Night I stared into Charles Manson’s shark-like eyes: 50 years after murders that traumatised a generation, Debra Tate reveals for the first time how she confronted the sex cult leader who killed her sister
- Weeks after the horrific murder of Sharon Tate, her sister Debra visited her killer
- Debra Tate described looking into the ‘dead’ eyes of Charles Manson in prison
- Sharon Tate, 26, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she was killed
- Her body was found at her Beverly Hills home along with four other innocent victims in August 1969
Debra Tate, sister of Sharon Tate, who was killed by Charles Manson
Just a few weeks after the horrific murder of Sharon Tate, her sister Debra took her courage in her hands. Surrounded by armed guards, she found herself walking slowly down a prison corridor in the dead of night, before turning into a windowless room. And waiting. Moments later, his hands and feet in iron shackles, cult leader Charles Manson shuffled in.
If Debra had hoped for some small crumb of understanding from this confrontation with her sister’s killer, she would leave not just disappointed but shaken. ‘I sat opposite him across this little plastic table and stared into his eyes, and you know what I saw? Absolutely nothing,’ she recalls today in a rare and utterly compelling interview.
‘There was no emotion in his eyes. They were dead. It reminded me of looking into a shark’s eyes. I go diving, so I know. You can’t tell if they are going to lunge at you and kill you. That’s what I saw in Charlie’s eyes then, and that’s what I still see in the eyes of his followers today.’
This summer marks 50 years since the life of Sharon Tate, Debra’s beautiful movie-star sister, was snuffed out – in one of the most infamous killings of the 20th Century. The events of August 8, 1969, have become a defining moment, seeming to mark the end of a more innocent age.
Sharon, the 26-year-old wife of director Roman Polanski, had been eight-and-a-half months pregnant when her body was found amid scenes of carnage at their Beverly Hills home. A total of five innocent people lay dead in the house, while Sharon’s unborn baby, named Paul, made a sixth tragic victim.
The word PIG was scrawled in Tate’s blood on the front door. DEATH TO PIGS was smeared on the walls inside. It is, perhaps, no wonder that Debra has been dreading the avalanche of attention and discussion already gathering for the 50th anniversary, but she knows, too, that the worldwide focus is inevitable.
This was a crime so shocking that it resonates across the decades. More than 400 books have been published on the events of that night with more to come, plus a slew of new articles and television documentaries scheduled for the weeks and months ahead.
Sharon Tate, US actress who was brutally murdered by the Manson gang in Los Angeles 8 August 1969. The members of the gang taking part in her murder were Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, (died 24th. September 2009, aged 61), Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel
In July, Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino will release a hotly anticipated £85 million movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, with Margot Robbie as Sharon. At least two more films about the murders are in the works.
Debra was just 16 when her big sister was taken from her.
‘Overnight, the light went out,’ she says. ‘But the fascination remains because my sister’s murder was literally good versus evil. She was this beautiful person on the inside as well as the outside; a sweet, kind, loving girl.
‘Charles Manson and his followers were – and remain – psychopaths, sociopaths, whatever you want to call them. Pure darkness and evil. That’s why this story has endured for so long.’
Sharon Tate herself is still remembered, particularly in America, but around the world, too. A luminous, blonde-haired beauty queen who starred in B-movie cult classics such as Valley Of The Dolls, she was the model for the famous Malibu version of the Barbie doll. Celebrities including Madonna and Adele have found inspiration in her bouffant hairstyle and trademark Biba mini-dresses. Even the likes of Versace and Chanel have made reference to Sharon in their designs.
In the TV drama series Mad Men, the character of Don Draper’s wife Megan was deliberately styled with her in mind, according to the show’s producer. But if Sharon Tate is remembered for her all-American good looks, her death has another, more sinister significance.
The man behind her murder, Charles Manson, was a neo-Nazi determined to start a race war he called ‘Helter Skelter’, after the Beatles song of the same name.
