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Behind the Madness

August 08, 1994|Theo Wilson | Theo Wilson, celebrated national trials reporter for the New York Daily News, ignored Charlie Manson's threats to her and other newswomen in courtroom. Her upcoming book recounts the Manson and other trials she covered

The murders of Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and four others, which occurred 25 years ago this month, remain among the goriest of multiple homicides. As Charlie Manson himself predicted, to the world he has remained a monster.

Theo Wilson, the celebrated national trials reporter for the New York Daily News, covered the 10-month trial from April, 1970, to February, 1971. Wilson and reporters from all over the world sat through day after day of stomach-churning and increasingly bizarre testimony. Sometimes the only way to relieve the pressure was to engage in a little black humor. Reporters didn't write about it at the time because they would not have wanted anybody to think they were uncaring.

Wilson, now living in the Hollywood Hills, has covered the trials of Dr. Sam Sheppard in the 1950s to Claus von Bulow and John DeLorean in the 1980s. She recounts these and other famous trials in her upcoming book, "Hot Copy," for Thunder's Mouth Press of New York.


The main reason why the Charles Manson trial was totally different from any other I ever covered was because it was the only one where every body went a little bonkers--judge, jury, reporters, lawyers, deputies and spectators.

The four defendants were that way already, only more so.

Charlie was the weird end product of our prison system, having been institutionalized since he was 8 years old, and the three Manson Family "girls" were as nutty as street drugs and garbage food could make them.

But why did the rest of us go a little mischuga ? Maybe the length of this trial and its total unpredictability did it. . . .

Ten months in that gloomy old Hall of Justice in Downtown Los Angeles listening to testimony that went from horrifying to ludicrous. . . .

The testimony itself punctuated with flare-ups from the defendants, supplemented by outbursts from the audience. . . .

Threats of self-immolation and other destruction on the sidewalks around the Hall of Justice where the Manson Family members still at large held their daily vigil, the girls' shaven heads turning burnt orange from the sun.

Defense attorney Ron Hughes disappearing, his drowned body discovered the very day, many months later, that the defendants received sentences of death from the jurors. . . .

Witnesses on the stand with names like "Lotsapoppa" and "Snake" and "Ouish" and other witnesses describing themselves as "an emissary from God" or a "horse manure shoveler. . . ."

The jurors, ranging in age from 25 to 74, locked up so long in hotel rooms that one of them threatened to tie sheets together and escape out of a window. . . .

The Sylmar earthquake hitting the Los Angeles area a few hours before the women defendants, defying their lawyers, took the stand and described in horrible detail how they butchered their victims, in an effort to save Manson from a guilty verdict. . . .


Those of us who covered the Manson trial became like wartime buddies, friends forever who went through the battles and survived.

Names that mean nothing now to anybody else, like "Elmer" and "Herman's Kids" and "Julie Shapiro," send us into joyous recall. "Elmer" was the pet marijuana plant that was nurtured at Spahn's Ranch, the Family's country residence in Chatsworth. "Herman's Kids" was the name the jurors gave themselves in honor of their foreman, Herman Tubick, a retired mortician.

As for "Julie Shapiro," she was the beauteous spectator who came to Los Angeles from Chicago and became a faithful attendant at the trial. Julie first attracted attention when she came to court in a see-through blouse with nothing under it but lots and lots of Julie.

The court did not look kindly on this distraction--the court was notably humorless, high-strung and touchy as all get out--and some hapless deputy was told to give Julie the word that she was not to come to the trial bra-less anymore.

Julie obeyed the judicial edict and came properly attired after that. She didn't cause any more trouble until many months later, when she took issue with the prosecutor during his closing arguments and from her seat in the spectator section angrily called him a liar.

Superior Court Judge Charles H. Older told his deputies to arrest her, book her and hold her for a contempt of court hearing when the day's session ended. As Julie was being hustled out, obviously startled that she had created such an uproar, she plaintively asked her reporter friends: "What's the matter? Why can't I stay here? I'm wearing a brassiere."

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