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Video on Manson Killer Raises Eyebrows : Film: A mass murderer is an unlikely subject for a Christian docudrama, all agree. But some say there are lessons in the jailhouse conversion of Charles (Tex) Watson.

September 19, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Professors Tom Nash and Michael Gonzales get asked the same question all the time: What's their nice evangelical Christian college doing making a movie--a sympathetic movie--about a mass murderer?

And not just any mass murderer, but Charles (Tex) Watson, a participant in some of the most grisly and shocking crimes in Los Angeles history, the 1969 Tate-La Bianca murders committed by the "Manson Family."

"We've gotten a lot of negative reaction," admits Nash, 57, a communications professor at 2,700-student Biola University in La Mirada, and the producer of the soon-to-be-released videotape docudrama, "Forgiven: The Charles (Tex) Watson Story."

"Some people are kind of aghast."

Nash and Gonzales, too, were somewhat aghast when the project was proposed to them.

That was two years ago, when they were looking for an annual class project for their undergraduate film students. In the past they had picked small, low-budget projects about everything from the difficulties of adjusting to college life to an industrial film about installing plastic plumbing pipe.

This time, during discussions with a religious film production company in Costa Mesa, they were asked if they wanted to make a movie about Watson--focusing on his conversion to "born-again" Christianity while in prison. The firm's president, Steven Atkin, who said he has known Watson for about two years, offered to pay the estimated $25,000 production costs. Atkin said Watson gave his firm, Cutting Edge Films, the video rights to his story.

"The point is that if God can forgive a man like Charles Watson . . . he can forgive anybody," Atkin said. "This is a powerful story of forgiveness."

Even so, "we both kind of gulped--hard," Nash said of the proposal. "We wondered if we really wanted to do this."

In August, 1969, Watson and two female followers of Charles Manson killed five people, including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, at a Benedict Canyon home. The next night, Watson, then 23, participated in the murders of grocery executive Leno La Bianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their Los Feliz home. The seven victims were stabbed more than 200 times and words such as "Helter Skelter" were written with their blood.

Watson was convicted of murder in 1971 and sentenced to death, but that reverted to a life sentence with the possibility of parole after the California Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty law was unconstitutional. Watson has been denied parole 11 times since then.

He also has married and fathered three children while in prison--enraging some victims' rights groups--and has operated a nonprofit prison ministry called Abounding Love Ministries.

Nash and Gonzales say they would not have made the video if they doubted Watson's "born-again" experience. The professors met with him in the state prison at San Luis Obispo (Watson has since been transferred to Mule Creek State Prison in Ione), talked to his relatives and read his autobiography, "Will You Die For Me?," an oft-repeated phrase of Manson's.

"We came to the conclusion that he was sincere in terms of his religious conversion," said Gonzales, 39. "But we also told him: 'We're not interested in making a film that you would present to your parole board.' "

Once they decided to make the video, the professors presented the idea to their students, most of whom had never heard of Watson. When they found out who he was, Nash said, "they responded like we did at the beginning, which was: 'Ooooh, you want to do a movie about a mass murderer?' They were interested, but skeptical."

Nash and Gonzales first thought of making a documentary, but decided on a docudrama, with students and actors playing the parts. Two actors were recruited to play key roles, but about 100 Biola students worked as writers, technical crews, performers and extras.

Atkin said the video is to be distributed this fall through Christian bookstores, at a retail price of $19.95. Watson will not share in profits, if there are any, Atkin said.

"You don't get into the Christian film business for the money," he said. "We're doing this because we want to put (the message) in people's hands."

The 40-minute color video, done in flashback style, tells Watson's story from his happy childhood in a small Texas town to his chance meeting with Manson, whom a drug-addled Watson came to believe was Jesus.

The video shows Watson reading the Bible in prison and concludes with him being confronted by Susan La Berge, Rosemary La Bianca's daughter and herself a devout Christian, who forgives Watson for what he did.

But not everyone is quick to forgive Watson or to buy his prison conversion.

"This religious thing, I don't believe it," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Kay, who helped prosecute Watson and who has opposed his parole. "(Watson) is a very glib man, I'll give him that. I liken him to a used car salesman. He could talk the shirt off your back. But I think he's a coldblooded killer and remains a danger to society."

Nash and Gonzales included a statement at the beginning of the video that it "is not intended to glorify or condone the crimes committed by the Manson Family in any way. Please continue to remember the victims' families and loved ones in prayer."

Biola spokesman Chi-Chung Keung said university officials have not received any adverse feedback about the project.

"We are very concerned about issues on both sides," Gonzales said. "We understand there have been people who have been violated, and yet here is a guy who has genuinely changed. We leave it to the audience to draw their own conclusions."

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