By Viola Bonaldi
Photos courtesy of Bobby Beausoleil

Bobby Beausoleil San Quentin prison 70s
Bobby Beausoleil in San Quentin, 1973

Vacaville is a Californian city in Solano County that almost perfectly divides the last stretch of Interstate 80 that leads from Sacramento to San Francisco. Once one of the most famous stops of the Pony Express, Vacaville embodies the image of the charming town, with its ideal climate, established tourist activity and stable economy.

By widening the map with the cursor, the Sunisun Bay, Napa and Lake Beyassa disappear from the PC screen, gradually showing parks previously invisible to the human eye and a grid of white lines that seem to recompose a work by Keith Haring: the centre of Vacaville. Alamo Drive and Peaboy Road delimit this urban composition from a vast grey rectangle, cut from time to time by narrow white lines that if they do not twist on themselves, they extinguish in the ashy stain. In this space are located the two largest job providers of the city which, on the other hand, are not so charming: the California State Prison Solano and the California Medical Facility, two of the 34 state prisons run by the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation – or CDCR.

The California Medical Facility – or CMF – is a medium security institute where older men are interned, in addition to those with obvious psychiatric disorders or physical illnesses that other state prisons would not have the ability to handle with the medical means at their disposal. As with all California prisons, the CMF website is a huge container of data of varying sensitivities regarding the facility itself, the beauty that surrounds it like parks, lakes and the famous Jelly Bean Factory just 20 miles away, and in which prisoners’ personal records can be browsed via the CDCR Inmate Locator. I fill in the Last Name area, then I click enter.

INMATE NAME: Beausoleil, Robert Kenneth
CDCR #: B28302
AGE: 72
ADMISSION DATE: 06/23/1970

I open a new browser window, my email account, and I read a correspondence that started a few years ago.

Interview with Truman Capote, San Quentin, 1973
Bobby during the Capote’s interview. San Quentin, 1973

JULY 3, 2017

FROM: Bobby BeauSoleil
SUBJECT: Life and art

[…] the answer to your enquiry is yes. If the train has not already left the station I will be happy to respond to your questions. Doing this via email is fine.

At CMF Robert “Bobby” Beausoleil is a recreation worker, clerk, hatha yoga and guitar teacher, a music instrument he also uses to allievate the patients some of who are a waiting death in the hospice program. In the absence of restrictions caused by misconduct, he and the other prisoners can receive visits from relatives and friends following a laborious procedure described on the Visitation Guidelines page of the website mentioned above – double click – which in addition to indicating the necessary bureaucratic steps, draws up precise rules of dressing (no blue jeans, camouflage or orange suits; no close-fitting clothes or that leave uncovered parts of the body; no bandanas, hats or shower shoes) and objects that can be brought along (a maximum of 10 photographs or sheets to show to the detainee, a package of closed tissues, $50, a plastic comb,  purely seasonal accessories – subject to the permission of the CDCR). If authorized, an inmate can make calls, receive and send mail and emails, crossing with words the perimeter of the prison and its fences.

My cell is about the size of a typical bathroom in someone’s home. There’s a door in one end and a window in the other end that lets in daylight; there is a small sink, a toilet, and a large metal locker for storage. I use the top of the locker as my work surface. I’m using it now while typing these words. My bed is the size of a cot, a concrete block with a mat stuffed with jute fiber; of course, it serves also as a seat and a place where I set my art materials when working on a painting or drawing. My guitar shares the space, and I’ve got a small television and a radio.

Together with Jim Gordon and Edmund Kemper, Bobby Beausoleil is one of those CMF inmates who Wikipedia calls “notables”. After holding him hostage for over a day, on July 26, 1969, the 21 year old Beausoleil stabbed his friend Gary Hinman to death in his home in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles. Charles Manson, a few hours earlier, had sliced Hinman’s cheek and ear with a long knife. Over the years the motive for the murder has changed a couple of times: for Manson it was a theft, for Bobby it was the consequence of a drug deal gone wrong. The fact remains, the death of a man. 

On August 6, 1969, Bobby Beausoleil was found sleeping inside Hinman’s car where the knife used for the murder had been stored. The arrest was immediate. Two days later some members of the Manson Family killed Sharon Tate, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger, and Jay Sebring in the Cielo Drive villa, a massacre that was followed by the one of the LaBianca couple.

