Charles “Tex” Watson was a lost college student who thought he lucked into meeting a celebrity that night in 1968 when he picked up Beach Boys band member Dennis Wilson. Dennis was hitchhiking through Los Angeles. He took the musician home and was starstruck when Dennis invited him in for coffee. It was a chance encounter with a charismatic stranger that changed Tex’s life.
That’s the night he met Charles Manson.
A little more than a year later, Tex was arrested for his part in killing actress Sharon Tate and six other people. It’s Hollywood folklore, a cautionary tale—if one was ever needed—on why you should stay away from drugs and anyone who sounds too good to be true.
It was the 1960s, and the LSD-driven counterculture was raging in California. Hippies were coming off of the Summer of Love, looking for new ways to rebel. Manson preyed on the vulnerable, exploiting any weaknesses they had and turning them into loyal soldiers, ready to kill when he said, “Go.”
The story has been told over and over again to the point that the details have been lost in the sweeping generalizations about cults. The Manson Family, the name they gave themselves, contained ministers and businessmen, hippies and college kids from Texas.
Kids like Tex Watson.
A Small-Town Boy
Tex wasn’t a bad kid. He wasn’t even a troubled adult before he met Manson. Growing up in small-town Texas, his family even went to the local Methodist church on Sundays.
“I was raised in a fine family with high standards and good morals,” Tex said. “We went to church, only it didn’t take.”
“God was very much a part of my world,” he remembered. “He was the One you talked to every Sunday at the Copeville Methodist Church. He was the One who had long, blond hair and a beard—like no other man you saw—and wore a white robe and sat under palm trees with children on his knees in the Sunday-school calendars. Next to my stuffed panda bear and my older brother, God was probably one of my favorite people. When I prayed, ‘As I lay me down to sleep,’ that the Lord would keep me, the Lord was a hazy mix of that long-haired, bearded man in the Sunday-school pictures, my mother and Santa Claus.”
Tex went off to the University of North Texas for a few years before dropping out and working with a fraternity brother as a baggage handler at an airport. When that fraternity brother moved to Los Angeles, Tex went out West to visit him and see what all the fuss was about California.
Soon Tex told his parents he was leaving conservative Texas for the hippie counterculture in California. The sexual revolution was alive there, and Tex was ready to be his own man.
But that was before Charles Manson.
Life With Manson
Several events primed Tex to join the hippie movement. His friend died in Vietnam, and he moved to Laurel Canyon, where movie stars and regular Joes smoked pot together. Soon he was selling it. A car accident put him in the hospital. Then, one night when he was driving down Sunset Boulevard, he picked up a famous stranger, Dennis Wilson, who took him home and introduced him to Manson.
“It was like the girls were slaves, and the men were kings meant to be served. There was this big chunk of hashish on the coffee table. As we smoked it and listened to Manson’s love songs, I began to see why people looked up to Charlie. As he smiled at me, it seemed he could see right into me. It was like love filled the air. I left that night on cloud nine.”
It wasn’t just a small group of 20-something followers looking to get high that Manson manipulated. One of the first Manson Family friends Tex made was a former Methodist minister who “ended up worshiping Charlie as Christ, after Charlie turned him on to LSD.”
For about a year, Tex lived as Manson’s slave at several old movie sets—ranches where moviemakers shot westerns. Out in the middle of the California desert, they learned the truth of Manson’s theology. He told the Family they would find a secret entrance to an underground world he called the Bottomless Pit that existed just up the interstate under Death Valley. There, they would drink from a lake that provided eternal life and eat fruit from twelve magic trees.
That’s the thing about Manson’s teachings—some of the aspects and language were so close to being biblical. What started out as loving everyone and denying materialism morphed into the free-love movement.
But Manson’s teachings soon turned far more sinister.
After the Family listened to the Beatles “White Album” for the first time, Manson’s rhetoric took a scary turn, and Tex ran away. He was gone three months. While Tex was off living with a new girlfriend, Manson was fabricating a new theology.
