Tag Archives: true crime

258 – The Ghosts of Charles Manson: Music, Mind Control, and Murder

Years after his demise in a California prison, Charles Manson is back in the news. First of all, the crimes of his “Family” provide the backdrop to the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and second, 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the murders, providing a grim reminder to the world of one of the twentieth century’s most brutal, infamous, and ultimately pointless killing sprees.

While the title of Tarantino’s film is yet another homage to the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western aesthetic that he aped in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, it’s also fitting. His movie is about the end of an era for an actor, who enjoyed fame and popularity in the 60s but whose star was fading, just as Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns at the end of the decade reinvented a genre to give us violent anti-heroes and a more complicated morality of the American West than was shown in the earlier white hat versus black hat Lone Ranger-style films.

Weird figure and picture of Manson left at the site of the Spahn Ranch where his Family lived. Photo credit: Scott Markus

And that’s the symbolism of the murders committed by the Manson Family. The ’60s were such a cultural milestone because of the 60 million people born in the Baby Boom after World War II. It’s the biggest generation in American history and it’s the first generation to come to prominence with the United States being a political and economic superpower. The culture war was at its peak. It was the hippies vs. the squares, fighting the repressive sexual Puritanism of their parents, fighting against the war in Vietnam that seemed like a useless waste of life, fighting the racism and segregation laws that kept communities apart based on the color of their skin, fighting the corporate excesses and dehumanization of unbridled capitalism, etc…

Charles Manson ran a free love psychedelic cult and worked with the Beach Boys, he had long hair and a beard, spoke in poetic peacenik vocabulary, played folk songs on guitar, and claimed religious and apocalyptic revelation. He represented everything that ever terrified the parents of the Baby Boomers. He prostituted out the girls of his Family for access to Hollywood elite, he did massive amounts of drugs, and he was an ex-convict. He was the über-hippie and knowing that he engineered such carnage and waste of lives seemed to vindicate exactly what they believed about the movement. Americans celebrated a unique human and distinctly American achievement a few weeks earlier with the moon landing, now we mourned the violent ends that years of debauchery, drugs, and fornication had lead to. New Year’s Eve wasn’t for another four months, but Sharon Tate’s murder was the real end of the 60s. Charles Manson was proof that everything your square parents or local sheriff told you about hippies was right.

The abandoned home of The Family in 1969. Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

The thing about Charles Manson is that we picture him as the crazy guy with the swastika on his forehead from all the jailhouse interviews he has done since being convicted. We don’t hear the honey-voiced singer playing songs about peace, love, and “submission” on his acoustic guitar around a California campfire for impressionable young women, made even more suggestible through their rampant psychedelic drug use. He sounds terrifying and volatile, not anything like the person who dropped to his knees and kissed Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys’ feet the first time they had met and said, “Do you think I would ever hurt you, brother?”

That’s the Charles Manson who could draw people to him, that’s the “Charlie” who could convince people that he was a manifestation of Jesus Christ. After all, it was Jesus who famously washed his disciples’ feet in his most famous act of humility. And that’s the Charlie who killed nine people while never pulling a trigger or wielding a knife himself. Not a madman, but a charismatic leader of 100 souls, who could hob nob with music industry elite like the Mamas and the Papas and Neil Young or at Hollywood parties with Michael Caine, who all describe meeting him and his family members.

Here’s an important quote from former Manson Family member, Catherine Share, who didn’t engage in the murders, but did try to intimidate witnesses during Manson’s trial and eventually served five years in prison for Armed Robbery:

Never let anybody else do your thinking for you. Get your self-worth from God and from inside. If someone tells you to do everything they say and claims to have all the answers, and you find yourself nodding a lot, then you’re probably in a cult, whether it has a church’s name or is the Manson Family.

Catherine Share, Los Angeles Magazine, July 1, 2009
The LaBianca House in Los Feliz. Photo credit: Scott Markus

And of course, in a truly modern twist, Ghost Adventures’ star Zak Bagans decided to purchase one of the Manson crime scenes, the LaBianca house where a couple was killed by Family members the night after the Sharon Tate/Cielo Drive murders. He was already interested in Charles Manson, because he featured several “artifacts” like Manson’s hospital gown he died in, the TV he had in prison, and bone fragments from his ashes in his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. Bagans purchased the house for 1.8 million dollars and hasn’t yet expressed what he’s going to do with it, but announcing the purchase the same week as the Tarantino movie and just weeks before the 50th anniversary means that he timed the purchase for maximum public relations effect.

Now Zak believes these places affected by the Manson Family are haunted and we bring Scott Markus from WhatsYourGhostStory.com and formerly the guide of Los Angeles Hauntings Ghost Tours to discuss the ghost stories surrounding the Spahn Movie Ranch, the Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski house at Cielo Drive (since torn down), and the LaBianca house that Bagans just purchased. Scott has investigated these areas himself and delivers his own impressions of the site in this episode. We talked with Scott about the strange premonitions that Sharon Tate herself received before her murder in Episode 230 and you can check that out right here.

