Author of "Red Legs of the Bulge: Artillerymen in the Battle of the Bulge," CJ is passionate about history and the people who make it.
City in Fear
In August 1969, Los Angeles was a city on edge. Seven people were murdered in gruesome fashion at two different locations. Just after midnight on Saturday, August 9, actress Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered during a home invasion in Beverly Hills. Tate, the wife of famed director Roman Polanski, was also pregnant. The killers left strange messages in blood. Bodies were strewn on the lawn, in the house, and at the main gate. Blood was everywhere. The victims had been bludgeoned, shot and stabbed multiple times.
The carnage shocked even the jaded LAPD detectives. Celebrities left town. Gun sales skyrocketed. It had been a long decade of assassinations, war, and social change. Many assumed that these changes had wrought a new kind of predator.
The following day, two more murders occurred. However, the victims were not famous. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were a seemingly harmless, middle-class couple. They would be overshadowed in the horror, though the brutality was the same. Detectives initially saw no link to Tate. That would soon change. What happened to the LaBiancas is known, why they were targeted remains a mystery.
The Victims: Leno and Rosemary LaBianca
The LaBiancas were a blended family, but Leno and Rosemary came from vastly different backgrounds. Leno was the son of a very successful Italian immigrant. Antonio LaBianca started both a supermarket chain and a wholesale grocery supply company in the 1920s. By the 1950s, LaBianca was well known to all those in the Los Angeles business community.
After serving in World War II, Leno began attending USC again and entered the family business. He got married and had three kids, but the union ended in divorce in the late 50s. The stress of running the company was a big factor. The kids stayed with their mother, though he was a devoted father and his ex-wife would continue to praise him. There were two sisters and their husbands also became executives in the company.
Rosemary had been an orphan. Born in Mexico, she eventually was adopted by an American family in Arizona. After two failed marriages and two kids, she met Leno while working as a waitress. She was a hard worker and by the late 60s, had two successful businesses. Rosemary’s daughter Suzan moved out at 18, while her son Frank Struthers Jr, 15, was still living with them.
Wanting to downsize, they bought the LaBianca family home from his widowed mother near the end of 1968. The house was located at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. The house had been purchased by his dad just prior to the War. Leno and his first wife had lived in it till the mid-50s, when they separated.
Despite an apparently happy family, and successful businesses, all was not well. Leno was a spendthrift. Cars, a boat, gold coins, guns, stamps and even nine thoroughbred racehorses all put him deep in the hole. Racked by debt and a gambling problem, Leno wanted out of the family business. He also had a secret: embezzlement. Leno had been skimming from the company for several years. His brother-in-laws confronted him. Everything was coming to a head in the summer of ’69. Leno asked for a buyout. He told his brother in law rather ominously, “My life depends on it.”
Rosemary had her own problems, namely her daughter and 25-year-old boyfriend, Joe Dorgan. Rumors abound that Joe dealt drugs and rode with a motorcycle gang, often visiting a desert compound that was home to a hippie “family.” Coworkers would later tell police that Rosemary was afraid of Suzan; her relationship with Leno’s kids was much better than with her own daughter. Her son Frank had been in trouble with the law as well, arrested while a passenger in a stolen car earlier in ’69; Leno had bailed him out. Both Suzan and Frank apparently disliked Leno, but Suzan, in particular, was very resentful of his family.
Throughout the first half of 1969, the LaBianca home had been broken into several times. Despite having a safe, coin collection and at least a dozen guns, nothing appears to have been taken. Their dogs were often found roaming the front lawn or sitting in the driveway when they came home. Police were called to no avail. By May, they came to expect it.
Leno just thought it was local hippies; their former neighbor had hosted a lot of parties the previous year with some very strange looking guests. Rosemary's friends thought it might be her daughter and boyfriend looking for money or a place to crash. She did question them, but they denied it.
