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Crime News Cults

Who Did Roman Polanski First Suspect Murdered His Wife Sharon Tate?

In the aftermath of the brutal slaughter of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski was convinced the killer was someone he knew and began to suspect his celebrity friends of the heinous slayings.

By Jill Sederstrom
Roman Polanski

Sharon Tate and her film director husband, Roman Polanski, had been planning to welcome their first child into the world when Tate and four others were found slaughtered in the couple’s home.

Tate — who was eight and a half months pregnant — was stabbed 16 times, slashed twice, and “hanged,” according to a 1970 article in The New York Times

“My opinion was — and my opinion is still the same—that the cause of death was multiple stab wounds front and back penetrating the heart and lungs and causing massive hemorrhaging,” Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi would later testify in court.

Celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Polish producer Wojceich Frykowski, and Steven Parent, who had been a friend of the caretaker’s, all met an equally gruesome fate at the Benedict Canyon home that night.

The crime was so horrific that Polanski believed it must have been carried out by someone the couple knew — and began casting a suspicious eye on some famous friends, even later admitting to sneaking into his friends’ garages to test their vehicles for signs of blood.

“Roman became a detective,” journalist and author Ivor Davis said in the new EPIX docuseries “Helter Skelter: An American Myth,” airing Sunday nights. “He thought for a few crazy moments that somebody in his inner circle was responsible for killing Sharon.”

The crime would eventually be attributed to followers of Charles Manson, who broke into the home and slaughtered all those inside at Manson’s behest. Members of the group went on to kill Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the following night, sending shockwaves through Hollywood.

A Martial Arts Expert With Deadly Ambitions?

However, it would be months before investigators would link the savage crimes to Manson and his followers, ushering in a wave of paranoia in the weeks that followed the killings.

“As soon as the murders took place and there was no reason, Hollywood went into a kind of collective panic,” Davis said in the docuseries. “They starting getting guns and they had guard dogs. I remember Steve McQueen got himself a shotgun and a pistol.”

The paranoia and desperation to solve the crime was more heightened for Polanski, who had been in Europe at the time of the slayings. He became convinced the murders had been personal and began to suspect those closest to him.

One celebrity to rouse Polanski’s suspicion was martial arts instructor Bruce Lee because Lee was “the only kind of guy who could kill five people single-handedly,” Davis said.

Lee had previously met Tate while she was filming “The Wrecking Crew.” He had been hired to serve as the film’s karate instructor and fight coordinator, according to Matthew Polly, the author of the Lee biography “Bruce Lee: A Life.”

“He was hired to teach Sharon Tate how to do sidekicks and at some point, she was like, ‘You would really love my husband,” Polly told Oxygen.com.

She later told her French-Polish film director husband that she thought he and Lee would "get on like a house on fire” and arranged for Lee and his wife to come to dinner at the couple’s home.

“Sharon Tate was apparently a very good cook and Polanski did like him because he also felt sort of like an outsider in Hollywood,” Polly said.

Lee — who had already broken into the Hollywood acting scene as Kato in “The Green Hornet” — took on private martial arts clients and began teaching Polanski martial arts lessons at around $800 a pop, Polly said.

Bruce Lee

Lee also had “extremely close” ties with another victim at the house that night: Jay Sebring.

Sebring, a celebrity hairstylist who had once been engaged to Tate, met Lee while he was performing at a Los Angeles karate tournament and had recommended Lee for the role in “The Green Hornet.”

“Jay Sebring is the one who introduced Bruce to Hollywood,” Polly said, adding that he also helped the martial arts icon cultivate his celebrity client list.

Polanski began to consider that Lee could have been responsible for the slayings after Lee made an offhand remark during one of Polanski’s training sessions after the murders, mentioning he had lost his glasses.

Polanski knew that investigators had discovered a pair of horn-rimmed glasses at the murder scene that they suspected could belong to the killer, so Polanski immediately latched on to that detail.