However repulsive this might seem, Manson and his twisted views have managed to attract a cult following that continues to exist, thanks in part to deluded online fan groups.
Today, Debra deplores what she describes as an ‘ongoing sick obsession to glorify his crimes’, singling out a sub-genre of Hollywood ‘Tatesploitation’ films featuring homicidal hippy cult leaders with titles such as The Night God Screamed. It is all the more chilling that two recent murderers in America have cited Manson as their ‘inspiration’.
I meet Debra near her home on the outskirts of Los Angeles – tellingly, she asks me not to disclose where she lives. She has been receiving what she describes as ‘increasingly violent’ death threats from Manson supporters since lobbying earlier this year to prevent two of his associates from getting parole.
For, Debra, now fighting cancer and the only member of her family still alive, it seems as if there is no escape from the past. ‘I feel sick to my stomach. In some ways it feels like yesterday,’ she continues.
‘Sharon was my sun and my moon. Her death and the deaths of those who were slaughtered alongside her destroyed so many lives. It’s like a ripple on a pond. It spreads out, getting bigger and bigger.’
Many have profited over the years. Manson himself would ‘smuggle’ his toenail clippings out of prison and demand his supporters sell them to replenish his prison bank account.
Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with the Sharon Tate murder case. Authorities say Manson, cult leader and mastermind behind 1969 deaths of actress Sharon Tate and several others, died on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017
Debra, in contrast, is receiving no fee for this interview. Still elegant and feisty at 66, she says she is speaking because she is afraid that history will repeat itself. Her fears are well-grounded. ‘It terrifies me that there are groups out there who revere this creep Manson as some god-like figure,’ she says. ‘That repulses me.’
Originally condemned to death, Manson saw his sentence commuted to nine life terms. He finally died, aged 83, in 2017.
‘I prayed for his soul,’ comments Debra.
At least five of his followers remain behind bars, however, and they regularly come up for parole hearings, which Debra attends in person – to oppose the applications.
‘These people are in their 70s now. They talk about finding God in prison and say they are no threat to society. But they ARE a threat to society,’ she insists.
‘We live in a time where some people are seeking the same thing Charlie’s followers were looking for 50 years ago. To have an identity, to be part of a ‘family’, to promote hate.
‘I will keep fighting until my dying breath because, unless you talk about it, history will repeat itself. It always does. We live in dangerous times.’
Standing at just 5ft 2in, Manson, who was to carve a swastika on his forehead during his subsequent trial, might have seemed an unlikely leader of men. He was, though, charismatic, manipulative and extremely dangerous, and he knew how to exploit the hippy drug culture of the 1960s to build a cult.
The self-proclaimed ‘sex guru’ brainwashed his believers – many of whom were intelligent, respectable women from good families – into believing he was the Messiah.
Strumming a guitar, the long-haired guru plied his followers with drugs while preparing them for a race war he said would break out when they started killing rich white people.
The idea, he told his deluded followers, was to kill high-profile Hollywood types, then blame the murders on black killers. Whites would be defeated in the ensuing race war – and Manson would emerge from his desert hideaway outside LA to lead the world.
This and other drug-addled nightmares must have seemed a world away from the respectable upbringing enjoyed by the three Tate sisters.
Paul, their father, was a decorated colonel in the American army, who travelled around the world with his wife, Doris, and daughters Sharon, Debra and Patti.
‘Because we were army brats, we moved frequently,’ recalls Debra. ‘I grew up in a lovely family and it was a wonderful childhood. We were always making new friends.
‘The one constant in my life was Sharon. She was my big sister, I idolised her.’
Sharon’s beauty had been apparent from an early age. ‘My mother put her into beauty contests as a baby. Dad was always away. It was something to do,’ says Debra. ‘She won every beauty pageant she ever entered, all the way through from a baby to a teenager.’
