How Leslie Van Houten Met Charles Manson

It was the second night of the Manson Family's rampage across Los Angeles. Their leader, Charles Manson, and five of his followers, including a teenager named Leslie Van Houten, were looking for more victims. Van Houten had met Manson in the fall of 1968 through two of his followers, who called him "Christlike," according to Biography. On the first night of the rampage, Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian — all in their teens or 20s — broke into a Beverly Hills home and massacred five people. One of the victims was actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with the baby of the film director Roman Polanski.

It was August 9, 1969, and that night Van Houten, a 19-year-old former homecoming queen born and raised in Southern California, would take part in the brutal murders of Leno and Rosemary Labianca in their home in Los Feliz, an LA suburb. Like so many others, she had fallen under Manson's sway, so when he asked her if she would kill for him, she agreed. Later that night Van Houten stabbed Rosemary Labianca multiple times per "The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality, and Murder."

An outgoing child

Leslie Van Houten was born in Altadena, California, on August 23, 1949, and had what seemed like a perfect middle-class upbringing. She participated in sports, and was popular in high school, per Biography. "When I was in high school, one of my teachers said I was in so many extracurricular activities, my photo was on every page of the yearbook," Van Houten recalled in "The Manson Women and Me."

But Van Housen's light-hearted early life came crashing down around her when her parents divorced, after which the model student began to rebel. Van Houten experimented with drugs and briefly ran away to San Francisco with her boyfriend when she was 17. When she returned pregnant, her mother forced her to have an illegal abortion, per NBC News. The turbulence she had experienced undoubtedly took its toll on Van Houten's mental health and left her vulnerable to coercion by a dangerous manipulator such as Charles Manson.

A life-altering meeting

According to Ed Sanders' "The Family," in the summer of 1968, Leslie Van Houten began traveling around California, ensconcing herself in the hippie counterculture that had begun to bloom in the mid-1960s and reached its apex with 1967's "Summer of Love." It was during this time that Van Houten grew close with Bobby Beausoleil and Catherine "Gypsy" Share, two of Charles Manson's followers. Soon, the pair would introduce her to the man himself, who would direct her to commit murder for which she would spend half a century behind bars.

Manson was a petty criminal and con man, who used his charisma and romantic hippie image — as well as mind-altering drugs such as LSD — to convince young disaffected people like Van Houten to become his sexual partners, followers, and servants. Van Houten was enraptured by Manson on their first meeting and was especially charmed by his guitar playing. Like other members of the so-called Manson Family, Van Houten became convinced that Manson was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, capable of miracles. She was soon living with the cult at an abandoned movie set called Spahn Ranch.

Murders and prison

At the ranch, Charles Manson's preaching began to take on violent overtones, including his visions of a coming race war. "All we did was listen to The Beatles' 'White Album' and read Revelations," Leslie Van Houten recounted (via Biography). It was from The Beatles' 1968 classic that Manson took the name "Helter Skelter" for the upcoming race war he supposedly prophesized. 

While she didn't participate in the first night of the Manson murders, Van Houten was more than willing to go out on August 9 to target a local couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The couple was reportedly unknown to Manson's cult, but disturbingly their home was targetted at random after some of its members had attended a nearby party. After Manson and Tex Watson tied up the LaBiancas, Manson ordered the women to kill them. Van Houten stabbed Rosemary 14 to 16 times saying she "felt" but "didn't know for sure" that the woman had already died from bayonet wounds inflicted by Watson, per CaseText

After her arrest, she showed no remorse and told the police about her love for the Manson Family. "You couldn't meet a nicer group of people," she said, per "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders." However, decades on, Van Houten has grown recalcitrant and revealed herself to be a model prisoner. On Tuesday, June 11, 2023, she was finally granted parole after serving 53 years in prison.