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Fatal attraction: As serial killer Charles Manson prepares to marry, we look at his crimes

Seven years ago, Afton Elaine Burton, a slight, pretty 19-year-old brunette from Mississippi, left her family home, withdrew all her savings from the bank, and lit out for the drab, charmless town of Corcoran, California, where she rented a small, modest apartment close to the local maximum-security prison. Twice a week since, she has made the short trip to the prison for a habitual rendezvous with Corcoran's most famous resident - and perhaps the most notorious criminal in the world - Charles Manson.

Now, after many years of supervised hand-holding over Department of Corrections formica tables, the couple are getting married. Last month, Kings County granted a marriage licence, and they will hold a wedding soon, in jail. They are entitled to invite 10 guests, but most likely will never consummate the marriage. As Manson is a life prisoner, there will be no conjugal visit, and he is not eligible for parole until 2027. This will no doubt be a cause of regret for him. He is 80, but just last year, he boasted to Rolling Stone magazine about his still healthy libido. "I'm still active with my roscoe," he said. "I'm still me."

As the news broke that Manson had managed to win the heart and hand of a woman more than 50 years his junior from jail, the spotlight turned again onto the force of his personality - the killer charisma that is so famous and feared that it has taken on the proportion of myth. He is widely believed to possess an uncanny ability to manipulate, seduce, and even brainwash people, especially young women. According to the prosecution during the 1969 trial in which he was convicted in relation to what remain some of the most infamous murders in American history, he manipulated his followers into carrying out unspeakably evil deeds at his behest.

Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who secured Manson's conviction and later wrote a best-selling account of the case, Helter Skelter, described his twisted influence thus: "He had a quality about him that one thousandth of one percent of people have. An aura - 'vibes' the kids called it in the Sixties. Wherever he went, kids gravitated towards him."

Even behind bars, Manson continues to demonstrate his power to capture the imagination of the young and bend their minds to his cause. For Burton it began when she was just 17, and already a few years into a protracted teenage rebellion which increasingly put her at odds with her strict, religious parents. "I was smoking marijuana, eating mushrooms, not wanting to go to church every Sunday, not wanting to marry a preacher. They are Christian Baptist and wanted me to be a preacher's wife," she told Rolling Stone last year. A friend gave her a piece of paper with a Manson quote on it, a line which springs from his latest role as defender of the environment, "Air is God, because without air, we do not exist," it read. The words appealed to her and she started writing to him in prison.

Whether brainwashed or no, Burton is adamantly convinced of her sweetheart's innocence. It is his style to rename his acolytes, so Manson has christened her Star. When she is not visiting him, she devotes her time to maintaining several websites she has set up through which she campaigns to clear his name. Her devotion to him is slavish, obsessive. To prove it, she recently took a knife and etched an X into her forehead, to match the one that Manson and three of his female devotees carved onto their faces as a gesture of macabre courtroom theatrics during their 1970 trial - a self-inflicted stigmata on the centre of their faces that would forever associate them with an ultra-violent culture shock which became one of the defining events of the Sixties. In the intervening years, Manson has had his scar tattooed into a swastika.

The crimes which Manson orchestrated are now so famous they have passed into legend. In Beverly Hills, it's possible to take a Manson Murders tour, passing by the house on Cielo Drive, where on the August 9, 1969, four of Manson's followers broke in and murdered the actress Sharon Tate, at the time eight months pregnant, along with her guests that night, the scriptwriter Voyteck Frykowski, his partner, the coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and hairstylist Jay Sebring. Sharon Tate's husband and the father of her unborn child, the screenwriter Roman Polanski, was away in London working on a movie at the time and hence escaped the attack. It was an orgiastic frenzy of violence. These days, tourists can gawk at the house of horrors, pondering over the 102 stab wounds the four victims received there, and the place on the porch wall where Susan Atkins scrawled the word PIG with Tate's blood.

Not far away, the tour stops into a nearby address in Los Feliz - the home once owned by entrepreneurs, Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. The following night, the gang struck again here. According to testimony from the trial, Manson was unhappy with the way the previous night's attack had gone done, so sent the troupe back to do the job properly.

Manson didn't himself inflict any injuries during these bloody incursions into America's most gilded neighbourhood. And yet a jury decided, and the historical record has it, that he should carry the burden of the blame. He was named as the figurehead of a dysfunctional cult-like group named The Manson Family. It was formed at the wilder fringes of Sixties counterculture, and populated by mostly female lost souls who followed the hippy trail to Haight-Asbury, before being recruited by Manson.

