Charles 'Tex' Watson of the Manson Family

'A' Student Became a Cold-Blooded Murderer

Charles Watson Being Interviewed
Charles 'Tex' Watson served as the inmate assistant pastor at California Men's Colony. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Charles "Tex" Watson went from being an "A" student in his Texas high school to Charles Manson's right-hand man and a cold-blooded murderer. He led the killing spree at the Tate and LaBianca residences and participated in killing each member of both households.

Found guilty of killing seven people, Watson is living out his life in prison as an ordained minister. He got married and divorced and fathered four children while in prison, and he claims to feel remorse about those he murdered.

Childhood and College

Charles Denton Watson was born in Dallas, Texas, on December 2, 1945. His parents settled in Copeville, Texas, a small, impoverished town where they worked at the local gas station and spent time at their church. The Watsons believed in the American dream and worked hard to provide better lives for their three children, of which Charles was the youngest. Their lives were financially modest, but their children were happy and were following proper paths.

As Charles got older he became involved in his parents' church, the Copeville Methodist Church, where he led devotions for the youth group and regularly attended Sunday night evangelistic services. In high school, he was an honor student and track star who set records in high hurdles. He also was editor of the school paper.

Determined to attend college, Watson worked at an onion packing plant to save money. His small hometown was beginning to close in on him, and he dreamed of gaining independence by attending college 50 miles away. In September 1964, Watson went to Denton, Texas, to begin his first year at North Texas State University.

His parents were proud of him, and Watson was excited and ready to enjoy his newfound freedom. Academia quickly took a backseat to parties. Watson joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity in his second semester, and his focus switched to sex and alcohol. He participated in fraternity pranks, some more serious than others. One involved stealing, and for the first time he disappointed his parents by admitting he broke the law. But his parents' lectures failed to dissuade him from getting back to the campus fun.

Drugs

In January 1967 he began working at Braniff Airlines as a baggage boy. He earned free airline tickets, which he used to impress his girlfriends by taking them for weekend trips to Dallas and Mexico. He was getting a taste of the world away from Texas, and he liked it. During a visit to a fraternity brother's home in Los Angeles, California, Watson was attracted to the psychedelic atmosphere of drugs and free love that took over the Sunset Strip during the '60s.

Against his parents' wishes, in August 1967 Watson left NTSU and moved to Los Angeles. To keep a promise to his parents to finish college, he began attending classes in business administration at California State University.

He swapped his once-cherished frat clothes for the cooler hippie look, and his preferred "high" switched from alcohol to marijuana. Watson enjoyed becoming part of the group that separated themselves from the establishment.

After a few months, Watson took a job as a wig salesman and quit Cal State. He moved to West Hollywood and then to Laurel Canyon in a house behind the Strip. His mother visited him just once, after he was hurt in a serious car accident. Unimpressed with his lifestyle, she begged him to return to Texas. Although part of him wanted to return to his hometown, pride kept him from going. He would not see her again until he was on the run for killing seven people.

Watson began dealing marijuana, and he and his roommate opened a wig shop called Love Locs. It closed quickly, and Watson began relying on drug dealing to pay for his Malibu lifestyle. His desire to earn money soon yielded to wanting to get high, go to rock concerts, and lie on the beach, becoming what he thought was a full-time hippie. He had found his place in the world.

Life-Changing Meeting

Watson's life changed forever after he picked up a hitchhiker: Dennis Wilson, a member of the rock group the Beach Boys. After they arrived at Wilson's Pacific Palisades mansion, Wilson invited Watson to see the house and meet the people hanging out there. They included Dean Moorehouse, an ex-Methodist minister, and Charlie Manson. Wilson invited Watson to return to the mansion anytime to hang out and swim in the Olympic-size pool.

The mansion was filled with dropouts doing drugs and listening to music. Watson eventually moved in, mingling with rock musicians, actors, children of stars, Hollywood producers, Manson, and members of Manson's "Love Family." He was proud that a boy from Texas was rubbing elbows with the famous, and he was drawn to Manson and his family, Manson's prophesying, and the relationship his family members had with one another.

Manson Family

Watson began taking hallucinogens regularly and became consumed by a drug-induced perspective in which he believed love and deep bonds of friendship were formed. He described it as a "kind of connection even deeper and better than sex." His friendship with Moorehouse and many of Manson's "girls" deepened, and they encouraged him to rid himself of his ego and join the Manson family.

Wilson began to pull away from the regulars living in his mansion after complaints of child sexual abuse circulated. His manager told Moorehouse, Watson, and others that they had to leave. With nowhere to go, Moorehouse and Watson turned to Manson. Acceptance wasn't immediate, but in time Watson's name changed from Charles to "Tex," he gave all his possessions to Charlie, and moved in with the family.