On April 18, 1970, Bobby Beausoleil was sentenced to death and sent to San Quentin Prison; a punishment that in 1973 was converted into life imprisonment following the abolition of the death penalty in California, re-established in 1978 and executions were placed on moratorium status on March 13, 2019 by the new governor of California, Gavin Newsom, who said that no executions would take place during his governship. In the last 41 years, 13 convicts have died by execution, 82 naturally, 41 for suicide and other causes (including murders and unclear situations).

When I arrived on San Quentin’s death row in 1970 I was a total wreck, broken and shattered, far more devastated than I ever let anyone know during that period.

As difficult as it was, in some ways that 26 months I was on death row was a blessing. I needed that time alone to grapple with my conscience, to fully face what I had done head-on, to begin to learn how to think things through and begin the process of accepting responsibility for how I was going to deal with the consequences of my actions and eventually find a way to redeem myself. It was a tall order, one that seemed utterly insurmountable at the time. Think of a complicated picture-puzzle with about a million pieces.

Bobby Beausoleil recording Lucifer Rising album and movie soundtrack
During the recording session of “Lucifer Rising”, late 70s

I rewrite “Beausoleil” in the search engine and browse through the gallery of black and white images and sensational-style collages chasing photographs of a “before” era, when Bobby was “Cupid”. Long hair, leather jacket, striped trousers, top hat: an artist who wandered between San Francisco and Los Angeles playing his guitar together with Love and The Orkustra, and sharing gigs with The Grateful Dead and other notable bands, bewitching young girls and taking part in several movies. The director Kenneth Anger was impressed by Bobby, and after giving him a part in Lucifer Rising, he entrusted him with the task of composing the soundtrack. The music was composed from the prison, building a musical instrument from scratch played by Bobby himself and the Freedom Orchestra, the band he set up in the penitentiary. It was the first of 9 albums.

You could say that the Lucifer Rising soundtrack project saved me, in a way. It took years to complete the soundtrack compositions and recordings. During that time the project consumed me utterly. And it did so in a positive way. My concept for the Lucifer Rising themes was to musically describe the fallen angel’s desire to redeem himself, tracing his path through the dark passages he would pass through in his journey toward reconciliation and the light. The story, as I decided to interpret it, has certain resonances in my own life, so working on the project was cathartic.

I open the video, the music starts in the background and accompanies the reading. The YouTube user Tekaspics wishes that Bobby hadn’t met Charles Manson. But that’s what music does, it unites.

Charlie was a uniquely talented musician, but he had a tendency to be inconsistent in the way he approached musical performance.

Much of this had to do with context. Some of his songs were a lot like songs for children, and were obviously meant to be sing-along songs for the people in his commune. Those songs would not have had much appeal to a general audience, and I have seen them used in sensationalist media to ridicule his musical ability. There were songs of Charlie’s that would not stand the tests of time, like much of the music that was made during the sixties, but many of his songs were entirely relevant for that period and some of them had real depth of meaning. The ones I liked best were those that he sang and played spontaneously, in a stream-of-consciousness style, like some rappers of today. As an improvisational player, I particularly enjoyed playing with him on songs he created in this mode. My accompaniment seemed to inspire him and helped to bring out the best qualities in his performances. This type of collaboration formed the basis of my relationship with him, such as it was.

The ad breaks out without warning, at maximum volume, like a slap in the face. I close the page and return to the map.

At the Tracy Prison, California, 80s
Bobby at the Tracy Prison, California, 80s

JANUARY 16, 2018

[…] Sorry to hear you were suffering with asthma symptoms. I had that as a child but I was one of the lucky ones and the symptoms mostly went away in my teens. Hope you are doing better with that now. The breath is so essential! Feeling like you’re not getting enough air is very unpleasant. We have had some huge terrible fires here in California in recent months, and some of my relatives have been having respiratory problems because of all the smoke and ash. More signs of the climate changing. Warmly,

I zoom in on the map getting closer to the prison. I take by an arm the little yellow man in the right corner of the map and throw him on the north-west curve of the California Medical Facility Road, the only part of the district open to Google Car transit. It is a March sky, with clouds just emptied by the rain – there are a lot of puddles on the grounds. The road divides the bright green of a lawn from the uncultivated flowerbeds used as delimitation of the outdoor parking area. Tower 8 stands at the centre of the screen and looks out over an open prison courtyard. In comes a long series of ochre barracks sandwiched between meters and meters of fence and barbed wire.