At 17, Sharon moved to Hollywood and began landing bit parts. In 1963, she found an agent and worked as an extra in US TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies. Then, in 1965, she won her first major role opposite David Niven in Eye Of The Devil, filmed in London.
‘Sharon loved London and she ended up staying there,’ her sister recalls. ‘It was the 1960s and she immersed herself in the fashion and culture.’
London was where Sharon met director Roman Polanski, who gave her a role in The Fearless Vampire Killers. They made an odd pairing – an officers’ daughter with a Polish Jew who grew up in the Krakow Ghetto. Polanski’s mother was killed at Auschwitz.
The two quickly fell in love and would eventually marry in London in January 1968.
‘She introduced me to him first,’ smiles Debra. ‘I loved him. I still do. He loved my sister very much. Of that I am in no doubt.
‘People have made stories up over the years. I don’t know if Roman was the most faithful husband. But he adored Sharon, worshipped her.’
Polanski would have his own run-in with the law eight years after his wife’s murder, when he was accused of the statutory rape of a 13-year-old at the home of actor Jack Nicholson in LA. He fled to Europe before sentencing and, now aged 85, remains a fugitive from US justice to this day. Debra believes in Polanski’s innocence, saying: ‘I spoke to him last week. I know the whole story. Roman was offered a plea deal and then an allegedly crooked judge was going to throw it out and put him in jail for 30 years. He had no option but to flee.’
She has fond memories of the home that Sharon and her new husband shared at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, a ranch-style house with sweeping views over the city.
‘It was a happy, sun-filled place,’ she continues. ‘I spent months before the murders there. Sharon was never happier. She was nesting, preparing for motherhood.’
Manson sent a gang of his demented followers to Cielo Drive, while he hid in the desert. It turned out Manson knew the house as he had been there before, to visit Doris Day’s music-producer son during a failed attempt to be a pop singer.
He chose the home for no better reason than, as he would later say, ‘I knew rich white people lived there’.
The graphic details of her sister’s killing haunt Debra to this day. She was in the shower at the Tate’s family home in the LA suburb of Rancho Palos Verdes when her mother burst into the room screaming: ‘Sharon’s dead!’
‘She told me my boyfriend Wayne heard a radio bulletin saying there had been a fatal fire at the home of actress Sharon Tate,’ says Debra.
She called the police who asked her if there was an adult in the home who could go to Sharon’s address to investigate.
‘Dad was away, Mum was in pieces. The police were sending a squad car to pick me up but then Sharon’s agent, who had been playing tennis, heard the same radio announcement and went up there.
‘He saw the full horror. He had to identify my sister. He was never the same again. He started drinking, his career disappeared, he ended up living on the streets.’
She pauses and chokes up: ‘I was so lucky it wasn’t me.’
The horror grew and grew. The Tate family would learn there had been no fire, that Manson’s thugs had cut the phone lines to the house and, at the gates, had shot 18-year-old Stephen Parent, who was at the address to visit the caretaker, William Garretson, who lived in the guest house.
Then, the killers climbed in through a window. Sharon was inside the house with her former boyfriend and close friend Jay Sebring, a celebrity hairdresser. Polanski – away filming in Europe – had asked Sebring to keep an eye on his pregnant wife.
Also in the house were Sharon’s friend Abigail Folger, 35, heiress to a £100 million coffee fortune, and Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski, 32, a Polish friend of Polanski.
Sebring was shot and stabbed as he tried to defend Sharon.
A terrified Folger and Frykowski fled into the garden and were stabbed to death. Folger’s white nightgown was so covered in blood that investigators initially described it as a red gown.
Sharon, cradling her bump (according to a Manson ‘Family’ member who witnessed the slaughter and later gave evidence in return for a reduced sentence) begged: ‘Please let me live two more weeks so I can have my baby. Then you can kill me.’
She was stabbed 16 times, a ragged ‘X’ carved into her belly.
