Charles Manson, who died last week at the age of 83, shocked the world and gained notoriety for the August 1969 murders of eight people his followers carried out on his orders.
By 1972, Manson and three of his followers were imprisoned for the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders. But some members of “The Family” who had avoided conviction were still living lives of crime, and are believed responsible for at least three other murders, including those of a Bardstown man and his wife.
James Willett was a U.S. Marine veteran of Vietnam who was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Lauren, and their 8-month-old daughter when they became acquainted with some former associates of Manson sometime in 1972.
Four former Manson associates were eventually convicted in connection to their murders, two women and two men. The women were Nancy Laura Pitman, aka Brenda McCann, and Priscilla Cooper, a former Manson cult member. The two men were Michael Lee Monfort and James T. Craig, members of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Monfort and Craig killed James and buried his body some time in October near Guerneville, Calif. On Nov. 8, a hiker discovered his body in a shallow grave near the Russian River.
Three days later, police spotted Willett’s car at a house in Stockton, Calif., about 100 miles from where his body was found. When police entered the home, they found Lauren buried in the basement. She had been shot in the head. The couple’s 8-month-old daughter was unharmed.
The couple’s connection to their killers and the motive for the murders are still subject to speculation. Press accounts at the time, reported in the Nov. 16, 1972, edition of The Kentucky Standard, said that the family had been held captive for some time. James’ father told The Standard that a few months earlier his son had said he wanted to move away from L.A. because he feared the Manson Family.
Monfort, James and another man, William Goucher, had been supporting themselves with armed robbery leading up to the Willetts’ killings.
“Police surmised that Lauren Willett was killed after learning of the murder of her husband, to keep her from going to the police. As for the murder of James Willett, the official police theory is that Willett himself may have been about to inform about the robberies the group had committed,” Vincent Buglosi, the L.A. district attorney who prosecuted Manson, wrote in his 1974 book “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders.”
Press accounts at the time claimed Willett was involved in the armed robberies and had decided to turn the men in. But in “Taming the Beast: Charles Manson’s Life Behind Bars,” author Edward George wrote that James discovered only shortly before his murder that the men were supporting themselves through armed robbery, and that they killed him after he threatened to turn them in. George wrote that the men told his wife he had left voluntarily, but once his body was found, they killed her to cover their tracks.
Initially the men claimed Lauren had died during a game of Russian roulette, but Monfort later pleaded guilty to her killing. Pitman, Cooper and Craig pleaded guilty as accessories. Goucher confessed to murdering James Willett, and implicated the other two men.
Monfort and Goucher were sentenced to five years to life for the killing of James, and Goucher got seven-to-life for Lauren’s killing.
Lynette Fromme, another Family member, was initially arrested when Lauren’s body was found, but escaped any charges related to her killing. But in 1975, she was convicted of attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford.