ONCE UPON A TIME
The Manson Family’s Youngest Member Tells All: ‘If He Could Kill Strangers, He Could Kill Me’
Dianne Lake was 14 when she was recruited by Charles Manson. She opens up to Tarpley Hitt about her journey to the Manson Family, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and more.
This month marks 50 years since eight black-clad hippies snuck into a series of upscale Los Angeles homes and carried out the nine killings now known as the Manson Family Murders. Between July 25 and Aug. 9, 1969, the followers of cult leader and failed musician Charles Manson murdered pregnant starlet Sharon Tate and her four guests, stabbed a supermarket executive and his dressmaker wife, and gored a Ph.D candidate with a sword.
Half a century out, the attacks continue to resurface in pop culture. Last month, Quentin Tarantino reimagined the Manson murders in his ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which hit theaters on July 26. Now, a new documentary, Manson: Music of an Unsound Mind, examines the late criminal’s modest musical skill and latent ambitions to be a less preppy Beach Boy.
Dianne Lake, a retired special education teacher from Northridge, California, made cameos in both—as herself in the documentary, and as a character, played by actress Sydney Sweeney, in Tarantino’s picture. At 14, Lake was the youngest member of the Manson family, and the key witness in the trials that sent Manson and several followers to prison.
She sat down with The Daily Beast to revisit the years the country is now seeing on screen.
What was your life in Minnesota like?
I moved to California when I was 12 in 1965 from Minnesota. My dad was an artist. He painted houses for bread and butter. But he really wanted to be an artist. He had gone to art school and got a bachelor’s degree in art. He wanted to go to Berkeley, when the Beats came out—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, that whole crew in Berkeley. He wanted to join them. He wanted to go to UC Berkeley and get his master’s degree in art so he could teach art. That was back in 1962 that he wanted to do that. So he traded our house—they had bought a house—for a trailer. But our car couldn’t pull the trailer. I don’t remember if the car broke down, but I do remember that we just ended up moving 10 or 20 miles away to a trailer park for the winter. A 23-foot trailer. Not a mobile home. Twenty-three feet.
Did you have siblings?
Yes. I was the oldest of three.
How was that?
It was very tight. I got picked up by the bus to go to school. I don’t think my brother was in school yet, my sister certainly wasn’t. I did second grade there. Then my dad got an art patron. Someone who took him under his wing. They got us into a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and helped him get a studio, and helped him promote his art. My dad did mostly oil and acrylic on canvas. He did some water colors. I have what he considered to be his masterpiece in my house. It’s very abstract. Definitely during LSD trips. It is an LSD trip. Things were going really well for my dad for two years. But he was a smoker, and he accidentally burned his studio down. That threw him into a big depression. He started drinking too much and going out with other women. He ended up leaving my mom and us. We moved into the projects.
How did you wind up in a California commune?
My dad went to San Francisco. He ended up in Santa Monica—he got a job as the Art Display Manager for the general telephone. He kind of shook off his depression and wanted us back. That’s when we flew out to California and moved into the house in Santa Monica. At the tail end of my eighth grade year in early ’67, my dad [started working with] a local newspaper called The Oracle. It was a hippie paper started in San Francisco. When they lost their lease, a bunch of them moved in with us. That’s when they got the idea to “drop out” of society. Timothy Leary was talking about turning on—they were doing that—and tuning in, and dropping out.
My dad and this other guy from The Oracle bought these bread trucks from the Pioneer bakery outlet in Santa Monica, and converted them into campers. At the end of the summer, we went on our merry way down the coast. We slept at Will Rogers Beach, but the police came by and said we couldn’t camp there for more than two weeks. So we moved to Zuma Beach, and I met this other couple who invited us to live with them. I took this acid trip there; we all did acid—I must be 14 now—and on the acid trip, I felt God came out of the clouds and said, “It’s time for you to leave home.” I talked about it with my parents. They wrote me a note, and I moved in with this couple I had met. But, well, there was some abuse there. The man was like 26.
They were abusive to you?
Well, in the alternative lifestyle, it was, but they didn’t intend it to be. But the man and I started having sex, and then his wife joined in. But I started living with them, and my parents went on to the Grand Canyon. But they came back after a month and said, “Do you want to go to Big Sur with us?” So, I went to Big Sur, and I met this guy from San Francisco.
When you left your parents, did you legally emancipate yourself?