Both were exhausted and unnerved by the summer. Leno also wanted to move out of 3301, telling his aging mother, “We can’t sleep in that house anymore.” The stress had aged him; only 44, he looked ten years older. Shortly before leaving for Lake Isabella, Leno’s daughter, Cory, called her dad. She asked if she could drop off his birthday presents while they were gone. His reaction was immediate, "No, it's just too dangerous at this point."
On the morning of August 9, Leno and Rosemary left for the lake to pick up Suzan and Frank. They had been staying with family friends. Leno had dropped off his boat earlier in the week for them to use. Lake Isabella was located near Bakersfield and the drive would take nearly three hours.
The Manson Family
Thirty miles to the north of Waverly Drive lay the old movie lot of Spahn Ranch, owned by 80-year-old George Spahn. He was becoming frail by the late 60s and allowed a group of drifters, led by Charles Manson, to move onto the property in August '68. They had promised to perform daily chores around the ranch. By September ’68, Charlie and his family took over one of the buildings and started a commune. Before the end of the year, they were joined by a former Texas High School football star, Charles “Tex” Watson. Tex had made his way to LA to hang out with friends. Somehow he ended up owning a wig shop and sold drugs, before falling under the spell of Charlie.
The 34-year-old Manson was a lifelong felon who had been released from Terminal Island in early 1967. Settling in San Francisco, he began gathering his soon to be infamous family, mostly lost young women with drug problems. They eventually made their way to LA by January 1968.
Throughout '68, Manson had been trying to become a rock star while enticing more young women to join him. Having learned guitar in prison, he fancied himself a musical genius. A chance encounter with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys led to a meeting with star record producer Terry Melcher. Charlie would spend the next year trying to impress him and his desperation led him to take drastic measures.
Two of the girls had met Wilson hitchhiking earlier in the year and he brought them back to his mansion. After telling Charlie all about it, the scheming Manson then invited himself over. The former pimp used the girls to entice Dennis and Terry, along with other famous friends. Wilson's ex-wife found out about the drug-fueled orgies, threatening to take him back to court over visitation rights.
Dennis Wilson was also the link between Charlie and Tex. Wilson's car broke down in L.A. one night and he was thumbing it when Tex offered him a ride. Watson had no idea who he was until they got to Wilson's house. Inside were a horde of crazed women and the disheveled Manson. Drugs, particularly LSD, were plentiful.
In August 1968, Charlie, Tex and the girls were thrown out for good. The Beach Boys later used one of Manson's songs on an album without crediting him, adding to his rage. There was one last confrontation between Wilson and Manson at the end of '68. Charlie flashed a single bullet, telling the drug-addled Beach Boy to watch his family.
However, Melcher continued to see Charlie. After auditioning twice, Terry was somewhat impressed, but could not get the record company to offer a contract. By early '69, the relationship began to sour. Meeting the Family made Melcher uneasy; dozens of stoned wannabes showed up at his house all the time, but Charlie truly spooked him. That led him to move out of his rental home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills. Soon after, Sharon Tate moved in with husband Roman Polanski.
No matter how hard he tried, Melcher would be forever linked to Manson. Rumors ran wild about their relationship before and after the murders. The association haunted him the rest of his life.
Parolee or Informant?
Manson was a federal parolee and his illegal activities such as car theft, drug use, underage girls, weapons possession and break- ins were apparently well known to authorities. Parolees must also have proper employment. Yet nothing was done.
Spahn Ranch came under the jurisdiction of the Malibu Station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office. Numerous witnesses in the area would see him armed and surrounded by his girls. Reports were filed and ignored. Charlie was arrested by the department for statutory rape during this period; but he was quickly released and the case dropped.
Many of the deputy sheriffs started getting suspicious and assumed he was an informant, though they could never prove it. One deputy actually did go public after quitting the department, accusing the intelligence division of using Manson. He even claimed to have seen specific memos about Manson and the Family in the station. The public's concerns about drug use and its "commie" influence put a lot of pressure on police agencies to go after hippies. Charlie and the Family must have represented a golden opportunity for good PR. They could be arrested anytime the public felt something needed to be done. It was going to take something catastrophic to get law enforcement past their obsession with the counter culture and drug use.
