LOS ANGELES - Death hag Scott Michaels pulls his sightseer-packed Helter Skelter Tour van - with the license plate holder declaring "I Love Sharon Tate" - over to the curb so those aboard can gawk across traffic lanes at the El Coyote Mexican restaurant. "Mediocre food," he rags, but "good margaritas."
"And it's where Sharon Tate and her friends had their last supper the night they were murdered by the Manson Family," Michaels adds, sounding eerily like some pleasant Disneyland guide.
|DRIVE-BY DETAILS - Tour guide Scott Michaels starts his Helter Shelter Tour with a video of star Sharon Tate, one of the seven people slain by the Charles Manson family. CNS Photo by Carol Kron. |
|HOLLYWOOD TOUR - The Helter Skelter Tour van in Los Angeles stops at one site of the 1969 Manson family's bloody crime spree. CNS Photo by Carol Kron. |
On this skin-crawler fun bus, riders retrace the still-captivating horror of August 1969. With that year's hit single "Hair" blaring in the 11-passenger van, Michaels soon slows by the Fairfax Avenue beauty salon once owned by slaughtered stylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring. (He notes Sebring was the inspiration for Warren Beatty's hairdresser character in "Shampoo.")
Michaels also schleps voyeurs past the former shrink's office that coffee heiress Abigail Folger visited hours before she was stabbed in her nightie 28 times. (She had a daily 4:30 p.m. appointment.) And the van brakes outside the apartment building (later used as the "Melrose Place" exterior) where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca's daughter lived, and where, in their 1968 green Thunderbird and towing their boat after a trip to Lake Isabella, Calif., they dropped her off before heading home and being killed by Charlie's gang.
Recently observed was the 38th anniversary of the seven Tate-LaBianca slayings, an infamous spree that scared the bejesus out of the nation and enshrined Charles Manson as the most evil, hippie-cult, mind-controlling lunatic of all time. Michaels called it a week "like our Christmas."
That's because for a year now, he's ferried looky-loos on a $50-a-seat, three-hour multimedia Helter Skelter Tour. The odd odyssey normally departs every other Saturday from a curb next to a parking lot off Hollywood Boulevard. Before Helter Skelter was a travelogue (and the name of the Manson prosecutor's book and two TV movies), it was a Beatles' song that fried-brain Manson thought predicted a race war, which he decided to trigger by having his commune crazies kill well-off whites.
Turns out Manson-obsessed Michaels, 44, has a thing for all stiffs - he also gives celeb-themed Dearly Departed Tours and runs findadeath.com, where he keeps tabs on toes-up VIPS and sells stash like pieces of John Denver's "death plane."
Right now, the black-clothed tattooed host motors his Manson tour murdermobile - a can't-miss white Chevy van with "Helter Skelter" emblazoned in red letters, Dearly Departed logos, and a black wreath on its grill - up a Benedict Canyon road to get the best view of a Mediterranean villa across the ridge on Cielo Drive. The domed mansion was built on the site where 26-year-old actress Tate, then the 8 1/2-months-pregnant wife of out-of-town director Roman Polanski, along with Sebring, 35, Folger, 25, her beau Wojciech Frykowski, 32, and 18-year-old caretaker acquaintance Steven Parent were butchered on Aug. 9, 1969.
Never mind that the actual French-style country home where the killers wrote "PIG" in Tate's blood was bulldozed in 1994. Passengers press against the van's darkened windows to snap photos of the nonmurder mansion, which is so far away it looks like a doll house. To add to weirdville, the taped voice of Manson psycho Patricia Krenwinkel fills the van as she recounts chasing and repeatedly knifing Folger on the front lawn.
"These are, I warn you, horrible," Michaels says. With one hand gripping the steering wheel, he passes back vinyl red notebooks. "Anyone else? Everyone got one? Do you want one sir?" he asks a man as if offering a mint.
Good luck to those who already feel pukey from being on winding roads and watching videos on the van's overhead screen (right before the "last supper" stop, voyagers laughed at a film clip of Tate doing bust-enhancing exercises in 1967's "Valley of the Dolls").
As the van bumps along, Melissa Teraoka, a 29-year-old divorce court clerk from Costa Mesa, Calif., flips open the notebook and struggles to describe the ghastly contents to her dad, Cal, a 49-year-old true-crime buff who is blind.
