Born in San Gabriel, California, the second of three children, Susan Atkins grew up in northern California. According to her, both her parents, Edward John and Jeanette, were alcoholics. Her mother died of cancer in 1963. Over the next three years, Susan's life was disrupted by the gradual breakup of her family, frequent relocations, and her leaving home to live independently. Until she was 13 years old Atkins and her family lived in a middle-class home in the Cambrian Park area of San Jose, California. She was described by those who knew her as a quiet, self-conscious girl who belonged to her school's glee club and the local church choir. Two weeks before her mother was hospitalized for the final time, Susan arranged for members of the church choir to sing Christmas carols under her bedroom window. After Jeanette Atkins' death, relatives were asked to help look after Susan and her two brothers.
Edward Atkins eventually moved to Los Banos, California, with Susan and her younger brother Steven. When he found work on the San Luis Dam construction project, Edward left the two children behind to fend for themselves. Susan took a job during her junior year in school to support herself and Steven. Atkins had been an average student in Leigh High School in San Jose, but her grades deteriorated when she entered Los Banos High School. During this time, she lived with various relatives.
In 1967, Atkins met Manson when he played guitar at the house where she was living with several friends. When the house was raided several weeks later by the police and Atkins was left homeless, Manson invited her to join his group, who were embarking on a summer road trip in a converted school bus painted completely black. She was nicknamed "Sadie Mae Glutz" by Manson and a man who was creating a fake ID for her at the time. Atkins later claimed to have believed Manson was Jesus. The growing "Manson Family" settled at the Spahn Ranch in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, where, on October 7, 1968, Atkins bore a son by Bruce White, whom Manson called Zezozose Zadfrack Glutz. Atkins' parental rights were terminated once she was convicted of the murders and no one in her family would assume responsibility for the child. Her son was adopted and renamed from the time of her incarceration in 1969. She had no further contact with him.
During the summer of 1969, Manson and his commune at Spahn's Ranch were attracting the attention of the police, who suspected them of auto thefts and were suspicious of the high number of underage runaways. In an attempt to raise money to move away to the desert, Manson encouraged drug dealing. Purportedly, a botched drug scam by Family member Charles "Tex" Watson led Manson to confront and shoot a man by the name of Bernard "Lotsapapa" Crowe. Manson believed he had killed Crowe, and he further believed Crowe was a Black Panther. Neither was true. Nonetheless, Manson feared retaliation from the Black Panthers and pressured his followers for more money. During this time someone suggested that an old friend, Gary Hinman, had just inherited a large sum of money. Manson hoped Hinman could be persuaded to join the commune and contribute his purported new inheritance.
Manson sent Atkins, Bobby Beausoleil, and Mary Brunner to Hinman's home on July 25, 1969. When she pleaded guilty to murder, Atkins claimed she didn’t know a crime was going to take place, although she wrote in her 1977 book that she went to Hinman's home to get money and knew that it was possible they were going to kill him. When Hinman insisted he had not inherited any money, Beausoleil beat him severely. When this didn't change Hinman's story, Manson himself showed up, and swung at his head with a sword, slicing his face and severely cutting his ear. Manson directed Atkins and Brunner to stay behind and tend to Hinman's wounds. Two days later, and after a phone call from Manson, Beausoleil had Hinman sign over the registrations to his cars and then fatally stabbed him twice. Beausoleil left a bloody hand print on the wall along with vague revolutionary words reportedly placed there in hopes of implicating the Black Panthers. Beausoleil was arrested on August 7, 1969, when he was found asleep in one of Hinman's vehicles. He was still wearing the bloodstained clothing he wore during the crime. The murder weapon was hidden in the tire well of the car's trunk.
On the evening of August 9, 1969, Manson gathered Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel in front of Spahn's Ranch and told them to go with Charles "Tex" Watson and do as they were told. In Atkins' grand jury testimony, she stated that while in the car, Watson told the group they were going to a home to get money from the people who lived there and to kill them.
Five people were murdered at the Beverly Hills home where Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived: Tate (who was eight months pregnant), Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger. Polanski, Tate's husband, was in Europe finishing work on a film project. Forensic evidence indicated that the murders were brutal. Just prior to leaving the residence, Atkins wrote "PIG" on the front door in Sharon Tate's blood.
