Was Charles Manson a CIA lab rat?
The cult leader brainwashed his followers using the same techniques MKULTRA was trying to perfect.
In 1999, freelance journalist Tom O’Neill accepted what he thought would be a simple assignment: He was tapped to write a story about the Manson Family’s lasting impact on Hollywood to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders. It seemed like easy money since the infamous killings were well-trod territory. His biggest challenge—or so he thought—would be finding something new to report.
While he did stumble upon a fresh angle, O’Neill missed his deadline by 20 years. The magazine that commissioned the original article went out of business before he finished, but his reporting eventually became the basis for a book released this year titled Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.
Two decades later, he still has as many questions as answers. He only knows one thing for certain: The established narrative about the Manson murders is wrong.
O’Neill’s quixotic quest to uncover the truth about the Tate-LaBianca murders began when he interviewed Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put the Family away. Bugliosi’s bestselling true crime thriller Helter Skelter provided the canonical account of the killings. He argues in the book that Manson’s main motive was to start an apocalyptic race war by framing the Black Panthers.
Over the course of six hours, Bugliosi told O’Neill very little that he hadn’t read in the book or previous interviews, but at the very end the reporter went for the “Hail Mary” and asked Bugliosi if there was anything he could say about the case “off the record.”
In that moment, Bugliosi showed O’Neill a single loose thread, and when he pulled it, the entire Helter Skelter narrative started coming undone.
The more O’Neill looked at the case, the less the official story made sense. At best, Bugliosi had suborned perjury and distorted the facts to fit the Procrustean bed of his own pet theory. At worst, he had covered up for a conspiracy so dark and far-reaching that it would put to shame the wildest delusions of tinfoil hat-wearing crackpots.
One question in particular nagged O’Neill: Why was Manson not in prison at the time of the murders? A federal parolee and chronic recidivist with a long history of violent antisocial behavior, Manson had been arrested for multiple felonies, including statutory rape and grand theft auto, but he was never charged or had his parole violated.
The Spahn Ranch, where the Family had been living, was raided on Aug. 16, the week after the Tate-LaBianca murders. A cache of semiautomatic weapons was recovered along with stolen cars and credit cards.
They were released again without charge. According to Helter Skelter, it was a simple clerical error. The warrant had supposedly been misdated, so the Family had to be let go on a technicality. Finding this narrative extremely suspect, O’Neill tracked down the original warrant. It was dated Aug. 13 and valid for 10 days.
It was the largest police raid in the history of Los Angeles County at the time and given the amount of planning involved, it could safely be assumed that the Family had been under surveillance for quite a while. It was also likely that someone in law enforcement had been keeping tabs on Manson and his followers during the period when they were committing murders.
O’Neill had a hunch that someone was keeping Manson out on the streets, but who? And for what purpose?
It was possible that Manson might have been an FBI informant feeding the agency information about drugs or the California counterculture. It wasn’t too far-fetched. After all, the feds had allowed Whitey Bulger to continue committing crimes—even murder—while he was on their payroll.
He also entertained the idea that Manson could be a pawn in either the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) or the CIA’s Operation CHAOS, both of which were designed to disrupt and surveil the American left. O’Neill observed a similarity between the official Helter Skelter motive and the FBI’s successful efforts to assassinate or sow discord in the ranks of the Black Panthers.
O’Neill was reluctant to publish these theories because of their conspiratorial connotations. If he was going to make a sensational claim, he would need something concrete to back it up.
Smoking guns were hard to come by, but O’Neill found plenty more loose threads to pull. While interviewing Shahrokh Hatami, a celebrity photographer and close friend of Sharon Tate, O’Neill stumbled across an intriguing revelation: Hatami had been informed of the murders 90 minutes before the bodies were found.
He got a call at 7 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1969 from an acquaintance named Reeve Whitson, whom Hatami described as a “mystery man.” O’Neill found this characterization was universal among Whitson’s close friends and family, including his ex-wife and daughter, who all agreed that he was some kind of spy working either for the CIA or some front organization. When O’Neill filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the CIA issued a Glomar response: It could “neither confirm nor deny” that Whitson was ever an agent.
O’Neill thought it possible that Whitson was some kind of conman. After all, if he was a spy, then he must not have been too terribly great at his job if everyone close to him knew about it. However, it also beggars belief that some shadowy figure could con his way into the center of the trial of the century, yet still not wind up anywhere in the official narrative, including Bugliosi’s book.
When O’Neill had asked Bugliosi about Whitson, the former prosecutor said he didn’t know him, but the court records directly contradict this. It was Whitson who brought Hatami in to the prosecutor’s office.
Hatami’s testimony was used in court to establish that he had seen Manson at Tate’s house prior to the murders. When the defense challenged this, the judge called for a conference in chambers away from the jury during which Bugliosi said that Whitson had been present at the interview.
According to Hatami, Whitson had coerced a statement out of him by threatening the Iranian national with deportation, and he believed that Whitson was someone in the position to make good on that threat.
