Meeting Manson

A cub reporter meets America's most notorious killer

I met a lot of interesting people during my first life as a news reporter. Charles Manson, who died Nov. 19 in prison, was one of them.

Before a transfer to Spokane and KXLY-TV in 1989, I reported for a TV station in Fresno, California. I'd gotten word that a new generation of Manson devotees was living in makeshift communities in Northern California. They were young adults not even born when the Tate-La Bianca killings happened in August of 1969. It sounded like a good story.

I went to San Francisco and interviewed the co-author of Helter Skelter, the definitive retelling of the murders, then made contact with a former cellmate and some of the new young Manson followers. A special report was taking shape.

One day a letter came to the newsroom from Manson himself. His former cellmate had apparently put in a word, and Manson wrote that he'd like to do an interview. Then came a letter from Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a Manson follower serving a life sentence for trying to assassinate President Gerald Ford. She wrote expressing her appreciation for our interest in Manson's story.

At that point, Manson had only allowed a couple of interviews with talk show hosts Tom Snyder and Charlie Rose. Now he was willing to sit down with a cub reporter from Fresno as long as the prison gave its OK. Within a few days we had the greenlight, and I was preparing to chat with one of the most despised mass-murderers in modern history.

I was teamed with photographer John Larimore, a good friend and somebody I could trust in the trenches. We loaded up our gear in a rusty little station wagon/news vehicle and left for the Bay Area.

We spent the night in a crappy motel near the prison. The next morning, the Bay Area's fog had rolled in thick and cold, the perfect backdrop. We were certain something would go haywire.

We made it through the front gate and into a small shack, guards welcoming us with a standard "no hostage rescue" waiver to sign. If an inmate decided to grab us, we were on our own.

The tension continued to rise as we got deeper into the prison. A maze of old iron bars bled rust down long concrete walls. I still recall the moldy, dank halls and dim, yellow lighting. They led us into a room with cheap, brown paneling, tan metal folding chairs and a row of tables. Then the guards left us alone for a very long 15 minutes.

I was so anxious at that final moment, when the scoop of my career either would or would not happen, that when I heard the shuffling of chains coming up the hall toward us, I actually relaxed.

When Manson turned the corner and stared me in the eye, maybe hoping to get a psychological jump on me, I wasn't intimidated. I was relieved, and I simply said, "Hi Charlie, how ya doin?" He was small and slight. And there was the swastika.

The guards gave him a small rectangle of space, and he began to pace the perimeter and stroke his beard, asking for a reminder about what we were going to talk about. I let him pace.

Eventually he sat down and we filled four tapes of Q&A. Mostly A's, and not a lot of it making sense. But I let him talk and didn't try to provoke his anger and weirdness, as others like Geraldo Rivera did in later interviews designed to make "good TV."

With a couple of hours of raw tape of Manson's musings, I had a valuable commodity that drew interest from Hollywood producers who at the time were working toward a movie to star Dennis Hopper as Manson. I was angling for a foot in the door, but the movie withered on the vine.

When Manson died, he took a lot of secrets with him: We remain largely in the dark about the how and the why of it all. He was the son of a drunk single mom who worked the street and had no time for a child. He was dumped into boys' homes and reform schools, preyed upon and became a predator himself. He spent little time outside various institutions from childhood until landing in San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967 at age 33. By then, he knew drugs and how to manipulate people.

In the wake of the murders, America took the bait of Helter Skelter — content to assume that, with the devil behind bars, we no longer needed to examine how the children of bankers and stock brokers could fall for Manson in such a shocking, brutal way.

A few weeks after our meeting, Manson wrote another letter to our newsroom. He said ours "was the first interview I ever enjoyed." So I guess I have that going for me.♦

John Allison is a Spokane attorney.