Original-Cin Q&A: Was Helter Skelter a hoax? Manson doc director says yes

(See bottom of the story for a chance to win an iTunes access code for Charles Manson: The Final Words)

By Jim Slotek

Buddy Day – the Calgarian who directed the Helter-Skelter-debunking doc Charles Manson: The Final Words – vividly remembers his first phone-call from the recently deceased cult-killer.

Day, a producer of the cable true-crime series The Shocking Truth, says, “we were filming in literally middle-of-nowhere Florida, and at the end of the day we were watching Monday Night Football in an Appleby’s.

A face only a mother... or never mind. 

A face only a mother... or never mind. 

“And my phone rang and I picked it up, and it said, ‘You have a pre-paid phone call from…’ and his voice comes over the line, ‘Charles Manson.’ Then I was told to press 5 to accept.

“Then I heard, ‘Hello.’ I said, ‘Charlie?’ He said, ‘Hey man, how’s it going?’ And I said, ‘It’s going good, how’s it going with you?’ And he said, ‘Groovy man, groovy.’”

Where their opening conversation went next references the fact that 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles – where Sharon Tate and friends were killed by Manson’s followers on August 9, 1969 – was owned by record producer Terry Melcher, the son of movie star/singer Doris Day, and Charlie’s actual possible target that night.

“He said, ‘Your last name is Day. You’re not related to Doris are you?’ And I was kind of gobsmacked that he was referencing ‘The Crime’ so fast.

“I said no. He wistfully goes, ‘I used to run with her son, yeah. He was just a scared little guy, man. Always scared of everything.’ It was so surreal.’”

Three months earlier, Day had gone through contacts to write to Manson, promising to allow him to tell his side of the story. Most considered it a hopeless request.

Instead, Day would spend the next year receiving random prison calls, at a tightly-enforced 15 minutes at a time – including once during Thanksgiving dinner at his parents. “In the middle of dinner, turkey, cranberries, stuffing, the whole nine yards, my kids are running around, dogs.

“And my phone rang. And the call display was a call centre I recognized. I got up and answered it. I said, ‘Sorry, it’s Charles Manson, I gotta take this.’”

Director Buddy Day: Sorry Charlie, no relation to Doris

Director Buddy Day: Sorry Charlie, no relation to Doris

Manson died in hospital, Nov. 19, 2017 at age 83.

We talked by phone with Day, whose movie – narrated by Rob Zombie - debuts on iTunes January 30. It presents a more prosaic alternative to the famous theory of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, that Manson was trying to ignite a race war with the murders.

ORIGINAL-CIN: Why do you think Manson called you?

BUDDY DAY: “I do a lot of true crime. I live in that world and interview people who are in prison. I try not to judge people and approach them with an open mind. And in the letter to Charlie I said, ‘I’m really interested in this untold story I’ve heard about. I read Helter Skelter and a lot of it doesn’t add up to me. I’m open to the idea that there’s a story that nobody knows and I want you to let me tell it.”

Sharon Tate

Sharon Tate

OC: Were you a Manson aficionado?
DAY: “I’d read Helter Skelter, but when I got into this I tracked down with my team every single person that we could find that had anything to do with Charles Manson. And especially we tried to track down every living member of the Manson family and were pretty successful.”

OC: Bobby Beausoleil was a good ‘get.’ (Still in prison, Beausoleil was the first Family member to be convicted for a murder. The victim was named Gary Hinman. It predated the Tate/LaBianca murders).

DAY: “Bobby Beausoleil was huge. We were about half done, and we knew Bobby was a huge part of understanding what happened, because he was the first person convicted and accused of being part of the Manson family.

“I was given an email and sent it him. I think he called the next day. Bobby is super invested in the truth. One of the things he says in the doc is, ‘I’d rather die in prison than get out on a lie.’ He was intrigued that someone was reaching out to him to find out what happened, who wasn’t buying into the Helter Skelter narrative and exploring the idea that the prosecution created an alternative theory to more easily convict Charles Manson.”

OC: So, let me recap the alternative narrative of the Manson murders you present in your documentary. They were a series of murders, from (drug dealer) Bernard Crowe to Gary Hinman to Shorty Shea (a ranch-hand killed at the Family’s Spahn Ranch home) to Tate/LaBianca, whose purpose was to incriminate his followers and ensure their loyalty by making them partners in culpability.

DAY: “I think the narrative is you can’t look at the Sharon Tate murders or LaBianca murders that happened on that weekend in August of 1969 as if they took place in a bubble. You really don’t understand unless you back up and look at the context of everything that happened that whole year, especially that summer, starting with the Bernard Crowe shooting and what led to that.

“He was the first domino, and once you understand why Bernard Crowe was shot, then you understand the next murder and the next. I’m amazed when you watch high-end docs on major networks about Charles Manson, and they don’t even mention Bobby Beausoleil or Gary Hinman or Bernard Crowe.”

OC: Did Charlie ever corroborate your theory?

DAY: “If I ever just said, ‘Hey, what happened?’ he’d speak in some sort of sonnet.”