It’s singalong time with Charlie…

One of the things that is often overlooked in people’s examinations of Manson is his music. Musicians were such a dominant force in the culture in the 1960s, they were considered heroes and truth tellers and that’s really where we get the idea of the “Rock Star” from. They weren’t just celebrities and artists, they were deified and their fanbase was maniacal. Manson used music to entice his followers. The subtle properties of subliminal influence in the guise of “peace and love” in his songs is insidious. We talk about that before we play our own version of the song that Manson sold to the Beach Boys, “Cease to Exist.” They recorded it as “Never Learn Not to Love You” and Manson was so incensed that they changed some of his words, he left a bullet in Dennis Wilson’s bed, so we didn’t mess with it too much!

220 – True Crime Halloween: Scarier Than Superstition

When we think about Halloween, we think of witches and ghosts and demons. Superstitions and mythical creatures. Wicked? Sure. Scary? You bet. Real? Well, the jury is out. We talk about the veil between the worlds being at its most thin on the holiday, we talk about Samhain, horror movies, and jack o’ lanterns. We make evil into a joke, something cute for kids. We dress up little girls as witches, little boys as vampires. The terrors of our Dark Ages become fantasy fodder for our Enlightened era. We’ve talked about all kinds of supernatural brutes on this show and every kind of superstition. But sometimes the most horrible monsters aren’t monsters at all. They’re just people, sick and weak and selfish and angry people. 

  • Halloween night 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan laced candy Pixy Stix with cyanide in order to kill his children and collect their life insurance policies. He pretended to go to a neighbor’s house who wasn’t home and “trick or treat”-ed the candy, giving it to his own children and their friends. His son Timothy was poisoned to death and O’Bryan was caught and eventually executed. He was nicknamed “The Candy Man” or “The Man That Killed Halloween”.

  • On Halloween 1975, 15 year old Martha Moxley’s body was found bludgeoned to death and stabbed with a golf club. The affluent and troubled Skakel brothers were implicated in the murder and one of the brothers was eventually tried and convicted of her murder 25 years later. The case was international news because their aunt was married to Robert F. Kennedy.

  • October 28th, 2014, 35 year old Derek Ward decapitated his mother, Patricia Ward, and carried her body out into a Long Island street. There were several witnesses that watched him carrying the headless corpse but they had no idea it was real, they thought they were looking at a Halloween decoration. Derek Ward then proceeded to walk three blocks and killed himself by jumping in front of a train.

  • Halloween 1981, Ronald Sisman and Elizabeth Platzman are found murdered in their New York City apartment. The apartment is ransacked and they are killed execution style. Police suspect a drug transaction gone bad until a prison inmate came to them with an unusual claim. That inmate was imprisoned with David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” killer, who was arrested in 1977. The inmate claimed that Berkowitz told him earlier that he was part of a cult that was planning on killing a photographer in an apartment in Greenwich Village on Halloween in a Satanic ritual. The police couldn’t get enough evidence and the case remains unsolved.

  • On Halloween night 2002, Christopher Jenkins was kicked out of a Minneapolis bar into the freezing weather while still in his costume. His body was found in the Mississippi River four months later. Four years later, the Minneapolis police changed the status of his death from an accidental drowning to homicide, but no one has ever been charged in the crime. Two New York detectives have their own theory about a “Smiley Face Murder Club” that travels along the Mississippi, killing young men and covering up their crimes by dumping the bodies in the river.

When we use names to describe these real-life terrors we turn people into monsters: “Smiley Face Killers”, “Son of Sam”, “The Candyman”. Nicknames are catchy, they sell newspapers and get clicks, but it also de-humanizes the people behind the names. It turns them into a witch or a vampire or a ghost. Because how could someone, a regular person like us, do something as horrible as this?

The song this week is based on a  true crime that happened in St. Louis in October of 1899. Francis “Frankie” Baker was a young woman who was keeping company with ragtime piano player named Allen Britt. Allen he stepped out on her with a prostitute named Alice Nelson, Frankie heard about it and got so enraged that she shot him. Allen died 4 days later and was able to tell the police who did it.

At Frankie’s trial, she claimed that it was self-defense, that Allen pulled a knife on her and that he beat her in the past. That was good enough for the jury, who acquitted her. But within months, someone had already written a song about it and soon afterwards, the names were changed a little bit to accommodate easier rhymes. The song “Frankie and Johnny” was born and was covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Merle Haggard to Elvis. Francis Baker died poor in 1952, and was bitter that she never received any money from the song that she inspired. However, she did kill a guy. This episode’s song is our own acoustic guitar and violin version of the true crime murder ballad, “Frankie and Johnny”.

Frankie and Johnny was lovers, oh, how they could love
They sworn to be true to each other, true as the skies above
He was he man, he wouldn’t do her no wrong.

Frankie went down to the corner, to get her a stein of beer
She asked the big old fat bartender, “Have my lovin’ Johnny been here?
He is my man, he wouldn’t do her no wrong. “

Said, “I ain’t gonna tell you no story, I ain’t gonna tell you no lie
He was here ’bout an hour ago with that gal they call Nellie Bly,
He was your man, but he’s been doin’ you wrong.”

