In the early morning of Aug. 9, 1969, as Susan Atkins was poised to kill actress Sharon Tate, she heard the victim repeatedly plead for the life of her 8½-month-old fetus. “I got sick of listening to it,” Atkins later recalled. “So I stabbed her.” The brutal murder was one of seven committed over two nights by Atkins and other followers of cult leader Charles Manson, which together constituted one of the most infamous crime sprees in history. Last week Atkins became the first of the killers to die, of brain cancer.
Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the defendants, said that Atkins “had the most unfortunate background” of any of Manson’s cohorts, said the Los Angeles Times. A native of San Gabriel, Calif., she lost her mother at 15 to cancer, and her alcoholic father sent her to live with relatives. “Atkins dropped out of school in the 11th grade and started drifting,” eventually arriving at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. There she worked as a topless dancer and met Manson, a charismatic con artist “who seduced girls by playing on their insecurities.” With Atkins and other runaways, he formed a surrogate “family” that “took drugs, had group sex, stole credit cards, and scrounged trash bins for food.”
Meanwhile, he planned “a hair-raising assault on society.”
Manson plotted a series of spectacular slaughters “in the hope of starting an apocalyptic race war, which he called ‘Helter Skelter,’ after the Beatles song,” said The New York Times. The first victims were Tate and four friends, in the Los Angeles home she shared with her husband, director Roman Polanski. After stabbing Tate repeatedly, Atkins “used the blood to write the word ‘Pig’ on the front door.” The next night, “Atkins and several associates murdered Leno LaBianca, a wealthy supermarket owner, and his wife, Rosemary.” Again they scrawled a message in blood: “Helter Skelter,” written on a refrigerator.
The grisly slayings remained unsolved for three months, “until Atkins confessed to a cellmate following her arrest on an unrelated charge,” said the Associated Press. In court, Atkins was “cocky” and “remorseless,” insisting on the righteousness of the murders. Asked to explain, “she replied in a dreamy voice, ‘How can it not be right when it’s done with love?” At her sentencing she warned the court, “You’d best lock your doors and watch your kids.” Atkins was condemned to death, but after California abolished capital punishment in 1972, her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Atkins eventually apologized, denounced Manson, and embraced Christianity.
She was denied parole 11 times, most recently on Sept. 2, by which time she was paralyzed and barely able to speak. Her last public words were, “My God is an amazing God.”