Susan Atkins: Follower of Charles Manson who spent the rest of her life in jail after the Tate-LaBianca killings

Susan Atkins, who has died aged 61, was characterised by the former assistant Los Angeles district attorney Stephen Kay as "the scariest of the Manson girls", who as members of Charles Manson's "family" committed the Tate-LaBianca murders, traumatising Los Angeles and shocking the world. The image of Atkins, an X carved in her forehead in imitation of Manson, telling the sentencing judge, "you'd best lock your doors and watch your own kids" was the most chilling of a trial which brought to an end the short-lived hippie era of the Sixties.

On the night of 8 August 1969, Atkins and three other family members were sent by Manson to a house in Beverly Hills which he had visited when Terry Melcher, a record producer and Doris Day's son, lived there. Five people were stabbed to death, including the actress Sharon Tate, eight and a half months pregnant with her first child by her husband Roman Polanski, and the word "Pig" was scrawled in blood on the front door.

The next night, Manson, incensed that the killings had not been done correctly, chose the Los Felix home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, killing them and leaving further bloody messages, including "Helter Skelter", inspired by a Beatles song which Manson believed carried a coded message about impending race war in the United States.

The case broke when Atkins was arrested for the murder, a week earlier, of Gary Hinman, a former friend of Manson's whom the family tortured while looking for money. While in custody, Atkins bragged to her cellmates about stabbing Tate, drinking her blood, and using it to write "Pig". Although she made a deal for her grand-jury testimony, by the time she testified she repudiated the deal, and prosecutors had given immunity to Linda Kasabian, who, because she was the only family member with a driver's licence, had waited outside with the car during both murders. Atkins was sentenced to death in 1971, but in 1972 California's death penalty was temporarily repealed, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Susan Denise Atkins was born on 7 May 1948 in San Gabriel, California, and raised in San Jose. Both her parents were heavy drinkers, and she claimed to have been abused by a male relative, but her childhood was, on the surface, normal until her mother died of cancer. Having sold their possessions to pay for his wife's treatment, her father began moving the family while looking for work, and eventually abandoned Susan with her grandparents in Los Banos, where she cared for her younger brother.

In 1966 she quit school after her previously good academic record deteriorated, and hitched to the Pacific Northwest, where she was arrested as a passenger in a stolen car. Drifting south to San Francisco, working odd jobs and dancing topless, she met the Manson family and moved to the Spahn Ranch, a former movie set in the Santa Susana Mountains north of Los Angeles, where she slept with Charles "Tex" Watson and then Manson himself on her first two nights in residence. Manson renamed her Sadie Mae Glutz, partly after the Beatles' "Sexy Sadie". When she gave birth to a son in 1968, fathered by another family member, he was called Zezozose Zadfrack Glutz.

The motives for the "Helter Skelter" killings have been debated over the years, most notably in the poet Ed Sanders' seminal The Family, and in Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the district attorney who prosecuted the case. Manson was worshipped as a guru by his "family", but he was a petty criminal who had spent most of his adult life in prison. "Helter Skelter" may have been the result of his fear of reprisals by the Black Panthers after the family botched a drug scam against a black drug dealer. They were chronically short of money, despite Manson pimping out the women and organising non-lethal burglaries he called "creepy crawlies".

Although Bobby Beausoleil carried out the actual killing of Hinman, and Watson, in his later memoir claimed that he, not Atkins, had murdered Sharon Tate, Atkins accepted responsibility, especially after becoming a born-again Christian in 1974, as detailed in her 1978 memoir, Child of Satan, Child of God. Her rehabilitation in prison impressed many people, not least Bugliosi, who noted "it has to be said she did pay substantially, though not completely, for her crimes." He did not oppose her parole in later years, but she never received a single vote in her favour at any hearing.

Atkins married twice while in prison, in 1981 becoming the 35th wife of a flamboyant self-publicist named Donald Lee Laisure. The couple divorced when he announced he was planning to marry again. In 1987 she married James Whitehouse, 15 years younger than her, who became her attorney through the parole process. In 2008 she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and one leg was amputated. At the subsequent parole hearing, which she was too ill to attend, Stephen Kay, who argued consistently against her parole, used the conjugal visits of her two husbands as part of the case against her release.

On 2 September, Atkins was wheeled on a gurney into a final hearing for compassionate release. It was again denied by unanimous vote. She died at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, to which she had been moved from the prison in Chino. Having spent 38 years in prison, she was California's longest-serving woman inmate, a distinction which now falls to fellow family member Patricia Krenwinkel. She is survived by her husband, and presumably by her son, who was given up for adoption when she was arrested in 1969 and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Michael Carlson

Susan Atkins, member of the Manson "family": born San Gabriel, California 7 May 1948; married 1981 Donald Lee Laisure (marriage dissolved), 1987 James Whitehouse; died Chowchilla, California 24 September 2009.

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