Who is Leslie Van Houten? And where is she now?

Ex-Manson follower Leslie Van Houten has been released from prison after 53 years.

Image of the Manson family members and murder suspects Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie van Houton.
(Image credit: Getty)

Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten has been released from jail after serving more than 50 years of a life sentence for two brutal murders.

The 73-year-old helped other members of the notorious Manson Family carry out the gruesome killings of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in 1969.

If you were repulsed by the recent Netflix series about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and similarly shocked by the true story of The Stranger, then this latest news will no doubt stir up lots of questions. Who is Leslie Van Houten and where is she now? And what did she have to do with Charles Manson?

Van Houten was just 19 when she joined the infamous cult named the Manson Family, famed for its charismatic and calculating leader Charles Manson - the mass murderer who never touched any of his victims.

Lawyer Nancy Tetreault told the BBC that her client Van Houten had been released and was likely to be on parole for three years. She told the BBC: "She had a long job of detaching herself from the cult mentality and accepting responsibility for her crimes. It took her a long time. She had decades of therapy. So she felt guilt and deep remorse." During her time on parole, Van Houten will be taught how to use a supermarket, debit card, and what the internet is.

Here's everything we know about the convicted killer, and her role in one of the worst crimes the world has ever seen.

Where is Leslie Van Houten now?

Lawyer Tetreault confirmed that Van Houten left the California Institution for Women in Corona, Los Angeles, on 11 July, 2023. The convicted murderer is now living at a housing facility, where it's thought she will live for about a year, learning basic skills such as how to go to the supermarket and use a debit card.

While she was in prison, Van Houten earned a Bachelors and a Master's degree and worked as a tutor for other inmates. At her parole hearings, Van Houten said that her parents’ divorce, her drug and alcohol abuse, and a forced illegal abortion made her vulnerable to Manson.

Van Houten will have a three-year maximum parole term with a parole discharge review after a year, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Mary Xjimenez. 

What did Leslie Van Houten do?

Van Houten was just 19 when and the youngest members of the Manson Family, a cult led by criminal and wannabe musician Charles Manson. She and others stabbed and killed the LaBiancas on 10 August, 1969 in a brutal double murder that shocked the world.

Van Outen was originally sentenced to death for the crime but her sentence was changed to life in prison after the California Supreme Court overturned the state's death penalty law in 1972.

The LaBiancas were killed in their home on 10 August, 1969, and their blood was smeared on the walls afterward. Van Houten described holding Rosemary down with a pillowcase over her head as others stabbed her, and she herself admitted to stabbing the woman more than a dozen times. 

The murders happened just two days after the Manson Family killed American actress Sharon Tate and five of her friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent in a rented house in an exclusive neighbourhood of Los Angeles on 8 August, 1969. Aged just 26, Tate - the wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski - was eight and a half months pregnant.

Quentin Tarantino's film Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood is loosely based on the Manson Family and the murders that shocked the world.

The three female defendants in the Tate-LaBianca murders, , (L-R) Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, return to their cells.

(Image credit: Getty)

Who was Charles Manson?

American Charles Manson was the notorious cult leader of the Manson Family. When he died in prison in 2017 he had been serving a life sentence for ordering the murders of nine people, most famously the actress Sharon Tate who was pregnant at the time. The murders inspired the 1974 best-selling book Helter Skelter, written by the lawyer who prosecuted the Manson Family, Vincent Bugliosi.

Manson was born in 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to 16-year-old runaway Kathleen Maddox. She was briefly married to William Manson, who gave his name to the boy. In Nuel Emmons' book Manson in His Own Words, Manson describes the Maddox family: "Kathleen was the youngest of three children from the marriage of Nancy and Charles Maddox. Her parents loved her and meant well by her, but they were fanatical in their religious beliefs. Especially Grandma, who dominated the household. She was stern and unwavering in her interpretation of God's Will, and demanded that those within her home abide by her view of God's wishes. 

"For Mom, life was filled with a never-ending list of denials. From awakening in the morning until going to bed at night it was, "No Kathleen, that dress is too short. Braid your hair, don't comb it like some hussy. Come directly home from school, don't let me catch you talking to any boys. No, you can't go to the school dance, we are going to church..." In 1933, at age fifteen, my mother ran away from home."

Manson never knew his father and his mother had a habit of disappearing for days. Maddox and her brother were later sent to prison for armed robbery and Manson went to live with his aunt and uncle in McMechen, West Virginia. He lived with different relatives and from the age of nine was in and out of institutions, juvenile reforms, or prison for crimes ranging from petty theft to armed robbery and burglary.

Manson was considered so institutionalised by authorities that when he was released from prison in 1967, he asked the warden if he could stay. Instead, he moved to Berkeley and then San Francisco, two cities at the time that were inundated with runaways looking to find a new way of living. As an older figure in this young crowd, he quickly amassed a group of followers, almost entirely women at first, and in 1968 he travelled with them to Los Angeles to pursue a music career (he learned to play guitar in prison).

Manson's ability to manipulate and control people was incredible. He even forged an unlikely friendship with The Beach Boys' drummer Dennis Wilson. The pair met after Wilson picked up some hitchhikers who turned out to be women in the Manson Family. Manson turned up at Wilson's house later that day, and the whole cult commune lived there for several months.

It was through Wilson that Manson met other music industry players and grew more obsessed with stardom, at the same time exerting greater control over his cult followers. Journalist Jeff Guinn said in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson that he was “the wrong man in the right place at the right time.”

After the Family members behind the 1969 murders were caught, Manson was also put on trial for murder alongside them - and he went on to become the most famous 'serial killer' who never killed anyone. He just got others to do his work and his devoted cult members followed orders to the letter, even murder, said prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.

Who were the followers known as the Manson family?

There were about 100 members of the Manson Family, all of which were radicalised by his teachings and driven by hippie culture and communal living. 

Some of the most famous members who were prosecuted for carrying out the grisly murders include Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles 'Tex' Watson, Bobby Beausoleil, Clem Grogan, Bruce Davis, and Lynette Fromme.

At first, the Manson Family members were largely white, middle-class women who were inspired by the hippie attitude to 'turn on, tune in and drop out'. Master manipulator Manson used his female followers to entice other men to join the group.

Manson and the Family lived in various locations in Los Angeles before eventually making their headquarters at Spahn Ranch, a 55-acre old movie set in the western San Fernando Valley. Ranch owner George Spahn, who was 80 at the time and going blind, allowed the Manson Family to move in rent-free in exchange for labour. The Family did daily chores and helped run Spahn's horse rental business. In the 1970 murder trial prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi claimed that Manson would sometimes send one of his girls to Spahn for sexual relations.

It was during this time at the ranch that Manson became ever more controlling and tyrannical, forbidding members from wearing glasses or carrying money. He would also give lengthy lectures to his followers about an imminent, apocalyptic race war. According to Family member Susan Atkins, the followers thought Manson was a manifestation of Jesus Christ and they believed every word he said.

Some of the family members stayed loyal to Manson even after he was sentenced to death (later changed to life in prison after the state of California overturned the use of the death penalty).

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Maddy Biddulph
Freelance parenting writer

Maddy Biddulph is a freelance journalist specialising in lifestyle and family-focused content. With 25 years in consumer media, she has worked as a writer and editor for some of the bestselling newspapers, magazines and websites in the UK and US.  As a mum of two art-obsessed daughters, Daphne and Esther, Maddy is always looking for parenting hacks to make life easier. She is also a Level 3 personal trainer, and creates energising workouts for busy mums who need some me time.