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Vincent Bugliosi, Prosecutor in Manson Trial, Dies at 80

  • Associated Press

FILE - Author and lawyer Vincent Buglios in Beverly Hills, California, Aug. 21, 2008.

FILE - Author and lawyer Vincent Buglios in Beverly Hills, California, Aug. 21, 2008.

Vincent Bugliosi was an anonymous junior member of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office when he was handed the case that, for better or worse, would define his life: the prosecution of one of America's most notorious mass murderers, Charles Manson.

During a closely watched and oftentimes bizarre trial that lasted nearly a year, the cool, relentless prosecutor became nearly as famous Manson himself as he denounced the ersatz hippie cult leader as the "dictatorial maharajah of a tribe of bootlicking slaves."

He called Manson's three murderous disciples, who were on trial with him, "robots" and "zombies." He told jurors they eagerly killed actress Sharon Tate and seven others during a bloody, two-night rampage that terrified Los Angeles in the summer of 1969.

After all were convicted, Bugliosi would go on to recount the case in "Helter Skelter," one of the best-selling true-crime novels of all time.

He would write 11 more books after that, but Bugliosi, who died Saturday at age 80, would always be best remembered as the man who put Manson and his followers away. He reflected on the reasons for that in an interview 40 years after the slayings:

"These murders were probably the most bizarre in the recorded annals of American crime," he said. "Evil has its lure and Manson has become a metaphor for evil."

Vincent Bugliosi, Chief Prosecutor in the Manson trial talks with newsmen outside the courtroom, Jan. 26, 1971 in Los Angeles, California.

Vincent Bugliosi, Chief Prosecutor in the Manson trial talks with newsmen outside the courtroom, Jan. 26, 1971 in Los Angeles, California.

Bugliosi was a young, ambitious deputy district attorney on Aug. 9, 1969, when the bodies of Tate, the beautiful actress and wife of director Roman Polanski, and four others were discovered butchered at a hillside estate. After stabbing most of the victims repeatedly, the assailants had left behind bloody scrawlings on the door of Tate's elegant home.

Those victims included members of Hollywood's glitterati: celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Polish film director Voityck Frykowksi and Tate, who was eight months pregnant. Also killed was Steven Parent, a friend of the estate's caretaker.

A night later, two more mutilated bodies were found across town in another upscale neighborhood. The crime scene was marked with the same bloody scrawlings of words including, "Pigs," "Rise" and "Helter Skelter." The victims were grocers Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, who had no connection to Tate and her glamorous friends.

When members of the rag-tag Manson Family were caught and charged with the crimes months later, a more veteran prosecutor, Aaron Stovitz, was assigned to head the prosecutorial team.

After Stovitz made an offhand remark to reporters mocking one of the defendants he was removed and Bugliosi took over. He quickly became all but obsessed with the case.

"He was a really intense, very focused prosecutor and he worked very hard," said retired district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons, who covered the trial as a reporter. She and others noted Bugliosi even put a cot in his office so he could sleep there as the case unfolded. He tone for the trial in his opening statement and revisited it in his closing argument, denouncing Manson as a murderous cult leader with a band of female followers willing to do anything for him, including kill. Others on trial were Manson followers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten.

Charles Manson leaves a Los Angeles courtroom, Dec. 22, 1969 after telling a judge "lies have been told" about him.

Charles Manson leaves a Los Angeles courtroom, Dec. 22, 1969 after telling a judge "lies have been told" about him.

Bugliosi proposed the theory that Manson ordered the others to kill when he misinterpreted the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" as predicting a race war that he and his followers would foment.

Determined to show the breadth of the so-called Manson Family's reach, Bugliosi called 84 witnesses, most of them a parade of disaffected young people who at one point or another fell under the cult leader's sway.

The trial lasted nine-and-a-half months, cost taxpayers $1 million and became an exploration of the Manson cult and its followers' drug- and sex-fueled adoration of their leader, whom some equated to Jesus Christ.

At times the defendants sought to taunt Bugliosi, jumping up and singing in court or grabbing at his papers. At one point Manson himself picked up a copy of a newspaper with a headline noting President Nixon had already concluded he was guilty.

The trial went on for so long that a defense lawyer disappeared and was found dead in the woods, something that led to retrials for Van Houten, who was convicted again. Bugliosi maintained foul play was involved but that was never proved.

When the trial was over and all were convicted, Bugliosi wrote, "Helter Skelter."

Later he sought public office, but was defeated in bids for Los Angeles County district attorney and California attorney general. He tried his hand as a defense attorney for a time but said ne never felt comfortable in that role.

Eventually he carved out a career as a successful writer, publishing a dozen books, among them the true-crime stories "And The Sea Will Tell" and "Till Death Do Us Part." Other non-fiction works included "Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away With Murder."

He was most proud of "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," which took him 20 years to write, his son, Vincent Bugliosi Jr., said Saturday.

Born in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1934, Bugliosi attended the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Florida, on a tennis scholarship. He earned a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

He and his wife of 59 years, Gail, had two children, Wendy and Vince Jr.

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