Certainly, there are no beautiful vistas to be seen through the dirty windows of the place where I live. I can see moving images from nature in photographs and films, and sometimes these inspire me to produce a visual interpretation. For the most part, though, I tend to see the beauty of nature as paintings made by God, ever changing in the light of consciousness, awesomely inspired and breathtaking, far beyond the capabilities of any human artist to do them justice. […] So, for the most part, I draw inspiration from my unfettered and fertile imagination.

You can fly in your dreams, right?

What can be seen, imagined or experienced is not limited to what is possible in the physical world in some states of mind. […] This works for visual imagery and for music as well, and even sometimes for written words, like poetry. […] Much of my work is an attempt to bring these experiences into the physical realm, or at least to hint at them.

Before being transferred to CMF in 2015, Bobby was interned for twenty years in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where during that time he established his own website where he could publish and sell his musical and pictorial works. Some of his writings tell of the spiritual path undertaken and of his human growth in these decades of imprisonment, which for some are the result of extreme sincerity of mind, for many others are just the words of a big-headed person, a liar, as he has always been defined since the first interview that Truman Capote supposedly did with him in San Quentin, published in Music for Chameleons. I believe that in any case it is not possible to judge him from an external position, from the side of those who have seen and can continue to see the cities evolve and time go far beyond a perpetual and immutable 1969 made in the US, with its Mustang and Jerry Garcia playing on the Strip.

Bobby setting up equipments for a prison concert, 90s
Bobby setting up equipments for a prison concert, 90s

While our life is represented through photographs, events, goals achieved, for an American prisoner a few lines are enough to summarize the years that flow. I move again the white arrow on Bobby’s profile found through the Public Inmate Locator and I download the attachment to the yellow button. It opens a PDF with all the Parole Hearings scheduled for Beausoleil since it was possible for him to do so, September 1973. The Parole Hearing is the action through which a prisoner will be scheduled to appear before a commission (the Parole Board) to be released under supervision: if the Parole Board judges the prisoner positively – and therefore does not appear to be a danger to the community – the case is sent to the Governor of the State where the jail is located, who will finally decide whether or not to grant freedom to the prisoner. It is a hearing before two commisioners relying on the trial information and the prisoner’s behavior while in prison. In almost 50 years, Bobby Beausoleil has never managed to pass the first step. In 2016, after being transferred to CMF, the sale of prints through the site was used as a pretext to deny him once again the hope of freedom, though he was subsequently exonerated of that charge. It seems it would be too much to release a man who is generally associated with Charles Manson.

After long and very careful consideration, I resolved years ago that I would not restrict or limit my life in accordance with the excuses made by other people. This is not an act of defiance by any means. I carefully follow the rules I am given to follow; none of my art or publishing actually violates any of them. And I assure you, I have no desire to wrap myself up in the dubious security of prison life. I want to get out of prison as much as any imprisoned person ever has. In the end, what it comes down to is that my spiritual obligation to fulfill my purpose in life trumps any of the rationalizations or excuses that may be used to justify keeping me in prison, and all the nonsense related to them. A soul comes into the world for only a brief time and for the purpose, however slight it may be, to contribute to bringing sentience to the physical universe through expression of a God-given ability. This is called dharma, the purpose in life. Failing to uphold this responsibility is a breach of the sacred covenant a soul makes when coming into the world. As an artist, it is my role to express creatively and to share the work I produce in such efforts with the world. Perhaps this will serve to uplift another soul, or to inspire someone to make their own dharmic contribution to the human mission. Or maybe it’s of no real value at all. In any case, I feel very strongly that I must remain true to my calling, and to fulfill my sacred obligation as a sentient soul, come what may.

In the years past I fought long and hard to restore myself to integrity.

Too great an investment has been made to retreat from what I know I’m here to do, or to otherwise compromise my integrity out of fear of some arbitrary, politically motivated resistance. Clearly, nothing in the work I create is indicative of any violent tendencies. Excuses aside, this is what should be the focus in a parole consideration hearing. At some point I may be fortunate enough to have my case in front of arbiters who recognize that my creative efforts have been the instrument of my rehabilitation, restoring me to a responsible human being, and who will, in consideration of this, support my release from prison.

At that time Bobby was waiting for a new Parole Hearing, scheduled for a few hours after New Year’s midnight.