It wasn’t legal. I had a note! They wrote me a note that said I could live with this couple. I wish I had that note still. I had it in my pocket for years.
At what point in all this do you meet Charlie?
After San Francisco, I went to the Hog Farm. My parents were happy to see me. But the leaders of that commune—Hugh’s now known as “Wavy Gravy”, then it was Hugh Romney and Bonnie Jean—they had a talk with me. They said they didn’t want me there, because I was “jailbait,” because I was a sexually active, underage female. The police and neighbors already didn’t like them having this commune, because they would have young men come and play music and smoke pot, and do whatever they were doing. So I felt unwanted, and they arranged for this other couple to take me away. I went to live with them, but they shot speed. They might have offered it to me, but I wasn’t interested in shooting anything to my veins. They’re the ones that said, “Hey, we’re going to this party in Topanga. It’s a commune and we want you to meet this groovy guy, a couple of guys with a bunch of girls.” So I went. It was at the house that I had already lived in.
Wait, you had already lived in this house?
That’s so weird.
It was called the Spiral Staircase House. I don’t think it exists anymore. There were a few fires and it lost its life. But back then, it was called the Spiral Staircase House, and it was in this little valley right off the PCH. Anyway, I walk in and these girls run up: “Dianne! Dianne! Charlie! Dianne is here!” I’m like, huh? How do these girls know me? It turned out that they had gone up to the Hog Farm while I was in San Francisco, and met my family. But Hugh Romney did not like Charlie. They called him “Black Bus Charlie.” They didn’t like him. They didn’t like his vibe.
What was the name about?
That’s just what they nicknamed him: Black Bus Charlie. Before it was the Manson Family, it was Black Bus Charlie. Anyway, he came to the Hog Farm and befriended my dad, who was more welcoming than other people. They ended up taking a trip together to the desert, and it was there that my mom gave him my picture. Apparently, they were going to go to San Francisco, and I was in San Francisco, and she had lost contact with me. So she gave them my picture, and said, “Well if you see my daughter, find out how she’s doing!” That’s how they knew me.
Did you immediately decide to stay?
No, not immediately. I was still wavering back and forth. I didn’t know if I wanted to join this other group. I had been arrested with them while in Malibu, and ended up in juvenile hall for a few nights, which was scary.
What were you arrested for in Malibu?
For being a minor with no parents or anyone related to me at all. My mom and dad managed to give the court some kind of plausible excuse for how this happened. When I was released, my dad was mad. I’d made them vulnerable. But Charlie made me feel accepted. That was kind of the beginning. I didn’t feel welcome at the Hog Farm, so I went with the Family. That was November of ’67.
How long were you with them for?
Two years. Because we got arrested in October 1969.
Did the population there fluctuate a lot? What was the range of people you met?
When I first came there, there was Charlie. There was another guy named Larry, and I was the sixth girl, so maybe nine people in the beginning. I was definitely the youngest. We lived in several different houses in Topanga. But then we found Spahn Ranch. Squeaky [Lynne Fromme] took care of George [Spahn]. We mucked out stalls. We lived in the front, because there was another commune in the back house. We eventually managed to move back there. In that time, the family grew and shrunk.
At what point did you choose your nickname?
They chose it for me. But I had been the instigator. I had been fasting in one of the houses on Summit Trail. It was a hot day, and I just imagined what it would be like to be a snake crawling through the tall, cool grass. I was relaying this imagery to the girls in the kitchen, and then, Charlie overheard the conversation—or the girls told Charlie. From then on, I was called Snake.
One of the underlying themes of the documentary is that music was the organizing principle of Manson’s ambitions. Does that check out for you? Was that the thing that organized the commune around?
Totally. He had a repertoire of like 80 songs that he had written in jail. Every night, pretty much without fail, every night, we’d sit around in a circle, and we’d learn the songs, and we’d sing the songs. He’d give a little talk, about life and forgetting your parents and getting rid of your inhibitions—all these things he wove into this nonsensical philosophy. His Charlie-isms. I think he really believed it. He wanted to be a rock star, but he wanted to be a rock star for the money. He really wanted to spread his philosophy. When Dennis Wilson came into our lives—if Dennis told him to go onstage with a carrot on his nose, he would have. Because the Beach Boys were nothing to snub your nose at, they had incredible success and fame. It might have been waning at that point. They were too clean, preppy, white guys.
Have you ever seen the Wilsons since?