OC: I have to say, every interview I’ve ever seen, he’d talk in weird aphorisms, like an evil Matthew McConaughey.

DAY: (Laughs). “That’s actually pretty accurate. You had to confront him, and he’d be impressed. I remember me pressing him on Bernard Crowe, and he finally said, ‘Yeah, I shot the Crowe. And he told me the story of (Sharon Tate murderer) Tex Watson’s girlfriend being tied up, and Bernard was going to kill her (over a drug deal double-cross). So, they went to help him. And then it was about Bobby Beausoleil. And he’d say, ‘Yeah, we were a family and Bobby was our brother.’ (There was dispute in Beausoleil’s trial over whether Manson physically took part in the Hinman murder.).

“But you couldn’t say, ‘Why was Sharon Tate murdered?’ He’d say, ‘I have no idea. I wasn’t there. Ask the people who killed her.’

“He would speak in riddles. And I think that’s the thing that people didn’t understand about Charles Manson. He really was just a reflection of what you bring to him. If you were to approach him and look for a madman, he would give you a madman. If you were looking for a father figure, he would give you a father figure. He was able to read people and understand what they were bringing to him and give it right back to them.

“But if you approached him with no agenda, he struggled with that. I think that’s one of the reasons he kept calling me.”

OC: Okay, well here’s the part that makes me look at your theory sideways. No prosecutor wants a complicated prosecution. There are too many ways it can go wrong. And if the prosecution is fabricated, the chances of it falling apart go up exponentially. Why would Vincent Bugliosi have done this as you maintain?

“The problem the prosecution had, it was like when you convict a guy of ordering a hit, you have to hear him say it. They really had a big problem with Manson, because no one ever said that he ordered the murders. They needed to establish basically an ideology that he was promoting and say, ‘That’s how he ordered the murders without actually saying the word.’”

“Bugliosi thought it up. There’s recordings I’ve heard of (original Manson prosecutor) Aaron Stovitz, saying (to Buglioso) ‘This isn’t going to work.’ The other thing I point to, Linda Kasabian’s initial confession and Susan Atkins’ confession and Bobby Beausoleil’s, none of their confessions mention Helter Skelter. It’s not until after the grand jury indictment and well into the trial that people start talking about it.”

OC: I was fascinated by the tidbit that the Manson Family once crashed next door to (victims Rosemary and Leno) LaBianca’s house and there was a noise complaint. It seems to me, rather than making up something complex, you could do a simple prosecution saying, ‘The Tate murder happened because Charlie was angry at Terry Melcher for turning him down on a record deal, and the LaBianca murder happened because Charlie held a grudge over the noise complaint.’

DAY: “At the time, there was a movie star murdered in a brutal fashion. The news is talking about a bizarre religious ritual. The town was just terrified. And when Bugliosi took the case, he was under a lot of pressure to solve it, and the LA district attorney’s office had no idea. Terry Melcher had gone into hiding, he had no idea who was responsible. Roman Polanski was in hiding, he had no idea.

Vincent Bugliosi: A self-promoter?

Vincent Bugliosi: A self-promoter?

“And the police had literally no idea. The only reason they solved the case was that Susan Atkins confessed. Bugliosi was under immense pressure, and it was a sensational case that required a sensational explanation.

“The other thing is, he knew this case was his meal ticket. He hired Curt Gentry (co-writer of the book Helter Skelter) before the trial. He had political aspirations, and presenting a case to the jury where a movie star was murdered because of a drug deal gone wrong and grand theft auto and all these other things, not only would that have been hard to prosecute, but it wouldn’t have been very sensational and it wouldn’t have served his ambitions to have this case define his career.”

(Vincent Bugliosi died in 2015).

OC: Is the world done with Charles Manson? Is his death anticlimactic?

DAY: “Well, Michael Channels, who’s in the doc, is a friend of Charles Manson and he has a will and is suing to get ahold of his body. And there are three people who say they have claim over his estate – including a man who claims to be his son, and his actual grandson.

“I don’t know the other two parties, but I I do know Michal Channels and I have seen the document he has. It looks authentic. I don’t imagine Charlie had a lot of possessions, but there’d be rights to his name and music rights and whatever. He has a lot of music that his name is on, I would imagine it would be worth something. He has many CDs and albums.”

“And I have a lot more material and there’s a lot more story to tell. I’m speaking with people right now to see if we can tell that story.

“The doc is about the narrative and what really happened in 1969. But there’s so much more to talk about in terms of Charles Manson. He had a whole life from 1970 to 2017 in prison and people continued to follow him and form organizations around him. The people that have followed Manson, they don’t call themselves the Family anymore. They call themselves Air, Trees, Water, Animals.

“More crimes were committed and people went to prison and got out of prison. And people are still out there. So, there’s a lot to talk about.”

(Manson: The Final Words debuts on iTunes January 30. We've got five access codes to give away, and we'll draw from emails received at info@original-cin.ca by noon that day that answer this question: 'Which '60s superstar band recorded a Manson song Never Learn Not To Love?').