The first time Bruce Davis saw him, Charles Manson was lounging in an antique bathtub under a shade tree, ringed by half-naked women and smoking a joint. It was Topanga Canyon, L.A., 1968. "I thought, 'Man, this is where it's at,'" Mr. Davis remembers: "I didn't leave that house for six weeks."
Ultimately, he didn't leave Charles Manson, either. That decision would vault his life down a hideous trail that led from a hedonist's paradise of drugs and lust to what at that time were the grisliest murders in U.S. history. Charles Manson, Charles "Tex" Watson, and other Mansonites were convicted of murdering in 1969 actress Sharon Tate and her four houseguests, along with grocery chain magnate Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. A separate jury nailed Mr. Davis for his role in the Manson-ordered murders of musician Gary Hinman and ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea. When the gates at California's Folsom State Prison slammed shut behind Mr. Davis, the Vietnam conflict was evening news, Watergate was an infant scandal, and gasoline cost 36 cents a gallon.
His sentence: Seven years to life. He is now on year number 29.
Nineteen parole hearings have yielded 19 denials. His 20th hearing, slated for last month, was just rescheduled for the third time. And California Gov. Gray Davis has publicly declared that any prisoner with "life" in his sentence will never see freedom on his watch. But Davis the prisoner says that even if the state never shows him mercy, his is still a story about the grace and mercy of God.
I visited Bruce Davis and his wife Beth inside the California Men's Colony (CMC), a medium-security prison to which he was transferred in 1980. In the visiting room, two tables away, convicted felon and former rap-music thug Marion "Suge" (as in 'sugar') Knight talked with a silk-suited visitor. But Mr. Davis looked like a different man than the smirking stoner pictured in the pages of Vincent Bugliosi's Manson chronicle Helter Skelter. His hair has gone from brown to steely gray. He stood in his prison dungarees with a bowed, deferential posture. The man whom L.A. prosecutors once called "Manson's right-hand man" clasped my hand, bowed his head, and asked God to bless our meeting with candor and truth. Mr. Davis's cobalt eyes looked straight at mine, and he said he is sorry for his crimes.
Those crimes are among the world's most infamous. On July 25, 1969-exactly 15 days before the Tate-LaBianca butchery-three Mansonites paid a visit to musician Gary Hinman. They planned to rob him blind. But when death threats and a pistol-whipping did not produce an outpouring of cash, Charles Manson and Bruce Davis drove to the musician's home to provide additional motivation. Mr. Manson listened impassively to the victim's pleas, then used a sword to slice Mr. Hinman's left ear in half. Mr. Manson and Mr. Davis then drove off, leaving the others to torture Mr. Hinman for two more days before stabbing him to death.
A month later-two weeks after Tate-LaBianca-Mr. Davis was involved in the murder of Shorty Shea, a bit-part actor and on-again, off-again ranch hand. Mr. Shea had displeased Mr. Manson, who responded by gathering Mr. Davis, other members of the pack, and four sharpened German bayonets, plus the sword Mr. Manson had used to slice Mr. Hinman's ear. The group ambushed and killed Mr. Shea; Mr. Davis says he did not commit the murder but admits that he then followed Mr. Manson's orders and slashed the victim after he was dead.
"It was the only time Manson asked me to go on a murder," Mr. Davis says. "I didn't have the guts to say no." With police looking for him and other Mansonites, he became a fugitive, but finally surrendered to police on Dec. 5, 1970. (He didn't know that Christian relatives in Alabama had been praying he'd do just that.) Mr. Davis stood trial and, upon conviction, landed in Folsom.
There, in the fall of 1974, while standing at a water fountain, he saw hundreds of idly milling inmates in a whole new way: "Everyone appeared to have the pale of death. And I realized that the pale of death I was seeing on the others was also my own. Suddenly, I was desperate. I admitted I needed help."
That admission opened a testy personal dialogue with God, in which Mr. Davis says God reached out to him while he dug in his spiritual heels: "I wanted to reject God's moral demands, especially that His favor required my submission to the Lord Jesus Christ." But in the end, he tendered a surly, disrespectful surrender. "Okay, God," he remembers saying while lying in his cell bunk. "You say you love me and we both know that I don't love you. You say you want to help me, but I don't believe it. I've never done anything for you. But if you still love me, and still want to help me, then do whatever you can.
"That was the truth, and it was as ugly as I could give it to Him." Mr. Davis says. "And little by little, He began to transform important aspects of my life. By God's grace, in my 32nd year, I was saved."
Not everyone bought Mr. Davis's conversion story. When L.A. County deputy D.A. Jeffrey Jonas first began handling his parole board hearings in the early 1980s, he thought Mr. Davis's profession of Christianity was just another case of expedient jailhouse religion.
"I thought Bruce was disingenuous, of the same ilk as the other Manson people," Mr. Jonas says, noting that Mr. Davis and two other Mansonites all were prominent figures in CMC's Christian ministry at that time. "I thought that was about as hypocritical as you could be. Mr. Davis had never renounced Manson, but was paying lip service to spiritual values. Basically, his attitude seemed to be 'What's it going to take to get me out of here?'"
But in the late 1980s, Mr. Jonas's opinion changed. Mr. Davis, who had been reluctant to speak against Manson, finally did so. "Based on his comport after that time, I truly believe he has demonstrated that he's renounced everything Manson stood for," he says.
