All In the Family

Former Manson Family Disciple Susan Atkins Wants to Be Your Neighbor

The prospect of one of the Manson killers—especially Atkins, seen by some observers as Manson's No. 2—rejoining free society may frighten many Americans, millions of whom know her from prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's international best-selling book Helter Skelter. They might recall chilling crime-scene photos (one of which depicts victim Voytek Frykowski, stabbed 51 times, hit over the head with a blunt object 13 times and shot twice) or Atkins' demonic mug-shot stare or the ominous public threat she issued America after Manson's conviction: "Better lock your doors and watch your own kids."

But Atkins' Laguna Beach-based attorney, Eric Lampel, says that psychopath vanished long ago.

"The Susan Atkins of the 1960s does not exist anymore," said Lampel. "Today, Susan is a warm, charming, straight-forward, insightful, intelligent person who has been nothing but a model prisoner for almost 33 years. She truly regrets her crimes, has paid the price, and can be a contributing member of society if the parole board follows their own policies and frees her. Susan is a wonderful person. Frankly, I can't wait to see her walk into my house for dinner someday soon."

Atkins has a lengthy list of supporters: reformed former fellow inmates who credit her with straightening them out; prison teachers who concede she has been a superb student who has learned numerous skills; prison clergy, counselors and psychologists impressed by her compassion and determination to be a positive role model. Even some hardened prison guards soften when they talk about Atkins. One retired correctional officer said in a 1999 letter that too many people still wrongly see her as that "decrepit little creature from 1969." He said, "Susan has answered the Lord's call." The following year, another retired jailer sent Atkins a seven-page handwritten letter warmly recalling their time together in the 1970s and '80s. He called her "sweetie."

For security reasons, the BPT keeps confidential all letters opposing an inmate's parole. But the Weekly reviewed a four-inch stack of correspondence supporting Atkins' release. Here is a sampling:

•Bruce Heying with Yorba Linda's Vineyard Christian Fellowship and a 16-year Atkins acquaintance: "Susan is soft, kind and eager to be of help. This Susan has humility."

•Lee Brandon, an English instructor at the prison for a decade: "I came to know her very well. I found her to be honest, open and considerate of the feelings of others. Her behavior was mature and stable."

•Carol Fitch with Prison Fellowship Ministries: "I am very well aware of Susan's past, and I believe with all my heart that she has remorse, and I truly believe she has genuinely changed."

•Sandra Jolene Venables, a former Atkins cellmate in the 1980s: "She only inspired me to see the wrong that I have done and work to be the best person I can be. It is not only a belief but a certainty that Susan has been rehabilitated completely and is ready to return to society."

•Yvonne Parks-Stubbs, a professional counselor: "Susan could be of huge usefulness to the youth of our society and is the perfect example of rehabilitation."

•New York's LeLand Richey, who has corresponded with Atkins: "I am not a fanatic or professional letter writer, but I am truly convinced that Ms. Atkins is no longer the person she was in 1969. I am so sure of this that, along with my wife and two small children, I would welcome her with open arms into the neighborhood."

•Rocco T. DiSipio, an ex-prison parole officer: "The Susan Atkins imprisonment at this point has taken on a grotesque and deformed shape. You must take the chance on her release."

•Paul F. Crouch, president of Orange County-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, said he and Jan—his wife and fellow TBN co-host—would pray for her release: "Jan joins me in sending Susan our love."

The BPT decides which felons get parole in California, but they do not have the power to alter a court's sentence. Once Atkins served her minimum seven-year sentence, the board was obligated to parole her once it concluded she would "not pose an unreasonable risk to society."

One of Atkins' paintings shows
her prison cell.

Lampel says his client's record is "irrefutable evidence" that she would be no threat outside prison. Indeed, psychiatric evaluations and comments from members of the parole board going back a quarter-century consistently depict a reformed Atkins, obedient and trouble-free since Richard Nixon's first term in the White House.

For example, in 1976, the parole board told her they were "impressed with her sincerity." In 1978, the board was "impressed with what she had done in prison." The next year, she was "commended for her institutional conduct and accomplishments." Her 1980 evaluation praised her "transformation." In 1982, she was "commended for considerable progress." The 1985 board cited Atkins' "gains and potential suitability [for parole]." A 1988 evaluation lauded her "improved stability and self-discipline." That same year, the board got first-hand experience with the new-and-improved Susan Atkins: one of Governor George Deukmejian's political appointees on the BPT broke board protocol and taunted Atkins by saying she might only get out after she was eligible for Social Security. Though stung by the quip, transcripts from the hearing show that Atkins remained dignified throughout the hearing.

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