Angela Cox: Inside the Manson 'family'

When Charles Manson took his last breath it was, it seems, a peaceful death: natural causes.

Far different from the brutal end suffered by the victims of Manson’s so-called “Family”.

They were slaughtered.

“Leave something witchy!” Manson had told his brainwashed disciples, “Let the world know you’ve been there.”

Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate was stabbed to death. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Her lifeless body was hung from a rafter.

She was 26.

I accidentally saw the crime scene photos. Her bloody face with the hint of a smile. Her swollen belly. You can’t unsee those images.

Sharon was one of 5 people killed that August night in 1969. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were slain the following evening. Leno had a steak knife and carving fork protruding from his body.

It’s hard to imagine who could love a man convicted of orchestrating those bloodbaths.

I met two people who did.

One of them was Dianne Lake. Charlie Manson called her "Snake". She was the youngest member of his family.

Dianne met the self-styled guru when she was just 14 and quickly fell under his spell.

“I was mesmerised," she told me.

Dianne had just left her hippie parents after having an epiphany, while on acid, that she'd be better off on her own. It was an amicable arrangement. Incredibly, her parents were the ones who introduced her to LSD, and wrote her a note saying she was free to go her own way. She carried it around in her pocket.

When she met Charlie and his other girls soon after, she thought she'd found exactly what was missing from her own family. Dianne was just Charlie's type.

Manson preyed on the vulnerable. He claimed to love in them what they couldn't love themselves.

"I think he just had this uncanny ability to see a person’s heartfelt needs, desires, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and then he could feed that need, that void,” Dianne said.

“That’s the way he manipulated us.”

“That was his power. He made you feel like you were the only one.”

Dianne Lake was the youngest member of Charles Manson's family.

Dianne tells the story of Patricia Krenwinkle, another of Manson's disciples.

Patricia had a hormone problem and was covered in unsightly body hair. She met Manson at a party. He led her to a bedroom and told her to take off her clothes. As Patricia stood naked in front of the mirror, Manson told her to look at herself. He told her he was the only one who could see how beautiful she was. He told her he loved her. From that point on, Patricia would do anything for Manson – even kill.

Leslie Van Houten had been a homecoming queen. A natural beauty, she was the popular girl at school. But when her parents divorced she was ostracised. Then she fell pregnant to her boyfriend. Her mother made her have a backyard abortion and took the foetus, put it in a coffee tin and buried it in the backyard. Leslie left home and started taking drugs.

These are the young women Manson manipulated. They felt unloved and unworthy, rejected by society and intoxicated by the free love Manson was offering.

Dianne Lake spent two years in his inner circle.

She was part of the orgies – group sex sessions Charlie used to strip any sense of the individual. They took LSD at least once a week. Dianne, along with other family members, says Manson would rarely touch the drug himself. He had more power over them when he was in control. They spent most nights listening to Charlie preach his warped ideology - "Helter Skelter". He got that from the Beatles song. He said the Beatles were prophets singing about an approaching apocalyptic race war. He claimed he was the son of man, and would act out the crucifixion while his followers were out of their minds on acid.

Life with Charlie grew darker. He beat Dianne. He sodomised her. He pimped her out to other men. He even showed Dianne and the other girls how to kill someone with a knife – making sure to hit all the vital organs.

But Dianne was still under his spell. Like a battered wife, or child, she accepted his abuse as punishment for not obeying him. His violence only deepened her desire to please him.

Even after she found out about the Tate and LaBianca murders, Dianne stayed with The Family hiding in Death Valley. It was only after The Family was arrested that a sliver of sanity cut through Dianne's drugged-out, brainwashed mind. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital. She'd been diagnosed with LSD induced schizophrenia. It took months to get Charlie Manson's voice out of her head.

She later testified against Manson, Patricia Krenwinkle, Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins. When she walked into the courtroom, her biggest fear was not the threat of going to prison for previously lying to a Grand Jury. She was scared that Manson would get back in her head, that he would be able to control her mind again just by looking at her.

