The Strange Case of Charles Manson and the CIA’s LSD Research

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Charles Manson and his murderous cult marked American pop culture, even inspiring Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Decades after the cult gained notoriety, however, new evidence has emerged suggesting that a covert CIA program to research the effects of psychedelic drugs may have contributed to Manson’s rise to infamy.

In his 2019 book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the 1960s, author Tom O’Neill interviewed forensic psychologist Alan Scheflin about the potentially tragic consequences of the CIA’s experimental mind control program, MK-Ultra. Was it possible, O’Neill asked, that the Manson murders were part of an MK-Ultra experiment gone wrong?

Scheflin replied, “No, […] a MKULTRA experience that went well.

Manson’s cult was called the Family.

His home on an old movie set on the outskirts of Los Angeles became a haven for runaways, drug addicts and misfits, many of whom were minors. The Manson family shocked America in 1969 when some of its members committed nine gruesome murders in Los Angeles. Among the victims was American actress and model Sharon Tate, eight and a half months pregnant.

The staggering brutality of the so-called Crime of the Century captured America’s attention – as did the ensuing murder trial. The courtroom spectacle featured outbursts and threats from the defendants with swastikas carved into their foreheads.

Sharon Tate pictured in The Valley of the Dolls is often the most remembered victim of the Manson family murders, but several others are among the dead: Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe (survived), Gary Hinman, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Donald “Shorty” Shea, and James and Lauren Willett. The LAPD suspects Manson’s connections in at least 4 other cold cases. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The modus operandi in the murders was particularly sadistic. The killers daubed political messages in their victims’ blood, including the words “healter skelter”, the (misspelled) name of a popular Beatles song. Consequently, Americans were faced with a new reality in which harmless hippies suddenly appeared as the harbingers of horror. For its part, the American government was already wary of the hippies; they were too communist, too leftist, too anti-racist, too anarchist and too feminist. After Manson’s widely publicized trial, public opinion seemed to align accordingly.

In 1967, Manson, then 32, had spent half his life in prison for a myriad of crimes, including the rape of a boy. After his parole that year from Terminal Island prison in California, Manson eventually headed north to San Francisco. While in the Bay Area, Manson’s inglorious life path took a truly bizarre turn, intersecting with four CIA-funded drug research studies; his participation in two has since been confirmed.

Manson’s parole officer, a Berkeley doctoral student named Roger Smith, was part of a federally funded program that researched LSD and drug use among the people of San Francisco. His position as a parole officer allowed Smith to provide an element of immunity to his involuntary research subjects. Although he had the power to send Manson back to prison for violating the terms of his parole, Smith never reported the cult leader’s numerous infractions. So Manson remained free – and addicted to drugs.

Roger Smith’s tenure at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic allowed him to work with David Smith (no relation), a physician with a background in pharmacology and the clinic’s founder. In exchange for federal funding — courtesy of the CIA — the couple researched recreational drug use among their patients. Soon doctors and clinicians at the clinic began to recognize the frequent presence of young runaways and drug addicts belonging to Manson’s sect. An assistant researcher named Alan Rose took the initiative to visit the Los Angeles compound of the Manson family, where he used drugs and participated in bizarre sexual rites. After four months of immersive research, Rose returned to San Francisco. In 1970, Rose and David Smith co-authored the Manson family’s first scientific study, “The Group Marriage Commune: A Case Study.”

Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic
The Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco is less than a mile from Manson’s apartment and Jolly West’s fake hippie crash pad. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Another of the clinic’s researchers, Louis “Jolly” West, conducted a clandestine study of LSD and drug use among hippies. A CIA psychologist with a background in deprogramming brainwashed victims, West has remodeled a dilapidated Victorian house near the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic into a “fake hippie crash pad” – a ploy to study drug addiction and sans -shelter.

West worked for CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who was in charge of the MK-Ultra program. Under Gottlieb’s watch, this sordid CIA operation administered LSD to unwitting subjects, attempted to synthesize the ultimate truth serum, and pursued chimerical research into creating the perfect assassin and implanting fakes. memories.

After working for Gottlieb at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and the University of Oklahoma, West moved to San Francisco, where he met Roger Smith and David Smith and learned about their work at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. . To fund its various LSD research programs in San Francisco (including a brothel), the CIA operated several medical research organizations. A 1976 investigation by The New York Times found that the CIA collaborated with the National Institute of Mental Health, the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry Inc., and the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, using them as fronts to conceal its involvement. . The CIA terminated MK-Ultra in 1973.

Charles Manson
American scientist Sidney Gottlieb, left, retired head of the CIA’s covert drug testing program, Project MK-Ultra, during testimony before the Senate Health and Scientific Research Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. September 21, 1977. Photo by Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto via Getty Images.

For his part, Manson left San Francisco for Los Angeles at the end of 1968. A year later, his madness – compounded by the CIA’s irresponsible LSD research, some say – came to tragic fruition. While researching his book, O’Neill uncovered evidence that Los Angeles-area law enforcement investigators had mishandled several aspects of the Manson case. O’Neill also claims that the Los Angeles Police Department destroyed records of the 1969 homicide investigation. However, the author admits that attorney Vincent Bugliosi, a prosecutor in the family’s murder trial Manson, perhaps simply forgot to return the documents, which he used to write his 1976 book on the Manson family, Helter Skelter.

Bugliosi’s book established the definitive historical narrative regarding the 1969 murders, notably ruling out the central role of the CIA. In Chaos, however, O’Neill refutes many of Bugliosi’s assertions. In fact, Stephen Kay, who co-prosecuted Manson’s murder trial with Bugliosi, told O’Neill that the evidence uncovered in Chaos might be enough to overturn the initial verdicts.

The politics surrounding a hypothetical retrial, along with the inevitable media fallout, would certainly present the CIA with a public relations disaster. Additionally, investigators still suspect that Manson’s acolytes may have been involved in as many as 12 other unsolved murders – a damning aside, should the courts ultimately decide that CIA LSD research programs played a role. role in instigating the Manson family murders in 1969.


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “Jailbird Lab Rat”.

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