My Life with the Manson Girls

August 14, 2009

Susan Atkins Prison Wedding
Forty years already, were does the time go? For me as with so many, the late 60s and early 70s were a time of turmoil. I was in the process of getting kicked out of my home in Boston by the original wicked stepmother, aka Marian Badasher Nazarian, “a women that my father slept with.” My adoptive mother Cecelia F. Nazarian died March 26, 1963, I was ten. “Dad” was lonely I guess and met this whore as a passenger on one of his ships. “Daddy” married her in 1966. And it wasn’t long before she managed to unload me thanks to her hard work convincing my father I was a “bad kid” (this “bad kid” grew up to be a cop and all these years later I can now look back and see what Marian conspired to do). I was on my way to a dry desolate little place called Saugus, California. Back in those days there was nothing much in Saugus, California and it was hot and it was dry and this was where my sister and her family lived, and it was were I was going to be living for a very long time. This would turn out to be some of the best times of my life….the 70s.

Vincent Bugliosi and John NazarianWell as time went on I became friends with Deputies from the old Newhall Station on San Fernando Road and for me coming from a suburb of Boston this was like visiting a western movie set. I remember the Manson murder case and I also remembered very vividly a man called Vincent Bugliosi…Vincent was the prosecutor who became famous on so many levels in sending many of the Manson Family to state prison. We all watched in fascination on television those horrific events. Vincent had a powerful presence in those days and later in my life he would still have it. A few years ago I interviewed Vincent Bugliosi for the O.J.Simpson story I did for Discovery Channel and I was very impressed with his still very strong presence and energy, he is sharp as ever and opinionated and interesting to speak with. This was a man that I had watched as a teenager on TV and now I was at his house, in his living room, reflecting on a very large part of his career. That large part was Charlie Manson and the three girls, all vicious killers, though Charlie always stated that he killed no one….

My early entry into law enforcement was as a prison guard at CIW, California Institute for Women in Frontera. Not a question in my mind that the time spent with the California Dept. of Corrections was one of my best learning experiences. Go figure, and as time went on I was introduced to all the famous female killers and others who had achieved an interesting level of fame — bank robbers, child killers, drug dealers and “Queens of Fraud.” I had them all for 8 to 16 hours a day, and little did I know that when I took my initial physical at the prison hospital it was an inmate handling part of my “intake” as a California State Prison guard…looking back on that experience it was strange but hey, I did not care, I needed a job. My first few days I had to remind myself that these inmates were all “female” no matter how masculine they appeared or the roles they play while incarcerated.

Manson GirlsAs a Prison Guard at C.I.W. I had a great deal of interaction with Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and of course the infamous Susan Atkins. These girls were celebrities in the prison system, and at one time were housed in the specialty housing unit aka Death Row. Till “the girls” arrival there was not a Death Row at C.I.W. Death Row, C.I.W. style, was built of brick and cement with the intent of holding the “Manson Girls.” In time “the girls” would be released to General Population aka, GP, once the death penalty in California was no more. Surviving this was an achievement for the three convicted murderers, as for one of the other inmates to kill them would have given that inmate a certain level of jailhouse fame…these three girls were very smart inmates. They got their educations and became mouthpieces for others, as they could get instant access to the administration. I always found them interesting, Susan was very friendly and I would be selected to handle her wedding, and to take a picture with her and her new and very short-term husband Don Laisure (he was a huckster and a con) and Captain Brueske. That picture was worth more than $10,000 during those days but I kept it. Over time I acquired many photos of the girls and even a lock-up order for Ms. Van Houten, as it was I that was placed in charge of locking her up for a period of time.

Leslie had violated an institutional rule and had to be confined…look at it as a jail within a prison. Inmates had rules and regulations that they had to follow or they would be punished. Like many of the infamous murderers and killers within the institutions and State Pens, most of these people “program” and were not security issues or trouble makers. The trouble makers in the prison system tend to be the petty thieves and drug dealers. The “heavys” tended to be very easy to deal with. The only reason I could figure was they “got it” and understood what needed to be done to “do their time.” All of the Manson Girls were very pleasant and social with guards in a very professional way, they knew they were “cons” and they also knew of their fame.

Myself and Officer Sonny White were assigned one time to take Susan Atkins out to a medical appointment. This was huge as Susan had not been outside the C.I.W. since her arrival many years ago. Security was very tight and I was driving, not even the media caught wind of this event…she too was a little excited as it was a big deal. Note: I was the first armed prison guard to ever transport a female inmate on a one on one basis, back in those days this was a huge task. A female convicted felon could concoct a million stories as to what did or did not occur while away from the prison. Over the time I was assigned to C.I.W., along with Officer White and Officer Bertha Gonzalez, the three of us transported hundreds of felons off the prison grounds and never was there one incident. Well, sorta, that being I was attacked while moving an inmate from a building at Riverside General Hospital to a State Prison Vehicle for return to C.I.W. Yes, I was attacked by a German Shepherd/Collie mix! No he did not bite me but I did fire three .38s into him and all hell broke loose. “A state prison guard fires his weapon,” well it was as if I had shot and killed Lassie. I love dogs, but I love me too.

John Nazarian and CIW Supt. Sylvia JohnsonThere was another time that I and Officer Sonny White may have foiled a rescue attempt. One late afternoon we were headed back to the prison when we spotted an inmate who had been released a few days earlier. Neither I nor White knew of her release, we thought that she had escaped…when in fact she was going to try and either make contact with her lesbian lover or try and rescue her from our custody. Well, after much yelling as you see on TV and handcuffed bodies it was all figured out. The recently released inmate was in violation of her parole by being so close to the prison. Also, when she saw it was Officer White and myself, she knew that any rescue attempt would have ended in a shootout, and I still believe that she “weighed her options” and took the heat for being so close to the prison and dealt with that. Her “lover” was returned to the confines of C.I.W. and Officer White and I went home that night.

I have nothing but very fond memories of my time at C.I.W and many of the inmates that I dealt with there. Some had been dealt some bad cards, for others it was just the life they chose. I can recall one inmate telling me, Mr. Nazarian, I will stop coming back when I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

My interaction with Susan Atkins was always a positive one. As was my contact with the other two, I found them very interesting as I did many of the infamous felons that as a guard I was in charge of. Susan knew that if I had to, I would have killed her, and as an inmate she “got it.” And at the same time, based on what I am hearing of her terrible ill health, I think that she should be allowed to die outside the confines of C.I.W. And I do understand revenge, probably better than I want to, and I know more of what took place at the scenes of all of those murders back in the days of “Helter Skelter”…however, enough is enough, she spent her entire life in prison and is dying as I type, let her go, she has only one leg and is terminal with brain cancer. We all have beginnings and ends, her end is real and will arrive very soon, the point has been made, she spent her natural life locked up in a state prison.

To Susan I wish you comfort, and to Patricia and Leslie, you are some of my most interesting memories.

John J. Nazarian, Former State Prison Guard at C.I.W.

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