All In the Family
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.
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."
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.
"I think I met all requirements for parole in 1983," says Atkins, who noted that the politically appointed parole board became more resistant to the possibility of inmate rehabilitation after Ronald Reagan's political conservatism swept the country in 1981. "My problems with [the parole board] go all the way back to then."
If the board wanted to use them, many psychological evaluations of Atkins could justify her release. Senior prison psychologist W.A. Klebel determined in 1993 that while she remained "suspicious and mistrusting of others," she was "clinically normal" and suffered from "no mental disorder or emotional instability." Atkins, he said, was "cooperative . . . coherent . . . with no deficits in judgment or insight" and a "rather pleasant" inmate.
"Atkins has significantly improved psychologically," said Klebel. "There is no significant relationship between the crimes and any present clinical diagnosis."
Ironically, Klebel's major issue with Atkins—a childhood victim of incest—was that he believed her "elevated levels of activity" in fulfilling the board's demands were too intense. "She attempts to be positive at all times," he concluded. "She has to resist her natural inclination to overcompensate to try to impress others."
"I fear that no matter what I do, it's never going to be enough for them," Atkins said.
It's a reasonable fear. In December 2000, following a three-hour hearing, the board handed Atkins her 10th parole denial. Yes, the board chairman noted, Atkins had racked up a "quite lengthy" list of accomplishments and behaved in an "extremely professional manner." But that was not enough. He claimed she needed "a longer period of observation and treatment." In the end, the three-member panel ruled that she "would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison."
The board's primary rationale? "The offense was carried out in a violent, ruthless and vicious manner."
"When it comes to me, the board has adopted a policy of breaking their own rules and regulations," Atkins said. "I jump through all their hoops, and then each time I come back after doing everything and more than they asked, they give me a whole different set of hoops to jump through."
The Atkins lawsuit against the BPT asserts that the board's focus on her 33-year-old crimes to the exclusion of her present suitability for freedom is contrary to law. "What happened in 1969 will never change," said Lampel. "But Susan is a different person," and the board can "legally keep her locked up only if she is a risk to society today." He claims that Atkins is a hostage to politics.
"Susan Atkins has a prison record that Wonder Woman couldn't have achieved and is not now, nor has she been for several decades by any stretch of an unbiased mind, a danger to society," said Lampel. "The law applies to all of us in all settings and cannot become subservient to the biases of state administrators or be perverted to serve the political aims of the governor because he has ambitions for higher office and wants to be perceived as 'tough on crime.'"
That argument might not amuse the parole board or the governor. But Lampel has compelling evidence: after his November 1998 election, Davis announced that murderers would never be released during his administration. His policy was summed up in two words: "Forget it."
According to the Associated Press, the BPT has put that policy into action, approving for parole only 1 percent of murderers who have been eligible since 1999; Davis reversed his own board in all but two of those cases. In March, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles freed an inmate convicted of murder 17 years ago after concluding that Davis illegally denied parole.
"Many people who have been convicted of murder in California have served about a third of the prison sentence that Susan has and have then been paroled," said Lampel. "Her continued imprisonment is making a mockery of due process and the U.S. Constitution. It's like Alice in Wonderland."
A governor's spokesman in Sacramento declined to comment.
For three decades, the ferocity of the Manson murders has stayed with Stephen Kay. The veteran Los Angeles deputy district attorney helped then-colleague Bugliosi prosecute the cases and regularly attends BPT parole hearings for Manson crime associates. After each of the former Manson girls makes her case for freedom, Kay passionately reminds members of the board—in painstaking detail—that the killers showed no mercy when they shot or stabbed their innocent victims more than 160 times.
Kay maintains that Atkins is an actress. During one parole hearing, he says he observed a "crying, sympathy-seeking" Atkins "turn it off" when she immediately walked into a private holding cell and coldly screamed at a guard who didn't have her lunch ready. Kay has advised the parole board that "she's a facial chameleon whose features can shift almost imperceptibly from coldness to glowing innocence."
The prosecutor seethes when he hears arguments for Atkins' release from prison.
"How can she murder an eight-and-a-half-months pregnant woman and then talk to the parole board with a straight face?" asked Kay. "It defies comprehension. She should never, never—not in a thousand years—get out. Not after what she has done."
Lampel dismisses Kay as a man who "doesn't mind bending the facts to suit his argument."
"Susan is the only one in the Manson family who did not actually kill anyone with her own hand; Tex Watson [another Manson killer] has admitted that he was the one who stabbed Tate, not Susan," he said. "And yet for more than 30 years, Susan has lived in a place that smells of piss and shit and is overwhelmed with flies."
Give Susan Atkins an opportunity to blast Kay or the parole board, and she won't take it. "If I've learned anything in prison, it's that everything is subject to change," she said. "And I've learned to be flexible at all times."
Her days are filled with the unpleasant rigors of prison life, she admits, but also with anticipation. Besides religion, she says the passion she has for her husband inspires her to fight for parole.
"Our relationship is intact despite our circumstances, and that is phenomenal," said Atkins during a monitored phone conversation that was periodically interrupted with a prison announcement that the caller is an inmate. "He has endured so much in order to love me. It's a testament to the power of love. Love cannot be constrained by prison bars."
Her love of life is also expressed in her artwork, she says. She was so saddened by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 that she used colored pencils to draw her own red, white and blue memorial to the victims.
But the intended audience for her art is teenagers.
"I use color pens, pastels, watercolors and graphite as my medium to speak to young people about incarceration and about the choices they face in life," Atkins said. "My life is about helping people now. I am a good, law-abiding citizen, and I've done everything in this environment—everything. I should be given a chance."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts