I was born and raised in Los Angeles — a fact which I am immensely proud of. Like most major cities, L.A. has a history of notorious crime, including rampant police corruption, riots, serial killers, and political assassinations. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by true crime, but three horrific crimes in particular shaped my formative years: those of Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, and the Black Dahlia.
Charles Manson and his “girls” were in prison long before I was born, but I heard stories about the killer cult my entire life. My mother is a journalist, and while she didn’t cover Manson herself, several of her close friends did. One of my favorite anecdotes came from her friend Kathy, who became quite “friendly” with Manson’s “girls” — the same ones who etched Xs into their foreheads and sat outside the courthouse singing and holding vigil during Charlie’s trial. Kathy’s sister was visiting from out of state, and she took her to the courthouse, whereupon the sister was horrified when the Manson Girls came running up, shouting, “Hi Kathy!” and giving her hugs.
When I was 12, I started reading HELTER SKELTER, Vincent Bugliosi’s essential volume on the Manson “Family.” The book detailed the Family’s hippie-commune-cult existence, and the August 1969 murders of Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant at the time), Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, followed by the murders the next night of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca (known as the Tate-LaBianca murders), then covering the ensuing trial. It was fascinating and terrifying. I didn’t sleep for two weeks.
Although I knew Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel were all serving life in prison for the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, there were still dozens of followers who were never imprisoned, or who made parole by the early 1990s. To name a few: Mary Brunner, who birthed one of Manson’s three children, was convicted of a shootout in 1971, but paroled before the decade’s end. Linda Kasabian took part in the Tate-LaBianca murders, but was offered immunity in exchange for her testimony and never served time. Sandra Good went to prison in 1975 for making death threats through the mail, but was paroled in 1985, and to this day has not renounced Manson and his ways.
I imagined these free cult members “creepy-crawling” into my room late at night to kill me and write slanderous things in my blood. To this day, Charles Manson still holds a terrible fascination for me.
Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. “The Night Stalker,” raped and murdered women in their own homes in the mid-1980s. At the time of his crime spree, I was only 5; I had no knowledge of the Night Stalker or the fear that gripped the city.
In 1988, when I was in second grade, my elementary school principal resigned abruptly. It was a few years later that I started to understand the reason. Principal Lioy’s sister, Doreen, was engaged to Richard Ramirez. Though they weren’t married until 1996, I imagine that parents were up in arms over his connection, however tenuous, to one of the most vile serial killers of modern time.
I sneaked around to learn of Ramirez’s crimes: home invasion, rape, torture, and murder — all with a Satanic tinge. His mugshot made him look like the physical representation of a boogeyman.
As an adult, I discovered that Doreen Lioy’s family had essentially disowned her. They remained married until Ramirez’s death in 2013 from cancer, though many report that the couple was “estranged” by that point. There was something almost exciting about being at least tangentially associated with a serial killer.
The Black Dahlia murder was another fascination of mine, after seeing a photo of Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body. I was about 13, and a journalist friend of my mother’s gave her a copy of his new book about the Black Dahlia murder. The book was the first time the photo had been released publicly, and I wanted to see it. My mother had some misgivings, but I was a horror fanatic, and I suspect she thought that my seeing a real corpse would help make sure I understood the difference between real and fake.
I looked at the picture of the nude, bisected body and shrugged it off. But secretly I sneaked looks at the image every chance I got. I was horrified by the idea that one human being could do this to another… but also fascinated by that very same concept. The 1947 murder was never solved, and though I learned about the crime nearly 50 years after the fact, the idea that a murderer like this could be wandering around — could be anyone — was chilling.
Lately, Los Angeles has been quiet when it comes to sensational, outrageous crimes… which is just fine by me. There are plenty of sordid, horrifying stories of years past to consider.