While Whitson was written out of the official version of the story that appears in Helter Skelter, he shows up in a manuscript for an unpublished book about the murders titled Five Down on Cielo Drive.
The book had three authors. One was Robert Helder, the LAPD lieutenant who headed the investigation. The second was Roger LaJeunesse, an FBI agent who had helped the LAPD in an unofficial capacity. The third was Colonel Paul Tate, a military counterintelligence officer and Sharon Tate’s father.
Whitson, who appears under the pseudonym “Walter Kern,” is described as a “police groupie.” Paul Tate had been conducting his own unofficial investigation and “Kern” was some mysterious stranger who was just along for the ride. Helder nicknamed him “Mr. Anonymous.”
In this business, as you might imagine, a policeman gets to meet many strange people. Kern was among the strangest. No one knew what he did for a living, yet he always seemed to have money and knew just about everyone on the wrong side of the tracks. I didn’t like him but he was useful.
Judging from some of Whitson’s high-level associates, it’s hard to believe that he was just a run-of-the-mill conman—or even an ordinary CIA functionary for that matter. Colonel Tate wasn’t his only contact in the intelligence world.
Whitson’s close friends included retired general Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay as well as former Nazi intelligence officer Otto Skorzeny, and mobster Charlie Baron.
He also knew just about everyone connected to the murders, including the filmmaker Roman Polanski, Sharon’s then husband, and victim Jay Sebring. Whitson was acquainted with Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson, who famously partied with the Family for a time, as well as Manson himself.
His close friend and confidant Neil Cummings told O’Neill that Whitson believed he could have stopped the murders and that he had Manson under surveillance at the time, which explains how he was able to phone Hatami with the news before the bodies were even found.
Accounts from Cummings and other sources as well as the circumstantial evidence suggest Whitson may have gone to the crime scene together with Manson himself to stage things before police arrived. The placement of the bodies was inconsistent with the killers’ testimony and there were signs that the bodies had been dragged around, O’Neill claimed.
The possibility that a CIA spook was involved in the Manson murders was tantalizing, but it didn’t amount to a coherent narrative that could completely supplant the Helter Skelter motive, so O’Neill kept digging.
To find out why Manson’s parole was never revoked despite multiple arrests, O’Neill focused his attention on Roger Smith, a grad student who briefly worked as a Manson’s parole officer while he was finishing his criminology doctorate.
Manson had been paroled in Los Angeles, but he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area without notifying the parole board, which was a violation. Though the evidence is spotty, O’Neill believes he may have been sent there.
Smith was part of two federally funded studies: The San Francisco Project, a study on parole best practices, and the Amphetamine Research Project (ARP), a study on the effects of speed on violent behavior in street gangs. Both of these projects were funded through the National Institute for Mental Health, which had been used as a front for CIA money during the MKULTRA psychedelic experiments.
Though Smith started with an average case load, but by the end of his short career as a parole officer, Manson was his only client, and the two had an unusually close relationship. During the summer of love in 1967, when Manson was transforming from a petty criminal into a murderous Svengali, Smith was instrumental in keeping him and the other members of the Family out of jail.
Manson was fond of reading Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land. Its plot about a Martian who starts a sex cult prefigured the Family in many ways. Manson gave Smith the nickname Jubal after a character in the book who acts as the main character’s protector.
Smith was the legal guardian to one of Manson’s literal children and a get-out-of-jail free card to his figurative ones. When some of Manson’s girls who were on probation got arrested, Smith spoke on their behalf and convinced a judge to release them.
Among them was Susan Atkins, who would later be the one to write “Pig” on the wall in Sharon Tate’s blood. Later, Smith would describe her as a “hard, hard woman,” but at the time, he told the judge that he was confident she would “comply willingly with any probationary conditions aimed at her rehabilitation.”
Smith also unsuccessfully attempted to get Manson permission to travel to Mexico. He had, coincidentally, been studying drug trafficking in Mexico.
Most of Smith’s records from that time are locked behind what O’Neill has referred to as a “veil of secrecy.” A defense subpoena for Manson’s federal parole file was blocked by the US attorney general during the sentencing phase of the trial, which was highly unorthodox in a death penalty case.
Through several FOIA appeals, O’Neill was able to get only 69 pages of a file that was said to be four inches thick. From what he was able to obtain, it was clear that Smith had afforded Manson “virtual immunity” from prosecution during that crucial period when he was building his following. In his thesis, written as part of his ARP study, Smith wrote about the importance of shielding test subjects from prosecution.
Smith also encouraged Manson to move to Haight-Ashbury, thinking its laid-back hippie vibe would mellow him out. But Manson’s move coincided with a dark shift in the environment of the famous San Francisco borough.
As it so happens, Smith’s speed research project was being run out of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (HAFMC). The clinic was founded by David Smith (no relation), a medical doctor and researcher.
Manson and his flock would show up regularly to avail themselves of the clinic’s services—STIs were a chronic issue for the free love cult—but they also turned up to visit Roger even after he stopped being Manson’s parole officer. According to two former doctors, the clinic was burglarized and only the files for Roger’s ARP study were stolen.