Tim Dailey, pastor of a church near CMC who has maintained an ongoing friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Davis since 1988, says: "Bruce Davis is a broken and repentant man who is fully aware of the devastation of his crimes." Mr. Dailey has ministered regularly to 40 CMC prisoners and their families, but only for Mr. Davis has he written a letter to the parole board: "I've got models to compare Bruce to. I saw the truth and genuineness in his life. Bruce has lived his Christian walk consistently. I have six sons and, without fear, I would have him live in my house tomorrow."
Mr. Davis has had lots of time to reflect on how he ruined his life. The son of a construction worker and an accountant, he grew up in Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee, but had a distant relationship with his father, who was often away on construction jobs. As Mr. Davis grew older his father traveled less but drank a lot, and had outbursts that were sometimes physically abusive. "My sister tried to cope by becoming a good student," Mr. Davis says. "I pacified my anger with overeating and sexual fantasy."
When he turned 20, Mr. Davis decided to put miles between himself and his family. He landed in California in 1963, where he worked as a welder and surveyor, mainly to finance his appetite for "nice clothes, motorcycles, a sports car, and drugs." In 1968 he had that first shade-tree encounter with Manson and joined "the Family." But soon Mr. Manson suggested that they all split up for awhile, and Mr. Davis headed east again, through Tennessee and ultimately to Europe, where he did the hippie-drift through Portugal, Gibraltar, and mounds of Moroccan hashish. In London, he became a Scientology devotee and worked at the cult's Surrey headquarters. But in the end, he returned to Los Angeles. Mr. Manson met his flight at LAX.
Although many Mansonites believed their leader's tales of a coming Armageddon to be called "Helter Skelter" (with Mr. Manson starring as Jesus Christ), Mr. Davis says his attraction to Mr. Manson was more pragmatic: sex, drugs, and acceptance. "I was very self-involved. Manson had a vision, and a group of ambitionless subjects. He understood what people needed and gave it to them.... I thought what I was getting was acceptance, love, and respect."
He refuses to blame drugs for his crimes, but admits that LSD, in particular, "enlarged my sense of what was permissible for me. It was all baby steps. The unthinkable became the thinkable. Then the thinkable became the doable."
Even murder. In terms of altering history, one murder that wasn't committed now seems as significant as those that were. One afternoon, Mr. Davis stood over a sleeping Manson and contemplated killing him. Mr. Manson, stoned, had passed out in a barn with a pistol in his lap. Mr. Davis thinks it was after the Hinman murder (his drug use at the time clouds the chronology), but it was definitely before Tate-LaBianca. "I could see with sudden clarity that killing Manson would be a good thing. I could've easily made it look like a suicide." Finally though, Mr. Davis was too afraid of Mr. Manson to go through with it.
Though he tries not to dwell on the past, that moment is one of "a thousand what-ifs" that sometimes season his thoughts. Mostly, though, Mr. Davis concentrates on relationships: with God, with his wife, Beth, and with their daughter.
Mr. Davis met Beth, a flight attendant with a major airline, through a prison
letter-writing ministry. Beth says she began visiting Mr. Davis with the blessing of her pastor, who knew him to be a serious student of the Bible.
"I could see how much Bruce loved God, and how intimately he knew the Scriptures," she says. "He absolutely put God before everything else in his life." Slowly, their relationship grew from friendship to courtship. They were married in April 1985. "Beth has made me a whole person," says Mr. Davis. "She's so honest and open. I can't imagine now how my life would have been without her."
Six years ago, before the state of California nixed conjugal visits for inmates, Beth conceived and gave birth to a baby girl. Both Mr. Dailey and Beth's pastor Ron Salsbury call the Davises' continuing marriage a testimony to God's healing power. "When the conjugal visits ended, so did a lot of prison marriages," says Mr. Salsbury.
Mr. Davis prefers to keep his daughter's name private, but speaks joyfully of her: "She is God's greatest gift to me after my salvation and my wife." At least twice a week, she blows into the prison like a spring breeze bringing laughter and, sometimes, he says, tough questions.
"She asks why I can't come home, and what I did," Mr. Davis says. "I tell her I was involved in something where a lot of people got hurt. She asks if anybody was killed. I say yes, people were killed. I just try to answer her questions at the level she asks them. She's growing up really fast."
A painful question: When he thinks of his daughter, what does he wish?
He is quiet for a moment, then his eyes fill with tears. His hand searches for Beth's. "I wish I could take her to Paris. I'd take her across the Channel in a sailboat, then we'd ride back through the Chunnel. I want to be out and be a family. I want the most anxiety in her life to be what to feed her dolly or what movie to watch-not that her daddy's in prison."
Mr. Davis hopes for parole, but "I'm not holding my breath, I can tell you that," he says with sad eyes and a half-smile. "God's not giving me what I want, but He's giving me what I need. I don't agree that I still need it, but He's in control and knows better. I whine about it, but His message to me is, 'You so underestimate the character of sin.'"
Mr. Davis now has a ministry in prison. He spends time studying the Bible, and is working on a Ph.D. in theology from Bethany Bible College. Although he's held other prison jobs-from mopping floors to running a support group for terminally ill patients in the infirmary-he now works in the chapel, doing peer-counseling, teaching Bible classes, and leading worship.
The notoriety of his crimes, he says, gives him a platform to share the gospel. "I'm sorry to say that people here who are willing to listen have misconceptions about what's real. Should a person be listened to because he did something bad? No. But in here everything's backwards."
One thing that isn't backwards: The God who works outside prison walls works inside as well. Mr. Davis says his own change shows "that God is merciful. That there is such a thing as hope."