Seeds of Destruction
By early '69, the family had become experts at breaking into houses around the L.A. area. Police were beginning to notice the group. The small community around the ranch were growing weary of break-ins, car thefts and vagrancy. Money was tight; success elusive. Charlie’s racial theories took on new dimensions as he preached about a coming race war he called Helter Skelter.
Paranoia took hold by July. Manson drove to North Hollywood and shot a black drug dealer named Bernard Crowe. Tex had burned Crowe in a drug deal and Crowe had taken his girlfriend hostage. Charlie thought Crowe was in the Black Panthers and coming to kill the Family. Crowe survived, but Charlie thought he was dead. There were witnesses; the race war was upon them. Desperate for money, Manson hatched a plan to shake down another acquaintance, music teacher Gary Hinman.
Hinman had nothing to offer. After hours of torture, Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil killed him. Beausoleil was later arrested on August 6th, driving Hinman’s car. The arrest caused a panic with Charlie. “Helter Skelter is now,” he started telling everyone.
Two nights later, Tex and three others were ordered to the “house where Melcher used to live.”
Leno, Rosemary, and Suzan left Lake Isabella around 9 pm for the drive back to Los Feliz. Frank did not join them; Suzan had convinced him to stay another day since he was having such a great time with his friend Jim Saffie. Jim was a high school classmate and the Saffies owned the cabin.
Pulling the boat slowed the drive and it was almost 1 am when they dropped Suzan off at her apartment on Greenwood Place, about two miles from Waverly Drive. Leno then stopped to pick up the LA Times and the Racing Forum. The newsman knew the couple well, so they chatted a few minutes, expressing concern over the Tate murders. Minutes later, they arrived home.
August 9-10, 1969
After the Tate murders, Charlie was displeased. It had been messy. Panic had ensued. Screams and gunshots were heard. Dogs barked. Their bloody clothes were thrown off a hillside. Knives tossed in the road. Though no one had discovered the perpetrators, Manson decided he had to show them how to do it.
Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian had gone to the Tate house. Kasabian had refrained from killing anyone and acted as the lookout and driver. She had only been a member of the Family since early July, after breaking up with her husband. As the mother of a one-year-old daughter, she was growing disenchanted with the Family. But on Charlie's orders, they all went out again. This time they were joined by 19-year-old Leslie Van Houten and Steve "Clem" Grogan. The reluctant Kasabian was behind the wheel of the 1959 Ford Galaxie once more.
Throughout the evening, they were driving around looking for victims, spending most of the night in Pasadena. At one point, they nearly shot a man at a traffic light, but the driver hit the gas when the light turned green. Around 12:30, their search took on a new urgency. Charlie and Tex left the car to case houses for about 30 minutes. When Manson got back in the car, he told Linda to head for Waverly Drive, giving her the specific address. They knew the neighborhood well, having partied there. Linda thought Charlie had made a phone call while out of sight. He never had such specific plans. Suddenly, he was determined to get to Waverly as soon as possible. It was sometime after 1am.
The drive took about half an hour. Kasabian pulled up in front of 3301, and then inched forward to the house next door. That house, 3267, was the former home of another Manson acquaintance, Harold True. In March of ’68, True had met Manson through a mutual friend, music producer Phil Kaufman. Kaufman had served time with Manson at Terminal Island. Manson and his family subsequently partied with True at the house on multiple occasions. During that period the LaBianca house was vacant. True had moved out nearly a year before. Kasabian had supposedly first met Manson at one of those parties in 1968, though that has never been confirmed.
The house looked dark. Manson jumped out. Linda was surprised and getting nervous again.
“Charlie, you’re not going up to that house, are you?”
“No, I’m going next door.”
The others all lit up cigarettes and waited.
