When the Charles Manson Family murdered five people in August 1969, it was the shocking climax of America’s most chaotic decade. Now, after 20 years of meticulous research, Tom O’Neill reveals that everything we thought we knew about this tragedy is really just the tip of the iceberg.
Tom O’Neill recently sold the movie rights to Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, the strangely compelling account of his 20-year search for the truth about the horrific 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Charles Manson Family in Los Angeles.
“My agent called me about [the movie] a week or so ago and said, ‘Tom, you have to understand. You’re the protagonist now.’”
O’Neill had long resisted becoming part of the story. He began to examine the Manson case in 1999, 30 years after the Tate-LaBianca murders, when he was hired by the now-defunct Premier magazine for an article on Manson’s connections to Hollywood. He began to find anomalies in the case presented to the jury by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and in Bugliosi’s bestselling book about the murders and trial, Helter Skelter.
Chasing leads, O’Neill missed his deadline—by a month and then a year. He got a book contract and researched up blind alleys, down rabbit holes and deep into the weeds. He also found incredible, tantalizing information. He blew past the book deadline. The publisher eventually sued him to retrieve the advance, which he had used to continue his reporting. “I do not want to glorify myself,” O’Neill says, “but I did not take vacations or buy nice things. I lived pretty frugally.” His investigation of the case went on for 20 abstemious years, until he was well into his late 50s. He was evicted from his apartment. He got loans from his family and had to join the gig economy and drive for Uber to support his continuing investigation.
A few years ago, his agent approached Little, Brown. His agent said, “The curse of Tom also pays off in the end because he won’t believe anything until he tries to disprove it. He’ll attack from every different [angle] that he can, and if he can’t disprove it then he’ll allow it.”
By then O’Neill had reams and reams of notes, documents and photographs and a whiteboard with spiderlike webs of connections among the principals in the murder. (Many of these are cited in his extensive and illuminating endnotes.) Someone suggested he collaborate with Dan Piepenbring, a young writer whose work with Prince on a memoir had previously gone awry. Piepenbring brought a strategy and some order. Part of the strategy was to convince O’Neill to include his long, frustrating odyssey to discover the truth within the narrative.
O’Neill interviewed major and minor characters in the Manson story, including Manson himself. People did not react kindly to this pursuit of the facts. Terry Melcher, the only son of Doris Day and a previous tenant in the house where Sharon Tate and others were murdered, was hostile when O’Neill presented evidence that he had lied on the stand during the Manson trial. O’Neill tracked down Manson’s brilliant, bombastic, obstructionist attorney, Irving Kanarek, who was by then indigent but still a man with stories to tell. And of course there was prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.
In the book, O’Neill recounts an incredible six-hour interview with Bugliosi at his home, with dueling tape recorders and Bugliosi’s wife dragooned into being an often-bored witness. In O’Neill’s telling, Bugliosi is a strange, testy guy. Post-Manson fame, he ran for district attorney and attorney general, and in both cases his sordid past (unknown to most general readers but uncovered in detail by O’Neill) came to light. Mention of this enraged Bugliosi, as did O’Neill’s assertions that he had mishandled the case. Backed by interviews from other prosecutors and the police, O’Neill told Bugliosi that he thought the narrative that the Manson family had committed the crimes to start a race war—the “Helter Skelter” scenario Bugliosi put forward at the trial—was bogus. At the end of the interview, Bugliosi said he would hurt O’Neill like he had never been hurt before, and he would sue him “FOR ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS!” Obsessed, Bugliosi then called O’Neill night after night. O’Neill has some of the tapes from these and other conversations and, as part of the book promotion, will make some of them available on social media.
Another line of investigation took O’Neill from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The Manson Family first formed in the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Manson and “his girls” were frequent visitors to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. The doctors there received government funding to study the effects of psychedelics and mind control. In his assiduous research, O’Neill uncovered that one of the doctors there—“Jolly” West, a CIA contractor—did a jailhouse psychological profile of Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
What could this all mean? O’Neill, a cautious investigator, expresses frustration. There are so many questions. “I perhaps naively thought that I was going to answer the big question, find out what really happened, but I can at least show that things happened dramatically differently than has ever been presented before.”
O’Neill believes Manson and the Family are guilty, but he thinks so much else is in question that the Manson trial was a disaster. And the odd connections to government activity intrigue him. “I think I can show that Bugliosi suborned perjury. I think I can show that Jolly West had a critical role in what we know about Jack Ruby and his memory of what happened when he killed and why he killed Lee Harvey Oswald. And all that information was known by Richard Helms, who was the liaison between the CIA and the Warren Commission.” He also presents information that Manson and his followers were involved in other killings, but ultimately his investigations were stonewalled by the authorities.
O’Neill believes “there’s a hell of a lot of connections that Manson had with Hollywood people that have been erased. . . . I believe there were other people involved in the murders that were erased.” His biggest hope, he says, “is that the book will spur other people to pick up where I’ve left off. There’s a hell of a lot more out there.”