Saturday, May 23, 2020

Cielo Part Two: A Horrific Morning

As Southern California began waking up on what seemed like a normal morning, the biggest news was the opening of Disneyland’s newest attraction- the Haunted Mansion, a ride that was many years in the making. The ride’s grand opening would be so well attended that the park would have to close its gates due to a capacity crowd for the very first time ever. Unbeknownst to the throngs of tourists and locals alike who braved the crowds, a real house of horrors would be uncovered about 40 miles north.

At the end of our last chapter, Winifred Chapman had discovered the grisly murder scene and fled from Sharon Tate’s estate. She found some neighbors who lived down the street and frantically asked them to call the police. After the neighbors got enough information from Ms. Chapman, they called the police, whose wires got crossed; the first officer on the scene seemed to think that there was a fire or landslide. Ms. Chapman, who was still in shock, was of little help. The first responder was able to ascertain that there were dead people in the house at the end of the road and that he should probably wait for backup. After his backup arrived, they asked Ms. Chapman to help open the gate, which she did. The two officers quickly saw the body in the car. This wasn’t just a hysterical exaggeration; something horrible happened on this property.

They went up towards the front of the house, guns drawn, and saw two more victims laying out on the lawn- a man and a woman. The sight was more horrific than the first, since the bodies were badly injured. The man had been beaten so badly that his face was practically unrecognizable. The woman appeared to be wearing a red nightgown, but a closer looked showed it to be white and stained red from the woman’s bloody wounds.

They approached the front door, noting that it was ajar and had ‘pig’ scrawled on it in blood. As they carefully went into the house, a gruesome discovery awaited them in the living room. A young woman lay in front of the couch, covered in blood and obviously very pregnant. A few feet away was another victim- a man wearing mod-ish clothing, his head covered with what appeared to be a hood. After clearing the remaining rooms of the house, the officers knew that they would need to call this in and ask for all available hands. 

As they walked out of the house, they noticed a small cottage in the back of the property. Could the cottage have more victims in it? Approaching it with caution, they heard dogs barking within and heard a voice yelling at the dogs to be quiet. Guns drawn again, they burst through the cottage door and saw a young man inside. Assuming that the only living person on the property must have been the murderer, they violently subdued the young man and cuffed him. The young man turned out to be William Garretson, the caretaker who looked after the property while its owner was out of town.

What happened next was disputed by both sides, but Garretson insists that he was roughed up and accused of being the killer. He claims that he was violently dragged around the property, forced to identify the bodies and, according to the police officers, look at what he’d done. He claimed that he didn’t know the young man in the car. (This was actually not true.) He mis-identified the dead woman as Winifred Chapman and the man on the lawn as the “younger” Polanski. He correctly identified the victims in the house. At that point, he was escorted past the growing crowd of reporters and taken downtown for questioning.

Initial media reports incorrectly reported the original LAPD assumption that a landslide or fire had occurred. It wouldn’t take long for them to realize that something far more sinister had taken place in that house. Once word got out about the gruesome murders, Hollywood- and the world- would never be the same.

Cielo Part One: Waking Up To A Nightmare

As the housekeeper got off the bus, she was in a hurry. The city’s notoriously unreliable bus system had, yet again, caused her to be late. It was a warm, soon to be hot, Saturday morning in August and the housekeeper knew it would be a very busy day. Normally she didn’t work on Saturdays, but she needed a day off during the week and her employer needed her to help prepare for a baby shower that would take place that afternoon. They agreed that the housekeeper could switch work days that week; it was a perfect trade off. Due to the heat and limited Saturday morning transit options, her employer had offered the opportunity to spend the night at the mansion, an offer she rejected. Though she currently regretted that decision, she would soon discover how lucky it was that she had turned the offer down.

Winifred Chapman

As she struggled to walk up the hill to her employer’s expensive hillside estate, a familiar face appeared in a work truck. She had worked with the driver before and he graciously offered her a ride up the hill to her employer’s house, which she quickly accepted. After thanking her friend, she soon found herself walking up the narrow cul-de-Sac that led to her employer’s mansion. She could see that the phone line appeared to be down and made a note to let her employer know about it. With a gaggle of ladies expected later that day, she knew that they’d have to call the phone company to get the line fixed immediately. 

She pressed the gate button, which was not locked, and stood back as the gate swung open. She saw a car that she didn’t recognize, but it could have been an early arrival or an overnight guest. She picked up the newspaper and walked around to the kitchen entrance, finding the hidden key where it always was. She let herself into the house, which seemed unusually quiet. Lifting the receiver on the kitchen phone, she verified that the phone line was indeed inoperable. She began putting some of the previous night’s glasses and dishes into the sink and noticed one of her employer’s dogs acting erratically. It was then that a sense of foreboding fear began to take hold of her. The unusual quiet; the dead phone line; the bizarre behavior of the dog- whereas before things seemed normal, she was beginning to realize that things were wrong- very wrong.

