All In the Family

Former Manson Family Disciple Susan Atkins Wants to Be Your Neighbor

Four years ago, in the shadow of the Happiest Place on Earth, Charles Manson—the incarcerated 67-year-old leader of a cult that horrified Los Angeles and the world in the summer of 1969 with a string of savage murders—received a notable but unnoted tribute. An Anaheim teenager named Ashley donned a "Free Manson" T-shirt, shaved her head, carved an "X" into the flesh between her eyebrows, and told friends and family she loved the convicted killer, petty thief and pimp. Manson, she said, was "cool."

Ashley's mother believed the acts were more than just youthful rebellion. The high school student exalted the Manson family killings as "Charlie's way of saving the planet." Worse, in numerous letters, she had given Manson the family's home telephone number. To the mother's indescribable fear, the man prosecutors have named one of "the most heinous" murderers in American history, regularly called collect to chat with Ashley. Their conversations prompted the girl to dream of leaving Orange County's suburbs "to be closer to Charlie" at the notorious Corcoran State Prison in California's Central Valley.

Unable to break her daughter's infatuation with Manson, Ashley's exasperated mother persuaded her daughter to contact Susan Denise Atkins, a former choir girl turned murderous Manson disciple.

Reaching out to Atkins might seem a bizarre move to anyone who remembers her. In a 1970-'71 trial, Atkins confessed she and other drug-crazed Manson family members broke into the Los Angeles home of actress Sharon Tate to steal money and make headlines. Atkins said she repeatedly stabbed Tate, then eight-and-a-half-months pregnant, and used the dead woman's blood to write "PIG" on the front door.

"[Tate] just sounded like an IBM machine," a cocky Atkins testified. "She kept begging and pleading and pleading and begging, and I got sick of listening to her, so I stabbed her."

A jury convicted the 21-year-old on eight counts of first-degree murder, and she was given the death penalty. The state Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty a year later, and Atkins was re-sentenced to seven years to life with the possibility of parole. In the late 1970s, news reports claimed "Sexy Sadie"—the nickname Manson gave her—renounced her "Satanic period" and found Jesus inside a high-security penitentiary 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles in San Bernardino County. Almost a decade after the murders, she also asserted her confession to stabbing Tate was a fabrication designed to help Manson. Though Atkins was present during the commission of each of the killings, she now says she did not stab Tate during the "insanity."

In June 1998, Atkins received the following handwritten letter in prison mail: "My name is Ashley. I have been writing to Manson. And he has been writing to me. I think I love him. There is some power he has over me. You should understand. You lived with him. I don't know why, but I want to do whatever he says to do, and he tells me to do some weird things. But I have this overwhelming love for him. Is he really God? Please tell me what to do."

Atkins responded quickly.

"Charles Manson is a mean, bitter, evil, little man rightly behind bars. He is not a kind or nice man. He is a liar and a thief," she wrote Ashley. "I have seen him terrorize, brutalize, rape, beat and threaten young teenage boys and girls."

Atkins urged Ashley to find idols "who have overcome incredible obstacles." Manson, she insisted, only wrecks lives. Atkins then supplied a list of her own heroes: actor Christopher Reeve; wheelchair-bound British physicist Stephen Hawking; and ex-football star Reggie White, an outspoken Baptist preacher.

The impact of Atkins' letter is unknown—Ashley's family moved from their modest apartment about five minutes from Disneyland and could not be located. But in a recent telephone interview with the Weekly, a soft-spoken—even sweet-sounding—Atkins said her prison life is guided by her Christian convictions; love for her 38-year-old husband, attorney James Whitehouse; and community service.

Atkins' prison photo reveals a gray-haired 53-year-old who looks more like a grandmother than a murderer. She wears a gold cross around her neck on a fragile gold chain. She says she carries a Bible and relies on a hearing aid. "I try to do nothing but help people, and I really enjoy working with kids who are at risk," she said. "That is what I will continue to do when I get out."

In March, Atkins' attorneys say they filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court to gain her freedom. The inmate claims that she is a "political prisoner" of Governor Gray Davis—who wants to maintain a tough-on-crime reputation in his re-election campaign—and his state Board of Prison Terms (BPT), which has blocked Atkins' parole 10 times since 1978. The last denial came in December 2000. Atkins has asked a state judge in Los Angeles to order a new, "fair" parole hearing or to overrule Davis' board and free her. A decision is pending.

Meanwhile, Atkins' post-parole plans may surprise Southern Californians. She wants to be your neighbor. Records show Atkins has promised state corrections officials that she will work as a clerk in the law offices of her husband. Whitehouse—a 1993 honors graduate from the University of California at Irvine—lives and works in Orange County.

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