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Charles Manson Follower Recounts Life With Infamous Cult Leader: "He Really Got Mean"

Barbara Hoyt was once a devoted follower of Charles Manson, but after fleeing the group in terror she'd later testify against Manson and other group members linked to the brutal murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends.

By Jill Sederstrom
Barbara Hoyt arrives to court with her lawyer

Barbara Hoyt once belonged to one of America’s most infamous “families.” 

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Hoyt was a follower of charismatic cult leader Charles Manson in the late 1960s. The Manson Family, as the group was often called, though they had no relation to each other, cemented its spot in American history after several of the group’s followers brutally stabbed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and her friends to death in Tate’s Benedict Canyon home in August 1969. The next night, group members struck again, killing grocery business executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.

Hoyt was never involved in the killings, but she recounted her time with the cult to Dateline: Secrets Uncovered, describing the “fun” early days with the group to eventually fleeing on foot from the desert in terror after fearing for her own life. 

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How did Charles Manson find his followers? 

Manson, a career criminal, was just released from prison when he found his way to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury in the late 1960s, a time when young people from across the country were flocking to the district in search of peace and love. 

“He could somehow identify the ones you could be tricked, coerced, drawn in,” journalist Jeff Guinn, who wrote the book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, said of how he found his followers. 

According to Guinn, Manson relied on his charisma and tips he picked up in prison from pimps. “From them he learned how to control women who were and this is his quote ‘bent but not broken,’” he said. 

Manson lured the women in with his music, philosophy, and the promise of a group where they could be loved and accepted. He reportedly convinced many of the women to have sex with men he wanted to join the group. 

Before long, Manson — who had dreams of becoming a rock star more famous than the Beatles — and his followers packed into  an old-school bus and headed to Los Angeles, where they found a rundown place to live and scavenged for food in dumpsters.

“It was fun,” Hoyt recalled.  “You go behind the store, they used to throw away some good stuff, good vegetables. You know, you find all kinds of treasures out there.” 

Life on Spahn Ranch

Charles Manson G

Manson’s followers eventually settled at Spahn Ranch, a property once used to film old westerns, after befriending the elderly owner of the land, George Spahn.

“Sitting around the ranch front, drinking coffee, watching the parade of wranglers and writers, George Spahn taking his daily walk ... chickens clucking, roosters crowing, the old goat, the dog, the horses coming and going with new riders on their backs," former Family member Sandra Good described life on the ranch to producers of the Oxygen documentary Manson: The Women.

Manson, who saw himself as the next Jesus Christ, would spend hours prophesying to his followers as he warned of an imminent race war he called Helter Skelter, a name he took from a popular Beatles song.  

“Every day, he would gather everyone together and dose them with LSD and he would talk for a while,” Guinn said.

Despite a once promising connection to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, Manson’s music career never took off and, over time, he began to wield more power over his followers. 

“Charlie was acting meaner towards the girls,” Hoyt told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.

If the women didn’t follow his directions, he would “hit you in the head with a stick.”

“He got really mean,” Hoyt said. 

Murders Linked to Manson and His Followers

The group took a violent turn in the summer of 1969. When Manson’s friend Gary Hinman refused to join the family or give Manson his money and cars, Manson sent Bobby Beausoleil, Susan “Sadie” Atkins, and Mary Brunner to rough him up. After Manson himself showed up at the property and slashed Hinman’s ear with a samurai sword, Beausoleil killed Hinman, with the help of the women, according to Dateline: Secrets Uncovered. They left a paw print and the words “political piggy” written on the wall in blood in an attempt to blame the murder on the Black Panthers. 

But cops never linked the murder to the Black Panthers and instead arrested Beausoleil after pulling him over in Hinman’s car. 

According to Guinn, Manson was desperate to get Beausoleil out of prison and hatched a plan to commit another similar murder, this time targeting someone famous, to draw suspicion away from Beausoleil. On the night of August 9, 1969, followers Charles “Tex” Watson, Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian headed to the home of director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate.

“Sadie hung out the car window and yelled, we’re gonna kill some (expletive) pigs,” Hoyt remembered of the group leaving that night.

Polanski was out of town, but as Kasabian stood guard, the rest of the followers broke into the home and savagely murdered Tate, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski. Steven Parent, a young teen visiting the caretaker on the grounds, was shot outside the home. Atkins wrote the word “pig” in blood on the front door.

The very next night, while Manson waited in the car, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten bound and killed the LaBiancas, after choosing the couple’s home at random. They carved the word “war” into Leno LaBianca’s stomach.

Hoyt remembered the group watching the coverage of the brutal murders on the news.

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“They laughed. It didn’t bother them at all,” she said. 

The killing didn’t stop there. Donald “Shorty” Shea, a former stuntman and ranch hand at Spahn Ranch, had been urging George Spahn to kick the group off the land.

 Hoyt remembers the “pure horror” of hearing Shea scream as he was killed by Manson and others.

“I knew it was Shorty,” she said. “I recognized the voice.”

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How did Barbara Hoyt escape the Manson Family? 

By then, Manson had convinced his followers that the impending race war was closer than ever and the group moved to Barker Ranch in Death Valley to prepare. Manson promised his followers they’d ride out the war in a secret city hidden beneath the ground, then emerge to take over in the aftermath of the violence.

Hoyt had long been a devoted follower, but made the decision to leave the group after overhearing Atkins giggling as she recounted killing Tate. 

“I knew I had to get out of there,” she said. Early one morning, Hoyt and a friend “walked out” of the ranch on foot, walking for miles until they could get help from the nearest ranch. 

She returned to her family and eventually would testify for the prosecution in the murder trial against Manson and those linked to the killings. 

With her help, Manson and the others connected to the murders were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Manson died behind bars in 2017 at the age of 83. 

Where is Barbara Hoyt today? 

Hoyt went on to live a quiet life in the years that followed, but she remained haunted by the grisly murders. 

"I never have a day go by that I don't think about it, especially about the victims," she once told Cleveland.com. "I've long ago accepted the fact it will never go away."

Hoyt later developed a friendship with Debra Tate, Sharon’s little sister. 

“We’ve got a lot in common,” Hoyt told the San Diego Tribune in 2012. “She has been a big help to me.”

Hoyt died in December of 2017.