Charlie disappeared up the long, dark driveway of True’s old house. Within a minute, he came running back and grabbed Tex, who quickly followed. They never had any intention of stopping at their old haunt. Manson jumped the fence and entered the LaBiancas' yard. Light shone from the living room window, so he peered in to see Leno asleep on the couch, sports page on his lap. Manson tried the side door and it was unlocked. Despite the break-ins, the LaBiancas were remiss in locking up. Both men crept through the dining room. The dogs did not bark; one of them even rubbed Tex with his snout..
They approached Leno, nudging him a few times. Startled, Leno asked what they were doing here.
“Hey man, we’re here to rob you, no one will get hurt."
Tex showed him the gun. Leno then let them know Rosemary was asleep in the bedroom.
Charlie took off a leather strap from his neck and handed it to Tex, who tied up Leno very tightly, then pushed him back onto the couch. Rosemary was brought to the living room but allowed to put on a dress that lay near the bed.
Tex searched for their wallets and around the house for more money. He also grabbed a couple of knives from the kitchen. Charlie ordered Tex to bring Rosemary back to the bedroom. Tex sat her on the bed, put a pillowcase over her head and gagged her with a lamp cord. Manson then grabbed Rosemary’s wallet and got ready to split. Before leaving, he came over and whispered to Tex to make sure it was not messy, “…as long as they think you’re not going to kill them.”
With that admonition, Charlie left through the front door and casually walked down the driveway. Upon reaching the car, he told Van Houten and Krenwinkel to go up to the house and do exactly what Tex tells them to do. While waiting for the girls, Tex grabbed another pillowcase, placed it on Leno's head and wrapped a lamp chord around his face in an attempt to gag him.
Once the girls entered the home, Tex gave Krenwinkel the knives and had her take Van Houten back to the bedroom. Leno began yelling through the gag, "You're gonna kill us, aren't you?" Tex was startled.
Emerging from the kitchen, he approached his victim. He then pulled out the bayonet. Seconds later, the stabbings began. Leno screamed as the blade repeatedly plunged into his neck and chest, slicing his right carotid artery. Eventually, Tex perforated Leno's colon.
In the bedroom, Rosemary fought back, yelling at the girls, “What are you doing to my husband.” She swung the lamp back and forth, shoving them away. Leslie tried to hold her down while Krenwinkel lunged at her with the knife, striking her in the back repeatedly. Once Tex finished with Leno, he ran into the bedroom to fatally stab Rosemary. Krenwinkel ran into the living room and found Leno still breathing.
"He's alive!" she yelled.
Tex dashed back to Leno once more, plunging the knife into his chest. Satisfied he was finally dead, Tex carved the word WAR into his stomach with a large serving fork. Krenwinkel grabbed her knives, embedding one in Leno's stomach and another in his neck. She then used his blood to write their witchy messages on the walls and refrigerator.
Leno was stabbed twelve times, mostly in the neck and upper chest. Rosemary was stabbed 41 times. About a dozen of those wounds were inflicted post-mortem by Van Houten.
No one heard a thing in the neighborhood. It was all over in a few minutes. The dogs never made a sound. So confident was the trio that they cleaned up and ate some of the Labiancas' food. Tex casually showered. Manson and the others had already left with the car. The killers would have to walk, ditching some of their clothes and the bayonet in the nearby Rowena Reservoir. .
Sunday, August 10, 8:30 PM
When Frank Jr. was dropped off by Mrs. Saffie, he immediately sensed something was wrong; Leno's car and boat were still parked in the street. The house was nearly dark. The shades were pulled. Cautiously, he made his way up the driveway and around to the back. Their water skis were lying on Rosemary's car. A light was on in the kitchen, but no one was inside. Frank thought about trying the door, but was too spooked. He ran down the driveway and headed for a hamburger stand half a mile away. He tried calling the house, but no answer. Then he tried Suzan's work, forgetting she was off. Her boss said he would phone her apartment. She rang the phone booth, telling Frank they had to wait for Joe.
