Leslie Van Houten is an American convicted murderer and former Manson Family member. She was born in Los Angeles and got addicted to substance abuse quite early in life. Her relations with her mother deteriorated after she forced Leslie to abort her baby. Leslie later became a hippie and befriended Catherine Share, who led her to Charles Manson’s commune. On August 9, 1969, Leslie, along with other Manson Family members, participated in killing Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, her sentence was later commuted to life. She has appealed for parole multiple times and been rejected. She now remains imprisoned at the California Institution for Women.
Childhood & Early Life
Leslie Louise Van Houten was born on August 23, 1949, in Altadena, a suburb of Los Angeles, California, U.S.
She was the second-born child in her middle-class family. She grew up with her older brother and two adopted siblings, a girl and a boy from Korea.
As a kid, Leslie was extroverted and athletic. She was crowned homecoming princess in high school.
Her parents divorced when Leslie was 14. Soon after this, at 15, she got addicted to drugs such as LSD, Benzedrine, and hashish.
She once ran away from home with her boyfriend and went to the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. However, she returned to complete school.
She became pregnant at 17. Following this, her mother forced her to get an abortion. However, the fetus had grown a bit by then. Thus, according to her mother’s instructions, Leslie buried the baby in their backyard. After this incident, she grew distant toward her mother.
Leslie was interested in yoga and had joined a one-year secretarial course, too. She later became a hippie and started living in a commune.
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As Part of the Manson Family
Charles Manson was a criminal who had begun his stint with crime quite early. He later wanted to be a singer. He thus went to Berkeley and moved in with a woman named Mary Brunner.
Meanwhile, Leslie Van Houten, while living in a commune in Northern California, met Catherine Share and Bobby Beausoleil. In 1968, they moved in together with another woman.
Soon after, they had arguments, and the group broke up. Catherine left to join Manson's commune. Leslie was 19 back then and followed Catherine.
She called up her mother and informed her that she would not be contacting her family again. At Manson’s home, Manson decided every little thing, such as when they would eat and with whom they would have sex.
Since August 1968, Manson and his commune stayed at the Spahn Ranch. Barbara Hoyt, a commune member, later said that Leslie was sort of a "leader" in the Manson Family.
By April 1969, Manson and his commune members had indulged in petty thefts and burglaries. Leslie broke into her father's home twice and also spent a few days in prison.
During her time as part of the Manson Family, Leslie came to be known by multiple names, such as “Louella Alexandria,” “Linda Sue Owens,” “Leslie Marie Sankston,” and “Lulu.”
On August 8, 1969, Mary was arrested by the police for credit card fraud. The same day, Manson decided his commune would kill everyone who lived at the former residence of record producer Terry Melcher, who had shattered Manson's dreams of making a name for himself in the music industry.
That night, actor Sharon Tate and three friends of hers, along with a visitor to the caretaker, were murdered at the house by commune members who were chosen by Manson. The group assigned with the task consisted of Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Tex Watson.
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Linda Kasabian, who had joined the commune just a month earlier, went with the group but stayed outside the house during the killings. Leslie later claimed she was not aware of the Tate murders until the next morning.
The following night (August 9, 1969), Manson chose the same group and included Leslie and Clem Grogan, too, to complete another murder mission. This time, Manson, too, joined the group.
The group went around Los Angeles to search for a suitable location to kill someone. Finally, they located a house in Los Feliz. It was the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, situated near a house that was rented by a close friend of Phil Kaufman. Phil was, interestingly, one of Manson's contacts from the music industry.
Manson broke into the house with Tex and then left with Clem, Susan, and Linda. Manson then sent the others to murder a Lebanese actor who had had a physical relationship with Linda, but she took Susan and Clem to an incorrect address.
Patricia and Leslie found Rosemary LaBianca resting in her bedroom. Her husband, Leno, was sleeping in the living room. Tex put pillowcases on Leno's and Rosemary’s heads and then tied an electrical cable around their necks.
Tex then stabbed Leno multiple times. Rosemary tried protecting herself and threw a lamp at Leslie. However, Leslie was successful in holding Rosemary down, while Patricia stabbed her.
Leslie called Tex for help. Tex stabbed Rosemary multiple times. He then asked Leslie to “do something” with the knife, as Manson had asked Tex to ensure everyone participated in the killings equally.
Leslie thus stabbed Rosemary's lower body from behind multiple times. Rosemary’s autopsy revealed that of all the stab wounds on her body, 47 had been inflicted after her death.
A wallet with a credit card was taken away from the house by the group and thrown away (according to Manson's instructions). They had plans to throw it at a place where a black person was likely to pick it up and use the card, thus implicating himself/herself in the killings.
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Arrest & Conviction
On August 16, 1969, Leslie Van Houten and others were booked after the police raided the Spahn Ranch while investigating petty auto thefts.
Manson believed ranch hand Donald Shea had led the police to their trail and got him killed.
The Manson Family then shifted to Barker Ranch, located in Death Valley, about 200 miles away. On October 12, 1969, Manson was arrested at the same ranch. Leslie was arrested on November 25, 1969.
While the other members of the Manson Family were reluctant to reveal much, Leslie spoke a lot and even helped the police find out the active participants in the Tate and LaBianca murders. Leslie also admitted to having had direct knowledge of the LaBianca murders.
In 1971, Leslie was sentenced to death for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. However, after a year, the death sentence was overturned, as The California Supreme Court had decided that year that the death penalty was unconstitutional.
Her first conviction, too, was overturned, as her lawyer had died before the end of the trial. She was tried two more times. While one of those two trails concluded in a hung jury, in her third trial, in 1978, she was convicted of the murders of the LaBianca couple and of one count of conspiracy. She was thus sentenced to 7 years to life in prison.
In April 2016, after 19 failed parole hearings, a parole board recommended Leslie’s release. However, Jerry Brown, the then-governor of California, vetoed the decision, saying Leslie posed "an unreasonable danger to society.” Leslie now remains imprisoned at the California Institution for Women. In 2017, Manson died in prison at the age of 83.
In July 2020, Leslie was found suitable for parole by the California Board of Parole Hearings. However, it is unlikely that she would get parole, as this decision too would be made by California governor Gavin Newsom, who had denied her parole back in 2019.
Leslie Van Houten was portrayed by Cathey Paine in the 1976 TV film Helter Skelter and by Connie Champagne in the 1989 play The Charlie Manson Story.
In the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter, Catherine Wadkins played Leslie’s role. In 2003, Amy Yates appeared as Leslie in The Manson Family.
The 2009 movie Leslie, My Name Is Evil was based on Leslie’s life.
Victoria Pedretti played Leslie in Quentin Tarantino's 2019 movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Other such projects inspired by her story were the NBC series Aquarius, the movie Manson Girls (2016), the documentary Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes (2018), and the movie Charlie Says.