In November 1968 Watson left the Manson family and moved to Hollywood with his girlfriend. They were financially comfortable drug peddlers, and Watson changed his hippie image to a more stylish Hollywood look. As their relationship fell apart, Watson's desire to reunite with the Manson family grew. By March 1969, he was back at the nearby Spahn Ranch, a 55-acre former movie set the family had occupied. But their focus had changed into something sinister, which the family called "Helter Skelter."

For several months, Manson spent long hours talking about Helter Skelter, a race war he envisioned to help change society. But the revolution was not happening quickly enough for Manson, and he conceived a plan to kick-start it. On August 8, 1969, the first phase of Helter Skelter began. Manson put Watson in charge of three family members—Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian. He instructed Watson to go to 10050 Cielo Drive and kill everyone inside the home, make it look bad, but most important make sure each girl participated.

Murders

With Watson in the lead, the four entered the home of actress Sharon Tate-Polanski. Once inside they brutally beat, stabbed, or shot the occupants, including the eight-months-pregnant Tate, who begged for her baby's life and cried out for her mother as they stabbed her 15 times. Also found shot to death was 18-year-old Steven Earl Parent, who was visiting the caretaker and was caught by the Manson group as he left the house.

The next day Manson, Watson, Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Steve Grogan drove to the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson and Watson entered the home and bound the couple, then Manson left and sent in Krenwinkel and Van Houten. They stabbed and beat Leno, then Rosemary, then scrawled on the walls in blood the misspelled words "Healter Skelter" and "Kill the Pigs," with triggering a race war in mind. Manson had issued the order to kill but left before the killing began.

Eight days after the Cielo Drive murders, police raided Spahn Ranch and rounded up several members on auto theft charges. After the raid the rest of the family headed for Death Valley, but not before Manson, Watson, Grogan, Bill Vance and Larry Bailey killed ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea. Manson believed Shea was the snitch responsible for the raid.

Watson stayed with the Manson family until early October, then decided to return to Texas. But his dramatic change since he left home in 1964 made it difficult to stay. He decided to go to Mexico but felt a strong pull to return to Charlie and his "real" family. He flew to L.A., got near to where the family was staying, but stopped short, believing that Charlie would kill him.

Charged

Watson returned to his family in Texas, cut his hair, and tried to blend in with this unfamiliar world. He reunited with an old girlfriend and reduced his drug use. The future began to show some promise as parts of his old life returned. All that stopped on November 30, when he was arrested and charged with seven counts of murder for the Tate and LaBianca killings. It took his mother years to believe the charges.

Some Manson family members had revealed to the Los Angeles district attorney's office what they had heard around the ranch following the murders. Atkins, who had been arrested, couldn't resist bragging about the family and the murders while in the Sybil Brand Institute for Women east of downtown Los Angeles. Later she told the same story to the grand jury and described Watson's involvement. Not long after, Watson was located in Texas and arrested.

After fighting extradition to California for nine months, Watson was finally returned on September 11, 1970. By this time Manson and several of his "girls" were in their third month of trial. The extradition process prevented Watson from being tried with the group and gave him a chance to see who was being blamed for which crimes so he would know what to admit and what had been blamed on others.

Watson began suffering from acute paranoia and regressed to a fetal state, stopped eating, and lost considerable weight. He was sent to Atascadero State Hospital for evaluation of his fitness to stand trial. On August 2, 1971, Watson finally went on trial for the brutal murders.

Trial

District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi had successfully prosecuted the others involved in the Tate-LaBianca murders and now began the trial of the last, most culpable of all involved. Dressed in a suit and holding the Bible, Watson pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, yet he was sane enough to admit on the stand only the crimes he knew the prosecution was already aware of. He did not admit to killing Tate or being with Manson when the LaBiancas were taken captive.

After two and a half hours of deliberation, Watson was found to have been sane during the murders and received a death sentence.

Husband, Father, Author

From November 1971 until September 1972, Watson was on death row at San Quentin prison, north of San Francisco. After California briefly outlawed the death penalty, he was moved to California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, where he met Chaplain Raymond Hoekstra and became a born-again Christian. Five years after mercilessly murdering seven people, Watson was teaching Bible studies, eventually leading him to form his own prison ministry, Abounding Love Ministries.

During his stay at the Colony he wrote an autobiography, "Will You Die for Me?," published in 1978. He married Kristin Joan Svege and in 1979 gained the trust of Suzanne Struthers, Rosemary LaBianca's daughter, who fought for his release during a 1990 parole hearing.

Through conjugal visits, he and his wife had four children. In 1996 conjugal visits for prisoners serving life sentences were banned. In 2003, he and his wife divorced.

As of October 2019, Watson was in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. Three years earlier he was denied parole for the 17th time. He will next be eligible for parole in 2021.

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