Damian Dovarganes / AFP file
Corrections officer Sandra Fuentes (L) assists inmate Leslie Van Houten (R) as arrives for her parole hearing before members of the Board of Prison Terms 28 June 2002 at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California.
CHINO, Calif. — Former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten told a parole board on Wednesday, in unprecedented detail, how committed she was to the murders Manson ordered — but insisted that she has changed and is trying to live a life for healing.
The 63-year-old Van Houten addressed the board during her 20th parole hearing. Hours later the California parole board announced they had denied Houten’s release.
"I know I did something that is unforgiveable, but I can create a world where I make amends," Van Houten said. "I'm trying to be someone who lives a life for healing rather than destruction."
Van Houten was convicted of murder and conspiracy for her role in the slayings of wealthy Los Angeles grocers Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. They were stabbed to death in August 1969, one night after Manson's followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others, including celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, filmmaker Voityck Frykowksi and Steven Parent, a friend of the Tate estate's caretaker.
Van Houten did not participate in the Tate killings but went along the next night when the La Biancas were slain in their home. During the penalty phase of her trial she confessed to joining in stabbing Mrs. La Bianca after she was dead.
With survivors of the LaBiancas sitting behind her at the California Institution for Women, Van Houten admitted she participated in the killings ordered by Manson.
"He could never have done what he did without people like me," said Van Houten, who has been in custody for 44 years.
After years of therapy and self-examination, she said, she realizes that what she did was "like a pebble falling in a pond which affected so many people."
"Mr. and Mrs. La Bianca died the worst possible deaths a human being can," she said. "It affected their families. It affected the community of Los Angeles, which lived in fear. And it destroyed the peace movement going on at the time, and tainted everything from 1969 on."
Van Houten was portrayed at trial by her defense lawyers as the youngest and least culpable of those convicted with Manson, a young woman from a good family who had been a homecoming princess and showed promise until she became involved with drugs and was recruited into Manson's murderous cult.
Now deeply wrinkled with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail, Van Houten at times seemed near tears but did not break down at the Wednesday hearing.
She said in strong terms that she had never resisted Manson's call to participate in fomenting a race-based revolution.
She said that when she heard the Manson family had killed Tate and others, she felt left out and asked to go along the second night.
Parole board commissioner Jeffrey Ferguson asked her, "You felt left out and you wanted to be included the next time, is that correct?"
"Yes," Van Houten said, adding that another of the women tried with Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, had been like a sister to her and she knew that Krenwinkel had participated in the first round of killing.
"She had crossed the line in her commitment to the race war and I wanted to cross the line, too. ... It was something that had to be done," she said.
Van Houten said she was heavily into drugs at that time, using everything from marijuana to LSD and methamphetamines. But she said on the night the La Biancas were slain she was not on drugs.
Ferguson asked if she had any moral compunction about what she was doing.
She said she did not.
"I twisted myself to the point where I thought this had to be done and I participated," she said.
Asked if she would have done the same had children been involved, she answered, "I can't say I wouldn't have done that. I'd like to say I wouldn't, but I don't know."
Asked to explain her actions, she said, "I feel that at that point I had really lost my humanity and I can't know how far I would have gone. I had no regard for life and no measurement of my limitations."
Van Houten has previously been commended for her work helping elderly women inmates at the California Institution for Women where she and other Manson women have been incarcerated. She earned two college degrees while in custody.
If paroled, she would be reversing a trend. Other members of Manson's murderous "family" have lost bids for parole.
One former Manson follower, Bruce Davis, actually was approved for parole last year only to have Gov. Jerry Brown veto the plan in March, saying he wanted the 70-year-old Davis to reveal more details about the killings of a stunt man and a musician. Davis was not involved in the slayings of actress Sharon Tate and six others.
She was convicted along with Manson, Susan Atkins and Krenwinkel. Van Houten was sentenced to death along with them but their sentences were reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole when the death penalty was briefly outlawed in the 1970s.
Manson himself, now 78, has stopped coming to parole hearings, sending word to officials that prison is his home and he wants to stay there.