Correspondence from one of California’s darkest chapters

Charles Manson's friend and collector, Michaels Channels sits with boxes of hundreds of Manson personal correspondence and collected items in his living room in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

It’s been 50 years since Charles Manson, who’s been described as an American cult leader, was put on trial for the murders that his followers, known as the “Manson Family,” committed in the summer of 1969. 

The trial made Manson one of the most notorious murderers in American history, though ironically there was never any evidence he had ever killed anyone himself.

While many don’t know the whole story, Manson’s name and reputation captured the attention of many over the decades that followed, including longtime Newhall resident Michael Channels.

What started it all

For as long as he can remember, Channels has been a fan of scary things. 

“Me and my dad used to watch horror films, and I love horror,” Channels said, adding that when true crime documentaries became popular in the 90s, he was hooked. “I was hooked on serial killers, basically.”

Soon, Channels, who’d been collecting autographs since he was a kid and was even writing for an autograph magazine at the time, was determined to get an autograph that would come to change his life: Charles Manson’s. 

“I wrote him a lot, I wrote a series of over 50 letters before he ever wrote back,” Channels said. “The first letter (I got back), it sparked a bigger fire in me.” 

Charles Manson’s friend and collector, Michaels Channels leafs through one of the dozens of binders containing hundreds of personal Manson correspondence, photos and collected items in his living room in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

Not just another fan

In his first response after 50-plus letters, Manson told Channels that he didn’t have a lot of time to write letters. 

“‘You’re in prison — what’re you doing in there?’ is what I thought,” Channels said, chuckling. 

Manson actually received hundreds of letters, cards, gifts and more from fans through the years, Channels said.

“Sitting in there with him over time, he would tell me people would write him letters, and he would answer them, but people would say, ‘I can’t read your writing. You spell like a little kid.’ And it hurt his feelings,” Channels explained. 

If that was the case, then what made him trust Channels?

“If you think about it, if you were to sit down and write to me, you don’t know me, so what are you going to say? All you can do is tell them about yourself, so I did,” Channels added.

Channels began to write Manson about his life, starting from his childhood, growing up along the Ohio River, until present. 

Soon, letters turned into phone calls, and after 10 years, Channels met Manson face-to-face, visiting him in the Corcoran State Prison in the Central Valley in 2002.

“That’s how long it takes to build that trust,” Channels said. “When I first went in, I thought, ‘Wow, this guy controls people’s minds. That’s cool. He’s ‘The Boogeyman’ — I’ve got to meet the boogeyman.’”

Yet when Channels finally met the “boogeyman,” he began to realize he wasn’t really the boogeyman, and in fact, was a lot like himself.

“I grew up along the Ohio River, I went to a Nazarene church. Well, Manson grew up along the Ohio River about 30 miles away from where I did, he went to a Nazarene church,” Channels said. “So everything I was telling him reminded him of himself because I was at the same place he was.” 

Though Channels said he had no clue his and Manson’s histories were so intertwined while writing those letters, the similarities continued.

“I went to the racetrack with my dad … Manson worked at that horse track,” Channels added. “It was like I was almost walking in the footsteps of his life.”

It was that upbringing that Channels believes not only made them relate to each other, but made Manson the way that he was.

“At one point, he was telling me, ‘I can look back on a point in my life. … If I would have taken that one Y in the road, I could be you,’” Channels said. “And it kind of related to me because he was probably right about that, but I made better rational decisions throughout (life) than he did. I didn’t do things that he would, he would push things where I wouldn’t.”

Charles Manson’s friend and collector, Michaels Channels displays a letter from Charles Manson, written on his personal letterhead, from prison in the 1990’s”. Dan Watson/The Signal

Manson’s appeal 

As Manson’s trial began 50 years ago, his notoriety for controlling the minds of his followers grew, and continued long after he was sentenced to life in prison. 

“If you watch him in interviews, he controlled America’s minds for many years because of the way he talked,” Channels said. “There are people that are really charismatic, (where) you can just sit and listen to their stories — that’s him, that was Charles Manson.” 