Playing guitar at an outside concert, 90s
Outside concert, late 90s

FEBRUARY 3, 2019

As you might imagine, things are a mite overwhelming for me at this time. Lots to do to make sure that I’m as prepared as possible for making the transition. […] Many are asking what my plans are once released.  […] Initially upon release I will be staying in a transitional (halfway) house. This is a temporary condition designed to help folks getting out of prison get their feet on the ground and get their bearings for making a successful parole.

As soon as conditions allow I will be in my own place because, man, I gotta get a dog.

I’ve got a couple of good job offers from film and television production companies for immediate employment. The decades of effort in developing skills as a multimedia arts specialist in my prison gigs turned out to be a pretty good investment. Of course, playing music will always be an important part of my life, and I suspect some concert performances are in my future. I have been looking forward to playing with my many musician friends in the free world. I feel a new day dawning. The light peels back the dark.

On January 2, 2019, in his twentieth appearance before the parole board, the hearing panel of commisionners granted Bobby Beausoleil parole. Four key words “Bobby Beausoleil granted parole” on the search engine and there is still a list of articles published worldwide – by Sky, CNN, People, Time; everyone talks about him, and readers are divided between those who believe he should die in prison supporting the views of Debra Tate, sister of Sharon Tate, and those who praise Free Bobby Beausoleil!!, claiming that five decades in jail can be enough.

Bobby Beausoleil at the Oregon State Penitentiary, 2000's
On the rail at the Oregon State Penitentiary, 2000’s

The Google Maps tab flashes orange, drawing attention to the little yellow man and his eyes on the tower. I click once again on the plus symbol trying to get closer to the building, despite the limit imposed by the Restricted Area. The courtyard seems clear, as far as you can see through the layers of chained link fences. On it, a couple of signs show the silhouette of a man struck by lightening. WARNING.

Prisons are unnatural places. They are ill-conceived responses to social problems like crime and mental illness — and in the US, anyone who breaks a law, mentally ill or not, is subject to incarceration in the prison system. In practice, imprisonment worsens these types of problems, generally speaking. Imprisonment warps the mind, not only of prisoners but also of the people who are paid to supervise them and keep them locked in.
Fairly early in my incarceration I became aware of the effects being in prison was having on me, and on others around me. By that time, I had already begun to slip into involvement in violent situations. When I saw what was happening I began to take steps to mitigate those negative effects. I resolved that I would never allow the prison environment to define me. Making a personal vow of non-violence that I have maintained to this day was one of those steps.

Prison is generally a pretty miserable place, that’s a fact. Spending my time in a puddle of self-pity has always been an option, just as it is for people on the outside. Choosing that option is what turns a miserable place into a hell. Many people in prison do just that. There is not only misery but a good deal of anger and rage in here as well. I mentioned earlier. While prison is a miserable place, being a miserable prisoner is not a must. Transcendence of misery is always possible no matter how hard it gets.

I read again the invitation from Change.Org “Ask. Gov. Newsom To Support Parole For Robert Beausoleil”, with the photograph of an older Bobby and then the 19 year old boy with top hat and mocking glance. The glasses he wears reflect a window with grids crossed by the sunlight, his hair and beard are white, but is still good looking.

“If you’re here, please read before to move on” – reports the petition. “Robert Beausoleil was not involved in the Tate/LaBianca crimes of August 1969. Those events were completely unrelated to his crime, and he was not associated with any charge related to those events. Robert Beausoleil was never a member of the Manson Family. Robert Beausoleil has been imprisoned for 50 years. That’s FIFTY years incarceration”.

Concert at the CMF, California Medical Facility, 2012
Concert at the California Medical Facility, 2012

MAY 17, 2019

A few weeks have lurched by since I received a letter from Governor Gavin Newsom informing me that the parole board’s decision to grant my parole had been rescinded by his office. Since then I have been sitting with my thoughts and assessing my feelings around this development.  […] From a place of experiencing it firsthand, my heart goes out to the thousands of men and women, and their families and friends, who have been subjected to this specific kind of treatment.

It is a cruel system that holds out the promise of a second chance after decades of imprisonment only to snatch it back at the last minute. I would be lying to myself and everyone else if I said it doesn’t hurt. Let the truth be told.

