman case” became public when Bugliosi ran for L.A. district attorney in ’72. Convinced that his wife Gail had been impregnated by their milkman, it emerged that he’d used his status and public resources to terrorize the innocent man and his family. An exasperated Gail, O’Neill writes, assured them her esteemed husband had “mental problems”.

      When he ran again in ’74, a much darker episode surfaced. Allegedly, Bugliosi had beaten his own pregnant mistress so badly that she miscarried, and he used his influence inside the criminal-justice system to make the problem disappear. After his last heated interview with Bugliosi in 2006, O’Neill was unsurprised when an onslaught of verbose, defamatory letters arrived at the offices of his first publisher, Penguin.

      The author sounds genuinely pained when he mentions what he and his eventual collaborator Dan Piepenbring had to cut from CHAOS for reasons of length, including a chapter on Bugliosi’s quixotic effort to support the Warren Commission findings with his 2007 book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. Mirroring O’Neill’s journey, it consumed Bugliosi for two decades, the chief difference being that he was trying to reinforce, not dismantle, what many believe to be a government-stamped cover up.

      “I don’t like to speculate,” offers O’Neill, “but some pretty serious researchers—and there are serious assassination researchers out there—are convinced that Bugliosi was, let’s just say, obligated to certain federal agencies, or had been for his entire career, to write a book like Reclaiming History, and to present a false narrative like he did in Helter Skelter.”

      In the end, that’s what CHAOS is really about: false narratives, handed to the public in neat packages and bestowed, in O’Neill’s excellent phrase, with “the aura of finality”. The effect is such that the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood has prompted every hack with a byline to proclaim once again that Charles Manson killed the ’60s. 

      Except he didn’t, anymore than Hitler or Genghis Khan did. It was infinitely more complex than that, and what we think we know, with such sublime certainty, merely fixes us in an ideological position that benefits those who maybe did, actually, kill the ’60s. Maybe Helter Skelter provided cover for a unique kind of American fascism that was field-testing its tech, branding the nightmare event for future generations.

      With a sigh, O’Neill mentions that his research could have yielded a chapter on a contemporaneous event also covered in the fingerprints of the CIA and its clandestine mind surgeons: the killing of Robert Kennedy and subsequent conviction of a man with no memory of his role, Sirhan Sirhan. And he has a different take these days on the weaponized term “conspiracy theory”. 

      “I don’t use it as much as I used to,” he says, wryly. “I do have more respect for people who research these kinds of alternative histories. I’m a lot less naive. I’m a lot less trusting. Which is sad in a way, but you have to become what you become. I always questioned authority, I’m pretty liberal in my politics, and didn’t really completely trust government and law enforcement. But now I’m so skeptical about everything I see reported about a crime, or anything. It’s just pretty disheartening to know how people can lie so easily and cavalierly. It shocked me.”

      What isn’t easy, for the decent among us, is to consider our own programming, whether it's applied explicitly through the hard vectors of state and corporate propaganda or the softer channels of entertainment. But it is necessary. Why do we think what we think? 

      O’Neill has another great phrase to describe the way consensus reality gels around myth. He calls it “inert history”. With CHAOS, the author has unearthed dozens of leads Vincent Bugliosi and his sponsors fought hard for five decades to keep hidden, and he ardently hopes that others will now follow up on what he spent two of those decades coaxing out of a sealed record. In this sense, history becomes dynamic again.

      A 20-year investigation by L.A.–based reporter Tom O'Neill upended the long-standing "official" account of the infamous 1969 killings of Sharon Tate and six others.