When her big brother’s murderers were captured, tried and convicted, Peggy DiMaria thought justice had been served for the evil crimes that proved to Americans feeling safe in their homes no longer was a sure thing.
The Henderson resident also thought justice had been guaranteed after the madman behind her brother’s killing, Charles Manson, and four of his followers — Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — were sentenced to the death penalty.
Then the unthinkable happened.
LIFE WITH PAROLE
In 1972, the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty. Life with the possibility of parole was permitted. Eventually, these five heartless, vicious murderers began applying for parole, only to be rejected.
Peggy, her husband Tony, and their grown children Anthony, Christy and Mishele are now speaking out as a family because in April, the parole board recommended the release of one of the five, Van Houten. Commissioners said she had been a model prisoner and a changed person from the bloodthirsty 19-year-old who helped with the killings in August 1969.
The DiMaria family was horrified. They wrote Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to block her parole.
“Considering the severe gravity of her crimes, the cruel and sadistic nature, the unspeakable suffering of her victims, the permanent loss to their families, and the poisonous impact on society today — we ask that you revoke parole to Inmate Van Houten,” they wrote.
On July 22, Brown’s decision became public. Van Houten “remains an unacceptable risk to society.” She would not go free.
“We are all relieved for his just decision, we were so thankful,” DiMaria said after learning of Brown’s decision.“My whole family will be forever grateful.”
A GRUESOME SPREE
DiMaria’s big brother was noted hairstylist Jay Sebring, who along with actress Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, writer Wojciech Frykowski and teenager Steve Parent, was slaughtered in Tate’s rental in the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 1969.
At Manson’s bidding, four people broke into the Los Angeles home where Tate, eight months pregnant, was living along with Folger and her boyfriend Frykowski, and murdered everyone there, including the visiting Sebring, Tate’s former fiancé.
Shortly after midnight, the incomprehensible slayings started.
Parent, 18, was the first to die. He was shot and killed as he was driving away after visiting a friend in the guesthouse.
Sebring was the first to die inside the house, shot and stabbed seven times.
Tate was the last, forced to watch the others.
The victims were chosen by Manson not for anything they had done, but to make a political statement. Manson wanted to start a race war.
Manson didn’t stop there. He ordered minions Krenwinkel, Van Houten, Watson and Linda Kasabian to find others to kill. On Aug. 10, 1969, they drove around Los Angeles before breaking into the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, murdering them, leaving another gruesome scene.
Van Houten held down Rosemary LaBianca so she could first watch her husband murdered, knowing she would be next.
THE PAIN NEVER ENDS
But for Peggy DiMaria and her family, this isn’t the end. Van Houten again will seek parole.
Two of Sebring’s killers are up for parole this year — Watson and Krenwinkel. Atkins died of cancer in 2009.
For DiMaria, testifying at parole hearings is gut wrenching. But the family has committed to speak out for her brother and all the victims.
“This is like an open sore, it’s always open,” said Peggy, 71, during a lengthy interview July 18 at her Henderson home. “Periodically it festers and never goes away. It’s like going into a deep black hole.”
Year after year, members of the DiMaria family traveled from Southern Nevada to prisons in California to address parole officials. Peggy believes their testimony during 13 hearings has made a difference by speaking for the dead and showing that the families still suffer 47 years later.
Over the years commissioners are told by attorneys how wonderful these murderers are, what good deeds they have done in prison, she said.
“We won’t stop, we want them to remember the victims,” she said.
“It’s an injustice to release these people under any circumstances,” said her husband, Tony, 70. “If they can do any good, do it inside the system.”
The five DiMarias work as hairstylists at DiMaria Salon in Henderson. Anthony, 50, works there part time and is an actor as well, with a small role in Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Cafe Society.”
The family continues to suffer from the publicity generated by the seven murders. Particularly upsetting are the falsehoods. Life magazine ran a headline reading “Live Freaky, Die Freaky.” Some media reports suggested the gathering at Tate’s home was some sort of drug-fueled bash.
Anthony, who began researching the murders in 1999 in order to film a documentary on his uncle’s life, has the coroner’s report. There were no drugs in his uncle’s system.
Even for daughters Christy, 45, and Mishele, 34, who weren’t born when their uncle was savagely slain, the pain of his murder continues.
When Mishele sees performers wearing a Manson T-shirt, it’s upsetting.
“I know there are so many fans who look up to these entertainers, but this is not a good, positive message,” she said. “You’re talking about evil. We need more goodness in this world.”
The killers give television interviews, write books and participate in documentaries telling their version of “the truth.” They look for sympathy.
“I never in my wildest imagination thought cold-blooded mass murderers could change themselves to victims, becoming celebrities,” Peggy said.
Meanwhile, the victims become “Tate and four others.”
Would Van Houten or the others be a danger if released?
Daughter Christy answered with her own question. “Are we willing to take that chance?”
Christy and her husband, Tracy Rowland, 43, a retired police officer and now a private investigator, have two sons, ages 4 and 3, and someday will have to explain the death of their great-uncle.
“It’s a delicate situation. The more knowledge they have, the better prepared they are,” Christy said.
“I don’t want my family to live in fear,” Christy said. Hearing about the slayings will mean a loss of innocence, but she added softly, “It doesn’t define you.”
Nor is it over.
Watson’s parole hearing is scheduled for Oct. 27.
A DiMaria, maybe two, will be there to speak.
Contact Jane Ann Morrison at 702-383-0275 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison.
THE MANSON MURDERERS: BY THE NUMBERS
Charles Manson (81)
— ordered others to commit nine murders in hopes of starting a racewar in the United States
— hoped Black Panthers would be blamed
Charles “Tex” Watson (70)
— denied parole 14 times
— will try again Oct. 27.
— participated in all 7 murders
— became a minister in prison and fathered 4 children during conjugal visits
Susan Atkins (61)
— died in prison of cancer in 2009
— rejected for parole 18 times
— participated in murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski
Patricia Krenwinkel (68)
— denied parole 13 times
— next parole date expected in late December
— participated in the 7 murders at the homes of Tate and LaBianca
Leslie Van Houten (66)
— denied parole 19 times
— convicted of murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca on Aug. 10
— the California Board of Parole Hearings recommended parole in April
— California Gov. Jerry Brown blocked her release on July 22
Linda Kasabian (66)
— charged with 7 murders but granted immunity when she agreed to testify against the others
— drove the others to the two sites and stood lookout.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Patricia Krenwinkel’s age and reported why California executions were halted in 1972. Murderer Charles Manson and his followers were spared the death penalty because the California Supreme Court ruled executions were cruel and unusual punishment.