Frankie went down to the hotel, she didn’t go down there for fun
Under her long red kimono she carried her .44 gun
Lookin’ for the man that was doin’ her wrong.

Johnny pulled off his Stetson hat, hollered, “Now, baby, don’t shoot!”
Frankie pressed her finger on the trigger and that gun went “rrrroooolietoo”
She killed her man, ’cause he was doin’ her wrong

This is the end of my story, this is the end of my song
Frankie’s down in the county jail, poor thing, down there all alone
She killed her man, ’cause he was doin’ her wrong.
She killed her man, ’cause he was doin’ her wrong.
She killed her man, ’cause he’d been doin’ her wrong.

True Detective and the Steven Avery Cult Connection

Like most of you who had some free time over the Holidays, I enjoyed myself a little bit of the ol’ “Netflix and Chill”. And my sedative of choice was Making A Murderer. I can’t help it, yes, I am addicted as much as everyone else to this true crime phase of Pop Culture. I listen to Serial, I was just as shocked at the ending of The Jinx as everyone else. I know that these are sensationalized accounts of real people’s lives. I know that my outrage has been elicited by design. Yet, somehow this foreknowledge of manipulation doesn’t change my interest in the twisted case of Steven Avery or the depressing case of Brendan Dassey. So, I read on every article and criminal records search associated with it, and everyone from The New York Times to Buzzfeed has anticipated our interest and used it to their clickbait-y advantage.

steven avery cult
How many times have you seen this picture over the last month?

I can’t help it, I’m in Wisconsin and paid attention to the story as it happened the first time. One of my good friends was on the Innocence Project at the law school of UW-Madison right before Steven Avery went on trial the second time (she was talking about him as one of their great successes), my wife went to high school in Manitowoc (she exclaimed at one point in the show how her next-door neighbor was on the witness stand!), one of the people I work with in music mentioned how his neighbor was the woman who did the (flawed) DNA testing of the key. These were all people that are in my life. When do most people ever get that close to a national phenomenon without being in it? Of course it’s going to fascinate me!

True crime is one thing (and I know that murder is tragic, no one’s downplaying that) but when people start looking for paranormal explanations, that’s where I start getting really interested. Because this is when we get beyond regular human interest and start entering a different level of conspiracy theory. Sure, it’s one thing to say that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department planted some evidence. Sgt. Colborn plays a wonderful patsy and Lieutenant Lenk is the cold middle manager whose job it is to make the frame up work. But what if it goes way deeper than that? What if it goes into True Detective Season One (the good season) territory?

steven avery cult true detective yellow king
The Yellow King lives in the Fox Valley and this Lone Star Beer can prove it! 

First, Coast to Coast AM (with Twin Cities host Dave Schrader from Darkness Radio taking the lead) featured a special episode on the case, with the last hour devoted to a retired police detective who believes it might be the work of a Satanist serial killer named Edward Wayne Edwards (who the author also connects to California’s infamous Zodiac Killer) who was caught in 2009 in Jefferson, Wisconsin and admitted to five murders. John A. Cameron claims however that Edwards has killed dozens of more victims over the course of a six-decade murder spree where he framed many other innocent people and Steven Avery was just one of his last victims. Now the tale is pretty unbelievable for sure, but Cameron does his best to make a compelling case and even suspects Edwards of dressing up like Santa to perform JonBenét Ramsey’s 1996 mureder as well as killing people on Aleister Crowley’s birthday October 12th. Cameron turns Edwards into some kind of murdering superman and while the evidence is weak, it’s a compelling read.

But the idea of a Satanic murder of Theresa Halbach has also been floating around on that bastion of constructive discussions, Reddit. In this particular thread, people theorize that a Satanic Sex Club might be the ones who murdered the poor girl. Why? Because it was Halloween of course! Okay, Manitowoc is a small city, how would some kind of secret Satanic sex club go around unnoticed? Quick answer. It was noticed. Hat tip to Cult of Weird for sharing this story about a man named Dave Begotka, who has created a series of YouTube videos about how there’s a secret Satanic cult in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley.

I’m not trying to be judge-y, but his old channel was called DrNephilim666, so I think he might be an old hat when it comes to wacky theories. However, Dave has a detailed story on his website about how he was invited to join this secret sex club in Manitowoc by a very influential local businessman. It’s got that Eyes Wide Shut vibe, but hopefully it’s not as mind-numbing as that movie turned out to be. The people of Reddit think that Dave Begotka’s story “could be huge!” for the case, but he’s sent the whole story to Avery’s legal team (and my wife even has a crush on Dean Strang now) and they haven’t used it yet, so its credibility is dubious. But that turns this whole thing right into the land of True Detective, just what is going on in Manitowoc County?

steven avery cult dean strang jerry buting valentine
That’s right boys, nothing is sexier than justice!

Anyway, if one thing makes a close-to-home true crime story more exciting, it’s bringing in some kind of occult murder society. It’s like one of my high school urban legends come to life and the whole Internet is getting in on it. There’s not much to these theories right now, but if Avery and Dassey get a second trial and the Defense puts forth a Satanic Sex Club defense, you know we’re going to have to go to the courtroom.