Susan Denise Atkins is infamous for her 1969 involvement and participation in the multiple murders carried out under the direction of Charles Manson. Atkins, along with other members of the so-called "Manson Family," committed a series of nine murders at four locations in California over a five-week period during the summer of 1969. Born in San Gabriel, near Los Angeles, California, Atkins had a difficult childhood. Both her parents allegedly were alcoholics. Her mother died of cancer in 1963, leaving young Susan in an even more vulnerable position. Over the next three years her family fragmented and she eventually left home to live on her own. Until she was 14 the family lived in a middle class neighborhood. People who knew her then describe her as a quiet, self-conscious girl who was a member of the school glee club and church choir. By some accounts, the Atkins' family life worsened as her father began to drink more heavily and went through a series of jobs and moves. At some point, her father took a job out of town and left Susan and her younger brother to fend for themselves. She tried to remain in school, but since she had to pay all the bills, her grades deteriorated and she eventually dropped out. At that time she moved to San Francisco, leaving her brother with relatives. She attempted to support herself as a secretary and a topless dancer. In 1966 she was arrested and charged with possession of a concealed weapon and for receiving stolen property. One year later, while staying at a house with friends, Atkins met Charles Manson. When the house was raided a few weeks later and she was left homeless, Manson invited her to join his group, which was about to embark on a summer road trip. He bestowed the nickname "Sadie Mae Glutz" on Atkins at that time. Atkins settled with the "Manson Family" at Spahn Ranch in Southern California, where she gave birth to a son, whom Manson named Zezozose Zadfrack. Atkins has claimed that Manson is not the father of the child. Her parental rights were terminated once she was convicted of the murders, and since no one in her family would take the child, he was adopted by a doctor and his family, and renamed "Paul."
By the summer of 1969, police had taken an interest in the activities at the Spahn Ranch. To raise money, Manson encouraged drug dealing and auto theft. In late July he sent Atkins and others to the home of Gary Hinman, whom Manson believed owed him money. When they were unable to extract funds from Hinman, the group tortured and killed Hinman. On the evening of August 8, 1969, Manson sent out another group to commit murder. This time three young women, including Atkins, were instructed to go with "Tex" Watson and to do whatever he told them to do. After sneaking into a home in Benedict Canyon, a home known to Manson and his family due to his connection with a previous tenant, five people were brutally murdered, including the heavily pregnant actress, Sharon Tate. According to court testimony and her own confession, Atkins helped Watson hold Tate down while they both stabbed her. Tate, pleading for mercy for the sake of her unborn child, was told by Atkins to shut up and that she didn't care about her or the baby. The next night a similar Manson Family crew was dispatched to kill once more, resulting in two more brutal murders in another area of Los Angeles. Around a week later, Atkins and the rest of the "family" were arrested on charges unrelated to the murders. At that point, authorities didn't have a clue as to who had committed the murders. However, Atkins gleefully and with pride related her involvement to her cellmate, who notified authorities. Atkins agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for the state not seeking the death penalty, and she then testified before the grand jury as to what had occurred on the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969. In the ensuing years, Atkins has claimed that she was a passive bystander and did not actually kill anyone. Watson, in his 1978 memoir, corroborated Atkins’ insistence that she was not a murderer. However, during the grand jury testimony she admitted to active participation in the crimes. During the trial, Atkins and other family members often disrupted the court proceedings with singing, dancing, and hurling insults and remarks. Despite her arrangement with the prosecution, Atkins, along with four others, were sentenced to death in March 1971. However, her sentence was commuted to life in prison the following year, due to a change in California law.
Atkins has been a model prisoner during her years of incarceration. She has earned several college degrees, headed up and organized a number of prison programs that assist with mental health, alcoholism and drug addiction, and has discouraged young people from idolizing Manson. She claims to be a born-again Christian whose mind and heart have changed. Despite her sterling prison record, she has been repeatedly denied parole. In 2008 her husband and lawyer, James Whitehouse, announced that Atkins was dying of brain cancer. She was relocated to a hospital, where despite her incapacitation and amputation of one leg, she remains under guard. She applied for a compassionate release so that she could return to her family to die. Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Atkins in 1970, said he was not opposed to her release given her present condition in order to save the state money, since if released the state would no longer have to provide her medical care nor pay for security. However, the board decided to deny her request, since Atkins had failed to demonstrate genuine remorse and an understanding of the gravity of her crimes. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also opposed Atkins' release. Her request was denied unanimously, and she is expected to die incarcerated within a matter of months.
Image: Susan Atkins during her trial.