Two nights later, supermarket boss Leno LaBianca, 44, and his wife Rosemary, 38, were stabbed to death in their home nearby. The words ‘Healter Skelter’ (sic) were written in their blood on the wall.
Hollywood went into meltdown. Gun stores sold out. It took two months before Manson and his followers were traced to a ranch in the desert outside LA and arrested.
A wealthy Hollywood producer who remembers the time says: ‘We were utterly terrified. Until the Manson murders, LA was a place of free love, open doors. Overnight, we became paranoid. The gates went up, the search lights went up.
‘I bought myself a German shepherd trained to rip an intruder’s throat out.’
But no amount of security could help Debra’s family. The Tates were devastated. ‘The trials were a circus,’ she says. ‘Manson’s gang – Family members – stood up and sang.
‘My mum had a nervous breakdown and fell to pieces. She was ‘gone’ for ten years. Dad turned to drink.’ And Debra was left to play mother to her younger sister, Patti.
Books were written. ‘Everyone wanted a new line. So people started making things up.’
Sharon was accused of being a drug user, even though in reality she had shunned drugs. The victims were even blamed for their own deaths, with some citing ‘swinging’ parties at the house. There were rumours of sex tapes.
‘All utter BS,’ responds Debra. ‘My brother-in-law isn’t a saint. But he loved my sister. The stories of drugs and orgies and sex parties were made up to sell books. I’ve spent 50 years poring over police reports. There were no drugs in the house.
‘I’m sure there were swinging parties and drugs and sex. Just not at Cielo. I was there most of the time. I saw nothing. Remember, Sharon was getting ready to have a baby.’
She reveals today for the first time how, in the terrible aftermath of the killings, she asked police if she could visit Manson in Los Angeles County Jail.
‘I was taken in the dead of night. We went up in a service elevator. That’s when we sat opposite each other in that room.
‘We stared at each other for eight minutes. He said nothing and nor did I. I wanted to ask so many questions but I was waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing.
‘He looked at me, then stood up and left the room. Coward.’
It was 13 years after Sharon’s murder, when one of the Manson gang was eligible for parole, that the Tate family started to find a new purpose in life.
A detective called and asked their mother to help raise signatures for a petition to keep the gang member in jail.
‘For the first time the light came on in my mother’s eyes,’ Debra says. ‘She had a purpose. By helping others, you’re actually helping yourself.’
Doris Tate became a campaigner for victim’s rights – and became the first woman in America to give a victim impact statement to the courts. Doris died of brain cancer in 1992, then Debra’s father passed away in 2005.
Younger sister Patti died of breast cancer in 2000 and now, Debra, too, has the condition.
She has followed her mother’s lead in fighting for victim’s rights and has, over the years, counselled hundreds of people, some caught up in notorious crimes, such as the families hit by mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Columbine and Aurora.
Meanwhile, Debra continues to petition to keep the remaining members of the Manson gang behind bars with her website noparoleformansonfamily.com.
In California, a law allows any criminal over 60, regardless of their crime, to be considered for – and given a date for – release. But hundreds of thousands of people around the planet are on her side.
‘I forgave a long time ago but I will never forget, ‘she says. ‘People say, ‘Oh they have been rehabilitated and should be let out.’ They try and prove these people deserve a second chance.
‘I bear them no ill will. But they must never get out of jail. There are so many twisted people out there who still believe in evil.
‘Sharon was all about goodness and light. I believe goodness will always prevail. This is the 50th anniversary but my family and the families of the other victims – of any victims of crime – have to serve a life sentence.’
‘I want people to remember that Sharon was a sister, a daughter, a wife. I don’t want her to be defined by her murder.
‘She was a kind, loving, gentle soul. I have a picture of her and me on the beach. That’s how I remember her. I wish the world could see her as a fully rounded human being.
‘Society glorifies the killers rather than the victims. That’s fundamentally wrong.
‘I want the world to remember my sister as the beautiful soul she was.’
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