He called it Helter Skelter.
“When I left Manson, it seemed like I was running from the answer for my life, because Charlie seemed to know all my weaknesses and the things I needed to give up. Charlie required our very life, laying it down for him. I could have chosen to return to Texas or go back to Hollywood and live with my friend, but my pride wouldn’t let me. And it seems like I was blinded, taken in and surrounded by some strange force desiring my very soul. The more drugs I took and the more I totally gave myself to Manson’s beliefs, the more it seemed I was getting somewhere. For sure, there was something evil about it all,” Tex recounted.
The cult had a hold on Tex, and he couldn’t shake his desire to be with the Family.
Tex returned to Manson in March of 1969. Back at the movie-set ranch he discovered they were all talking about Helter Skelter. To Tex, it was the name of a Beatles song. Then he saw one of the old ranch buildings had been painted black, with the words Helter Skelter scrawled in glow-in-the-dark paint on the walls. What looked to the outside world like a topless dancer night club was really a fundraising command center for a race war the Family had started planning while Tex was away.
Manson predicted that, in addition to the black-white race war, the white people would splinter into two groups and start a new civil war. He said the white race would be annihilated except for a few survivors who would go to the Bottomless Pit and multiply until they reached 144,000 members.
But when Manson’s Helter Skelter didn’t start, Manson decided the Family would spark the war themselves.
Killing Sharon Tate
When one of the Family members was arrested for killing a man during a robbery, Manson devised a plan: Kill someone else in the same manner in order to exonerate the man in prison, and start the war.
Manson sent Tex to the house on Cielo Drive to rob and kill everyone inside. The home belonged to Roman Polanski, a filmmaker who was out of town, and Sharon Tate, his eight-and-a-half-month pregnant wife. Manson gave Tex instructions on how to make it look like a racially motivated killing—instructions that included writing certain words on the walls with the victims’ blood.
Tex and three women killed five people including Tate. He didn’t even know she was a famous actress.
“All I knew of her was as a terrified woman begging to be allowed to have her child before we killed her,” he remembered.
Back at the ranch, Tex told Manson he had no remorse; then he went to sleep. The next day, August 9, Tex killed two more.
Tex thinks the killings would have continued if his mother hadn’t gotten worried about him and called his friend, and his friend in turn called him at the ranch. Tex lied and told Manson that phone call from his friend was warning him. He said the FBI came to his home in Texas, accusing him of murder. It was a story he concocted on the spur of the moment, but it worked. It scared Manson just enough to send him running off, camping out away from the city.
The Bottomless Pit
Shortly after the killings, Manson started gathering the Family so they could start looking for an entrance to the Bottomless Pit. It’s unclear whether Manson was testing his ability to manipulate his followers or if believed his own rhetoric.
“People are bound to ask at some point if Manson actually believed we would find the Bottomless Pit or if it was a delusion he merely fostered among his followers,” Tex said. “I will never know for certain, but I’m convinced he believed it as much as we did. He was absolutely sure he was Jesus Christ. It had been revealed to him three years before on an LSD trip.”
Tex still asks himself how Manson convinced him to kill people he didn’t know. He blames drugs—acid and LSD mostly—for part of it, but the question still lingers: Why did they all go along with it?
It wasn’t until the cult leader asked him to kill again that he snapped. The drugs had been used up weeks before, and he was sober for the first time in months. Tex called his parents and set up a flight back to Texas.
Tex stayed home for a while but ultimately decided to run back to Manson. However, when he got to Los Angeles, he learned Manson and several other members of the Family had been arrested. His parents sent him more money to fly home, but he had to promise to stay. It was a promise he kept as long as he could.
Thanksgiving that year, a relative asked Tex if they ever found out who killed Sharon Tate. It was an innocent question—she knew Tex had been in Los Angeles and was just making small talk—but it haunted Tex. He wanted to scream, “You’re looking at him!”
