Murder, Love & Redemption

Everyone knows how Manson girl Susan Atkins helped take lives. But few know the story of the life she helped save.

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Editor’s note: This story was a finalist for a Western Publishing Association 2011 Maggie Award for best interview or profile.

In 1985, long after the crimes that would bind her forever to Charles Manson, Susan Atkins received a letter in the prison mail.A young man named James Whitehouse had read her autobiography and wanted guidance. He was lost. He was frightened. He was partying too hard, hanging out with bad people. In her book, she wrote that she had found God and conquered her demons. How did she do it? How could he?

“He wrote to me and offered friendship,” the convicted murderer told parole officials years later, “and I was at a place emotionally where I thought maybe I could offer friendship back.”

The decision to correspond hadn’t been easy, she said. In the 14 years since her conviction, both as one of the despised Manson girls and a legend among born-again inmates, Atkins received more than her share of mail from crackpots. Occasionally, the exchanges turned disastrously romantic. One writer had to be barred from the prison; another, to whom she was briefly married, turned out to be a con man.

Now here was this confused 22-year-old wanting advice from her, a 37-year-old convict.

“I don’t remember what I told her,” Whitehouse recalls one recent afternoon, sitting on the porch of a San Juan Capistrano mobile home that doubles as his law office. “But I do remember what I prayed before I sent the letter. I said, ‘God, if this isn’t a good idea, then don’t let her get it.’ Later, she told me she hadn’t written back to anyone in about five years.”

What happened after he mailed that letter is a complicated tale. It’s a crime story, of course, framed by one of the most notorious murder sprees in California history. But it’s also an account of an uphill struggle against an increasingly stern and powerful justice system. And a love story. And a tragedy.

When Whitehouse tells it, though, it sounds improbably like a story of redemption, and not necessarily of the infamous prisoner who became his wife. For in the epilogue to one of the darkest tales ever to haunt the nation, Whitehouse—now a Harvard-educated attorney—found the courage to rewrite the story of his own life.

 

“When I was in junior high, I played the trumpet,” Whitehouse says. “I was going to go to West Point. Or to Stanford, and play in the Stanford band.”

He laughs. A tall, graying, thin-faced man who has worn his hair long since his late teens, the 46-year-old Whitehouse seems more Ted Nugent than John Philip Sousa. Yet there he is, in his 1979 yearbook, in the Hillsdale High School band in San Mateo, where former classmates recall him as brainy and shy.

The change came at 16: His father, an engineer, moved the family to Ohio, and the teenaged Whitehouse defiantly shut down. “He was already getting to that angry-young-man phase, but Cleveland was the last straw,” recalls his sister, Virginia Seals, a 44-year-old Santa Cruz landscaper and accounting student.

The day after graduation, Whitehouse says, he rushed from Ohio back to the Bay Area and moved in with old buddies, playing bass in a rock band and ditching classes at community college: “We were headlining shows on Friday and Saturday nights. In some of the worst clubs, but still, headlining.”

And doing a lot of drugs.

“See,” he says, “what happens is: You start partying. It costs money. And then you can’t get it and eventually you say, ‘The heck with this, I’m going to buy a lot so I don’t have to keep going back to some guy.’ And then you end up with a lot in your house, and you realize that other people can kick in your door and take it. Because it’s illegal, you can’t go to the police and complain about it. So eventually you buy guns. And all my guns were legal, and they were all registered and I never took them out of the house, but …”

He was 6 feet tall and so strung out that his weight had dropped to 113 pounds by the time he was 20. “For my 21st birthday,” he says, “my dad gave me money to get a will done.”

 

About that time, Whitehouse says, he picked up Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter,” the Manson case history beloved by defiant adolescents everywhere. “Someone said, ‘Oh, read this. This is scary,’ ” he remembers. And it did disturb him. He was a 6-year-old living 400 miles from Los Angeles when Manson, a deranged ex-con humiliated by his failure as a musician, dispatched his “family” of runaways and lost souls to commit the bloodbaths in 1969 that made him famous.

