‘It’s when someone claims that I’ve “found the truth” that I get anxious. I haven’t found the truth, much as I wish I could say I have. My goal isn’t to say what did happen — it’s to prove that the official story didn’t. I’ve learnt to accept the ambiguity. I had to, I realised, if I ever wanted to finish this book. For every chapter here, there are a dozen I’ve left out. There’s more, there’s always more.’

Nothing endeared me to this intriguing book as much as that paragraph. It comes late on, and to be fair I got that sense of balanced thinking from the material anyway, however having O’Neill confirm it was a big bonus. Nothing is as irritating as an author stating categorically that they’ve just rewritten history and totally altered our perception of events when in fact they haven’t. O’Neill hasn’t claimed any such outcome for his book; Manson was clearly guilty, but that is not the whole story. O’Neill discredits aspects of the official account of the Manson case in Chaos, it’s a substantial revision of our current knowledge but that is only part of the picture here. O’Neill has laid the ground work for future studies into the links between Manson, the counterculture and surveillance/interference from the state with his fulsome research. Charles Manson is the pivot, the constant reference point, in a wider account of the underground sixties. Twenty years of work on the Manson case broadened into an investigation of a massive CIA operation on US soil, CHAOS, an outrageous breach of democratic values, which was uncovered in 1974. Uniquely, O’Neill explores the links to Manson’s story. Like CHAOS, the MKULTRA programme (which worked on mind-altering drugs and mind control, was launched in 1953), also figures in O’Neill’s account. O’Neill has found connections to Manson and the security services that call into question the truthfulness of the official account of the Manson case. Still to this day the full files are being withheld by the DA and the LAPD. This is not an academic study but the thesis O’Neill produces is credible if not totally convincing simply because more evidence is needed to confirm the truth (government papers). That O’Neill doesn’t try to stretch his conclusions further means that this is not a disappointing analysis. I think this book has opened a door on an area of research into the sixties that will see more revelations in the future and he is to be applauded for that.

To deal with the events of August, 1968: The courtroom for a major trial like this is always a three ring circus; reputations are made and stellar careers launched. Co-prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote an account of the case, Helter Skelter, it’s seen as a sort of official version. O’Neill discredits some of the evidence presented against Manson and the Family (his cult), suggesting a cover up, concealment of evidence and even a fit up. Dodgy police work and foreknowledge by government institutions come to light, there are troubling discoveries here. O’Neill goes much further than the anomalies in the Manson case (interesting but standard fair for the true crime market). Instead, his instincts took him towards obscure discoveries in his research into the Family, the counterculture and the state reaction to youth rebellion. This is a far more radical history and is intellectually intriguing.

O’Neill is no conspiracy theorist. He’s meticulously grounded and fair minded, even bringing in another author to help weigh the material for publication. O’Neill moves on from the flaws in the process to fresh enquiries into tangential issues that become integral in his new perspective on the Manson case. How successfully O’Neill makes his case is for the reader to decide but this evidence/testimony does needs to be heard and weighed. For me, it’s a credible insight into the underground sixties and the authorities reaction to it. How far Manson and the CIA can be linked is more speculative.

I approached this book with trepidation, but O’Neill is not sensationalist and there is nothing salacious here, equally important, he offers something new. O’Neill set out to write an article for Premiere, on the thirtieth anniversary of the events; the Tate/Polanski/Hollywood angle. The results were patchy; close confidants of Tate/Polanski wouldn’t talk, others misremembered, had their own slants, fears and contradictions. The article was never written but O’Neill got the bug. A relatively small revelation (intuition?) led to bigger discoveries and the publication of this book – a story in itself. Chaos is painstakingly researched, some of it is conjecture, there are at least ten books on Manson due out later this year, I doubt any of them will actually be as cogent or enlightening.

In 2006, Bugliosi, co-prosecutor of Manson, threatened to sue O’Neill for $100M if he published defamatory claims that implied he altered evidence but O’Neill felt he could prove that. He believed that the motivation of Manson and the Family was not as stated at the trial:

“. . . I’d discovered things I thought impossible about the Manson murders and California in the sixties — things that reek of duplicity and cover-up, implicating police departments up and down the state. Plus – the courts. Plus – though I have to take a deep breath before I let myself say it — the CIA.”

Co-prosecutor Stephen Kay was shocked by the implications of what O’Neill uncovered, Bugliosi never sued, he died in 2015, while O’Neill carried on with his research:

“. . .I’m certain of one thing: much of what we accept as fact is fiction.”

August 8th, 1969, four members of the ‘Family’, all in their early twenties, left the Spahn ranch: Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, they drove to Beverly Hills. All had troubled backgrounds and involvement with drugs. The ‘Family’ was a hippie commune with bastardised versions of environmentalism, anti-establishment, free love, apocalyptic Christianity and a rejection of conventional morality. Their leader was Charles Manson. 10050 Cielo Drive was the home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, he was in London. Here the killing began. The brutal murders of Steven Parent, Wojiciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring and eight months pregnant Sharon Tate shocked and appalled people. More than that, it got under the skin of the Hollywood community and became part of the national psyche (Joan Didion later referred to it as the death of sixties). The press told of a ‘blood orgy’.

