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Decade began with Manson Family murder trial and ended with Jonestown massacre
Serial killers, crimes and cults inspired fear in the '70s
If the ’60s helped spread a message of living in harmony in America, the ‘70s brought one of living in fear.
A dark example of that shift is Charles Manson and his “family,” which began forming during 1967’s Summer of Love but closed out that decade with the brutal murders of Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and four others.
Here are seven of the most notorious crime sprees, serial killings and mass murders that shocked America in the 1970s:
Charles Manson and three of his followers were found guilty of the murders of Tate, the LaBiancas and four others on January 25, 1971. The killers were originally given the death penalty, but California later abolished it, reducing their sentences to life. Being locked away, however, did not stop the threat of Manson’s mayhem. His followers still believed in his “Helter Skelter” message and tried to impress him with their own violent acts.
The most noteworthy came on September 5, 1975, when Manson Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled a gun on President Gerald Ford in a failed assassination attempt. As Time magazine wrote in “The Girl Who Almost Killed Ford,” it was a chilling reminder that not even those with Secret Service protection are safe from violence in America:
Squeaky Fromme’s mad act in a Sacramento park with a .45 in her small hand had an immediate, sobering effect on the 1976 presidential election campaign. All too clearly, every candidate could visualize a similar attack being launched against himself. The incident was also a vivid and sickening reminder of one of the most disturbing paradoxes of America: the fact that such a liberal and free society should somehow generate a sprinkling of warped souls who for dark reasons of their own seek to work out their frustrations by destroying political leaders.
The Manson Family murders sent a shockwave through Hollywood, but during that same time another killer was terrorizing the San Francisco Bay Area. The Zodiac Killer ushered in a new era of serial killer: one who was smart enough to get away with murder but at the same time wanted the publicity. The Zodiac Killer became famous for his series of cryptograms and coded letters that he sent to the press. In the letters, the killer admitted to murders, threatened more killings and was believed to have given hints at his true identity. Zodiac was believed to have killed at least five people during the late ’60s but could be responsible for more since he was never captured. Police looked into several possible suspects, but no one has ever been identified as the Zodiac Killer or charged in the killings linked to him.
John Wayne Gacy
While California grappled with its cults and unsolved mysteries, a serial killer with an eye for young men plagued Chicago. John Wayne Gacy, also known as the “Killer Clown,” would go down as one of the most notorious serial killers in history. In 1978, Gacy confessed to murdering 33 teenage boys and young men, but he could be responsible for more. Many of his murders took place in his own home, where he would sexually assault and strangle the young men to death. Almost all his victims were buried in a crawl space underneath his house. Gacy spent 14 years on death row, eventually being executed on May 10, 1994.
While Gacy targeted young men, other serial killers went after young women in the ’70s. The man who should have incited the most fear may have seemed the least suspicious of them all – Ted Bundy. As Time wrote in “The Case of the Chi Omega Killer” on July 16, 1979, Bundy did not conform to the typical psychopath stereotypes:
The defendant is an unlikely looking murder suspect. He is handsome, articulate and composed, a former law student who, in his blue suit, is almost indistinguishable from the defense lawyers clustered around him. Nonetheless, Bundy is suspected by police of being one of the worst mass murderers in U.S. history, responsible for a trail of up to 36 young women victims, spanning four years and four states.
Bundy was convicted of killing two women in the Chi Omega sorority in Tallahassee, Florida, and was sentenced to death. Before his execution in 1989, Bundy confessed to killing 36 women, but many believe he was responsible for the deaths of 100 or more.
David Berkowitz: ‘Son of Sam’
The killing spree of “Son of Sam” in New York was publicized around the world. Beginning in the summer of 1976, six people were killed and seven others wounded by a .44-caliber gun. The murder weapon was the main link police had for the crimes until April 1977 when Berkowitz left his first letter near the scene of a crime. The letter is the first time Berkowitz uses the name “Son of Sam.” Berkowitz wrote more letters as “Son of Sam,” taunting police about future murders that followed that summer. His victims were usually young women with long dark hair, reports of which caused many New Yorkers to panic, according to the Time article “Son of Sam Is Not Sleeping.”
Terrified parents in the area are now insisting that their daughters wear their long hair up, bleach it, or have their dates at home. Some girls have decided not to date until the killer is caught, and others are adopting unusual evening wear: loose sweaters and large caps to disguise themselves as males. “I’m scared,” said one Queens girl. “I used to kiss my boyfriend in front of the house, Now I run in.”
Berkowitz was arrested on August 10, 1977, and was sentenced to six life sentences, which he is currently serving.
Not long after the capture of “Son of Sam,” fear began to spread on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. From October 1977 to February 1978, the bodies of 10 women were found in a hilly area above the city. With no leads, the media began attributing the victims to the “Hillside Strangler.” It was only after Kenneth Bianchi was arrested in the killings of two women in Washington that he confessed to the “Hillside Strangler” murders and implicated his cousin, Angelo Buono, as his partner in crime. Bianchi and Buono were both sentenced to life in prison without parole. Buono died from a heart attack in 2002. Bianchi remains in prison.
Jim Jones was the founder of the Peoples Temple religious movement and ringleader of the biggest mass murder-suicide in history. On November 18, 1978, Jones led more than 900 people to their deaths as they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in Guyana. As Time noted in “The Lure of Doomsday,” the event would become a dark bookmark for the decade:
The Jonestown story, like some Joseph Conrad drama of fanaticism and moral emptiness, has gone directly into popular myth. It will be remembered as an emblematic, identifying moment of the decade: a demented American psychopomp in a tropical cult house, doling out cyanide with Kool-Aid. Jonestown is the Altamont of the ’70s cult movement. Just as Altamont began the destruction of the sweet, vacuous aspirations of Woodstock, Jonestown has decisively contaminated the various vagabond zealotries that have grown up, nourished and sometimes turned sinister.