Tom O’Neill: Charles Manson and the CIA

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. He is also a filmmaker and published author. Listen to our podcast on iTunes and Spotify and visit our website: for videos, merchandise and more. You can also find us on Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, and Twitter.

The Truth comes out of the Process.

Twenty years ago, Tom O’Neill was a freelance journalist who had been given an assignment to write an article for the 25th anniversary of the Manson murders. He said that he had never had much interest in the murders and didn’t know much about them beyond what had been in the press at the time. It was a job for which he would be paid, nothing more than that. This resulted in an investigation which lasted twenty years, the product of which is Chaos. After reading the book I contacted Tom, requesting that he be a guest on the podcast, which he graciously accepted.

The book posits that Manson, while not innocent, was part of a much larger picture. In looking back on the Manson’s history leading up to the murders, there are many incidents that cannot be explained. Manson had an extensive criminal record and a penchant for committing federal crimes, such as taking stolen cars across state lines. He was arrested several times in the months leading up to the murders: once at Spahn Ranch in the company of firearms, drugs and stolen property (the family lived at this abandoned movie set in the middle of the desert) and again with a bag of marijuana and an underage girl. As a federal parolee, which he was at the time, either of those arrests should have sent him back to prison. So why wasn’t he? Why was he allowed to be out on the street, travelling back and forth between Los Angeles and Northern California with no job and no address? O’Neill tracked down and interviewed people who worked for the Parole Board at the time and no one could or would provide any reasonable explanation.

The theory is that Manson was some sort of informant for law enforcement, which was in turn involved in a much larger program being run by the CIA to study the effects of amphetamines on the population living in the Haight section of San Francisco.

O’Neill described how he went about trying to get information about certain individuals who had connections to the case and also to the CIA. There are some strange cross-currents. However, organizations such as the CIA will never give up information, even about a forty year old case. There is just no upside for them. The answer he received more often than not was, “We can neither confirm nor deny that the person ever worked for the CIA.” Filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act is a lesson is futility.

He details interviewing former detectives and parole officers and others who had dealt with Manson. Some were willing to talk; others were not. He went to see Vincent Bugliosi, who had the files for the case laid out on his kitchen table and, before O’Neill could even ask any questions, launched into a tirade about how well he had handled the case and Manson was guilty etc. O’Neill later found documents, hand written notes, that proved Bugliosi had hidden evidence and not interviewed key witnesses.

It was Bugliosi who pushed the whole Helter Skelter theory, which upon further examination does not hold much water. Why? Because people needed a reason for why these nice, middle class kids slaughtered these people.

Why do powerful people get so angry when someone confronts them with questions? Why do organizations cover up information? It is because they have too much to lose. They rest their power on these stories. It doesn’t matter if the stories are true or not.

So how do we get to the truth?

Most interviewers just would ask him about Manson being a CIA informant. I wanted to how he even got there. In one of the pictures in his book, a dry white erase board can be seen hung on the wall in his office. It looks like a piece of abstract art; there are names and dates and arrows pointing every which way, a like a connect the dots game. It’s fascinating; I wanted to know about the white board. And he really wanted to talk about that. People who love what they do love to talk about how they do it. We never get to see that.

The more I asked him about the whole process the more interested we both got.

“So how does it work when you are doing research and interviewing people? Do you read a name in a file and then go talk to that person and that person tells you that you have to go talk to this person? How does that work?”

He started to answer my question, then paused and replied the following.

“You know. I’ve done thirty or forty of these interviews and no one ever asks me these questions. And I love talking about this stuff.”

The process reveals the truth. O’Neill had to talk to one person in order to get a piece of truth, a name, a date, the location of a file, and use that to get to another person or file to get another piece of truth. As it went on and O’Neill looked at more files and talked to more people, more of truth was revealed. It is the revealing that is so exciting to the person doing the work. O’Neill was doing this research twenty five years after the murders had taken place. He was the outsider, looking in. What everyone else had taken for granted, he was skeptical of. He was seeing a truth that for decades no one could or would see. They, law enforcement and the public, had become used to one truth: Manson told those kids to kill those people because he wanted to ignite a race war because he was an ego-maniacal sociopath, full stop. Is there some truth to that? Of course there is.

But is that the whole truth?

There is evidence that Manson had been to the residence where Sharon Tate was living with Roman Polanski before. Manson had glommed on to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys who in turn had introduced him to record producer Terry Melcher. Manson, an aspiring musician, thought Melcher would give him a record deal. Melcher had lived at the residence before Polanski and Tate and Manson came looking for him. The killings were simple revenge.

However, many people connected with the case feel that there was much more to it. There were shady characters hanging around that house, people with ties to the drug market. Those people, in turn, had connections with the CIA. Melcher and Wilson had relationships with these people as well. They always downplayed their association with Manson and the rest of that crowd but they were terrified of anymore involvement with the situation. Bugliosi never called them to testify at the trial; O’Neill feels that they just did not support his Helter Skelter narrative so they would not do his case any good.

The Folgers, who were murdered by the Family as well, seem to be collateral damage.

O’Neill is not saying that the CIA murdered these people. But there seems to be a much larger story than Manson, a different story, a different truth. However, blaming Manson is much simpler. We believe what we want to believe. It is easier to blame drugs and hippie degeneracy and Manson because it is comfortable. As long as he is locked up, all is well again. It reinforces our sense of comfort in the status quo: everything, according to the powers that be, is right again.

However, it also reinforces our fear of change, of people with different values. It reinforces our excuses to not change, because change is dangerous, even deadly. The Manson murders were used to discredit a whole way of life, one with different values, values that do not support blind obedience to God, country and capitalism.

The powers that be want us out there buying things, not marching. They want us working, not having free time to think. We need to be productive citizens; we need to contribute to the economy, we need to earn more money to buy more stuff to be valuable.

The status quo must be preserved.

It was so long ago that one could say it doesn’t really matter. Manson is dead, Bugliosi is dead; the rest are in jail or scattered, so who cares? But it does matter. We have to keep asking these questions because those in power need to be held accountable; they need to tell the truth. If they are not held accountable for their decisions, decisions which cause innocent people to be harmed, it will happen again.