Polly believes that Polanski may have thought that Lee had been motivated to kill the group because he was still somewhat of an outsider in the Hollywood scene and may have felt some resentment about his position. 

“Who would you look for? Somebody who is aggressive, who is capable of violence, who is actually skilled at it, who for whatever reason had access but might hold some resentment,” Polly said of Polanski’s reasoning at the time.

When Lee mentioned he had lost his own pair of horn-rimmed glasses, Polanski believed that could be the clue they needed to break the case open and offered to take Lee to his own optometrist and gift him with a new pair of glasses.

The suspicions were put to rest, however, after Lee arrived at the shop and gave the optometrist a “completely different” prescription than the one that matched the glasses found at the scene.

“He never mentions it to Bruce and he never mentions it to anyone until he’s writing his biography,” Polly said.

By the time Polanski’s autobiography, “Roman by Polanski,” came out in 1985, Lee had already died years earlier, but his widow, Linda, told Polly she was “absolutely stunned” Polanski had ever suspected her husband of the brutal slayings.

“They had been over at dinner and they considered them Hollywood friends,” Polly explained.

Although Lee would never know that he had once been a possible suspect in the slayings in Polanski’s eyes, Polly said the murders did have an impact on Lee, who remained vigilant about safety and security as his own fame rose.

After moving to Hong Kong and becoming “super famous” there, Polly recounted an incident where someone jumped over the fence at Lee’s mansion and challenged him to a fight.

“He went crazy and put the guy in the hospital,” Polly said.

Lee’s children were also always surrounded by security guards as they went about their day-to-day life.

“I think when he became famous, he associated fame with danger,” Polly said.

Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32 from a cerebral edema, according to Newsweek.

Revenge For A One-Night Stand?

While the glasses prescription was enough to convince Polanski that Lee wasn’t responsible for the crime, he continued to suspect others in his inner circle.

“I did think that it must have been someone that knew her and as it happened, it wasn’t,” he would later tell a journalist in a clip included in the docu-series.

Polanski — who admitted in the interview to being “unbalanced” at the time — also recounted his own stealth missions to try to identify his wife’s killer.

“I was also looking for any trace of blood in cars of people that I knew,” he said at the time. “I had chemicals, you know, that I could smear and check whether there were any traces of blood on the pedals or steering wheel or seats or whatever. So, I spent my nights sometimes in the garages of my friends, you know, just going through those cars.”

According to Davis, Polanski had also believed John Phillips of the musical group The Mamas & the Papas may have been behind the grisly killings.

“Roman knew that John Phillips knew that Roman had had a one-night stand with John’s wife, Michelle, in London and somehow Roman translated that into well, he bumped off Sharon,” Davis said in the docuseries. “Of course, it was ridiculous.”

Michelle Phillips later recalled the suspicion surrounding her husband in a 2001 Vanity Fair article.

“The police were questioning everyone,” she said. “Everyone was flushing drugs down the toilet. For some reason, they suspected my husband, John Phillips. ‘Would your husband have any reason to have any animosity toward anyone in that house?’ they asked me. I told them I had a night in London with Roman. I felt bad about that because of Sharon.”

John Phillips

But according to Michelle, Polanski wasn’t the only celebrity to experience paranoia in the aftermath of the killings.

“We were all running around with guns in our purses,” she said. “We all suspected each other. It was the most bizarre period of my life. I didn’t trust anyone.”

John later said Polanski’s suspicions became so intense he once threatened the musician with a meat cleaver, according to PEOPLE.

“He suspected a lot of friends,” Richard Sylbert, the former head of production at Paramount, said in the book “Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” “He had either f--ked their girlfriends or their wives.”

Polanski’s friends were eventually given a reprieve in the director’s eyes after authorities arrested Manson and his followers.

Manson was convicted for the first-degree murder of the Tate-LaBianca victims in 1971, alongside followers Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles “Tex” Watson, and Susan Atkins.

Leslie Van Houten was convicted of murder and conspiracy in 1978 for her role in the LaBianca killings after her third trial.