Sarasota woman telling Charles Manson's story

Sarasota woman telling Charles Manson's story


Heidi Ley holds a book on Charles Manson at her Palmer Ranch home. Ley is working on her own book about the Manson case. Of the roughly 160 books already written on Manson, she's read about half. "Most of them are bad," she says.

By Billy Cox

13 dez. / 2011 - SARASOTA - Fan mail to Charles Manson rolls in from as far away as Germany, on postcards and stationery and folded notebook paper. In varying modes of legibility, all are seeking a personal audience with arguably the most notorious convict in American history.

A young woman from Louisville, Ky., approaches her 25th birthday with trepidation. "I realize now that I have so little control over my life," she confesses, "and that can be very frightening."

A man who identifies himself as a former police chief wants "to let you know that someone in Pennsylvania is praying for you."

An admirer in Beijing is practically breathless, as if addressing an oracle: "Your words about mankind's stupid self-destructiveness are coming true."

Fifteen such missives have been stashed into a large white envelope that now rests on the immaculate kitchen counter of Palmer Ranch resident Heidi Ley. It bears the postmark of California's Corcoran State Prison.

Manson has scribbled his name and return address in green felt-tip pen on the outside, and included a brief note on yellow legal paper that ends with a "Happy Mothers Day" wish. He adds, "Looking forward to seeing you Let me know when."

Ley is on a first-name basis with the man whose image is synonymous with psycho killer. She calls him Charlie. She says, "Charlie gets so much mail, he usually just scans it and gives it away to other inmates." Sometimes he mails it to Heidi. "Kind of wild, isn't it?"

It is so wild that her husband, Alex Ley, doesn't bother to answer their land-line phone these days. He lets Heidi grab it. Because it might be Manson. Again. And he doesn't want to talk to the guy.

Still, the end is in sight for a laid-off financial analyst closing in on her dream of becoming a writer, even as a biographer who thought he was losing his mind during his own Manson odyssey years ago expresses reservations over Ley's zeal. He says, "She's fallen a little bit under his spell, I fear."

Heidi Ley shrugs off that critique with a smile that could pass for a wince. She insists she's in control. And she predicts her manuscript will be the last word on the nightmare known as "Helter Skelter."


Charles Manson in 2009 and 1970.

Manson's allure

Ley was born in 1968, too young to remember when Manson's cult of young drifters and castoff hippie chicks ignited a killing spree that left seven people dead, including the mutilation of pregnant actress Sharon Tate, in southern California.

Manson never bloodied his own hands in the residential massacres of Aug. 8-9, 1969, which would become known as the Tate-LaBianca murders. But he was convicted in 1971 of murder conspiracy in the aftermath of a carnage so grotesque, Manson occupies a unique niche as a living archetype.

Theatrical, mesmerizing, and prone to arm-flinging rants when camera lights flash, Manson has been scrutinized in roughly 160 books, by Ley's count. She says she's read 80. "Most of them are bad."

No matter — consumer appetites appear bottomless.

Autographs, CD recordings of his music, and even Manson's alleged sandals are available for sale online, where memorable interviews with the likes of Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera and Charlie Rose perpetuate his equally memorable quotes: "You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy."

Manson's songs have been recorded by The Beach Boys and Guns 'N' Roses and White Zombie, his life compressed into network specials and documentaries. His legacy has been played out in eclectic forums, from an opera called "The Family" to the punk-inflected animated puppet movie, "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!" to the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Assassins."

Two more biopics — "The Family" and "Manson Girls" — went into production this year.

For Syracuse University American pop culture critic Robert Thompson, Manson's enduring and cross-generational appeal can't be explained solely by the brutality of a celebrity murder inspired by the lyrics from "Helter Skelter," off The Beatles' 1968 White Album.

"For one thing," Thompson says, "this guy is accessible. He talks to people. He keeps granting interviews. He stays in the news."

Indeed, Manson, 77, made headlines in February for getting busted for text-messaging and cell-phoning from prison without permission. A month before, controversial Italian lawyer Giovanni di Stefano — who once defended Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosovic — announced his intentions to legally represent Manson.

And in April, Manson told a Spanish magazine that President Obama was "a slave of Wall Street," then decried the lack of a concerted effort to fight global warming.

But the real allure, says Thompson, is more insidious.

"I hate to use this word, but there's also a comic aspect to what he says. It's almost like listening to Charlie Sheen. At first it sounds crazy, but if you listen to him long enough, with the lyrical use of metaphors, it's so literate it starts to make a certain kind of sense."

Ley knows exactly what Thompson means. When she found herself face to face with infamy's biggest rock star, Manson's only request was so surprising she couldn't help but laugh. "He said, 'I need more hair product.'"

A critical eye

When she was growing up in rural Washington Courthouse, Ohio, Heidi Ley and her best friend liked to scare the bejeebers out of each other during sleepovers by watching horror flicks like "The Shining" and "Hell Night" and all the "Friday the 13th" sequels.

Manson's Savior Project is supported by a California environmental group called ATWA (Air Trees Water Animals); the director is a 62-year-old man called Gray Wolf. Gray Wolf declined to talk with the Herald-Tribune. Ley decided to make her move by volunteering for ATWA.

"Charlie's all about trust," she says. "And he's always been really big on environmental issues."

Ley's primary contribution involved researching what sorts of tree seeds are best suited for various regions of the U.S. She would travel to California, meet Gray Wolf, and fraternize with associates who would ultimately vouch for Ley's credibility.