One of the reasons HAFMC could offer its services for free: Its operators were doing federally funded research. Like Roger, David had funding from federal agencies, including hefty grants from the NIMH, to study the effects of illegal drugs.
David’s research involved pumping lab rats full of speed as well as psychedelic drugs, like LSD and mescaline, and inducing aggressive states in them.
But the most famous of the researchers working out of the HAFMC was Louis Jolyon West, a psychologist who was a contractor in the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control experiments.
West was a Forrest Gump-like figure who popped up in the background of some major events in the Sixties and Seventies. He examined Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin Jack Ruby, who mysteriously developed psychotic delusions immediately following West’s visit. West was brought in to cure Patty Hearst’s Stockholm syndrome. He also famously killed an elephant with a cocktail of LSD and amphetamines while trying to induce a musth, an aggressive state that occurs during mating.
But West first rose to prominence as a psychological expert called in to deprogram some Korean War POWs who had supposedly been brainwashed into claiming that the United States had committed war crimes.
The concept of “brainwashing” had been popularized a few years prior by Edward Hunter, a journalist later revealed to be an intelligence agent, and the case of the Korean POWs was cited as a successful example. Drawing on Orientalist stereotypes, Hunter posited that the Chinese had perfected a mystical, ancient mind-control technique. The reality was much more mundane: They had been tortured into making the confession.
Nevertheless, the incident spurred a psychological arms race to find a way to produce “Manchurian Candidates” who could be programmed to carry out missions. The top-secret MKULTRA project explored a host of other intelligence applications, including interrogation, couriers with messages implanted in their subconscious and creating false memories.
It was the latter task that West was charged with.
O’Neill scoured an archive of West’s papers maintained by the UCLA Library, and discovered that the psychologist reported directly to Sydney Gottlieb, the head of MKULTRA. He also found a research paper funded by the program titled “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility” in which West wrote:
It has been found to be feasible to take the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual and, through hypnotic suggestion, bring about the subsequent conscious recall to the effect that this event never actually took place, but that a different (fictional) event actually did occur.
West references the use of “new drugs” in combination with hypnosis to deepen the trance state and increase the subject’s vulnerability to suggestion. Though it doesn’t mention LSD, the drug had only entered into psychiatric use in the United States six years before the study, so it was undoubtedly “new.” As O’Neill notes, a heavily redacted and altered version of this paper was submitted by the CIA during the Senate investigations of MKULTRA that denied the success of West’s techniques.
Another MKULTRA-funded project titled “Mass Conversion” used informants to infiltrate street gangs in order to engineer a shift in “basic moral, religious or political matters.”
Two years prior to the Tate-LaBianca murders, while Manson was under the care of Roger Smith, West warned about the rise of “LSD cults,” arguing that the drug lowered psychological defenses and appealed to youths’ desire for “shared forbidden activity in a group setting to provide a sense of belonging.” In a 1965 article titled the “Dangers of Hypnosis,” West predicted that “crackpots” might hypnotize their followers into committing violence.
During that time, he had also been working on a book he never published titled Experimental Psychopathology: The Induction of Abnormal States. Among his files, O’Neill found a press clipping dated 1963 about his address to a psychiatric association in Oregon in which West boasted, ““We are at the dawning of a new era,” West told the crowd, “learning for the first time to produce temporary mental derangement in the laboratory.” The article references the use of LSD, sleep deprivation and hypnosis to produce “ temporary mental illness effects in normal people.”
Though MKULTRA had ostensibly begun winding down by the time West moved to California, it can’t be entirely ruled out that his research was still being covertly funded by the CIA. He was still receiving grants from many of the same organizations that had served as fronts in the past, including the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry, Inc.
Moreover, his Haight-Ashbury Project (HAP) bears an uncanny resemblance to an infamous MKULTRA experiment called Operation Midnight Climax, in which fake brothels were set up throughout the Bay Area and unwitting patrons were dosed with mind-altering drugs.
For HAP, West similarly set up fake “crash pads” for hippies and had grad students dress in hippie garb to take notes on their behavior. Though the records don’t seem to indicate that the project provided the subjects with drugs, it would be consistent with the standard modus operandi of MKULTRA experiments, which tended to use marginal groups, like prisoners or mental patients.
In the end, O’Neill was never able to find a definitive link between Manson and West aside from the fact that the two had occupied the same space at the same time.
The why of the Tate-LaBianca murders was always less compelling than the how. Manson is often portrayed as some kind of criminal mastermind, but he was illiterate until his late teens. How could someone like that bind followers so irreversibly to his will that they would murder on his command?
The techniques he used were sophisticated, but Manson was not. Was it just a coincidence that he happened to frequent a clinic where the world’s foremost brainwashing expert had set up shop?
It has long been the official stated position that the CIA’s LSD experiments were a failure, but what if they weren’t?
O’Neill laid out his facts for Alan Scheflin, author of a book on the CIA’s secret experiments and asked him if this could be an MKULTRA experiment gone wrong.
He replied: “No, an MKULTRA experiment gone right.”
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