Suzan left him waiting for over an hour at the hamburger stand, yet her apartment was only a mile and a half away. By the time the three reached the house, it was near 10:30. Joe unlocked the back door with Frank's key and led them through the kitchen. Turning the corner, Joe immediately saw Leno laying there with a pillow in front of his face and blood on the couch. He told Suzan to wait outside while he called the police. But afraid to touch anything, they ran next door to beg someone to call the police. One person refused, but they had better luck with a nearby apartment.
Strangely, they had left the house without checking on Rosemary.
The first LAPD unit arrived at 10:40. They were met by Joe, Suzan and Frank in the driveway. The officers had the group remain there while they checked the house. One of the officers checked the front door, it was unlocked. As soon as he entered, he saw Leno and backed out. After securing the scene, he radioed his sergeant. Within minutes, an ambulance arrived, along with more officers to search the house. The ambulance crew confirmed the deaths. Detectives did not arrive until nearly 1 am.
The first team of detectives took stock of the scene, noting the conditions of the bodies: multiple stab wounds, lamp chords around their necks and Mr. LaBianca was still tied up. Leno still had a knife protruding from his neck and the bi-tine fork stuck in stomach. Rosemary was lying face down in the master bedroom. Nothing appears to have been taken from the house, except for some items from Rosemary’s purse. Eerie messages written in blood were in several places. On one side of the living room were the words, DEATH TO PIGS. On the other wall directly to the left of the front door, RISE. Smeared on the refrigerator door were the words, HEALTER SKELTER, with Helter being misspelled.
No link to the Tate murders was made, nor considered at that point.
Solving the Case
It would take nearly three months to link the Tate and LaBianca killings. Soon after the murders, Spahn ranch was raided by the LA County Sheriff's Department trying to stop a stolen car ring. Manson and most of the family were picked up but released a couple of days later; the warrant was too old. The family then moved back to Barker Ranch in Death Valley, one of their previous homes. Watson had fled back to Texas since the prior raid.
The real break in the case came after another raid looking for stolen dune buggies at Barker. The remaining members of the Family were arrested again. Manson, who was not present at that raid, was arrested two days later on October 12. Krenwinkel had gotten bailed out by her dad but fled to Alabama on the orders of Manson. Both Krenwinkel and Tex were eventually extradited.
Within a few days of her arrest, Susan Atkins started confessing to cellmates, while at the same time the LaBianca detectives began interviewing peripheral members of the family. A portrait of Manson's twisted philosophy began to emerge. During this period, famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi was assigned to the case and began a two-year odyssey to bring them to justice. The trials were a spectacle in and out of the courtrooms.
Charles Manson, Tex Watson, and Patricia Krenwinkel were charged with seven counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder for the Tate and LaBianca killings. Susan Atkins was charged with five counts. Leslie Van Houten was charged with one count of first degree murder and one count of conspiracy. They were all convicted and sentenced to death. In 1972, the death sentences were commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Van Houten won a new trial and was released on bail in 1977. But she was once again convicted and remains in prison along with Krenwinkel and Watson. Susan Atkins died in 2009; Manson in 2017.
Why the LaBiancas?
Questions will always remain as to why the LaBiancas were targeted and if this really was a random home invasion:
- Familiarity played some part; someone had been prowling that house for almost six months. Charlie knew to use the side door. He was also very aware that the house was somewhat isolated due to the convent on its west side. The dogs stayed quiet the entire time, a telling sign. They knew his scent. Family member Catherine "Gypsy" Share claimed in the 1980s that they had creepy crawled the house a week before the murders. That would tie in with what Alice, Leno's ex-wife, told police. While Leno was over her house the weekend prior to the murders, he told her about another suspected prowl the night before. Was it a dry run?
- The timing of the murders was also remarkable, arriving at the house exactly 30 minutes after the LaBiancas went to sleep. That is a tremendous coincidence if it was all unplanned.
- Kasabian thought Charlie made a phone call while casing houses; if so, who did he call? Even Tex admitted in his book that Charlie suddenly knew exactly where he wanted to go.
- Someone matching Charlie's description was seen near the house the morning of August 9. Was Manson casing the neighborhood? Did he attempt a solo creepy crawl? Rosemary's friend and co-worker stopped by the house later that afternoon around four to feed the dogs. She told police there was no sign of anything out of place and that the house had been locked up.