The next night, the four plus Steven Grogan, Leslie van Houten and Charles Manson set out again. This time the destination was 3301 Waverly Drive. Manson broke in, tied up the homeowners, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, returned to the car and ordered his followers to go back inside and kill the pair.

The LAPD set up two separate murder hunts (Tate and LaBianca), the two did not cooperate. It wasn’t until 1st December that the Tate case was declared solved. In the meantime Manson and other members of the Family had been arrested for car theft (Atkins had also been arrested for the murder of Gary Hinman, a friend of Manson’s). The view of hippies was about to take on a darker aspect.

Manson was a troubled child, his background appalling. His mother spent his formative years in jail and he was later sent to a succession of approved schools and correctional facilities. Manson claimed he was raped and was caught raping boys himself. He married young, had a child, but was soon back in prison and divorced. When he came out he began pimping and wound up back inside, that’s where he learned the guitar, he later thought he could be a pop star.

The Manson trial began in July 1970 at LA Superior Court House. As Manson didn’t actually kill anyone a conspiracy case had to be built. There were six defendants, Watson was tried separately, Kasabian turned states evidence and the defendants made the process as difficult as possible. Bugliosi set out a unique case citing the faux metaphysical motivation of the murders: racism, apocalyptic religion. It was claimed that Manson wanted the Black Panthers blamed sparking a race war (the Helter Skelter motive). As Tate lived in a house formerly owned by record producer Terry Melcher, who had rejected Manson, her murder was said to be a message for him. Manson was said to have brainwashed the other defendants, making them feel free and wanted but isolating them from the community and using mind games under the influence of LSD to control them. They were convicted after nine and half months.

When O’Neill began in 1999 the stories he was hearing were clichéd, contradictory and biased, a mix of fear, grief and, even, victim blaming. Gradually he saw the Black Panther/Melcher angles as less credible, evidence pointed in other directions. When he interviewed Bugliosi, sex tapes found at the Tate/Polanski house came up, they were never part of the investigation, this was new. Could their behaviour be relevant to the case? Witnesses began speaking of orgies, drug dealing and rape, but for every claim someone said the opposite. Did the victims know the killers? Some of the witnesses claimed to be working for the security services at the time (O’Neill began to find credible links). Other claimed Frykowski and Polanski were Polish spies (no evidence whatsoever). Sebring was involved with the Chicago and Las Vegas Mobs (Charlie Baron). Concluding the Helter Skelter motive to be flawed, there was much to think about for O’Neill.

O’Neill began looking at the link between Manson, Dennis Wilson, drummer with the Beach Boys, and Terry Melcher, record producer. Wilson had the Family stay at his house for several months before they left for the Spahn ranch in August, 1968. Talking to the people around that scene O’Neill heard claims that several people knew Manson was the killer despite the police inaction. O’Neill’s access to records was limited, it’s a problem with fully confirming/disproving his analysis, but his conjecture based on is witness statements and record is reasonable. The claim that Watson and Manson partied at Cielo drive is credible and Manson lawyer revealed that Melcher went to Spahn after the murders to apologise for reneging on the recording contract, a claim Melcher denied.

Patterns begin to emerge. This is where the book gets very interesting and original, piecing together fragments that tell us a lot about the decade. O’Neill uncovered how Reeve Whitson was said to have leaned on Hatami, a friend of Sharon Tate, forcing him to implicate Manson by claiming he had seen him at the Tate house. Whitson was known to be intelligence, possibly CIA or FBI so why was he there? Why did the case need a security services guardian?

Both the FBI and the CIA had programmes aimed at the growing youth culture attempting to destabilise American youth because of their fear of change, the Black Panther movement, hippie ideals, communal living, and drugs. Although it is illegal for the CIA to act on American soil, FBI Director Hoover and his CIA counterpart, McCone, took what they saw as ‘corrective action’. By 1967, the new CIA director, Helms, had instituted a programme entitled CHAOS. While Johnson was president 300,000 people were under surveillance. CHAOS was exposed in 1974.

O’Neill goes on to question whether Manson was part of this surveillance, was he working for the intelligence services or the police? Did they have people inside the Family? The authorities had hundreds of undercover operatives in the field. Why had Manson had been allowed to set up the Family while on parole? Did the authorities have any idea of what was about to happen?

MKULTRA mind control experiments began in 1953. Could the techniques they developed explain Manson’s control oover his people? If so, were they being used as a field experiment? These are the angles O’Neill has explored with limited results. Remember all this was against the background of the Vietnam War, the ending of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the general era of political dissent. Food for thought. How connected the Manson story is to the CIA is something only time will tell. There is no Q.E.D. here, but I hope people care enough to keep looking into this. This is more than fodder for the conspiracy theorists to get their teeth into.

Paul Burke 4/4

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill
William Heinemann 9781785152078 hbk Jun 2019