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Crime News Cults

'As If He Could Read Your Thoughts': Who Was Charles Manson Follower — And Girlfriend — Stephanie Schram?

Charles Manson's one-time girlfriend Stephanie Schram said she was enthralled by the charismatic cult leader, who she met outside a gas station bathroom.

By Jill Sederstrom
Stephanie Schram Epix

Stephanie Schram was just 17 years old when she became Charles Manson’s girlfriend — even landing a “wedding ring” from the charismatic cult leader before she fled the Family in the middle of the night, fearing for her life.

Schram appears in the new EPIX docuseries “Helter Skelter” to discuss her brief stint with the Manson family and her terrifying escape just before the family was arrested.

For decades, Schram did not talk about her time with the notorious cult leader but first broke her silence in 2011 while appearing on an episode of the podcast “The Truth On Tate-LaBianca Radio Program.”

Schram — who described herself as coming from an “upper middle class” San Diego family — said she first met Manson in August of 1969 while she was on a trip with a friend.

The pair made an early morning stop at a gas station — when Schram crossed paths with Manson for the first time.

“When I went in to go the bathroom there was a guy who said something to me on the order of ‘hi cutie’ or ‘hi beautiful’ or something like that and when I came out of the bathroom there was Charlie and one thing led to another and I told the fellow I was with that I was going to go off with this guy and he was going to show me Big Sur,” she recalled on the podcast.

Although she barely knew Manson — who was in his mid-30s at the time — Schram said there was something about the cult leader that immediately drew her to him.

“He just had something and it’s hard to put your finger on it, but he made you feel so special,” she said on the podcast. “It was as if he could read your thoughts. He told you what you wanted to hear, somehow he knew that.”

Before heading to Spahn Ranch, where the rest of Mason’s followers had been living, Schram said they made a stop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

“Charlie thought you know, he was going to be a music star, a rock star and I remember going to the Esalen Institute and he took his guitar and he told me, ‘stay in the van while I go in there and I’ll be back in a little bit’” she recalled in the EPIX docuseries.

But the alternative educational institution wasn’t impressed with Manson’s musical abilities and when he returned to the van he was upset.

“I think that he was thinking that they were going to be really blown away by his talent and you know ask him to come back and possibly pay him for, you know, his music abilities. But, they didn’t,” she said. “The fact that these people were not impressed with his talent made him angry.”

The pair also stopped in San Diego to gather her things — including her guitar and her dog — and then headed to Spahn Ranch.

What Schram didn’t know then was that on the same day she arrived at the ranch another group of Manson’s followers would brutally murder actress Sharon Tate and four others that night, she later recalled on the podcast. The following night some of Manson’s followers would take to the streets of Los Angeles again, this time killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Schram said she had no idea the group was involved in the violent murders.

“The whole time that I was there everybody was extremely kind to me,” she said. “I got along well with you know, the other girls and I really had no idea anything like that was taking place.”

She was initially nervous because she didn’t know anyone beside Manson and said he often spent “a lot of time” with her to make her feel more comfortable.

“When I was there, he and I shared a trailer, a small like travel trailer that was towards, like behind the big house and that’s where I slept,” she said.

On the night of the Tate murders, Schram said she remembered Manson going to bed with her and didn’t notice anything unusual about his demeanor.  

“To the best of my recollection, he went to sleep with me,” she said on the podcast. “When I woke up during the night, he wasn’t there and he came back to bed, I think, as best I can remember shortly before dawn.”  

Seven days after the slayings, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies raided the ranch while investigating possible auto theft.

“I was with the whole group I guess I assumed that here’s the establishment coming down on us, you know, for no reason at all,” Schram later said in the docuseries. “They smashed my guitar, looking for drugs inside of it, I guess. I don’t know.”

Manson and his followers were arrested but were later released after authorities were unable to prove who may have stolen the vehicles.

