(WTNH) People who read books can always pick out a handful of them that impacted their lives and/or minds for many years to come. In the nonfiction category, the book “Helter Skelter” tops my list. Today we’re learning that Vincent Bugliosi, the man who wrote that book about the Charles Manson murders after serving as lead prosecutor in the case, has died at the age of 80.
Bugliosi was a successful prosecutor in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, winning convictions in 105 of 106 felony jury cases before 1969. But it was the Manson case that made him a household name, and it was his book about it, written with Curt Gentry and published four years after Manson’s conviction, that set the standard for all true crime stories to follow. In all the years since, right up to his death from cancer earlier this week, Bugliosi was the leading spokesperson on the innumerable TV and movie
documentaries about the Tate-LaBianca murders in the Hollywood Hills, crimes so vicious and cruel they brought the counterculture flower power movement of the ’60s to a crashing and bloody end.
Bugliosi was Charles Manson’s Javert, a relentless pursuer of the diminutive and charismatic criminal mastermind who turned his socially alienated followers into ice cold cult killers. Colleagues to this day describe Bugliosi as relentlessly determined to prove his case. A defense lawyer at one point during the investigation said all the prosecution had going for it was “two fingerprints and Vince Bugliosi.” And after a nine-month trial in which he had to convince jurors that Manson was just as culpable as his followers even though he never took part in the actual killings, guilty verdicts and death sentences were handed out to all (the sentences were commuted to life when California abolished the death penalty in 1975). After Bugliosi’s death yesterday, his son described him simply as a man with “an unflagging dedication to justice.”
That alone is worthy of honoring his life. But his authorship of “Helter Skelter” — a book so compelling and propulsive it deserves the genre title “crime literature” instead of merely “true crime” — is what will continue to seal his legend even though he’s gone now. It remains in print, has sold 7 million copies, and was once called by The New Republic a “social document of rare importance.” Anyone interested in criminal law, journalism, or just masterful storytelling should read it, and maybe reread it. It’s that good. Just like the man himself. It’s only a shame that he couldn’t outlive Charles Manson himself.