In Southern California, of course, the case became legend: Brainwashed and acting on Manson’s instructions, his followers slaughtered nine people, including actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, and wrote epithets at the crime scenes in the victims’ blood.

But by the mid-’80s, it was just a bad memory. The 15th anniversary of the crimes came and went and the TV movie of “Helter Skelter” was in reruns. One day while reading a magazine, Whitehouse says, he noticed a Q&A in which Manson was ranting that “Sadie lied” about something. Intrigued, he went looking for the autobiography of the Manson girl who had been given that alias.

The book was not what he expected. At the trials, Atkins had been “the scariest Manson girl,” as one prosecutor put it, bragging to her cellmates that she had not only stabbed Tate but, they claimed, tasted the actress’s blood. Then she switched sides to become the first family member to testify against Manson. Under oath, she claimed she never stabbed anyone—she had only written the word “pig” in blood with a towel at one of the crime scenes and held Tate while another family member, Charles “Tex” Watson, murdered her.

Then Atkins reversed herself again, the result of threats by Manson against her and her then-year-old baby, she explained later. (The child, fathered by a drifter during a trip to Phoenix with another family member, was taken by the state and given up for adoption after her conviction.)

At her 1971 sentencing, Atkins claimed she did stab Tate, sneering at her pleas for mercy. By that time, however, her story was contradicted by so much other testimony that it wasn’t clear whether Atkins really knew what part she played in the murders. In any case, the disgusted public no longer much cared whether she was a cold-blooded killer or a hapless accessory. Atkins was sentenced to death.

 

A year after she was sent to death row, the California Supreme Court briefly rendered the death penalty invalid. All death sentences automatically were commuted to life imprisonment. Under the law at the time of the murders, that technically meant seven years to life because sentences of life without parole didn’t exist in California. So Atkins not only escaped death; she won a shot at release.

According to her memoir, “Child of Satan, Child of God,” this set the stage in 1974 for a life-altering spiritual rebirth. The claim raised the usual jailhouse-memoir doubts. Inmates who want parole stand to gain from sympathetic portrayals. And Atkins’ co-author, Bob Slosser, was an evangelist who went on, after the book’s release, to launch the news department of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.

Whitehouse had his own epiphanies.

“I was eating dinner one day in the living room with a gun on my lap,” he recalls. “And I realized that people don’t just wake up one morning and decide to run amok. People … make a bad choice, and something goes wrong, and then they make another bad choice, and eventually they end up in a situation where there are no longer any right answers.”

Contacting a Manson girl was extreme, he concedes, but “at that age, everything seems dramatic.” And Atkins had written that she wanted to minister to young people who felt lost. Whitehouse was scarcely speaking to his family and had no friends outside his lifestyle. “I told her that I was living with a bunch of people and … I wanted to get my life cleaned up, that I was 22 years old and the oldest person in the entire place, and that it was hard holding it all together. And she encouraged me to get out of there.”

For the next year, he says, they wrote monthly. “When you’re drowning, you don’t pay attention to who’s throwing you a life preserver.”

He moved to North Hollywood to start a new band, playing speed-metal clubs in the San Fernando Valley. (“We actually opened once for Megadeth,” he says.) Now a little more than an hour from the women’s prison in Frontera, he visited Atkins. The more he saw, he says, the more he liked. Even surrounded by guards, she had a reassuring serenity that was—dare he think it?—attractive. (“Susan had a way of letting you know God made you absolutely perfect, just the way you are,” says his sister.)

And unlike others in his life, Atkins didn’t judge or lecture. “Instead of saying, ‘You ought to … ,’ she’d just let me talk and wait for me to say something that made sense,” Whitehouse says. “And then she’d say, ‘I think you’re right.’ Or, ‘I think what you said before; I think that was right.’ Which made me feel like she wasn’t telling me stuff, but that I was coming up with it myself.”