When Los Angeles police uncovered facts pointing to the Family, they arrested Tex and the two other women for the murders.
Linda Kasabian, who drove them to the Tate home, told prosecutors what really happened in exchange for immunity. Tex’s lawyer argued he had diminished capacity—that he was brainwashed by Manson—but he was convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.
Tex and the guilty Family members were sentenced to death in 1971, almost two years after the murders. But in 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled against capital punishment.
None of the Manson Family members could be executed for their crimes.
Even before Tex’s conviction, his heart and mind were changing without Manson’s ever-pressuring influence. Tex’s mother sent him a Bible. When he finally opened the pages, it was only to escape his negative thoughts.
“Often, I’d just open the black book at random,” Tex said. “I understood very little of what I read, but that didn’t seem to matter. The words washed over me like soothing water; they made me feel at peace.”
The more Tex read his Bible, the more his conscience returned. At the time of the killings, he felt no remorse, but now he understood the horror of his crimes. Unable to cope with what he had done, Tex retreated into himself and eventually landed in the hospital with a feeding tube down his throat.
In the hospital bed, strapped down by restraints, the 23rd Psalm popped into his head. Tex had memorized it as a child, and the Bible his mother sent him brought the words back.
“First it was a prayer; then it became the answer to the prayer,” Tex said. “I was suddenly aware of another presence in the stark hospital cell, not exactly visible, but unmistakably, powerfully there. It was the new Christ I’d been reading about. There was no doubt of it; this Son of God was saying: ‘Come to me…,’ and He was there.”
They call it jailhouse religion. Tex says its slang for “the sudden desperate piety of an inmate who’s up against it and hopes God will somehow bail him out.” Unlike jailhouse religion where you make a deal with God until you get the outcome you desire, Tex’s faith didn’t disappear.
One day in 1974, he felt pulled to the prison chapel. A man named Ray Hoekstra, known to the prisoners as Chaplain Ray, came to speak. Ray pulled Tex aside at the end of the sermon and told him two Family members had become Christians in prison.
Still, Tex was hesitant to hand everything over to God. He had done something like that once before—handed his soul over to a man he thought was the Messiah—and that hadn’t turned out well.
Then revival came to the prison chapel, and Tex finally got it. When the chaplain asked if anyone wanted to commit their lives to God, Tex ran to the front of chapel.
He was baptized two weeks later in a plastic laundry cart in the prison yard.
“No matter how silly it might have looked to someone from the outside, someone who didn’t understand all that was going on in that moment, to me it was as glorious as the River Jordan where John washed people in preparation for the coming Messiah,” Tex said.
Everything changed after his baptism. For the past four decades, Tex has been ministering to the men he meets in prison. In 1981, he became an ordained minister and established Abounding Love Ministries from his prison cell.
He responds to everyone who contacts him, writing long letters scrawled on the yellow legal pads they allow inside the prison walls. He doesn’t go into gruesome details about the crimes. Instead, he ministers to the people who write him, talking about people they might know or groups they might reach out to for help.
He’s been in prison for the past four decades, but Tex still has that hippie counter-culture trait where he tries to set you up with a friend of a friend you might like.
Tex writes about Revelation 12:11: They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
It’s a far cry from the distorted version Manson twisted to concoct some of his Helter Skelter theories.
Tex hasn’t forgotten about Charles Manson. In fact, he still prays for him—a tough pill to swallow, even for the most devout Christian.
“When I pray for Charlie, I have no doubt that I’m praying at one with the will of my Father in Heaven, at one with the love of Jesus who gave Himself for Charlie Manson, as for every other man, woman and child on God’s Earth,” Tex said.
Whether or not Tex means for it to be ironic or not, he signs his letters, “Be loved.”
Manson taught over and over again that love—a perverse, drug-fueled, orgy-filled love— was all that mattered. Now Tex wants people to know they are loved by something so much more. They are loved by the God who saves: the God who saves sinners and the God who saved one of the most infamous killers of all time.