Like others aboard, the daughter is beholding crime scene photos of bloodied bodies, including one of grocery chain owner Leno LaBianca, stabbed 26 times, with "WAR" carved in his stomach.
Earlier, the van briefly stopped outside the former LaBianca residence, which still resembles how it looked on Aug. 10, 1969, the night the killers misspelled HEALTER SKELTER in blood on the fridge door. The Spanish-style tile-roof home is in plain view up a short driveway, meaning if the current occupants are in the living room, where bound Leno was found, or the front bedroom, where Rosemary was stabbed 41 times, they could gaze out this sunny morning and see the van plastered with the correctly spelled, "Helter Skelter."
Leno, 44, and Rosemary, 38, had the rotten luck to return early from their boating trip and to live next door to a house where Manson once partied and remembered when he was looking for victims for his minions to massacre.
Throughout the tour, a few motorists and neighbors shot the van dirty looks. Michaels recalls one woman who rolled down her SUV's window at a stoplight and asked how he could live with himself.
"They think I'm a ghoulish fiend that gets off on this stuff. In a sense I am," he says, as he drives to the house where Tex Watson and the Manson girls used a garden hose to wash off blood after the Tate killings. "But I'm never disrespectful, I never mock." (OK, so earlier he called Tate "a terrible actress" who "couldn't act her way out of a bag," but so what.)
Besides, Michaels says he donates $5 out of every $50 Helter Skelter ticket to the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau or its related foundation, named after the slain actress's late mother, who became a prominent activist for victims' rights.
"We do get checks on a regular basis from him," says Christine Ward, executive director of the Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides services to crime victims and lobbies for legislation. "We're thankful that if anyone makes money off these horrible crimes they share that with the foundation so we can help victims."
Ward calls the tour "just very bizarre" and sighs. "People pay money for the strangest things. I understand that violence sells and horrible stories sell. It's nice he feels compelled to send us donations."
Michaels only allows rubberneckers off the van once at a pit stop at a scandal-tinged Beverly Hills park. He encourages everyone to take photos in front of the restroom where pop star George Michael was busted for exposing himself to an undercover cop.
This day's excursionists are all middle-class, seemingly normal types from Orange County, Calif., - none have X's carved in their foreheads or anything. True-crime junkie Jim Terrell, a 47-year-old computer systems analyst from Irvine, Calif., says "on a historical level" he's fascinated with the Manson case and had previously eyeballed many of the tour spots on his own.
"It was probably the most infamous cult. The way they recruited people, the way people hung on to it. There's never been anything like that and there's never been evidence Manson killed anyone himself."
Michaels knows what it's like to fixate on morbid landmarks. The Detroit native was living in London with then-boyfriend and Irish talk show host Graham Norton when Princess Di died in 1997. Because of his immigration status, Michaels had to wait more than a year to travel to Paris to touch the pillar her Mercedes hit.
The Manson heebie-jeebies jaunt is head-spinning: There's a pawn shop that used to be a bicycle shop where Folger bought a yellow bike on her last day on Earth; there's the hillside where a TV news crew found the killers' bloody clothes; there's chilling Charlie, over the van's CD player, singing his little ditty, "Cease To Exist."
After returning to the tour's start, Michaels hands day-trippers a small zip-lock bag as they step out of the van. "Here's your complimentary rock. Treat it well," he says.
The jagged stones are from the Cielo Drive fireplace that "witnessed" the murders, according to Michaels. The bodies of Tate, who was stabbed 16 times, and her one-time fiance Sebring, who was shot, slashed and had his nose broken, were found laying in front of the living room fireplace, their necks joined by a single rope thrown over a ceiling rafter. Michaels says he went up to the house when it was being demolished in 1994 and carted off fireplace remains.
"Just trying to picture what happened was kind of creepy," says passenger Melissa Teraoka, adding she "loved" the tour. She's stoked about taking a photo of the garden hose where the killers washed off - although no way it's the same hose.
Even though her dad couldn't see the sites, he followed the macabre tragedy through Michaels' narration.
"I still think he should have given us a piece of the carpet," Cal Teraoka jokes, as he clutches the zip-lock containing an El Coyote matchbook and the rock.
Haunting head shots of a beautiful Tate and a wild-eyed Manson stare up from inside the bag. They're on a piece of black paper describing the fireplace souvenir as "Sharon's Stone."