LOS ANGELES — A woman once under the spell of Charles Manson testified Thursday that the violent and manipulative cult leader threatened to have her die a painful death if she left the ranch where they lived.
Catherine Share told a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that Manson once severely beat her and got a male cult member to vow that if she ever fled the man would hunt her down and drag her back behind a car.
The unusual testimony nearly 50 years after Manson’s followers terrorized Los Angeles during two nights of bloody rampages that killed seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, was to support a parole bid by fellow “family” member Leslie Van Houten.
Van Houten’s lawyer wants to show a state parole board that his client was under the sway of the twisted leader and more likely to make bad choices at the age of 19.
“Some people could not leave. I was one of them that could not leave,” said Share, who said she later regretted enticing Van Houten to join the cult. “I don’t think (Van Houten) felt like she was free to leave.”
Share acknowledged in her testimony that she didn’t know for a fact that Van Houten had been prohibited from leaving the cult, or hadn’t actually left at some point. She also acknowledged that others had left the Manson clan without being harmed.
A recent change in California law enables those who committed crimes when they were younger than 23 to seek a hearing on the role their youth may have played. The issues can later be introduced at a parole hearing to evaluate whether a prisoner is fit for release.
“Everyone is confused about how could someone who grew up like she did end up there,” attorney Rich Pfeiffer said.
Van Houten, 68, and serving up to a life sentence for the deaths, did not attend the hearing in part because she recently broke her knee cap, Pfeiffer said.
Van Houten was 19 when she and fellow cult members stabbed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca to death in 1969. The killings took place a day after other so-called Manson family members murdered Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, and four others in crimes that shocked the world.
Share was not involved in the killings, but served prison time later for armed robberies. Police said she also was involved in a plot to break Manson and other family members out of prison, though Share denied that. She said the plan was to help a boyfriend’s brother get out of jail.
Last year, a parole panel recommended Van Houten be released after she had completed college degrees and been commended for her behavior as a model prisoner. But Gov. Jerry Brown denied her parole, saying she failed to explain how she transformed from an upstanding teen to a killer.
Pfeiffer asked Judge William Ryan to compel prosecutors to turn over decades-old recordings of a conversation between former cult member Charles “Tex” Watson and his attorney in the hopes they may benefit Van Houten and help secure her release.
Prosecutors, who have vigorously fought Van Houten’s release, objected to giving up the tapes. The judge began reading some 300 pages of transcripts of the recordings to see if there was information relevant to Van Houten’s case.
Ryan said there were at least eight references to Van Houten in the 85 pages he had a chance to read before the hearing.
Authorities had once asserted the tapes included evidence of other killings and their release could jeopardize those investigations, Pfeiffer said. But Ryan said a detective acknowledged during a meeting in his chambers that there are no active investigations related to them at this time.
Van Houten was the youngest Manson follower to take part in the killings after joining the cult in the 1960s.
During her parole hearing last year, she said the murders were the start of what Manson believed was a coming race war that he dubbed “Helter Skelter,” after a Beatles song, and that he had the group prepare to fight and learn to can food so they could go underground and live in a hole in the desert.
Van Houten’s parole hearing is scheduled Wednesday. She was convicted in 1978 of two counts of murder and conspiracy after an earlier conviction was overturned on appeal.
Manson, 82, and other followers involved in the killings are still jailed. Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel have each been denied parole multiple times, while fellow defendant Susan Atkins died in prison in 2009.
Family member Bruce Davis also was recommended for parole, but Brown blocked his release.
Debra Tate, the only surviving member of her family, attended the hearing as she’s done for decades at all Manson-related parole bids. Even though Van Houten’s case did not involve her sister’s killing, she said she was asked to also represent the LaBianca family.
She does not think Van Houten or any of the Manson cult should ever go free.
“It was particularly vicious,” Tate said outside court. “This was an act of domestic terrorism, in my opinion. And there was group collusion with a much larger agenda and for that reason I don’t think any of these people should be paroled.”