The following night, August 10, 1969, Manson commented that the murders at the Tate residence had been too messy and announced he'd have to take his followers out and "show them how it's done". Manson called Atkins, Krenwinkel, Watson, Linda Kasabian, Leslie Van Houten, and Steve "Clem" Grogan, and they left Spahn's Ranch. Driving most of the night, he eventually found the home of grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in Los Feliz, a section of northeastern Los Angeles. Manson and Watson entered the home and tied the couple up at gunpoint, winning their compliance by convincing them they were only going to be robbed. He then went back to the car and sent Krenwinkel and Van Houten inside to do as Tex said, once again directing them to leave writings in blood, and to hitchhike back to Spahn's Ranch.
At trial, the prosecution stated Manson's desire to start "Helter Skelter" (an apocalyptic race war) was the motive for the crimes. Initially, Manson told the group that during this war, they would hide in a hole in the desert and emerge when the war was over. He said the blacks would win the war, but would be unable to govern and would turn to Manson. In the weeks prior to the murders, Manson began to say that the war wasn't starting fast enough, and the group would have to start it by murdering wealthy white people. As evidence for this motive, several witnesses testified to Manson's statements regarding "Helter Skelter" and his obsession with the Beatles' music, and the individuals convicted for the murders have testified at various parole hearings that this was the motive (e.g., Leslie Van Houten testified to this at her 1993 parole hearing). During Beausoleil's trial for the murder of Hinman, the defense, in order to discredit the prosecution's case, argued that the crimes were copycat murders made to misdirect police suspicion away from Beausoleil. The prosecution discounted this claim. In her 1977 autobiography Child of Satan, Child of God, Atkins also stated that the Tate/LaBianca murders were carried out to convince authorities that Beausoleil was the wrong suspect in the Hinman case.
In later years, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi stated that he believed the murders had numerous, disparate motives, all of which served to benefit Manson. The home where Tate and Polanski were living with friends was known to Manson and Watson, who had been there once and knew where it was, and Manson knew that wealthy, famous people lived there. One former tenant of the home was Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, a record producer who Manson believed had made promises to him which had never materialized. Prosecutor Bugliosi suggested Manson may have very briefly encountered the eventual murder victims when he went to the home looking for Melcher and was reportedly turned away by Sharon Tate's photographer.
On August 16, 1969, the police raided Spahn's Ranch in connection with auto thefts. The charges were later dropped and everyone was released. Soon after their release, Manson and his followers left Spahn Ranch for Barker Ranch, another isolated location. However, the authorities were still suspicious of the group, raided the new location in October 1969, and arrested the group again on auto theft charges. It would be the last time many of them would be free. Just after this arrest, another member of the group implicated Atkins in the Hinman murder and she was charged with that crime.
While in jail, Atkins befriended two middle-aged career criminals, Virginia Graham and Veronica "Ronnie" Howard, to whom she confessed her participation in the Tate/LaBianca murders (for example, telling the women that she had stabbed Tate and tasted Tate's blood). They subsequently reported her statements to the authorities. This, combined with information from other sources, led to the arrests of Atkins and others involved in the Tate/LaBianca murders (Van Houten, Krenwinkel, Kasabian, and Watson).
Atkins agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for dropping the death penalty, and she then testified before the grand jury as to what had transpired on the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969. When asked if she were willing to testify knowing that she was not being given immunity, was not being freed of any of the charges, and might incriminate herself in her trial testimony, she responded, "I understand this, and my life doesn't mean that much to me, I just want to see what is taken care of."
Atkins told the grand jury that she stabbed Frykowski in the legs and held Tate down while Watson stabbed her. She also testified that Tate had pleaded for her life and that of her unborn child, to which Atkins replied, "Woman, I have no mercy for you." Her explanation to the grand jury was that this was talking to (convince) herself, and not addressed to Tate as, "I was told before we even got there no matter what they beg don't give them any leeway". She also denied her earlier statement to Howard and Graham that she had tasted Tate's blood.
Prior to the trial, Atkins discontinued her cooperation with the prosecution and repudiated her grand jury testimony. From the early 1970s onward however, Atkins told parole boards that her original grand jury testimony was truthful and accurate as to what transpired in the Tate home; however, it didn't completely match the forensics and autopsy reports.
Atkins alleged that the reason that she repudiated her grand jury testimony was that "Manson sent his followers to suggest that it might be better for me and my son if I decided not to testify against him". She told her 1985 parole board that her son was legally adopted in either 1972 or 1973.
