Her father eventually abandoned them for good. Susan and her brother moved to the rural Cental Valley town of Los Banos, where their grandparents lived. Susan enrolled in high school and got a job as a waitress but was overwhelmed by the stress of trying to care for her brother, work and go to class. At one point, she and Steven were in foster care. Susan dropped out of school in the 11th grade and started drifting. Years later, she would describe her frame of mind during this period as "extremely angry, extremely vulnerable and directionless."
Of all the Manson family killers, except for Manson, Atkins "had the most unfortunate background," Bugliosi said.
The petite, dark-haired teenager hitchhiked to Washington, then Oregon, where she accepted a ride in a stolen car and was arrested on charges of car theft and concealing stolen property. She was released on probation and moved to San Francisco, where she worked briefly as a topless dancer in a North Beach bar.
In 1967 in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco's haven for hippies and other wanderers, she met Manson, an aspiring songwriter with an affinity for hallucinogenic drugs and free sex. He called himself and his followers "Slippies," who posed as peace-loving hippies while planning a hair-raising assault on society.
According to Bugliosi in "Helter Skelter," his bestselling 1974 book on the case, Atkins was instantly drawn to Manson, who seduced girls by playing on their insecurities. She testified under questioning by Bugliosi that before she met Manson she had felt she was "lacking something," but then "I gave myself to him, and in return for that he gave me back to myself. He gave me the faith in myself to be able to know that I am a woman."
Manson also gave her a new name, partly to make a joke on the establishment he loathed but also to cut her off from her past. "Tell them your name is Sadie Glutz," he told Atkins. As in all other matters, she followed his command.
By August 1969, the Manson family's base of operations was Spahn Ranch, a 500-acre property in the Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth where many old westerns were filmed. They took drugs, had group sex, stole credit cards and scrounged trash bins for food.
They also practiced what Manson called "creepy crawling," which involved randomly picking a house somewhere in Los Angeles and entering it while the occupants were asleep. Bugliosi called these expeditions "dress rehearsals for murder."
On the night of Aug. 8, Manson instructed Atkins and other followers -- Krenwinkel, Watson and Linda Kasabian -- to don their dark clothes and pack knives. Manson stayed at the ranch while they drove through the Hollywood Hills, winding up at the Tate residence in Benedict Canyon.
Around midnight, the nightmare began.
The first to die was Steven Parent, 18, a friend of Tate's caretaker, who encountered the murderers as he was leaving the estate. The other victims were inside the main house: Tate, 26, best known for her role in the movie "Valley of the Dolls"; Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35; Voytek Frykowski, 32, a friend of Polanski, who was out of the country; and Abigail Folger, 25, a coffee heiress and Frykowksi's girlfriend.
Atkins later admitted stabbing Frykowski and Tate. She said that before fleeing the scene, Watson ordered her to leave a message in the house that would "shock the world," so she used Tate's blood to write "PIG" on the front door.
At her parole board hearing in 1993, an official asked Atkins if Tate said anything to her in her last moments.
"She asked me to let the baby live," Atkins said tearfully. "I told her I didn't have mercy for her."
The night after the Tate killings, Manson led a group that included Atkins, Watson, Krenwinkel and Kasabian on another expedition. They wound up at the LaBianca home. Manson tied up Leno, 44, and Rosemary, 38, then left the killing to Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten. Afterward, they took a shower and made a snack in the LaBiancas' kitchen before departing. Atkins stayed in the car.
The '60s "abruptly ended on August 9, 1969," Joan Didion wrote of the shocking crimes that closed a decade pocked with assassinations, Vietnam War deaths and other violence. The Tate-LaBianca murders made some people fear "that they had somehow done it to themselves," Didion said, "that it had to do with too much sex, drugs and rock and roll."
Atkins married twice while in prison. In 1981, she married Donald Laisure, a self-proclaimed Texas millionaire who had been married 35 times before. The marriage ended when Laisure said he planned to take his 37th wife.
In 1987, she married James W. Whitehouse, an Orange County attorney who represented her at her last few parole hearings. He survives her along with a son she gave up when she went to prison.
Go online for more photos and a review of the status of other Manson family members.