He Went Down the Manson Rabbit Hole and Barely Escaped

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The assignment, Tom O’Neill says, “was kind of open-ended.” In March 1999, an editor at Premiere magazine asked him to write a few thousand words about the murders committed by the Manson Family, the 30th anniversaries of which were drawing near. A seasoned entertainment reporter, O’Neill talked to retired cops, prosecutors, and Hollywood hangers-on. He began sifting through old court records. O’Neill was looking for a new angle, and he was determined to go wherever his reporting took him.

Where it took him was far past his deadline, into a kind of journalistic purgatory; this in turn morphed into “full-blown mania,” ensnared him in a lawsuit, and nearly led to financial ruin. The anniversary piece never materialized, and for a long time, neither did anything else. O’Neill kept at it, though, interviewing people linked to the case and uncovering police reports that nobody had looked at in decades. He gradually transformed his Southern California bungalow into “a hoarder’s nest of Manson ephemera,” filled with files, books and binders. When new leads emerged, he jotted them down on a whiteboard, and on scraps of paper connected by arrows. “One door opened another,” he told me recently. “It never was anything I thought would last as long as it lasted.”

This summer, 20 years after he began his reporting—and nine years since the magazine that commissioned his work went out of business—O’Neill, 60, is finally sharing the results of his obsession. His book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, is a sprawling, fascinating document, a 500-page testament to his enthusiasm for following every lead, even those that sound a little nutty (though the reporting is O’Neill’s, Dan Piepenbring is credited as his co-writer). Throughout, he comes across as diligent and modest, willing to admit that, with the crimes now a half-century in the past, many of his findings are tantalizing but inconclusive. “My goal isn’t to say what did happen—it’s to prove that the official story didn’t,” he writes.

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