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Former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten confers with her attorney Rich Pfeiffer during a break from her hearing before the California Board of Parole Hearings at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif., Thursday, April 14, 2016. (Photo: AP/Nick Ut)

Leslie Van Houten, a then-19-year-old who helped kill a man and woman in their home during the infamous Manson Family murder spree in 1969, has been behind bars for 47 years. Denied 20 times before by the California Parole Board, she was recommended release by officials in April 2016—but was denied release by the governor last July.

Now 67, Van Houten is again trying to win her freedom after nearly a half-century.

Her bid this time: a September hearing for young offenders presenting the mitigating factors of her crimes back in 1969.

The crucial piece of evidence she seeks is already in law enforcement hands. But she’s never heard it, and it’s been subject to years of hard-fought legal battles. They’re the so-called “Tex Watson Tapes”—recordings of a Manson Family killer telling his lawyer how “Helter Skelter” happened.

“Every shred of evidence at every Manson trial is public—except for this,” said Rich Pfeiffer, Van Houten’s attorney. “There’s something in there they don’t want to give up.”

Leslie Van Houten in 1999. (Photo: Courtesy of the California Department of Corrections)

THE YOUNGEST DISCIPLE

Van Houten was the youngest disciple of Charles Manson and his apocalyptic cult, which massacred eight people during a drug-fueled crime spree intended to spur a “race war” in the summer of ’69.

Van Houten grew up in an affluent and happy home until her parents’ divorce, according to court records. After that, she was caught up in the currents of the psychedelic drug scene of California in 1968 and 1969. She came to live with Manson and his “Family” less than a year before the murders, records said.

Four Manson Family members entered the Beverly Hills home of director Roman Polanski on Aug. 8, 1969 and killed five people, including Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife and a successful actress more than eight months pregnant at the time she was slain.

Van Houten was not part of that massacre. Instead, she was convicted of taking part in the slaying of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next night, as part of the half-dozen intruders in the couple’s Los Feliz home. She was ultimately convicted of holding down Rosemary LaBianca as she was attacked by other Family members—and also stabbing her more than a dozen times in the lower back.

Van Houten was convicted of two counts of felony murder, after three trials. She is serving seven years to life in prison, to run concurrently. (Van Houten was originally sentenced to death like the other Family members. Her attorney died during the first trial, and the second resulted in a hung jury.)

PAROLE DENIEDFOR THE 21ST TIME

Van Houten was originally one of the most devout Manson followers. But she was one of the first to denounce the crimes, and express remorse, according to court filings. She also completed college degrees.

Pfeiffer, Van Houten’s parole attorney, argued for her release before the parole board at a hearing last April.

Pfeiffer, a veteran parole attorney, told Forensic Magazine last year that the parole board had found she should be released, after serving more than four decades in the California prison system.

“This was the strongest opinion I’ve seen in 19 years of doing parole hearings,” said Pfeiffer, last April. “They couldn’t find a reason to deny her.”

But Gov. Brown could. He denied her bid, after being presented with a 140,000-signature petition organized by Sharon Tate’s sister and other opponents of the release, including the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.

THE ‘TEX WATSON TAPES’

The “Tex Watson Tapes” are audio recordings of convicted Manson Family member Charles “Tex” Watson talking to his attorney in 1969, before he was convicted. The 20 hours of narrative apparently give an unvarnished account of how the killings were perpetrated. Watson was convicted of leading the massacre at Roman Polanski’s Beverly Hills home.

The existence of the tapes was unearthed by a writer named Tom O’Neill in an interview with Watson’s former defense attorney Bill Boyd, in 2008. They were originally protected under attorney-client privilege.

Boyd, the attorney, died shortly thereafter. The tapes became part of a bankruptcy proceeding involving the law firm, according to O’Neill’s account. The court-appointed bankruptcy trustee decided to turn over the tapes to law enforcement, since there was rumored evidence of “unsolved murders” on the recordings. Watson fought the release of the tapes, but a bankruptcy court judge and then a U.S. district judge ruled in 2013 that they were not protected, since defense attorney Bill Boyd had released the tapes previously to a writer who co-wrote a memoir with Watson, published in 1978.

The Los Angeles Police Department acknowledged it had the “Tex Watson Tapes” in 2014. But they have not released any part of them since. A 2015 letter from law enforcement explained the reason for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office “hold” on the tapes.

“The District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office all agree that we cannot provide the tape(s) you have requested because there are unsolved crimes Manson Family members are suspecting of committing,” the officials wrote at the time. “The information contained in the tape(s) are part of the investigation of those crimes and could be used to solve them. Releasing the tape(s) could endanger the investigation (of) those crimes.”

O’Neill’s account indicates that some Los Angeles law enforcement officials have said the recordings could provide exculpatory evidence for some of the female members of the Manson Family: Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel—and Leslie Van Houten.

Van Houten and her attorney Pfeiffer filed a formal discovery request in late 2016. But the parole board found it has no authority to order the release of the tapes. Pfeiffer contends that what’s on the tapes may very well be the difference between freedom and continued imprisonment.

“The tapes are necessary because they contain exculpatory evidence to be used at Ms. Van Houten’s subsequent youthful offender parole suitable hearing, scheduled to be held on Sept. 6, 2017, at the California Institution for Women, Corona, California.”

The LAPD told Forensic Magazine they were not considering releasing the tapes "any time soon" - and are not commenting on their content.

Van Houten is seeking to be the first Manson Family member to be released.

Manson’s “right-hand man,” Bruce Davis, was denied parole last month for his role in the murders of Gary Hinman and Donald Shea. The hearing, his 31st, was held in February. The board recommended Davis’s release for the fifth time—but the governor has reversed the recommendation each time.   

Charles Manson himself, now 82, is still behind bars. His next parole reconsideration is scheduled for 2027, when he will be 92.

Other “Family” members Patricia Krenwinkel and Watson have been denied parole repeatedly. Susan Atkins, another member, died in prison in 2009. 

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