No. Well, years before Dennis died, I went to a Beach Boys concert. I went with a girlfriend, and we got backstage passes. It was cool. Dennis was walking out with his little entourage, and I got right up next to him, and I said, “Hi Dennis, do you remember me? I was part of the girls at your house with Manson.” A look of terror came over his face. He just zoomed ahead and got in the car.
So after you spend two years with these guys, how did you hear about the murders? And how did you feel about it?
I was in the back house when Leslie [Van Houten] came home from what turned out to be the LaBianca murders, and she was burning something in the fireplace. I woke up to this horrible smell. About that same time, a car came down the road and she said, “Don’t let them see me. Those are the people who just gave me a ride home from Griffith Park.” But I knew that they had been going out on “creepy-crawly missions.”
What does that mean?
Charlie would send them out in black clothes, and they would rearrange the furniture, eat some food. As far as I know, they didn’t steal anything. But he was preparing them to be sneaking around in people’s houses. It was like a game. He was always playing little mind games with people. Then, that afternoon or the next day, Tex [Watson] showed me a newspaper and he told me, “I did this. Charlie told me to.” Then I was scared. I was afraid to leave. If he could kill strangers, he could kill me. That’s how I felt. I had just been arrested for being a runaway, and I was in jail for 24 hours, and when I came back to the camp, that’s when Tex showed me this newspaper, but he did it in a threatening way. Not long after that, when we were in the desert, that’s when the girls told me about their participation.
How long after they told you about this stuff were they arrested? Right after?
It must have been a couple of weeks. The murders happened in August. We got arrested around October 10 or 12. There were two raids. I was arrested in the second one. But we were arrested for burning a road grader, not the murders. They had no clue. When they arrested us, Sadie had a warrant out for her arrest, so they took her to another jail in Los Angeles. It was there that she started telling her roommates about Charlie, and this race war.
So she confessed.
Yeah. She told her roommates, and they told the guards. At that point, I hadn’t told anyone my real name or age or anything like that. We were all in the same cell, so all the other girls were admonishing me not to say anything if we got questioned. So, when they took us to Los Angeles to testify in front of the Grand Jury for indictments, that’s the first time I felt safe and sane enough to say: I’m Dianne Lake. I’m 16, and I want my mommy—I want out of this mess. I didn’t do anything, get me out of here.
And they did! They isolated me. Because I was underage, they made me a ward of the court. They sent me off to a mental institution for observation for 90 days. After that, they didn’t really know what to do with me, but I was doing well there, so they decided I could be a viable witness. My arresting officer ended up taking me in as a foster child. It was amazing. He gave me back my self worth. I did 10th grade there. I was an A-student. I got my driver's license. I learned how to ski, because all the A-students got to go to Monmouth on Fridays. I played the flute in the marching band, the jazz band, all of that.
So, after having this insane adolescence, you go back to this somewhat conventional high school experience. Did you graduate?
Not from high school. When I turned 18, I wasn’t a ward of the court anymore. And Jack [her guardian] was running for undersheriff of the county. His campaign manager suggested that he shouldn’t keep me any longer. He helped me get into junior college, and I moved in with a friend of my mom. At that point Jim, who I’m married to now, was in Spokane. But he came down to visit a friend of the family—not the Manson Family, but my mom’s family. Some scruffy guys came to the door looking for me, and he said, “You’ve got to get out of here. You’ve got to get out of L.A. They’re looking for you.”
The Manson family was looking for you?
That was his interpretation. He said, “When school’s out, why don’t you come live with me in Spokane?” So, I went to Spokane, had a wonderful summer there. By the end of the summer, I’d fallen in love. And he said, “Let’s save our money and go to Europe.” I thought that was a good idea, so we ended up going to Europe.
So, you and your husband have been together since back then.
No, we left England and went to Spain and France. We ended up getting jobs as English teachers. I taught pre-school. We lived there for two years. But I started to get homesick. We came back and drifted apart. He needed to get a job and I needed to move on. We were still friends, but life took us in different directions. I ended up getting married. I was married for 35 years. I had three children; I have three grandchildren now. But my husband died almost six years ago now in 2014, from a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. Two years ago, my mom and Jim’s sister ran into each other at this ashram, and exchanged information. He’d been a widower for 16 years, and I’d been a widow for four or five. He contacted me by messaging me on Facebook. We just celebrated our one-year anniversary of being married.