In early 1987, his band was caught up in a drug sweep. Though he wasn’t charged, he says, he spent two days in jail. Sobered, he accepted an invitation from his grandmother in San Juan Capistrano: If he returned to school, he could live in the guest room of her trailer.

“I enrolled at Golden West [College], and, after a semester there, I surprised myself and got a 3.75 average,” he says. He decided three things:

He was smart.

He wanted to go to college.

And he was in love with Susan Atkins.

“I had to ask her four times to marry me,” he says. “The first time I asked she said, ‘What?’ And the second time, she said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ The third time she said, ‘What will your parents think?’ And the fourth time she said, ‘Yes.’ ”

 

They were married Dec. 7, 1987, in the prison administration building. The groom wore a dark-blue suit; the bride wore white. “Susan waited until a certain pastor she liked came in,” recalled Whitehouse. “He kept calling me John.”

Besides the obvious obstacles, she now was pushing 40 and he was just 24. Whitehouse says he didn’t tell his parents until three months before the wedding.

“They were hugely concerned,” says his sister. “Dad’s first reaction was: Nobody can change that much—you can’t do something that horrible and then change into a wonderful person.” Her own feelings were mixed: Her father had a point, but her brother was like a new man.

“I think my dad said something like, ‘I don’t want to hear about it,’ ” Whitehouse says. But his mother’s sister met Atkins and interceded. Whitehouse’s father died in 2000; his mother, now in her 70s, declined to comment for this story. Though it didn’t happen in time for the prison to clear them to attend the wedding, Whitehouse and his sister say both parents grew to love their daughter-in-law.

Whitehouse said his feelings for Atkins had crept up on him gradually as he realized how sorry she was about the murders, and how little the world knew about the penance she did. Transcripts from parole hearings show long lists of commendations for Atkins’ work in volunteer and rehabilitative programs—charities, 12-step programs, fitness programs, advisory councils. In at least one case, she had helped save a life as a volunteer in a psychiatric treatment unit.

“She had become a model inmate,” says Florence Richer, a longtime inmate advocate at the California Institution for Women who was Atkins’ counselor and friend for 31 years.

By law, after Atkins had served the minimum seven years of her sentence, the state had to parole her unless there was evidence she was still a danger to society. When her death sentence was commuted, Whitehouse says, even first-degree murderers were getting out in less than a decade. Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor in the Manson case, predicted in “Helter Skelter” that she would serve only 15 or 20 years of her sentence. But in the court of public opinion, the Manson inmates were in a class by themselves.

Richer believes Atkins understood this, and had come to terms with it. But Whitehouse was outraged: Parole hearings were supposed to be neutral, and it seemed no matter how much remorse Atkins expressed or how many commendations and positive psychiatric evaluations she garnered, parole officials routinely concluded she was too dangerous to release.

They suspected her turnaround was an act, or that the eager-to-please Manson follower had simply become an eager-to-please student of correctional culture. “I’ve seen offenders who look like they’re doing great but they really haven’t changed much,” says John Dovey, a  former warden at the Frontera prison.

“This was not a garden-variety murder,” says Stephen Kay, the veteran Los Angeles prosecutor who handled most of Atkins’ parole hearings. “I never got the sense that she was rehabilitated to the point that she would not be a danger.”

The victims’ distraught families, meanwhile, reminded the parole board that even in her most self-serving accounts, Atkins had admitted to restraining a pleading, pregnant woman who was being eviscerated. “Why should she get mercy?” they asked.

As attitudes on criminal justice hardened in the ensuing decades, it seemed clear that Atkins would spend the rest of her life in prison. “And he’s willing to wait for you forever?” a commissioner on the Board of Prison Terms scoffed at a 1989 hearing after learning she had wed.