According to the prosecution in the case, Manson was scheming a new world order. His plan, as preposterous as it was savage, was based on the belief that The Family could capitalise on racial unrest in America in order to seize power. The murders were planned as a trigger for a race war - a brutal crime that struck at the heart of American privilege, they were to be framed to look like the work of the Black Panthers. This, he believed, would spark a wave of violence in which the black population of America would rise up against the whites. Manson and his followers would hide out in the California deserts during this revolution, before emerging unscathed and ready to take control.

Over the last five decades Manson's history has been exhaustively studied for clues to a personality that is both irredeemably corrupt and utterly compelling. He was born in 1934. His mother, Kathleen Maddox, was unmarried and just 16 at the time, and his early life was chaotic and unstable. Shortly after his birth, Kathleen was briefly married to a labourer named William Manson and gave her son his name.

When Charles was four, Kathleen and her brother were arrested for a brutal robbery and sent to prison for five years, during which time Charles was bounced between relatives and foster care.

By the age of 12, he was in reform school. His adolescence was characterised by a mini-crime wave of thefts and breakouts, and he was moved between several correctional institutions. He was a small kid, and he claimed he was regularly the target of aggression and sexual violence from the older boys. Rape and violence, he has said, were commonplace throughout his early life.

But it wasn't long before he became perpetrator as well as victim. In 1952, while in minimum security prison, he raped a fellow inmate at knife point, launching his career as a violent and dangerous criminal.

At the age of 20, having recently won parole, he got married to a 15-year-old girl by the name of Rosalie Willis, though it was a short-lived and ill-conceived stab at domestic stability. Before long, he was back in jail. Rosalie, though now pregnant with his child, left him and later filed for divorce. In prison, he studied How to Make Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie's landmark self-help book, and briefly explored Scientology. During a short stint out of prison at the end of the 1950s, he turned to pimping as a way to make money, though without a great deal of success.

By the time Manson was 32, he had spent half his life locked up. He was so institutionalised that when his case came up for parole, (his latest conviction had been for forging cheques) he requested permission to stay. But the request was denied. In 1967, after being granted leave to move to San Francisco, a city currently in the grip of the summer of love, Manson was released.

Manson settled in Berkeley, where he got by busking, and soon became acquainted with a 23-year-old librarian named Mary Brunner, who would become the first member of The Family. He moved in with her, and having re-invented himself as a self-styled guru, began recruiting a band of mostly female followers. Before long, he was living with 18 women in Brennan's apartment. Many of them were picked up from around Haight-Ashbury, the epicentre of the youth counter-culture that burst into life in the Sixties. Mostly, they were damaged souls looking for guidance. In exchange for his leadership, they were expected to be pliable, devoted and sexually available.

He packed his troupe into a VW combi van and moved them to LA. At first they lived a feral existence there, eating out of dumpsters, until one day, two of the girls were picked up by Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys while hitch-hiking. Wilson and Manson soon became friends - the former was said to have thought Manson's music had promise and to have admired his "wisdom" and the willingness of his girls. For most of 1968, later known as Manson's "Sunset Boulevard period," The Family moved into Wilson's lavish home, where they hung out, writing music (one of Manson's songs made it onto a Beach Boys B-Side), taking drugs and fully exploiting the accommodating womenfolk.

But that was as far as Manson's musical ambitions took him. He had hoped to be taken on by the Beach Boys record label, but the dream was nixed by Brian Wilson.

He took his family, now numbering about two dozen, and moved them to Spahn ranch - an abandoned film studio lot in the Californian desert, previously used as a set for Westerns.

It was here, having heard The White Album by The Beatles for the first time, that Manson was said to have dreamed up his vision. He felt that the album was speaking directly to him, and viewed the song Helter Skelter as a prophecy of a new world order.

On the night of the Cielo Drive murders, Manson dispatched four family members, Charles 'Tex' Watson, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Aiken and Leslie Van Houten to that address. It was later claimed he instructed them to "totally destroy everyone in it, as gruesome as you can," adding "leave a sign… you girls know what I mean, something witchy."

Despite the on-going search for a reason behind the senseless violence of 1969, it remains as obscure, unknowable and remote as Manson's addled mind.

For his part, he has always maintained his innocence. "It was a collective idea. It was an episode. A psychotic episode, and you want to blame me for that", he complained recently.

Still, he has the support of Star. And these days, from jail, he makes a buck or two selling autographs to his fans, inscribing them "hippie cult leader made me do it".

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