Getting the approval of a parole panel was the easy part for Leslie Van Houten, the youngest of Charles Manson’s murderous followers.
Between her and her release stands a governor who has shown zero willingness to allow anyone involved in the Manson killings to go free.
Van Houten, now 68, was found suitable for parole by the two-person state panel after a hearing on Wednesday.
Now, she must still be approved by the state Parole Board, which is likely, but then must hope Gov. Jerry Brown won’t block her release as he did last year.
In blocking her release then, as he has with several would-be parolees from the Manson “family,” Brown said Van Houten had failed to adequately explain to the panel how a model teenager from a privileged Southern California family who had once been a homecoming princess could have turned into a ruthless killer by age 19.
On Wednesday, the panel grilled her for two hours on how she could address those concerns.
“I’ve had a lot of therapy trying to answer that question myself,” she said.
“To tell you the truth, the older I get the harder it is to deal with all of this, to know what I did, how it happened,” added Van Houten, now a frail-looking 68-year-old who appeared before the panel on crutches, her gray hair pulled back in a bun.
Her attorney, Rich Pfeiffer, said after the hearing that he believes Van Houten addressed the concerns the governor had when he denied her parole last year.
“My hope is he’s going to follow the law and let his commissioners do their job,” he said.
He added his client was relieved by Wednesday’s ruling, adding he believes she will be released eventually.
“I’m getting her out of here. That’s not an issue. The question is when,” he said.
No one who took part in the Manson clan’s two-night killing rampage has been released from prison so far.
Van Houten told the panelists she was devastated when her parents divorced when she was 14. Soon after, she said, she began hanging out with her school’s outcast crowd in the Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia. She started smoking marijuana and graduated to LSD at 15. When she was 17, she and her boyfriend ran away to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during San Francisco’s summer of love.
When they returned, she said, she discovered she was pregnant. When her mother found out, she ordered her to have an abortion and bury her fetus in their backyard.
Soon after, she was traveling up and down the California coast, trying to find peace within herself when acquaintances led her to Manson, who was holed up at an old abandoned movie ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he had recruited what he called a “family” to survive what he insisted would be a race war he would launch by committing a series of random, horrifying murders. His disaffected youthful followers became convinced that the small-time criminal and con man was actually a Christ-like figure and believed him.
Van Houten went on to candidly describe how she joined several other members of the “Manson Family” in killing Los Angeles grocer Leno La Bianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home on Aug. 9, 1969, carving up La Bianca’s body and smearing the couple’s blood on the walls.
She was not with Manson followers the night before when they killed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others during a similar bloody rampage.
On the night of the second attack she said she held Rosemary La Bianca down with a pillowcase over her head as others stabbed her dozens of times. Then, ordered by Manson disciple Tex Watson to “do something,” she picked up a butcher knife and stabbed the woman more than a dozen times.
“I feel absolutely horrible about it, and I have spent most of my life trying to find ways to live with it,” she added quietly.
Relatives of the La Biancas didn’t believe her. They spoke emotionally as they pleaded with the commission to reject her parole bid.
“No member of the Manson family deserves parole, ever,” nephew Louis Smaldino said. “She is a total narcissist and only thinks of herself and not the damage she has done.”
The voice of the La Biancas’ oldest grandson, Tony LaMontagne, broke as he noted he’s about to turn 44, the same age his grandfather was when he was killed.
“Please see to it that this fight doesn’t have to happen every year for the rest of our lives,” he said of Van Houten’s nearly two dozen parole hearings.
Family members left before the panel announced its decision.
In reaching it, Parole Commissioner Brian Roberts and Deputy Commissioner Dale Pomantz said they took into account Van Houten’s entire time of incarceration. During those years she has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling, been certified as a counselor and headed numerous programs to help inmates.
“You’ve been a facilitator, you’ve been a tutor and you’ve been giving back for quite a number of years,” Roberts said.
Still, he warned her that if she is released that living in society again will not be easy. He noted parole officials have heard from “tens of thousands” of people who don’t want her released. But others, he added, including many who have known her since childhood, spoke up for her, saying they’ve seen her mature in prison and become a different person.
“So with that we’d like to wish you good luck,” he said.