The House on Waverly Drive: The Tate and LaBianca Murders
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 main gate. Blood was everywhere. The victims had been shot, bludgeoned, 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 now 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 supplier 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. There were two sisters and their husbands also became executives in the company. 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.
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. 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, “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 over the past year with a very strange looking group. 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 what amounted to 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 open a wig shop and sell drugs.
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 and early '69, 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. Even after auditioning twice, Melcher was not impressed. Meeting the Family made Melcher uneasy; dozens of stoned wannabes showed up at his house all the time, but Charlie 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.
The family had become experts at breaking into people’s houses around the LA area. Police were beginning to notice the group in the small community around the ranch. 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. Charlie thought Crowe was in the Black Panthers and was coming to kill him. Crowe survived but Charlie thought he was dead. There were witnesses; the race war was coming. 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 was 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 friend 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. 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. Screams and gunshots were heard. Blood was everywhere. 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 had acted as the lookout as well as their driver. She had a one-year-old daughter and 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 just 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 slowly pulled up across the street from 3301. 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.
That house, 3267, was the former home of another 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.
Charlie disappeared up the long, dark driveway of True’s old house. Watson quickly followed. They never had any intention of stopping at their old haunt. Manson quickly jumped the fence and entered the LaBianca 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. Both men crept through the dining room. The dogs did not bark. Despite the break-ins, the LaBiancas were remiss in locking up.
They approached Leno, nudging him a few times. Startled, Leno asked what they 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 robe.
Tex searched for their wallets and around the house for more money. He also grabbed a knife from the kitchen. Charlie 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.
Once the girls entered the home, Tex gave Krenwinkel the kitchen knife and had them take Rosemary back to the bedroom. He then put a pillowcase over Leno’s head, tied a lamp cord around his neck and pulled out his steel 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, the Van Houten and Krewinkel had also put a pillowcase and lamp cord around Rosemary. She fought back, yelling at the girls, “What are you doing to my husband.” She swung the lamp back and forth, shouting and tried to shove them away. The stabbing continued. Once Tex finished with Leno, he ran into the bedroom to fatally stab Rosemary. Linda Krewinkel came out, grabbed a fork and carved the word “War” into Leno’s stomach, leaving the fork protruding from LaBianca.
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 were the killers that they cleaned up and ate some of the Labiancas' food. Tex even showered. Manson and the others had already left with the car. Tex and the girls would have to walk, ditching some of their clothes and a knife in nearby Silver Lake.
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 nearby 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. 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. Joe 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.
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. 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, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were all convicted and sentenced death for the LaBianca murders. Charlie, Tex, and Krenwinkel were also convicted of the Tate murders along with Susan Atkins. Their death sentences were commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Leslie Van Houten actually 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. Manson died in 2017.
Why the LaBiancas?
Questions will always remain as to why the LaBiancas were targeted:
- Familiarity played some part; someone had been prowling that house for almost two years. Charlie knew to use the side door. The dogs were quiet the entire time.
- The timing 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.
- Charlie told the Family he was not ready to kill children, having stated that earlier in the evening. Somehow he knew no kids were in the house. Leno volunteered that Rosemary was in the bedroom, but Charlie never asked about anyone else. There had to be pictures of their kids all around and Frank's belongings. His bedroom was never checked. So they knew Frank Jr. was not at home.
Kasabian's theory that Charlie made a phone call makes many doubt the official story of a random home invasion. With Manson gone, we will never truly know.
Leno was buried in the family crypt but Rosemary was cremated and 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. To this day, Leno’s children have not recovered anything that was in the house. Leno had even 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. Frank Jr. when to live with his dad in Normandie Park and his troubles continued. He passed away in 2017. Suzan has been visiting Tex Watson in prison for over 25 years, which according to her is due to Tex’s deep faith in God. She has also attended some of his parole hearings.
3301 Waverly Drive had an address change and is today 3311. It’s 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 ghost hunter Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures.
The Manson Family was directly responsible for at least 11 murders. Some theorize it could be much more; a full accounting remains elusive. May Leno, Rosemary 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).
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)