Christmas With the Devil
“The true meaning of Christmas gets lost when we believe contrary worldviews,” the prisoner writes. “Our beliefs determine our views in a world where absolutes are fading away.” The prisoner is dictating this for his newsletter.
Come-to-Jesus (or -Allah) experiences abound in prisons, so it’s always wise to take conversion stories with a grain of salt. Most of us will look for certain signs: Is the guilty man able to articulate his repentance in something other than self-serving terms? With God’s help I have been able to forgive myself just doesn’t cut it. Also, has the guilty man embraced the justice meted out by the court system? Or does his conversion conveniently coincide with an appeal? Furthermore, is the guilty man faithful, both in his confession and his conduct, and for how long?
This will be the prisoner’s 38th Christmas behind bars. In 1975 he became a Christian, and in 1980 he founded Abounding Love Ministries, preaching the Gospel on the inside and sharing his faith through books and his monthly newsletter.
“If justice would’ve been served, I would’ve gotten the death penalty,” says the prisoner. “I hope that in no way have I ever given the impression that I blame anything on my parents or drugs . . . I take full responsibility.”
Over the years, the prisoner has received stacks of mail from women—some curious, some bizarre, some out of Christian love. Some 20 years ago, he began corresponding with a woman named Susan LaBerge. She identified herself as a new Christian who was reaching out to him with the love and forgiveness of Christ. He began sending her his newsletter and personal letters of thanks for her encouragement. Susan said that as she read his letters her chest pounded, and she “cried and cried, realizing he’d come to the Lord, and I’ve come to the Lord.”
After a year of correspondence, the prisoner was surprised to read that Susan wanted to visit him in person. Letters are one thing, but you just never know what sort of person you’re going to find in the visiting room. Anyone can fake the lingo of Christianity in a letter. What was she up to?
When Susan arrived at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, she seemed pleasant, peaceful. They talked for some time, sharing with each other about their faith, how it was that they had become Christians. As it turned out, Susan had grown up in the area where the prisoner had committed his crimes at age 23. She had been 21 years old at the time.
There was more. She hadn’t been sure whether she would say it, but his faith seemed genuine. “There’s something I want to tell you,” she said, and he braced himself. Was this the moment he’d dreaded? Or worse, was she a member of the Family, come to try to work some sort of spell on him?
“My mother was Rosemary LaBianca,” she said.
“You’re kidding,” he said, stunned.
“I’m not kidding.”
They sat and wept. In fact, he weeps again, retelling the story.
On August 10, 1969, Charles “Tex” Watson, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel stabbed Susan’s mother 41 times in her bedroom. They killed her stepfather, Leno, in the living room in a similarly gruesome manner and, on the orders of Charles Manson, “left something witchy” behind: the words “Death to pigs” and “Rise” written in Leno’s blood on the wall, and “War” carved into his abdomen. The night before, the man who claimed to be Jesus Christ had told Tex to round up the girls and begin “Helter Skelter,” an apocalyptic black uprising against whites. Manson thought “blackie was too ignorant” to get the ball rolling, so he sent out his drug-addled apostles. Before butchering a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends, Watson told them, “I am the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business.”
Charles Watson was, in fact, given the death penalty, along with Manson and all of the women who participated in those crimes, but the state of California outlawed the death penalty in 1972, which commuted all of their sentences to life in prison.
On the evening of August 10, 1969, Susan, her boyfriend, and her 15-year-old brother entered the kitchen of the LaBianca residence and were greeted by the words “Healter [sic] Skelter” written in blood on the refrigerator.
“All I felt from Susan,” said the prisoner, “was love.” He calls it a miracle.
Susan LaBerge testified at a parole hearing that Charles Watson had changed. This enraged Sharon Tate’s mother, nerves still raw, and she called Susan a “stupid sh-t.” Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi commented that, when it comes to parole, it doesn’t matter whether Watson has changed. To let him out would be a miscarriage of justice. Indeed, as Bugliosi and Watson have both said, justice requires the death penalty. Watson knows he’ll never be a free man, not in this life.
Another Manson Family member will spend this Christmas free for the first time in 34 years. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, convicted in 1975 of attempting to assassinate President Ford, was released from prison in August. In interviews over the years, she maintained her love for the Jesus-of-Death-Valley, who “gave me everything.”
Back in Mule Creek, the prisoner will be celebrating the birth of the Child Who gave him everything, including forgiveness undeserved.
This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.