While at the ranch, Schram further became enamored with Manson. At one point, she said the cult leader gave her a “wedding ring” — which was really nothing more than a hose clamp from an engine.

“It was the fact that I was kind of afraid to be there myself and so he kind of said, ‘OK this is how much you mean to me. I’ll give you this ring’ and it was a hose clamp,” she recalled in the podcast.

Schram also remembered one occasion that she was returned to her parents because she had only been a minor at the time after she and Manson were arrested for possessing what police believed was a marijuana cigarette. The homecoming wouldn’t last long.

“I was so in love with Charlie at that point that I probably would have rather been dead than not to be with him,” Schram said in 2011. “I snuck out my bedroom window and I believe it was Clem and Squeaky and maybe somebody else that actually came and got me and took me back to the ranch.”

When she returned, Manson had already gone up to Barker Ranch, where he and his followers planned to hide out and prepare for what he told them was an impending race war.

Manson had told his followers at the time that the rising tensions between Black people and white people would lead to an apocalyptic race war — which he called Helter Skelter, a name he took from the popular Beatles song.

The teenager again followed Manson into the desert — but it was there that she began to harbor reservations about the group.

She told the podcast hosts that she began to feel like the group was hiding from something and wondered why they were being instructed to hide their tracks and dig large holes in the desert.

Manson had also begun instructing his followers on how to defend themselves and the group began to amass weapons. The cult leader even gave each woman a buck knife to use for protection.

“This would be our way of protecting ourselves when the world would come crashing in on us and you would take the knife and you’d stick somebody with it and be sure to wiggle it around a lot to get any organs that you could get, to be sure that you would kill the person,” Schram said in the docuseries.

She eventually decided to flee the family — along with fellow follower Kathryn “Kitty” Lutesinger — after the two began to discuss all the comforts from home they missed like Thanksgiving dinners and Baskin & Robbins ice cream.

“The dream that I had about the hippie commune that we were going to live on wasn’t what I had signed up for,” she said. “For some reason or another, I probably got the feeling that Kitty wanted out too."

The two decided to make their break one night after being sure to sleep further away from the rest of the group so they could slip away unnoticed.

“I don’t even think we had shoes,” Schram said in the docuseries. “We snuck off and we decided to head to the top of a wash and walk along the top of the wash.”

The pair had been walking for about an hour when they heard the dune buggies start up and other members of the family began to search for them.

“We were up high and they had to be down low. The dune buggies couldn’t go to the top of the wash,” Schram said of how they were able to make their escape.

She said she had been “scared to death.”

Fellow Manson follower Dianne Lake, who was called "Snake" at the time, also recalled the women’s escape in the docuseries saying Mason had them all “beating the bushes for these girls late into the night.”

“I felt the vibe that if they would have been found they would have been killed,” she said.

Schram and Lutesinger walked through the night until they finally found a road where they encountered a law enforcement officer that happened to be going by and drove them to safety, she told the docuseries.

“We got out of there just in time,” she said.

The following day authorities would raid Barker Ranch and arrest Manson and his followers on grand larceny charges, according to the docuseries. While behind bars, Susan “Sadie” Atkins divulged her involvement in the murders to her cellmate and authorities were able to connect the cult to the brutal slayings that occurred months earlier.

While Lutesinger later rejoined the group for a bit, Schram said she permanently left Manson behind, even after some of his followers had come to San Diego to try to convince her to go back.

“They were fairly persistent but I think it was real clear,” Schram said in the podcast.

She would later testify against Manson at trial. 

Decades later, Schram said she has come to terms with that part of her life.

“Everything in my life has happened for a reason and it’s just part of who I am now,” she said.

After leaving the family, she became a dog groomer and resumed life in San Diego.

“I went through a couple of failed marriages,” she said in the podcast in 2011. “I have three absolutely fabulous kids who are adults now. I have a grandson.”

Manson died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83.

"Helter Skelter: An American Myth" premieres on EPIX Sunday, June 26 at 10 p.m.