[…] As politicians come, Gavin Newsom is a good one. […] This early in his governorship he must be cautious in deciding what battles he will take on. My case presents some extra challenges due to its being associated with crimes that garner a lot of public fascination, and the greater scrutiny this may bring to decisions relating to it. Some who are in opposition to my parole have chosen to politicize the process by exploiting this.  There is no blame here; at least not any aimed at anyone outside of myself. This is just another thing I must bear in consequence to some terrible failures in my youth. I alone own responsibility for my past failings. Unfortunately, not all the consequences are borne by me alone. […] My release on parole will be reviewed again in a year. In the meantime, I will continue to plan and prepare for my eventual release from prison as I have been since the parole grant in January, because it would be foolish to wait until the decision becomes final before making these preparations. […]  In peace and serenity, love holding at the center, trusting to the supreme intelligence at the foundation of all existence.

Despite being considered eligible for parole, Gavin Newson closed the doors to Bobby Beausoleil again, essentially for two reasons. The first was that Newsom was not certain that Beausoleil fully appreciated the predatory nature of his crime, and the second was a concern about his use of marijuana decades earlier.

Robert Beausoleil continues to be one of the longest-serving prisoners in the US, one of the many elderly convicts who overcrowd the collapsing prison system: the total number of California detainees in the CDCR institutes is 117,314 men and women, for a total and legal capacity that should not exceed 89,663. The same situation applies to CMF, which currently has a percent occupied of +107.2% (data of 22/01/2020). In the US, about one in five men is judged with the maximum penalty and rarely is paroled. Every elderly life prisoner costs thousands of dollars a day, yet no other way or rehabilitation methods are taken into account. Death is expected in this prison.

Bobby writes me about his childhood home, the smells of that time and everything else; of when he was sent on holiday by his grandmother for a whole summer – “the happiest moment of my life” – and when she died. He was fifteen years old. That day he decided to leave home for good, from a life that he found too narrowly confining.  

Bobby Beausoleil freedom. Few years back
Bobby a few years back

Nothing, the little yellow man can’t go beyond the fenced area. I look for another way to get into CMF and I find it in a documentary uploaded on YouTube. If there were no 24/7 guards with weapons in their hands and gates every few meters, looking at the corridors of the CMF would seem to be in a retirement home. Greyish and beige walls, dark floors with yellow stripes indicating the path, a long series of walkways and wheelchairs outside the heavy doors of the cells on the ground floor, while looking up you can see unnatural lights and the profile of heads against them.

It is impossible to say what my life might have been like had I not made the dire decisions that caused me to be sent to prison. Some imaginative writers have postulated that each major decision creates a new timestream in a parallel universe. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, and it’s doubtful any of us ever will in our lifetimes, but let’s play along for the sake of giving due respect to what you are asking. Had I played my hand of cards differently in 1969 it’s conceivable that the Bobby Beausoleil of that alternate universe would have become a famous rock star, as I once hoped to be. Just as conceivable, the Bobby Beausoleil of another parallel universe might have wound up in some dark alley, dead of a drug overdose. We don’t get to choose beyond playing the cards we are dealt as well as we can in the hope that our decisions will take us to where we want to go. It is when we play our cards willy-nilly, without care, that we may instigate disasters in our lives and the lives of others. That said, I have done my best to play my cards well in the intervening years, and to overcome, to the extent that may be possible, the failings of my past.

I don’t know where he can find the strength of mind not to go crazy, kill or discourage himself without a remedy. Bobby continues to hope to be freed with the next Parole, and meanwhile on, Debra Tate has already started a campaign to collect signatures so that this doesn’t happen, even though Bobby wasn’t at Cielo Drive when her sister was murdered. Anyone can oppose the liberation of someone and compromise the parole, just a simple complaint and it’s done. Justice is also done in this way.

Try to avoid killing anyone, if you can.

It is very very difficult to come back from something like that. And if you find yourself faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, don’t be too shy to ask for help. The best place to look for help is deep within yourself where you will surely find great resources of strength and courage you may not yet be aware of. And remember, there is always at least one way to play your cards that will allow you to prevail over and ultimately transcend any challenge.

I close down the Lucifer Rising video and Bobby’s prison sheet. The little yellow man is still there, fixed on tower 8. I click the arrow on the road, once and again, and as soon as he reaches the city center appears a sunny sky, free from the cruel aura of some moment before.
He arrives further and further away, among shops, cars, people with a darkened face and who have been in the same pose for months. Unsuspecting prisoners who will find freedom at the next system update.


Visit Bobby Beausoleil’s website

Here you can buy a new remastered edition of Lucifer Rising

Italian version of this article