Summer of ’69: August 12th — Rosemary & Leno LaBianca

The big story in Los Angeles on August 12, 1969 was the release of nineteen-year-old William Garretson, the caretaker at the Cielo Drive estate where five people and the unborn son of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski murdered a few days before.

William Garretson (center)

William was the only survivor of the slaughter which made him suspect number one. Police arrested William at the point of a shotgun and grilled him for hours. He agreed to take a polygraph test and passed.  Inspector Harold Yarnell said: “There is not sufficient evidence to hold Garretson.  There is no reason to suspect him.”

Wearing a deer-in-the-headlights expression, William’s attorney, Barry Tarlow, escorted him through the lobby of LAPD’s administration building. The nineteen-year-old, who appeared on the verge of tears, declined to answer any of the barrage of questions called out to him by eager news reporters.  He let his lawyer do the talking.

Tarlow told reporters his client said goodnight to Steven Parent at 11:30 p.m. Friday, then went back inside the guesthouse to listen to his stereo.  He wasn’t aware of anything until LAPD officers kicked in his door and took him away on Saturday morning.

William shared an address with Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, but they lived on different planets.  Sharon and Roman were in the movie industry; they were among the “beautiful people.” Roman’s big break came in June 1968 with the release of “Rosemary’s Baby.”  His career as an A-list director was underway.

Still a teenager, William wasn’t sure what he wanted out of life. He spoke to his mother of an interest in acting, but his aspiration was as common as a cold and easier to catch when living in L.A. Thousands of young people flock to the city seeking stardom – they have been coming here since the 1910s.  Far from hanging out with the beautiful people, William had more in common with “Hollywood Blvd drifters, hitchhikers, and drugstore cowboys,” many of whom he brought home with him when they needed a place to crash.

Police wanted to speak to members of both groups – killers defy social strata. William offered names of people he knew, but he didn’t believe any of them capable of the murders.

William’s release featured prominently on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but there was another intriguing and disturbing story on page 3.  The double murder in Los Feliz of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Leno, 44, and Rosemary, 37, were stabbed to death Sunday in their home at 3301 Waverly Drive. The killing of the couple was similar in many to ways to the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends on Saturday.  Police Sergeant Bryce Houchin said, “There is a similarity in the slayings. But whether it’s the same suspect or a copycat, we just don’t know.”

Sgt. Houchin appeared open to the idea that the murders could be connected, but in their official statements LAPD wouldn’t go that far.

On August 12, 1969, reporter Bruce Russell wrote:

Whispers that a psychotic killer was after wealthy resident of isolated homes in the Hollywood hills continued after the murder of Miss Tate and the four others was followed a day later by that of a rich supermarket owner and his wife in a plush home 12 miles away.

IN BOTH SETS of slayings the word “Pig” was smeared in blood at the murder scene, hoods covered the heads of males slain and women had cords around their throats.

Police have showed that the two bloodbaths were unconnected. They said the more recent murders of a grocery chain owner Leno La Bianca, 44, and his wife Rosemary, 37, were those of a psychotic cashing in on the publicity of the so-called Tate murders.

But fear-stricken Hollywood residents rushed to buy guns yesterday for self-protection.

Hollywood glitterati panicked.  They ripped the names and numbers of their drug dealers out of their little black books and waited for the killer’s arrest so life could return to normal.

No one, except some Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators, gave a thought to the gruesome killing that pre-dated the August rampage, the murder of Gary Hinman.

The Murder Complex, Conclusion

Thomas’ trial opened at 10 a.m. on August 17, 1925, in Judge Hahn’s court.  His attorneys, Cooper, Collins & Shreve, had a fight on their hands.  The District Attorney stated that he would settle for nothing less than the death penalty.

The gist of Thomas’ defense was that he had been insane at the time he murdered Grace. There was considerable evidence to the contrary.

Thomas had shown friends portions of letters which he declared had been written by Grace while she was missing. Thomas was adamant that the letters proved she was alive and well and that she had deserted him. The letters were exposed as frauds. Thomas had compelled Grace to write them, perhaps under the influence of alcohol or physical coercion. He had also obtained blank forms he might need and had her sign them.

The prosecution produced a surprise witness, George T. Guggenheim, a dealer in dental supplies.  George had known Thomas for years. A few weeks following Grace’s disappearance, the doctor visited the dental supply office with a request.

“He had an envelope in his hand and asked me to mail it to New York to somebody that would mail it back to him.” George testified.

Thomas told George: “Somebody has been tampering with my mails and I’d like to have this letter sent to me from New York to play a joke on that feller.”

George didn’t mind helping a friend and a good client, so he mailed the letter Thomas had given him to his brother in New York.

The letters weren’t the only spurious documents in the case. Dorothy Leopold Mahan (she had married about a week before the trial started) said that she had signed a blank document, not knowing what it was. The document was shown to be a power of attorney, giving Thomas control over Grace’s money and property.

Attempting to make her a possible suspect, the defense sought to cast a sinister light on Dorothy’s relationship with Thomas.  Under oath, she was asked if she had ever spent the night in Thomas’ home, to which she replied: “Yes – I did.  Three times.  My mother was with me on each occasion.”

Being chaperoned by one’s mother is hardly conducive to an affair, and further questioning revealed that Dorothy had never had an intimate relationship with Thomas, nor did she want one.  Her attitude toward her employer effectively removed any possible motive she might have had to murder Grace.

It seemed that each day more damning evidence against Thomas was exposed.

 The prosecution planned to move the trial to the Beverly Glen cabin for a day to give the jury an opportunity to view the cistern that “served as Mrs. Young’s burial crypt.”

How was Thomas going to handle being confronted, in front of the jury, with the actual site of the murder and his wife’s tomb?

Following a grueling day in court on August 26th, Thomas was returned to his cell in Tank 9. He told his cellmates that his day in court had been filled with “tough breaks.”

The inmates in Tank 9, including Thomas, played their nightly game of Pinochle. Before returning to his cot, Thomas said: “I’m going to take a long ride tomorrow, boys.”  They laughed because they believed he referred to the coming trip to the scene of the crime in Beverly Glen.  Thomas told them not to be alarmed if they heard strange noises in his cell.  “I’ve been having a bad attack of indigestion.  I woke up last night and found myself choking and making bubbling noises.  If you hear anything like that don’t be alarmed.” 

The other prisoners had heard strange noises from Thomas’ cell before. He often shuffled around late at night muttering, and it seemed as if he was talking to someone.

At 6 a.m. on the morning of August 27th, Assistant Jailer Palmer called to Thomas to get up.

“All right,” Thomas replied.

O.F. Mahler, one of the occupants of Tank 9, awoke at 7 a.m. when a trustee delivered three breakfast trays. Mahler distributed them; one for himself, one to H. Foster, and one was for Thomas.

Thomas Young

Mahler entered Thomas’ cell but the doctor failed to stir. He wasn’t in his usual sleeping position.  His feet were on the pillow and his head was at the foot of the cot.  The single blanket was pulled tightly around his head and only one hand was visible.

Mahler gently shook Thomas. There was no response.  He shook him again. The body moved in an unnatural way.  Mahler jerked the blanket from Thomas’ head.

Thomas was dead.

His eyes were distended from his blue, swollen face.  A garrote of radio wire, tightened with a small stick, was wrapped around his neck.

The murder complex had claimed its final victim.