She slowly started walking towards the living room when she saw that the front door was ajar and there were splashes of red all around. As the door creaked open, unjarred by the breeze, she saw a body on the front lawn. Her circuitous path to the kitchen had spared her the gruesome sight earlier. She screamed, running out of the house the way she came in. Her survival instincts triggered, she desperately wanted to get out of there. This time she noticed that there was a body in the unfamiliar car, which further frightened her. She ran down the street, finally finding someone who was at home. They tried calming her down to figure out what was wrong but could only get a chilling comment out of her- “Murder! Death! Bodies! Blood!” The date? August 9, 1969. The housekeeper? Winifred Chapman. The victims? Sharon Tate and her friends. Helter Skelter had begun.

Or had it? While there is no doubt that this gruesome crime was committed by the Manson Family, their actual motive remains a mystery. The ‘Helter Skelter’ theory, as posited by state prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, scared a lot of people and sold a lot of books, but was far from a solid, provable idea. The drug addled perpetrators never really agreed on their motive and the Helter Skelter theory seems to fall apart after a closer look. In our first deep dive look at a horrific crime, we’ll try to make sense of these senseless murders. We’ll also take a more detailed look at the victims, who sadly get forgotten in most discussions of this crime. (Even Vincent Bugliosi, who professed an eagerness to get justice for the victims, seems to gloss over their lives in his book.) Our intent is to not just recount a well told story, but to tell it in a way that humanizes the victims and separates the facts from oft repeated fiction. Along the way, we’ll put a historical perspective on the crimes, explaining how these bizarre murders could only have occurred at that time and place. Join us, won’t you?

Cielo: An Introduction

It has often been said that the 1960’s ended on August 9, 1969. That was the morning that Winifred Chapman stumbled upon a ghastly scene in the tony hills of Benedict Canyon, California. The ghastly scene would produce innumerable nightmares and its aftershocks would be felt around the world, effectively ending the permissiveness and anything goes attitude of the 1960’s. The grisly scene Ms. Chapman encountered that morning would forever tie its victims together in death, referred to by the name of its most famous victim- Sharon Tate. 

Hundreds of miles north in San Francisco, another horrific story unfolded in the newspapers. A vicious killer known solely as “The Zodiac” was in the middle of his murderous crime spree and had been taunting the authorities with cryptic codes. In an odd coincidence, his first set of codes had been solved and were published that same morning by the San Francisco Chronicle. San Franciscans woke up to news of the Zodiac’s chilling threats to continue his murderous spree that had begun the year before. 

It must have seemed as though the world that everyone thought they knew had gone crazy. While the breaking of the Zodiac’s ‘Murder Code’ gave at least some comfort that he might eventually be caught, the mysterious and bloody murders of a wealthy Hollywood actress and her jet set friends in an exclusive Bel Air estate seemed to suggest that nobody was safe anymore no matter how rich or powerful they were. A scary thought for many.

In this series, we will be presenting our Deep Dive into the murders of Sharon Tate, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger, Woytek Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Gary Hinman and Rosemary and Leno Labianca. We’ll go into the details of their lives that don’t often get covered and discuss how the murders resonated far beyond Southern California. We’ll also look into the unanswered questions that still fascinate true crime sleuths today. This already complex case is about to get more complicated even after fifty years.

Welcome to True Crime Courthouse!

As long as people have been committing crimes there have been people who have wanted to hear about those crimes. When newspapers became big business in the early twentieth century, true crime became big news as publishers realized that these stories could sell a lot of newspapers. While the newspapers claimed that they were covering these types of stories because they were doing a public service, profits were foremost on their minds when they included true crime stories in the headlines. In fact, if they didn’t have any truly gruesome murders to report about, they would often sensationalize lesser crimes and killings to sell papers. While newspapers at the time tried to sensationalize these stories by adding lurid details and filling in the holes with wild speculation, they often stayed just short of truly crossing the line. That’s where “detective magazines” came in.

Detective magazines sought to include every last detail of each murder they covered, even the more prurient ones. Concentrating on murders of women, the magazines tried to put a legitimate gloss on what were essentially snuff books. In later years, these publications would often print unredacted crime photos alongside their seamy crime “reports”.

It would be Truman Capote who would truly raise the genre of true crime out of the publishing gutter and into the mainstream. Not only was his self-described “non-fiction” novel a commercial success, it also earned praise from the literary world. Chronicling the notorious murder of the Clutter Family, Capote wrote as though he were writing a novel, versus just recounting the events. His book would show what the true crime genre could be, elevating it from the sort of material one might hide away into something that readers would not be embarrassed to be caught reading.

The book that would bring the true crime genre fully into the mainstream would be Helter Skelter, the book that would (for better or worse) tell the definitive story about the bloody 1969 murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger, Voyteck Frykowski, Rosemary and Leno Labianca over two bloody nights in August by Charles “Tex” Watson and members of the “Manson Family”. ADA Vincent Bugliosi had successfully convicted the perpetrators and sought to cash in by writing what he hoped would be the last word on the murders. The book would rise above the cheap and tawdry paperbacks that merely regurgitated speculation and provably false rumors that sprang up about the crimes. The book would become the best selling true crime novel of all time. While some of its revelations have since been questioned, it was one of the first true crime books that sought to accurately recount a true crime without sensationalism or unverified rumors.

So what does that have to do with this website? I’ll attempt to cover true crimes by separating fact from fiction on some well known cases as well as highlighting lesser known crimes. Sound interesting? Please bookmark the site and come back soon!