With a new governor in office, a former Manson family member serving a life term at California Men’s Colony has his best chance at freedom after a parole board recommended his release Thursday.
Bruce Davis, 69, had been recommended for parole in 2010, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected the parole board’s recommendation. Two years later, he returned, this time — for the first time in 27 hearings — facing people representing the families of his victims.
One of them, Debra Tate — sister of Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family — said afterward that she’s worried about the board’s decision.
“I’m disappointed that (the board) would release a serial killer back in the public,” she said.
In the late 1960s, Davis was one of several people who became followers of Charles Manson in Southern California. After Manson persuaded them to incite a race war by committing crimes they would pin on African-Americans, at least nine people were murdered, causing fear and panic in the Los Angeles area.
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Four decades later, the crimes remain among the country’s most infamous. During Thursday’s hearing, Davis’ attorney, Michael Beckman, referred to a tattered and taped-up copy of “Helter Skelter,” the best-selling book on the murders.
Davis was convicted of two murders for his involvement in the deaths of musician Gary Hinman and stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea. His level of involvement, which has always been disputed, was even more muddled Thursday, when Davis admitted to having a greater role in each murder.
“Since 2008, I’ve made remarkable progress in coming to terms with what I did,” Davis said.
Davis admitted Thursday to holding a gun toward Hinman as others cut Hinman’s face. And he admitted to attacking Shea with a knife while Shea was alive.
In the past, he’d said he had a more passive role and only cut Shea after he was dead.
While the two parole board members noted his inconsistent story, they said it was their job to determine whether David was a threat to the community.
“While your behavior was atrocious, your crimes did occur 43 years ago,” parole board member Jeff Ferguson told Davis, who has been a model prisoner for years and has had 10 years of positive psychological evaluations.
For Davis to gain release, the decision will have to be upheld by the entire parole board and Gov. Jerry Brown, who has approved significantly more parole recommendations than his two predecessors.
For years, Davis had planned to move to Grover Beach to be with his wife and daughter if released. But since he recently divorced, he said he plans to move to a program for released prisoners in Los Angeles.
Davis said he got hooked up with Manson after serving a 10-day jail stint for marijuana possession. Because he didn’t actually have marijuana on him at the time, he said, he was angry and resentful.
“So when I met Charlie — and the girls — I was ready for that,” he said.
After briefly parting with the group, he said, he returned to a much different group of hippies.
“After I returned, the conversation had turned from peace and love to hatred and violence,” he said.
Still, he stayed, even as Manson planned his race war.
He was not involved in the more well-known murders of Tate and couple Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, though he accepted responsibility for those as well.
While he was older than many of the others, he said he did not have a leadership role — as the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has contended.
“Everyone agreed with Charlie — that was the role,” he said.
But Barbara Hoyt, another former Manson member — appearing at one of Davis’ hearings for the first time — said Davis was a leader.
“He wanted to be second in command,” said Hoyt, who spoke on behalf of the Shea family.
Hoyt and Pat Sequeira, a deputy District Attorney from Los Angeles County, suggested Daviswas responsible for other killings, including one in England, where a Manson associate wound up dead the same time Davis was there.
“Wherever he is, people die,” Hoyt said.
Davis, who makes DMV stickers in prison, has earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy of religion, and participated in numerous therapy programs and self-help groups. If released, he would be just the second former Manson member convicted of murder to get paroled.Steve Grogan, who led authorities to Shea’s body, was released in 1985.
If he is released, Davis said he wants to help others.
“I want to try to make up for some of the pain and destruction I’ve caused,” said Davis, who dropped his head when the board announced its decision.
After the hearing, Tate, who spoke on behalf of the Hinman family, suggested he could never do enough.
She was just 16 when her pregnant sister was brutally murdered by members of the Manson clan.
“My world crumpled then,” said Tate, who offers help to survivors of violence. “It altered my life path completely.”