Atkins claimed over the years that her participation in the crimes led by Manson was passive and that she did not actually kill anyone. In his 1978 memoir, Watson declared himself responsible for all of Tate's injuries, characterizing Atkins' initial confessions as exaggeration, jail house bragging, and a bid for attention, but despite this, she was overheard by Family member Barbara Hoyt cheerfully describing the Tate murders to another Family member, days after the events took place.
Manson, Krenwinkel, Van Houten, and Atkins went on trial on June 15, 1970. Watson was later tried separately as he was at the time in Texas fighting extradition. Kasabian was offered, and accepted, immunity. As Kasabian had not played a direct part in any of the murders and never entered either residence, and by several accounts had challenged Manson over the killings, the offer of immunity to her was less bitterly contested, particularly by the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, who has commented that he was relieved the offer was withdrawn from Atkins.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, Atkins testified that she stabbed Tate. She stated that she had stabbed Tate because she was "sick of listening to her, pleading and begging, begging and pleading". Little credibility was given to Atkins' testimony in general, as it frequently contradicted known facts. She claimed "(Manson) told us that we were going to have to get on the stand and claim we had deliberately and remorselessly, and with no direction from him at all, committed all the murders ourselves".
Throughout the trial, Atkins and her co-defendants attempted to disrupt proceedings and were noted for both their lack of remorse for their victims and lack of concern for their own fate. They sang Manson-penned songs while being led to the courtroom. All four defendants were sentenced to death on March 29, 1971. Atkins was transferred to California's new women's death row in April 1971.
After the Tate/LaBianca trial, Atkins was convicted for the Hinman murder. She pleaded guilty to the charges against her. She testified she had not known Hinman was to be robbed or killed, although she subsequently contradicted herself on this point in her 1977 autobiography.
Atkins arrived onto California's death row on April 23, 1971. Atkins' death sentence was automatically commuted to life in prison the next year following the California Supreme Court's People v. Anderson decision invalidated all death sentences imposed in California prior to 1972. In 1977, Atkins published her autobiography, Child of Satan, Child of God, in which she recounted the time she spent with Manson and the family, her religious conversion, and her prison experiences.
From 1974 onwards, Atkins said she was a born-again Christian after seeing a vision of Jesus Christ in her cell. She became active in prison programs, teaching classes and received two commendations for assisting in emergency health interventions with other inmates, one of which was a suicide attempt.
Atkins married twice while in prison. Her first marriage was to Donald Lee Laisure in 1981: Atkins became the mercurial Laisure's 35th wife, but the two divorced after he sought to marry yet again.
She married a second time, in 1987, to a man fifteen years her junior, James W. Whitehouse, a graduate of Harvard Law School who represented Atkins at her 2000 and 2005 parole hearings. He maintained a website dedicated to her legal representation.
During Atkins' 2000 parole hearing, Sharon Tate's sister, Debra, read a statement written by their father, Paul, which said in part, "Thirty-one years ago I sat in a courtroom with a jury and watched with others. I saw a young woman who giggled, snickered and shouted out insults; even while testifying about my daughter's last breath, she laughed. My family was ripped apart. If Susan Atkins is released to rejoin her family, where is the justice?"
In April 2002, she told a LA Times reporter of her work to discourage teenagers from idolizing Manson and her hope of someday leaving prison to live in Laguna Beach, California.
In 2003, Atkins filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that she was a "political prisoner" due to the repeated denials of her parole requests regardless of her suitability.
On June 1, 2005, Susan Atkins had her 17th parole hearing; this resulted in a three-year denial. She was given less than six months to live and subsequently requested a "compassionate release" from prison. In June, Atkins' attorney, Eric P. Lampel, stated that Atkins' condition had deteriorated to the point that she was paralyzed on one side, could only talk "a little bit", and could not sit up in bed without assistance. The hearing was attended by various family members of the victims, including Debra Tate and members of the Sebring family, and they requested that her parole be denied. She received a four-year denial.
In April 2008, it was revealed that Atkins had been hospitalized for more than a month with an undisclosed illness that was subsequently reported to be terminal brain cancer. One leg had been amputated.
Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Atkins, said he was not opposed to her release given her current condition, adding that she had paid "substantially, though not completely, for her horrendous crimes. Paying completely would mean imposing the death penalty." Bugliosi stated he supported her release to save the state money. The cost for Atkins' medical care since she was hospitalized on March 18, 2008, "reportedly surpassed $1.15 million with additional cost of over $300,000 to guard her hospital room." Bugliosi stated he was challenging the notion that "just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her."
Former prosecutor Stephen R. Kay, who prosecuted Manson supporters, opposed Atkins' release, stating:
Kay also stated that he had attended about 60 parole hearings related to the murders and spent considerable time with the victims' families, witnessing their suffering.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley stated that he was strongly opposed to the release, saying in a letter to the board it would be "an affront to people of this state, the California criminal justice system and the next of kin of many murder victims." Cooley wrote that Atkins' "horrific crimes alone warrant a denial of her request" and that she "failed to demonstrate genuine remorse and lacks insight and understanding of the gravity of her crimes." Suzan Hubbard, director of adult prisons in California, also recommended against granting Atkins' request. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opposed Atkins' release, stating that: "I don't believe in [compassionate release]. I think that they have to stay in, they have to serve their time ... [T]hose kinds of crimes are just so unbelievable that I'm not for the compassionate release."
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas also opposed Atkins' release, stating that "It would be a grave miscarriage of justice to burden the citizens of Orange County by paroling her to Orange County, where she can enjoy the comforts of her husband, home and mercy she did not show Sharon Tate [or] her unborn baby."
The Board of Parole Hearings considered Atkins' request for compassionate release during its monthly meeting on July 15, 2008. During the 90-minute hearing, emotional pleas were made by both supporters and opponents of Atkins' release. The public hearing limited speakers' comments to five minutes each. After the board heard the case (as well as other agenda items), it retired to closed session for final deliberations. Due to her failing health, Atkins herself did not attend the hearing.
Debra Tate, the only surviving immediate relative of murder victim Sharon Tate, spoke in opposition to a compassionate release for Atkins, stating, "She will be set free when judged by God. It's important that she die in incarceration." Pam Turner, a niece of Sharon Tate, also opposed Atkins' release, stating, "If she were capable of comprehending what our family's been through, she would be ashamed to come before this parole board and ask such a request." Anthony DiMaria, the nephew of murder victim Thomas Jay Sebring, also opposed Atkins' release, stating, "You will hear various opinions with respect to this today, but you will hear nothing from the nine people who lie in their graves and suffered horrendous deaths at the hands of Susan Atkins."
Gloria Goodwin Killian, director of ACWIP (Action Committee for Women in Prison) and a Pasadena legal researcher and prisoner advocate, spoke in support for Atkins' compassionate release, arguing, "Susan has been punished all that she can be. Short of going out to the hospital and physically torturing her, there is nothing left anyone can do to her. The people who are suffering are the people you see in this room today." In July 2008, Atkins' husband, James W. Whitehouse, told the board, "They tell me we're lucky if we have three months. It's not going to be fun. It's not going to be pretty."
The 11 members of the California Board of Parole Hearings ultimately declined to refer to the sentencing court Atkins' request for compassionate release in a unanimous decision after final deliberations. The decision — posted on its website — meant that Atkins' request would not be forwarded to the Los Angeles Superior Court that sentenced her, which would have had the final say as to whether or not she would be released. On September 24, 2008, Atkins was transferred back to the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California to the facility's skilled nursing center.
Atkins' minimum eligible parole date was October 6, 1976. Her initial parole consideration hearing was on September 14, 1976, at which time she was denied parole. Between 1976 and 2009, she was denied parole a total of 13 times. Prior to her 2009 parole hearing, a website maintained by Atkins' husband claimed that she was paralyzed over 85 percent of her body and unable to sit up or be transferred to a wheelchair. For the final time, Atkins was denied parole on September 2, 2009.
Susan Atkins died on September 24, 2009, at the Central California Women's facility in Chowchilla. A prison spokesperson announced to reporters that her cause of death was listed as natural causes. Her husband, James Whitehouse, subsequently released a statement saying that "Her last whispered word was 'Amen'."
Atkins was portrayed by Nancy Wolfe in the 1976 made-for-TV film Helter Skelter, by Marguerite Moreau in that film's 2004 remake, as well as by Maureen Allisse in The Manson Family (2003), by Anjelica Scannura in Manson, My Name Is Evil (2009), by Devanny Pinn in House of Manson (2014), and by Ambyr Childers in the 2015 TV series Aquarius.