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KEEPING MANSON BEHIND BARS : Prosecutor Stephen Kay Still Fights to Make Sure the Evil of the Tate-LaBianca Murders Is Never Forgotten

May 14, 1989|MARTIN KASINDORF | Martin Kasindorf is Los Angeles correspondent for Newsday. A lawyer, he covered the trial of Charles Manson as a correspondent for Newsweek

THE MOST superfluous traffic sign in California is the one on the short spur road that winds along the bay front to the state penitentiary at San Quentin. The sign says "NOT A THROUGH STREET."

On a February morning of record-low 32-degree chill, Stephen Kay, a tall, deaconish Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, drives past the sign and parks at the road's windswept end. A body search completed, Kay is escorted to a prison conference room. He has a few minutes to arrange his papers for the latest in nearly 20 years of confrontations with Charles Milles Manson, mastermind of the peculiarly unforgettable mass murders that badly rattled California in August of 1969.

The morning's legal conflict promises to be one-sided. Manson, led from his single cell in San Quentin's Security Housing Unit, has waived his right to an attorney. He is long past trying to ingratiate himself with the three-man Board of Prison Terms panel that will decide whether to grant him a future parole date. Now 54, his flying beard going to gray, the 5-foot-2 life-termer has the shrunken, unkempt appearance of a Death Valley hermit, which is precisely what he has said he would like to be if ever released.

Manson reaches the door behind which the hearing officers and Kay wait with two "pool" reporters and two television cameras. The Tate-LaBianca killings are still news. New American Library late this year is publishing an updated edition of Ed Sanders' 1972 book, "The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion." The proceedings are being wired to a guardroom where 25 reporters and TV news technicians hover, hoping Charlie will say something suitably Mephistophelean.

He often does. At the Vacaville facility in 1981, Manson warned Kay that he would be killed in the parking lot after the hearing. At Manson's 1986 evaluation, Kay asked why Manson spends hours in his cell constructing scorpions out of thread from his socks. Manson, the razor-sliced swastika in his forehead emphasized in blue-black ink, took the bait. "From the world of darkness I did loose demons and devils in the power of scorpions to torment," he announced. That unremorseful response was good, Kay triumphantly thought, for another three-year parole denial. He was right.

This year, a moment before he is to enter the hearing room, Manson abruptly decides that he is having none of this legally mandated but manifestly futile ritual. His wrists are being clamped into manacles in the normal procedure when he protests, "They'll think I'm dangerous!" He refuses the restraints and demands to return to his cell.

With Manson in absentia for the third time in his nine hearings, Stephen Kay, a 22-year veteran at the D.A.'s office, begins his 38th argument against parole for the five people convicted of murdering Sharon Tate and the six other victims. Kay has been making these arguments for 11 years, ever since Manson, Susan (Sadie Mae Glutz) Atkins, Charles (Tex) Watson, Patricia (Katie) Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten first became eligible for parole.

"The Tate-LaBianca case had all the good things and bad things of the '60s," says Ed Sanders, the Woodstock, N.Y., poet and author. "It had sex and murder, life styles, counterculture, Hollywood, rock 'n' roll stars like Dennis Wilson--everything that makes for a circus. The trial was a combination of fascination and revulsion, like a snake with its tail in its mouth. It just kept rolling along, this revulsive snake. It's still rolling along."

SHARON TATE WAS 26, a classically beautiful but not quite top-rank movie actress eight and a half months pregnant, when a dark-clad band on a mission from Manson invaded the Benedict Canyon estate she and her film-director husband, Roman Polanski, were renting. The ensuing predawn horror of Aug. 9 was not without its complex of motives--a fusion of the Beatles, the Bible and plain old resentment. A previous tenant there, Terry Melcher, the record-producer son of actress Doris Day, had snubbed Manson and his musical ambitions a year earlier. Sharon Tate and four visitors to the secluded hilltop were slaughtered, as Atkins told a grand jury, "to instill fear into the Establishment."

The following night, after the sensational celebrity murders failed to trigger the black-white race war Manson had prophesied from his dark reading of Revelations and the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" during long group LSD sessions, Manson himself entered the Los Feliz home of Leno LaBianca, owner of a small supermarket chain. He tied up LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, then left them to die at the hands of three demonic disciples, who carved away with knives and forks from the LaBianca kitchen.

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