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Women Criminals I have Known

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It seems it is the season for paroling women who attempt to assassinate our presidents and those who commit heinous crimes.

Sara Jane Moore, the middle aged woman and a mother who shot at Pres. Ford in 1975 was released from prison December 2007. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the Manson follower who waved a gun at Pres. Ford 17 days before Moore fired at Ford also may be out soon.

And now, filmmaker John Waters is calling for the release of another Manson member, his friend, Leslie Van Houten. Van Houten was convicted in the murder of Rosemary and Leno La Bianca.

There has been a lot written lately comparing and lumping Sara Jane Moore to Fromme, but really they have nothing in common except for a misguided belief that killing the president...who just happened to be Gerald Ford, would make a difference. But, Sara Jane Moore was never a Manson woman.

She was never friends with Charles Manson in West Virginia, she was never a member of the SLA, she was not obsessed with Patti Hearst and Sara Jane did get one shot at Ford, missing his head by six inches. Sipple grabbed her arm before she could shoot a second time.

But, more than knowing Sara Jane, it is odd that suddenly these three women are in the news and I have met them.

Sara Jane Moore wrote to me from prison in 1975. That letter started a 30 year communication and resulted in my writing a book about her.

During my association with Moore, I met Fromme when she was incarcerated at the FCI Terminal Island in San Pedro. She would not remember me, but I certainly remember meeting her. Our encounter was not overwhelming. At the time, Fromme standing by a fence at TI that separated the women from the men. She looked wistful, as though she was searching the sky for an answer to an unknown question.

Some are more frightening than others

I also met Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten in 1976. Back then I was working for a very small weekly publication called the News Journal, not to be mistaken for any other significant news magazine or newspaper.

One of our editors learned that Van Houten and Krenwinkle were coming up for a first parole hearing seven years after their murderous events. She was able to get us into the California Institution for Women in Frontera to interview the two. I was stunned at this news and not sure I could manage to be in the same room with them. You see, I lived around the corner from the LaBianca's on Rowena Avenue off Surry Street, when Krenwinkle and Van Houten murdered the couple.

I did not know them personally, but they were part of our neighborhood--people you saw in the market or around town.

It is one of those tragic experiences you never forget, like where you were when you learned Pres. Kennedy was shot, or when you first saw space shuttle Challenger explode. All made me feel sick to my stomach.

The Tate- LaBianca murders - so close, so frightening, sent our neighborhood into paranoia. People left their homes for several weeks immediately following the murders. We were terrified. We looked around our own living rooms wondering if Manson and his family had cased our homes, looked at our family photos and considered us as potential victims. Could it have been us? Is he coming back?

We weren't willing to take that chance and we all moved out for weeks at time.

Now, seven years later I was asked to sit across the table from these women. Women, who were for a while, not so different from me...until they stabbed Rosemary LaBianca and Sharon Tate to death.

If I was going to see them I needed to go back in time, so I read Vincent Bugliosi's book, Helter Skelter. The horror, blood, fear and shock were back. I had done my homework for the interview.

We were instructed by their attorney that we could not ask anything about the murders. We could only ask and talk about what they were doing now...seven years later in prison.

This assignment was not like other crime story interviews. This was personal. I looked at their hands, their eyes, watched them breathe. Van Houten could have been sitting in a college cafeteria, her bangs grown out to cover the "x" on her forehead, making her look like any other young woman shopping at Nordstrom's.

Krenwinkle wanted to know how she could become a journalist like me. She said it was something she always wanted to do and asked if she could write to me. She did. Her letter was short but nice. She thanked me for coming to see her and did I have some recommendations for books she should be studying for when she will be released.

I can't help but remember what it was like living in Los Feliz in August 1969. I can't go along with John Water's idea that Leslie Van Houten is someone who could be my friend.

Geri Spieler is the author of, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman who shot at Gerald Ford,

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