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Road to redemption can't erase that night drive

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Since bad parenting never takes a vacation, my boys and I recently visited the Criminals Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a cheesy little monument to brutality presented as a wax gallery of serial killers, mobsters, Lizzie Borden and those pesky outlaws of yesteryear.

Wax rendering is apparently a difficult art, which explains how Albert DeSalvo, supposedly The Boston Strangler, looks jarringly like Chilly Billy. Still, you know you are carefully, prudently molding young lives when you're explaining to the 13-year-old how it is that Jeffrey Dahmer can be depicted standing next to an open refrigerator crammed with body parts and still have that vaguely disappointed "there's-never-anything-to-eat-in-here" look on his face.

In any event, most of the written display on the tour is devoted to Charles Manson, and, despite fewer than two dozen misspellings, it was this dubious text rather than the wax that triggered most of the discussion.

Having long since conferred upon "Helter Skelter," the Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry book about the Manson murders, the mantle of scariest book I've ever read (and that includes way too many Stephen King novels), and having owned and listened intently to the savagely misinterpreted Beatles' white album at the time of the singularly notorious crimes, I am at least minimally conversant on this sordid topic. Thus, thankfully, I was able to outlast the attention span of the offspring without noticeable damage to any of us.

Unfortunately, unlike them, I was not off the hook.

Within five hours of re-entering the country, I channel-surfed from the love seat smack into the wrinkled upper lip of one Leslie Van Houton, whose interminable parole hearings ought to be their own cable channel. VH2, or something. What was this, Session 96 of the Van Houton hearings? Fourteen, it turned out, and I swear I've seen all of them.

To refresh, Leslie was an active participant the night 33 years ago when she and some friends, activated by Manson, carved the word WAR into the chest of Leno LaBianca and drove 41 stab wounds into the torso of his wife, Rosemary, in the Los Angeles hills. It was the night after Manson's "A" Team slaughtered five others, including actress Sharon Tate, at her home a few miles away.

Again on my TV, Leslie was seated in her unearthly calm across a polished table from a California parole board, looking like your typical 52-year-old librarian and not at all like the unimaginable monster of a slasher film come to life. Her story was essentially the same. Her life in prison has been a lot more productive than her some 19 years out of it. She's earned a degree in English lit. She knits quilts for the homeless. She's active in drug counseling. She's awfully sorry. If any one of the aging Manson babes is ever going to see the outside, it's going to be Leslie.

And again, the parole board most purposefully coaxed from her a play-by-play of the early morning hours of Aug. 10, 1969, which again corresponded faithfully with what she'd told prosecutors and journalists right up through her typically chilling interview with Larry King eight years ago on the 25th anniversary of the crimes. She'd driven around Los Angeles that night with Manson and five others, hour after hour, until Manson selected the home of the victims totally at random. That's why, in the book, Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor, would correctly state, "up to this time no one in the vast, sprawling metropolis of seven million people, whether in a home, a church, or even a car, was safe from Manson's insatiable lust for death, blood, and murder."

And still again, the niece and nephew of the LaBiancas wiped at tears and flashed pointedly at Leslie the familiar verbal trump card, "at least you've got a life."

So guess what? Parole was denied. Again. What an upset. Why do I watch this? You're never seeing the light of day, Leslie Van Houton. She has a better chance of piloting the space shuttle than she has of being paroled. Even if the board were to recommend her for parole, the governor would reject it reflexively, and he'd be right. The crime, the board has said previously with perfect eloquence, "eclipsed the imagination."

Manson himself walked into the LaBianca house and tied up the victims. He returned to the car, told lieutenant Tex Watson to "make sure everybody does something," and drove off. Later, when Watson saw Leslie in the hall between where Leno was being executed in the living room and his wife was struggling in the bedroom, he said, "Do something." So Leslie stabbed Rosemary in the lower back, by her own count, "14 to 16 times."

I got off the love seat about 1:30 in the morning and went to bed. At 4:45 a.m., I awoke with my lower back screaming. I went downstairs for some Advil. A car went down the street. At 4:45 a.m.?

Note to self: Next vacation, go back to the beach.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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