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Chaos: by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring

Chaos: by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring

Come for the Helter Skelter rebuttal, stay for the broader commentary on access to what should be public information.

Chaos: by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring

4 / 5

Come for the Helter Skelter rebuttal, stay for the broader commentary on access to what should be public information. Tom O’Neill’s Chaos is a page-turner of a true crime book that will be fascinating to anyone with even a cursory interest in the Tate-LaBianca murders that inspired the counter-narrative of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Much as Tarantino has created a revisionist history, O’Neill can’t exactly set up an alternate timeline in which the murders never took place. However, the author is here to tell you that most of what you know about the case may be wrong.

The book sums up the fruits of 20 years of reporting, and to some degree, it’s still unresolved. It started as an assignment from Premiere magazine timed for the 25th anniversary of the murders in 1994. O’Neill’s first bombshell would have been more than enough for a hell of an article. Going back to the copious notes that Helter Skelter co-author and Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi kept while he was on the case, O’Neill discovers that the egotistical attorney essentially suborned perjury from star witness Terry Melcher. Melcher’s testimony was essential to the prosecution’s case: he provided the motivation—the Helter Skelter race wars—that would keep Manson behind bars. Under oath, Melcher claimed that he only met Manson three times, all before the murders. But O’Neill found transcripts from two witnesses who saw Melcher visit the Manson ranch multiple times after the infamous murders.

As an aside, you get to hear Melcher describe a meeting between his mother, clean-cut singer Doris Day, and Manson, in the hopes of getting the hopeful singer-songwriter a record deal. What Day said to Manson will shock you! But that’s just one tantalizing piece of the puzzle.

O’Neill uncovers a shocking pattern in law enforcement encounters with Manson prior to the massacre that killed actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child and four others. Manson, who was a federal parolee, violated the terms of his parole many times in the months preceding the killings. By all rights he should have been put away, but like a fish that was too small to hold on to, he was repeatedly taken in and released.

This pattern continued even after the bodies were discovered. A massive raid on Spahn Ranch, where Manson and The Family were holed up, took place a week after the Tate murders, thanks to a wave of auto thefts and other non-violent transgressions. For some reason, Manson and his cohorts were all released within 72 hours, even though detectives in another jurisdiction suspected that the murder of Gary Hinman, for which Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil was being held, was connected to the Tate murders.

Was there a cover-up, and why? That’s what O’Neill tries to answer, and the questions take him down roads he never intended to go down, including CIA projects using LSD and mind control. More than 300 pages into the book, O’Neill admits that even his agent is likely to think him a madman for where his reporting is leading him next; to avoid spoilers, let’s just say O’Neill finds a connection between this crime-of-the-century and perhaps the one American crime story that has inspired more books (and conspiracy theories) than the Manson case.

Like an over-eager documentary filmmaker, O’Neill inserts himself into the story; the author spends a lot of time explaining the difficulty he had finding people to talk to about the case; the resistance he met from authorities unwilling to provide him with paperwork relevant to the case; and the mysterious disappearance of crucial materials. O’Neill makes some startling connections, but he shows the reader how he got there, and that frustrating quest, which would end up consuming him for decades, propels the book’s drama.

In the end, the book is about information; the hunger for it, the drive of a stubborn reporter to get it and various agencies reluctance to let the public have access to it. If this most high-profile of cases leads to a conspiratorial rabbit hole, what else is being hidden from us? Chaos has implications that go far beyond a lurid celebrity crime scene, and that makes it all the more chilling.

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