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Leslie Van Houten’s parole recommendation was blocked by California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday, prohibiting the former Charles Manson follower’s release after more than half a century behind bars.
The decision reverses a November decision by a panel of parole commissioners recommending the parole of the 72-year-old, who has been incarcerated since 1971. Tuesday marked the fifth time a California governor has reversed the decision recommending her parole, dating back to 2016.
Van Houten is serving a life sentence in the 1969 Manson Family murders of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary LaBianca.
In his parole review, Newsom stated that Van Houten “poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time.”
“The Manson Family murders are among the most notorious and gruesome in American history,” Newsom stated in his parole review decision, which Oxygen.com obtained. “Beyond the immeasurable suffering Ms. Van Houten caused the LaBianca family, Ms. Van Houten’s grisly acts have haunted people in California and beyond for more than half a century.”
On Aug. 10, 1969, Van Houten, Manson and Manson Family members Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian and Steve Grogan drove to the LaBiancas' Los Feliz home. Manson and Watson, armed with a bayonet, tied up the couple and demanded money.
Van Houten later slipped a pillowcase over Rosemary LaBianca’s face and wrapped a lamp cord around the 38-year-old’s neck while Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca to death in a separate room.
Watson later handed Van Houten a knife and told her to “do something.” She subsequently stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 16 times.
Officials said Van Houten later changed into the slain woman’s clothes and drank chocolate milk from the couple’s refrigerator.
Before fleeing the home, the group carved the word “war” into Leno LaBianca’s skin. They also wrote “Death to Pigs” and scrawled “Helter Skelter” references on the walls using the couples’ blood.
The LaBiancas’ son found his father the next day with a carving fork stuck in his stomach and a knife lodged in his neck.
Manson had no personal connection to the LaBiancas. The double murder happened a day after actress Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered in Los Angeles by Manson Family followers.
Van Houten was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy in 1971. A judge sentenced her to death, though her sentence was downgraded to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole a year later following a change in California state law.
Newsom’s decision this week marks the third time he has reversed recommendations for Van Houten's parole; Gov. Jerry Brown reversed the first two recommendations. She’s had 21 parole hearings dating back to 1982, but was first deemed suitable for parole in 2016.
“She’s disappointed,” Rich Pfeiffer, Van Houten’s attorney, told Oxygen.com on Wednesday. “She’s getting old — she’s an old lady now — and it’s emotionally difficult. But in the beginning, it was very encouraging because she was granted parole."
"Of course she’s disappointed but she’s going to keep on going just like she always has,” he added.
Pfeiffer, who has worked on all five of Van Houten’s parole applications, said he plans to now file a court appeal against Newsom’s most recent decision blocking the recommendation for his client’s parole.
In February, California’s Supreme Court denied to hear Van Houten’s appeal for release, stemming from a petition filed by her legal team in opposition to Newsom’s previous decision in 2020 blocking her recommended parole.
Pfeiffer largely pushed back on Newsom’s assessment that his client posed any form of danger to the general public, describing her as a model inmate.
“It’s just incredible what she’s done,” Pfeiffer said. “Show me another inmate anywhere that even comes close to what she’s done, all the positive things she’s done in prison and it’s been sustained for over half a century, come on. Ask any staff member at that prison.”
While incarcerated, Van Houten tutored other incarcerated women in English and participated in group acting programs, according to former correctional staff.
“Whatever she could go and do, she would,” Leticia Trejo, 63, a retired corrections case records technician at California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino told Oxygen.com. “Not only would she benefit, but the other inmates would benefit also because she’s just such a caring person. She went above and beyond attending the groups and all that stuff.
Trejo, who retired in December 2021, knew Van Houten for approximately three decades during her time at the women’s state prison. The 63-year-old, who said she forged a connection with Van Houten, described her as “humble,” “polite,” “caring” and “understanding.”
“I wouldn’t mind having her as a neighbor, that’s how much I trust her,” Trejo said. “People need to see who Leslie is. I understand she was with Manson and all that stuff, but putting that to the side, if there’s anybody that’s a model inmate, that would be Leslie."
"She’s not what people are making her out to be," she added. "Bottom line to all of this…she’s not who she was when she was 19, she’s a totally different person.”
Trejo blasted Newsom’s decision as politically motivated.
“I’m not saying what Leslie did was OK — and she admits that,” Trejo added. “Leslie has worked very hard. It’s very upsetting that the governor reverses the decision again and again because it’s related to Manson."
"I think he’s just afraid that if he goes ahead and doesn’t reverse it, that he’ll be talked bad about," she explained. "It’s just unfortunate that this has been done to Leslie again.”
“She claims to this day that she did this because she believed she was going to live in a hole in the middle of the earth with the Manson cult,” Debra Tate wrote of Van Houten in a 2021 Change.org petition urging Newsom to block the former Manson acolyte’s parole. “For years she showed no remorse at all for her actions.”
Her petition garnered more than 179,000 signatures supporting Van Houten’s continued incarceration. Tate wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by Oxygen.com on Wednesday.
But decades after the infamous Helter Skelter slayings left an indelible footprint on American society and pop culture, Van Houten’s attorney said that his client now rarely, if ever, even utters Manson’s name.
“She’s detested [Manson] for a very long time,” Pfeiffer explained. “Her rehab started very early on when she first got arrested. She feels she was used — like everybody.”
According to state law, Van Houten must now wait 18 months to apply for parole again. She’ll be eligible to present her case to a parole board in April 2023, her attorney said.
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