Her fear lifted when she looked the devil in the eye and saw him for what he was - a little conman.

And he was still conning people from inside prison until he died.

Mike "Jon Jon" Jones started writing to Manson 17 years ago, motivated by a sick fascination with one of the world’s most notorious cult leaders.

But now he's convinced Manson didn't order the murders. He says he loves Manson. He named his own son after him – Maddox – the family name of Manson’s mother.

Mike spoke of Manson as an old man, losing his memory, who couldn’t step inside the prison shower without someone stealing his dentures or slippers.

Manson convinced his brainwashed followers he was the 'son of God'.

I listened to recorded phone conversations Mike said he shared with Manson. The prisoner on the end of the line sounded like a doddery, forgetful old man. Manson said he was almost gone and struggling to stay alert.

Manson had apparently been saying he was dying for years and last week, aged 83, he made good on his promise.

I asked Mike if Manson thought he would go to Heaven or Hell. After all, Manson often claimed to be both the son of God, and the Devil.

Mike said Manson didn’t care. He was never going to make a deathbed confession. Right ‘til the end Manson refused to admit he’d ordered the murders. After almost 50 years in jail, he never showed any remorse. He couldn’t even give the families of his victims that.

If anything, Manson revelled in his notoriety. At every chance, he fuelled the Manson myth. Mike says "that crazy thing" was all just an act. Manson was just "giving the world what it wanted."

People have spent decades trying to make sense of Manson and I am no expert. But in my mind, Manson was simply a conman, a misogynist, and a racist, who exploited the hippie movement. Where the world saw love, he saw opportunity. He was not a guru. Not an evil genius. He was just a criminal who learned how to manipulate people from life in prison. He could pick the weak and the vulnerable and knew what to say to get them to do what he wanted. He relied on drugs, sex and violence to control them. In the end, he went crazy on the power – pushing the limit to see what these people would do for him. He was a narcissist. A fame whore. An attention seeker.

Was he crazy? Probably.

Was he evil? Definitely.

I'm just not sure if he was born that way.

Dianne Lake doesn't think he was. She thinks the evil "rose up inside him."

Manson's mother was probably a prostitute. She didn't want him. He spent most of his life in prison. He probably grew up feeling as broken and unloved as the very people he preyed on and turned into killers.

Could good homes, loving parents, have made Manson and his disciples different people? Or were they natural born killers?

Dianne Lake still wonders how much Manson actually believed about what he spruiked. The one question she'd have asked him is whether he really did believe he was the son of God.

As for the older women in The Family, Atkins, Krenwinkle, Van Houten, she believes if it wasn't for Charles Manson they wouldn't have become killers.

Even though she was in Manson's inner circle, he never asked Dianne Lake to take part in the murders. And she is forever grateful for that. She doesn't think she could have done it. She says she couldn't even kill a fly. But she admits, she has at times pondered the question. Wondered if he had that much power over her, if she could have done it if he'd asked. She is grateful she was never put to the test.

Whether Manson and his band of killers were born evil, or became that way, doesn't really matter. There is no justification for what they did. Their crimes were particularly heinous.

Sharon Tate's sister Debra has almost endured her own life sentence trying to keep the Manson family behind bars.

"This isn't a myth. This isn't an urban legend," she told me.

"This is truth. This is real hardcore, down and dirty. The nastiest stuff that nightmares are made of."

Dianne Lake is now a practicing Christian, a loving grandmother who sings every week in her church choir.

I asked her if she can forgive Charles Manson.

"I guess as a Christian I need to forgive Charles Manson for the evil that he has allowed to come into the world through him."

"But you're not there yet?" I asked.

""I'm not really quite there yet. I guess I have to pray about that."

"Do you think he's going to heaven or hell?" I asked.

"I think he's probably going to hell, but that's between him and God."