- Frank Jr. was too scared to go into the house when he got back. Why would he think something violent had happened to his mom and stepdad? It appears the break-ins and Leno's paranoia had an effect on him.
Tex has claimed no prior knowledge of the LaBiancas before August 10. With Manson gone, we will never truly know. In another ironic twist, Tex lived a block from Suzan on Greenwood Place during a six month period in 1968.
Leno was buried in the family crypt but Rosemary was cremated, her ashes scattered in Africa. Suzan and Joe quickly cleaned out the house, including all of Leno’s belongings, refusing to deal with his family. She even threatened them during a phone call. Her anger remains perplexing. Leno had made arrangements for Suzan and Frank to receive part of his life insurance, $20,000 each. Animosity remains. The battle over the estate went on for years.
Suzan eventually broke up with Joe, married and had children. She has been visiting Tex Watson in prison for the past 25 years, which according to her is due to Tex’s deep faith in God. She has also attended some of his parole hearings. Tragedy struck Suzan again on July 3, 2020 when her daughter, Ariana Wolk, was stabbed to death by an acquaintance in Denver. She was 40.
Frank Jr. when to live with his dad in central LA, and his troubles continued. In between bouts of homelessness, he worked as a cook. Alcoholism was a persistent problem. having never really recovered from the grief. He passed away on June 16, 2017. At their reunion later that fall, his former classmates from John Marshall HS held a small memorial. Jim Saffie attended and spoke highly of his old friend. In the early 90s, Frank granted an interview to an author writing a book on the case. Although apparently cordial, he began to bristle when the writer ask why he and Dorgan did not try to look for his mother upon finding Leno dead. It is believed to be the only interview he ever granted.
3301 Waverly Drive had an address change and is today 3311. It was on the market again, with the notes in the Multiple Listing Service database warning agents to please research the property’s history. In July 2019, it was sold to paranormal investigator Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures. In September 2020, Bagans changed his mind about using the house and put it on the market once again.
The Manson Family was directly responsible for at least 11 murders. Some theorize it could be much more; a full accounting is still elusive. Bobby Beausoleil remains in prison for the Hinman murder with another parole hearing in June 2020.
May Leno, Rosemary, Gary and all of Manson’s victims rest in peace.
- “Long-lost kin of Manson victim talks with niece.” The Argus (Fremont-Newark, CA), September 20, 1977 (Page 5).
- Mettetal, Sandi. “LaBianca Stepson Tells of Discovering Murder Victim.” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1970.
- "Thoughts on the LaBiancas and Motive on August 10th." The Manson Family Blog. September 5, 2012.
- Bugliosi, Vincent, and Gentry, Kurt. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. New York: Bantam Reissue 1995 (Original work published by W.W. Norton, 1974).
- O'Neill, Tom and Piepenbring, Dan. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. New York: Back Bay Books 2019.
Los Angeles Police Department Reports and Case Files
Case Files - DR 69-586 381
- LaBianca, Leno A. (CC#69-8859)
- LaBianca, Rosemary (CC#69-8860)
- Leslie Van Houten, November 26 & 28, 1969 (audio recording located at murderofaugust69.com and cielodrive.com)
- Harold True, January 27, 1970 (audio recording located at murdersofaugust69 and cielodrive.com)
- Phil Kaufman, January 27, 1970 (audio recording located at murdersofaugust69 and cielodrive.com)
- Los Angeles Times
- New York Times
- The Argus (Fremont-Newark, CA)
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on January 07, 2020:
Thanks very much. I appreciate you stopping by.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 07, 2020:
Exhaustive and interesting. Nice reading.
CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on September 10, 2019:
Thanks, Mr. Hebb. Start with the book Helter Skelter and go from there. Although i would stay away from the Manson apologists and that crowd (N. Schreck, etc.).
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 08, 2019:
I've not really read much about the Manson murders so this was a fascinating read.