CORCORAN, Calif. — On August 9, 1969, two naive 17-year-old girls were launched on a path that led to the unlikeliest of friendships.
That infamous night, four young people under the sway of a charismatic career criminal slipped into a neighborhood of Hollywood glitterati, then bludgeoned and stabbed rising young actress Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and two others. Across town the next night, the band killed again.
The name Charles Manson quickly became a synonym for unimaginable evil, which nobody knows better than Debra Tate, Sharon's little sister, and Barbara Hoyt, the Manson family member whose testimony helped put the killers in prison.
"We've got a lot in common," said Hoyt, now a retired nurse. "She has been a big help to me."
"She makes sure I am holding my head up high," Tate said, "and I do the same for her."
Now both about 60, a Manson family member and the last living Tate family member have bonded in their long quest to keep those responsible behind bars. Both have testified repeatedly at Manson's parole hearings. Both say they still get threats from the cult killer's supporters — mostly white supremacists enamored with murders Manson orchestrated to incite a race war dubbed "Helter Skelter."
Even now not a day passes without Hoyt dwelling on the suffering Manson and her former comrades inflicted and on the widespread terror that ensued.
"We are completely linked by this event whether we want to be or not," she said of Debra Tate, who now runs a crime victims group. "She understands me, and I understand where she's coming from."
Hoyt never committed a crime for Manson, and her testimony helped send the cult leader and four followers to death row in 1971. The following year, when the California Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, their new life terms made them eligible for a while for annual parole consideration.
That is when the lives of Barbara Hoyt and Debra Tate began to intertwine. Over the decades, each as written letters to parole panels urging that the killers never be released, and each has traveled to obscure California farming towns for parole hearings in prisons housing some of the state's most notorious convicts.
At first Hoyt testified partly out of fear that the killers would seek revenge if released. But after becoming a registered nurse, she realized that the psychological and emotional pain of having to relive her involvement with the cult was another part of her payback to society.
"It's a descent into hell and then having to climb back out again," Hoyt said. "I think about it and I feel I was simply there to be a witness, because that has been my role. God gave me that role, and that's my reality."
Meanwhile Tate's late mother, Doris, had become the driving force for victims' rights in California and was instrumental in a 1982 law that allows family members to testify about their losses at trials and parole hearings.
When Doris died, that left her daughters Debra and Patti to carry on with her work. Patti died of breast cancer in 2000, leaving Debra, disabled from a postal service accident, to go it alone.
"Over time our mutual efforts brought us together," Hoyt said.
Now they talk regularly on the phone and get together when they're in the same town, usually for a parole hearing. Tate lives in the Southern California desert, and Hoyt in the Pacific Northwest, the specific location wants to keep secret.
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