"When I went to Gray Wolf's house and met all his friends, it was definitely strange. It was like being in a movie," Ley recalls. "It was sort of a hippie scene, like from the '60s. I was never concerned about Charlie. I was more worried about his friends."

Ley's research also led her to follow the threads of five sons from Manson's scattered biological family, one of whom committed suicide. She says another, Matthew Roberts, has agreed to contribute a chapter to her book. Author Matera is impressed by her tenacity, and says her discovery of a fifth son may be the most intriguing part of her research.

"I mean, can you imagine being one of Manson's kids?" he wonders. "Would you cringe every time you looked in the mirror, knowing you have these genes in you and wondering if you were going to kill Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson?"

Last year, Ley was approved for a prison visit. She put her name on the guest list of one of Manson's inmate friends, Frank Reichard, to circumvent additional red tape.

In August 2010, she drove a rental car north from Bakersfield, across 60 miles of desolate rolling scrub and high desert. She wound up at the razor wire fences and guard towers of Corcoran State Prison, the last stop for mass murderer Juan Corona, Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan, and "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector.

'This little old guy'

Ley met Gray Wolf on site, surrendered her jewelry to authorities, and passed through a metal detector. They filed onto a bus for the 10-minute ride to Corcoran's security housing units, where she was screened by a second scanner. Security housing is for high-risk convicts like Manson, who was doused in paint thinner and set afire by a fellow inmate in 1984.

She was escorted by armed guard through two double doors down a long hallway and into an open commons area with vending machines and bolted-down furniture. A handful of inmates idled with their families. Frank Reichard strolled in and made small talk.

Manson arrived 15 minutes later, wearing orange prison garb. Nearly eye level with his fabled forehead swastika, Ley was surprised by "this little old guy" with the grey beard and collar-length hair, who stood a mere 5-foot-2. He asked her "How was the trip?" The meeting was largely uneventful. Manson spoke quietly, mainly with Gray Wolf. Ley says she was content to hang back and watch.

"I told him about the book and he said 'As long as you get the information about ATWA in there, that's all I care about.'"

No rants. No crazy dance. She gave him her address and phone number. Their first meeting was over within 30 minutes.

Bridge established, Ley would return to Corcoran in November 2010, and again in February this year, to compare notes. Between visits, he would send snail-mail letters and dial her up, usually between 10 and 11 p.m. Sometimes he would go months without phoning; other times, he might make three calls back-to-back.

Mostly, she says, Manson rambles about the environment. "He's not religious," Ley says, "but he talks about God a lot, about how people take and take and take without giving back, and that they're all going to have to be accountable and face the Lord someday."

Says Alex Ley, "I hear her talking to him and it's kind of bizarre. It's not exactly what I dream of my wife doing, talking to Charles Manson. It's not something I bring up in conversation with friends.

"But I learned not to underestimate Heidi. She keeps surpassing my expectations."

Ley says her research does nothing to refute Manson's profile as a manipulative misfit. But she also maintains he's not a deranged killer. "He's been incarcerated most of his life, so I don't think he should be released from custody," she says. "But I don't think he belongs in prison, either."

Ley says her primary goal is to prove Bugliosi's helter-skelter theory was a frame-up. "He gave the polygraph test to every suspect but wouldn't give one to Manson. He knew Manson would pass."

In a series of voice-messages left with the Herald-Tribune, Bugliosi argues subjecting Manson to a polygraph test would have been counterproductive.

"Manson was a sociopath, and sociopaths don't normally respond to lie detector tests because they don't feel they've done anything wrong," he says.

"There's got to be some anxiety over what you're saying, that you're telling a lie, but there's no internal physiological response that would've been picked up because they have no sense of guilt over what they did.

"Manson could probably pass a lie detector test. Hitler could probably pass a lie detector test."

Closing the book

Heidi Ley has finished her manuscript and is collaborating with connected New York ghostwriter Dan Simone. Simone is finishing a project with Henry Hill — the "Goodfellas" mobster-turned-FBI informant — on the infamous 1978 Lufthansa airlines heist. He intends to turn the project into both a screenplay and perhaps a trilogy of books, tentatively titled, "Charles Manson's Final Say."

Simone says he agreed to work with Ley because of her "remarkable research. She's uncovered facts that I don't think people involved in the arrest and prosecution were aware of." He says he wants to develop a narrative nonfiction drama along the lines of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

Should Ley succeed, it would have to qualify as one of the most unlikely career makeovers produced by the Great Recession.

And yet, even after mastering every detail of the Tate-LaBianca murders — "I know the crimes like the back of my hand," she says — Ley finds herself at a conversational distance. Family members never ask about her three-year obsession. It is not a cocktail-party conversation-starter. From start to finish, her Manson research has been an isolating enterprise whose ultimate revelations may, in the end, be exclusively personal.

"This has been the greatest learning experience ever," she says. "I guess the biggest thing was learning to believe in yourself. Don't listen to other people. We all have a center and we need to find it."

But recently, late one night as she huddled over the keyboards, something occurred to her. Perhaps it was a moment of clarity, or maybe something darker.

The woman who invested years into cultivating Manson's trust had gotten what she needed. And she no longer wanted him, or Corcoran State Prison, in her life. It was as effortless as clicking the off button on the remote control.

Says Heidi Ley, "I don't want to go back."

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