Charles Manson was seen as a guru by some of his devotees but the prosecutor who sent him to prison said he was nothing more than a "sophisiticated con man"
Washington (AFP) - The 1969 murder spree by followers of Charles Manson spawned decades of fascination -- and revulsion -- with the apocalyptic cult leader and the grisly crimes committed at the height of the counter-culture movement.
For many at the time, Manson, with his crazed eyes, beard and long, unkempt hair, was the dark face of a drug-fueled hippie movement that was consuming America's youth.
For his band of devotees drawn from the "Flower Power" culture of the San Francisco streets, Manson was a guru, a prophet, the messiah.
Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who sent him to prison and wrote a best-selling book about the case, "Helter Skelter," described Manson as little more than an "evil, sophisticated con man."
Manson died in a hospital at the age of 83 on Sunday, nearly five decades after being sentenced to death for a series of gruesome murders carried out on his orders.
The death sentence was commuted to life in prison after California, where the murders were committed, abolished the death penalty.
Scores of books, movies and music have been written about Manson and the slayings, which came as the United States was grappling with the divisive Vietnam War and an anti-establishment movement.
Manson's trial gripped the country, with its mixture of celebrity and brutality, in the same way as the double murder case involving American football star O.J. Simpson did two decades later.
The celebrity was Sharon Tate, the 26-year-old wife of director Roman Polanski, who was heavily pregnant when she was slaughtered along with four other people in her Los Angeles home in August 1969.
Grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, were selected at random and killed by three of Manson's acolytes in their home the following night.
- 'Helter Skelter' -
Manson did not personally take part in any of the murders, but he ordered them as part of a murky plan to spark a race war in the United States, which he called "Helter Skelter" after the Beatles song.
The murders shocked the nation and came at the end of the tumultuous 1960s when sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll were seen by some as perverting the youth and threatening the established order.
The Los Angeles Times wrote that the murders "both horrified and fascinated the nation and signified to many the symbolic end of the 1960s and the idealism and naivete the decade represented."
Manson's frightening visage was plastered on the cover of the popular magazine "Life" with an article on his "Love and Terror Cult."
"Here was a real-life monster," retired Los Angeles County prosecutor Stephen Kay told People magazine. "People have that image of him in their minds."
Manson appeared in court with an 'X' carved into his forehead and his young devotees followed suit. He later fashioned the 'X' into a swastika.
It was Manson's charisma and ability to persuade others to kill for him that helped contribute to his lasting notoriety and cult status.
Manson used his street smarts and powers of persuasion gleaned from self-help books to convince the vulnerable young women he called "The Family" to commit unspeakable crimes.
Before he died in 2015, Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor and author, told the Los Angeles Times why he believes Manson remains a figure of morbid fascination decades later.
"As misguided as the murders were, he claimed that they were political and revolutionary, that he was trying to change the social order, not merely satisfy a homicidal urge," Bugliosi said.
"That appeals to the crazies on the fringes of society."