By Christopher Weber
Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, a former homecoming princess who at 19 helped carry out the shocking killings of a wealthy Los Angeles couple at the direction of the violent and manipulative cult leader, walked out of a California prison Tuesday after serving more than 50 years of a life sentence.
Van Houten, now 73, “was released to parole supervision,” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement.
She left the California Institution for Women in Corona, east of Los Angeles, in the early morning hours and was driven to transitional housing, her attorney Nancy Tetreault said.
“She’s still trying to get used to the idea that this real,” Tetreault told The Associated Press.
Days earlier Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would not fight a state appeals court ruling that Van Houten should be granted parole. He said it was unlikely the state Supreme Court would consider an appeal.
The 1969 slayings and subsequent trials captivated the nation during an era of strife marked by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
At a parole hearing in 2016, Van Houten said the murders were the start of what Manson believed was a coming race war he called “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song. He had his followers prepare to fight and learn to can food so they could go underground and live in a hole in the desert, she added.
Van Houten was sentenced to death in 1971 for helping Manson’s group carry out the killings of Leno LaBianca, a grocer in Los Angeles, and his wife, Rosemary. Her sentence was later commuted to life in prison when the California Supreme Court overturned the state's death penalty law in 1972. Voters and state lawmakers eventually reinstated the death penalty, but it did not apply retroactively.
The LaBiancas were killed in their home, and their blood was smeared on the walls afterward. Van Houten later described holding Rosemary LaBianca down with a pillowcase over her head as others stabbed her. Then, ordered by Manson follower Charles “Tex” Watson to “do something,” Van Houten said, she picked up a knife and stabbed the woman more than a dozen times.
The slayings happened the day after Manson followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others. Van Houten did not participate in the Tate killings.
She is the first Manson follower who took part in the killings to walk free.
Van Houten is expected to spend about a year at a halfway house, adjusting to a world changed immeasurably by technology in the past half-century.
“She has to learn to use to use the internet. She has to learn to buy things without cash,” Tetreault said. “It's a very different world than when she went in.”
Van Houten, who will likely be on parole for about three years, hopes to get a job as soon as possible, Tetreault said. She earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in counseling while in prison and worked as a tutor for other incarcerated people.
Van Houten was found suitable for parole after a July 2020 hearing, but her release was blocked by Newsom, who maintained she was still a threat to society.
She filed an appeal with a trial court, which rejected it, and then turned to the appellate courts. The Second District Court of Appeal in May reversed Newsom's rejection of her parole in a 2-1 ruling, writing that there was “no evidence to support the Governor’s conclusions” about Van Houten’s fitness for release.
The judges took issue with Newsom’s claim that Van Houten did not adequately explain how she fell under Manson’s influence. At her parole hearings, she discussed at length how her parents’ divorce, her drug and alcohol abuse and a forced illegal abortion led her down a path that left her vulnerable.
They also disputed Newsom’s suggestion that her past violent acts were a cause for future concern were she to be released.
“Van Houten has shown extraordinary rehabilitative efforts, insight, remorse, realistic parole plans, support from family and friends, favorable institutional reports, and, at the time of the Governor’s decision, had received four successive grants of parole,” the judges said. They also noted her “many years” of therapy and substance abuse counseling.
The dissenting judge who sided with Newsom said there was some evidence Van Houten lacked insight into the heinous killings.
Newsom was disappointed by the appeals court decision, his office said.
“More than 50 years after the Manson cult committed these brutal killings, the victims’ families still feel the impact,” the governor’s office said in a July 7 statement.
In all, Van Houten had been recommended for parole five times since 2016. All of those recommendations were denied by either Newsom or former Gov. Jerry Brown.
Cory LaBianca, Leno LaBianca’s daughter, said last week that her family was heartbroken by the possibility that Van Houten could be released.
Anthony DiMaria, whose uncle Jay Sebring was killed along with Tate, said Tuesday her release was devastating to all the victims' families, who “collectively suffer the pain and loss” caused by the Manson cult.
Van Houten, a former high school cheerleader and homecoming princess, saw her life spiral out of control at 14 following her parents’ divorce. She turned to drugs and became pregnant but said her mother forced her to abort the fetus and bury it in the family’s backyard.
Van Houten became the youngest of Manson's followers when they met at an old movie ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he had established his so-called family of followers.
Manson died in prison in 2017 of natural causes at age 83 after nearly half a century behind bars. Watson and fellow Manson follower Patricia Krenwinkel have each been denied parole multiple times. Krenwinkel was recommended for parole last year, but that was rejected by Newsom. Another follower, Susan Atkins, died in prison in 2009.