And yet, Whitehouse says, after every rejection, Atkins threw herself back into education, community work, therapy, religion—every possible avenue of rehabilitation. It moved him. Whoever she had been, the woman he knew now seemed extraordinary. “Marriage is a public sign of commitment that you really do believe in someone. I believed in her and I wanted her to be a part of my life, whatever that meant.”

They spent every possible moment together, as newlyweds will, even in prison. There were conjugal visits every couple of months. There was canoodling in the visiting room. Parole hearing transcripts show that five months after their wedding, she was cited for violating no-contact regulations. She had rested her head on his shoulder, kissed him, and brushed the hair from his forehead. They’d take walks around the prison yard and study the Bible.

He enrolled at Saddleback College, taking science courses. Whitehouse’s sister recalls: “Susan was pretty much: ‘If you’re going to be married to me, you’re going to get back on track—I’m not going to be blamed for wasting your life.’ ”

In his off hours, Whitehouse studied. And studied. By 1991, he had won a scholarship and transferred to UC Irvine; by 1993, he had two bachelor’s degrees, graduating magna cum laude in chemistry and summa cum laude in biological sciences.

He had planned to go into molecular engineering. But the next year, after yet another fruitless parole hearing, he applied on impulse to law school. When acceptance letters arrived from universities such as Harvard and UC Berkeley, he says, “everyone from Susan’s brother to my dad pitched in” to pay the tuition. He enrolled at Harvard in September 1994, according to the university registrar’s office, and graduated cum laude with his law degree in May 1997.

 

While he was gone, the tough-on-crime drumbeat got louder. California passed its three-strikes law. Prison visiting hours were shortened. A 1995 law had eliminated conjugal visits entirely for lifers such as Atkins. At Harvard, Whitehouse focused on the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution, which, among other things, prohibits laws that retro-actively increase punishments for offenses. As he saw it, he was there for one purpose—to end his wife’s imprisonment.

At school, he says, he told people he was married and didn’t elaborate. When classmates saw pictures of Atkins in his room, Whitehouse says, they never recognized her—they only remarked on her good looks.

“Once the guy next door said, ‘That’s your wife?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘You left her in California?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You’re an idiot.’ ”

Law professor Martha Field, who advised Whitehouse on his third-year paper, says he never talked to her about his personal life, only about his work. (“The paper was a good one,” she recalls.) Former classmates noticed his long hair and that he was older, but otherwise simply found him to be smart, polite—and happily married.

“Even my [young] girlfriend at the time thought it was endearing, how he would talk about spending every break in California, ‘chasing my wife’s a** around,’ ” recalled David R. Lawson, Whitehouse’s moot court partner in those days, in an e-mail. However, he says, Whitehouse said little about his home life: “We wondered a bit, but had no idea whatsoever about the details.”

Now a commercial litigator in Northern California, Lawson remembers his classmate as fiercely intelligent and “fearless” in the courtroom, and wrote that he was astonished when, shortly after graduation, Whitehouse shared his secret: “I was not at all shocked to find out his wife was in jail, (I almost saw that coming somehow),” Lawson wrote, “but would not have guessed the details no matter how much time you gave me. … It was odd because Jim is such a great guy and it is entirely incongruous.”

Whitehouse was admitted to the bar six months after his graduation. The opportunities were obvious—tech companies, public service, corporate law. “A Harvard Law School diploma is very ritzy,” he concedes. But he had a mission. Besides, he jokes, a ritzy firm probably wouldn’t have let him keep his long hair.

Instead, he says, he prepared for his wife’s next parole hearing. By then, Atkins was a 49-year-old matron with paralegal training and an associate’s degree. Prison psychiatrists found she had matured into “a far different person,” albeit with a troubling tendency to “minimize” her role in the slayings. She was involved in everything from sheriff’s department fundraisers to the prison’s Black History Month celebration. She made numerous public and private apologies.

Whitehouse’s plan was to remind the board—which is made up of political appointees—that its sole job under the law was to develop an impartial risk assessment with no predetermined conclusion. If Atkins still didn’t get a fair hearing, Whitehouse would sue. But it was an election year. Then-Gov. Gray Davis already vowed no murderer would be freed during his administration. In December 2000, after a three-hour hearing, the board again found Atkins unsuitable for release.

Whitehouse enlisted Eric Lampel, an experienced Orange County trial attorney. They filed a writ of habeas corpus in Superior Court alleging 42 instances in which the parole board had deliberately ignored the law and parole rules to keep Atkins behind bars. In 2003, they filed a second, parallel suit in federal court, alleging that the board members were part of a concerted effort to keep Atkins in prison regardless of the evidence, and that they should be held personally liable for inflicting what amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

They went to the media. They mustered supporters. But the lower courts held that the crimes alone were sufficient grounds for denial. Their appeals were rejected, and in 2005—saying her crimes had been too heinous and calling a prison psychologist’s recommendation that she be released “inconclusive”—the board again denied her parole.

Each parole hearing sparked vigorous public debate about Atkins’ evolution. Behind the scenes, however, the real story to those who knew Whitehouse was the metamorphosis of her most devoted advocate. He was now helping several inmates besides Atkins. He was lobbying reporters. He was arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

On the personal front, he had renovated his grandmother’s trailer, putting in hardwood floors and decorating it with Atkins’ art and his Ivy League diploma. He was healthy. He was close to his family. His marriage may have been hard to fathom—“Harvard law grad and brutal murderess? It just didn’t mesh,” puzzles Kay, the prosecutor—but it was, by all accounts, successful and deeply loving.

“Usually the person in prison is the one who is rehabilitated. But James was the one who became a new person,” says Richer, the inmate advocate and Atkins’ friend.

 

Atkins developed brain cancer in 2008 and had to be moved to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla to be treated. Whitehouse made the seven-hour drive to see her as often as he was permitted, though by then, visiting hours had been cut to just twice a week. Doctors initially gave her only a few months to live, but she survived long enough to celebrate her 21st wedding anniversary with Whitehouse. On Sept. 24, 2009, at 11:46 p.m., Atkins died after 18 months in a skilled nursing facility. She was 61, partially paralyzed, and had had difficulty speaking since March 2008. One leg had been amputated. Nonetheless, she was still deemed a danger: In her final months, officials denied her last bid for parole and a request for compassionate release.

Whitehouse was in his hotel room across the street when nurses called with the news of her death; he rushed back to her bedside just to be near her body. “I straightened her bedding. Straightened the sheets.” His voice cracked. “Crossed her hands.”

He waited with her until morning, then got into his 8-year-old BMW and started driving. He said he’d gone 100 miles before he realized he didn’t have a destination. He stayed with his brother-in-law’s family for a few days, then returned to San Juan Capistrano.

“I didn’t have any plans for the future that didn’t include Susan,” he says, stepping into a living room filled with memories of his wife—a room she had never seen. One wall is lined with her paintings, another with framed photographs of her. Legal files from her final parole hearing are piled in his kitchen; a half-dozen of her Bibles are stacked on his bookcase. On his desk, two roses top a brown plastic box holding her ashes. The space is pleasant but cell-like—his sofa is a narrow cot, his possessions are neatly arrayed.

Whitehouse is alternately tearful and forward-looking: “This is the first time in 24 years that I haven’t had to have anything to do with the California Department of Corrections,” he jokes. “And it’s a relief.”

He isn’t sure what he’ll do next—maybe practice, maybe do legal research for other attorneys. “Maybe I need another big nasty thing to fight for,” he says.

But he’s grateful: “Knowing Susan got me away from where I was before. It gave me goals. Something to believe in.”

He opens the door and walks out into the sunlight.

“Someone who believed in me.”

photograph by Jason Wallis

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Orange Coast magazine. 

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