Channels went on to describe Manson as a motivator of even the most depressed person, as he pointed out their good qualities and allowed them to feel better about themselves.

“Before you know it, you’re like, ‘I need to be around this guy more, I need to cling on to this guy,’ because it’s like dope,” Channels added.

Through the years, Manson picked up ideas that Channels said he then made his own and used to inspire his followers.

“Charles Manson is like a parrot,” he added. “He picks up good (concepts) over time and parrots them back to you.”

For Manson, Channels wasn’t like the rest of his friends, whom he called “mymes,” which meant that everything he said, they would parrot back and essentially believe, according to Channels. 

“I thought it was an insult at first, but he told me one day, ‘You’re not a myme, you’re a you-you, and I have no use for you-yous, but I like you because you’re like me. I’m a you-you,’” he said.

Charles Manson’s friend and collector, Michaels Channels displays a Halloween mask crafted by Manson in prison from a paper plate colored with Cool-Aid and sent to Channels in 2000. Dan Watson/The Signal

Another trial, 50 years later

As their relationship continued to blossom, Channels received an envelope from Manson that contained his will, which bequeathed him with Manson’s entire estate.

Once Manson died in 2017 after spending more than four decades in prison, a fight for his property ensued, involving numerous kin coming out of the woodworks to stake their claim, including Jason Freeman, who claimed to be Manson’s grandson.

A court battle ensued, where Channels said he was immediately labeled as a pen pal by the media.

“That really kind of blew it for me and my reputation,” Channels added. “This is the same thing Manson said in his trial, too. … The media called him the hippie cult leader. So it was like, ‘Wow, I know what he’s saying now,’ because the same thing happened to me.” 

As the trial began, many already were in that mindset, thinking of Channels as the pen pal — even the judge — he said.

“He was looking at me like I was Manson almost because I was a friend of his, or a follower,” he added.

Although some raised questions about whether Freeman was really Manson’s grandson, Freeman won the initial court battle. 

Channels didn’t give up though, calling for Freeman to undergo a DNA test to prove his relation to Manson.

Pieces of a broken guitar, a string and a pick played by Charles Manson in prison and mailed to Michael Channels hidden in between piece of cardboard in 2003. Dan Watson/The Signal

“If you look at it from the start to finish, it’s mind boggling,” Channels said. “It went from the pen pal and the grandson to now it’s Manson’s friend and the guy claiming to be his grandson.” 

The probate case for Manson’s estate is now set to be heard early next year.

“Part of the evidence was going to be the DNA of alleged grandson Jason Freeman, but Freeman, who said he would comply with the order of the court for DNA, instead has appealed and so it is unclear if the DNA issue will be resolved before trial,” said Tim Lyons, lead counsel in the case. “Either way, Mr. Manson executed a valid will leaving everything to Michael Channels and so we are confident the court will find Mr. Channels is the rightful heir to Charles Manson’s estate and not a purported grandson who will not even submit to DNA evidence.”

While Freeman has called the Manson will a forgery, Channels’ counsel is confident they will win, with or without the DNA evidence. 

“The DNA results have little weight as to Michael Channels’ case,” former Santa Clarita resident and co-counsel on the case David Baldwin added. “Charles Manson’s will expressly disinherits Mr. Freeman’s alleged father, Charles Manson Jr. aka Jay White. His estate is to be left to our client, Michael Channels.”

The will has also been evaluated by a handwriting expert, who has determined Manson’s signature is valid, according to Baldwin.

“We are set to proceed and are confident that Michael Channels will faithfully execute the wishes of the decedent,” Baldwin added. “Charles Manson is an infamous person, but a human nonetheless. Manson had a legal right to see his final wishes carried out per his will.”

For Channels, it’s never been about the money he could make, nor the fame — it’s been about protecting Manson’s legacy.

“It’s really about not letting anybody that didn’t know him in the first place and really has no right to do (things) to him or monetize him, making him the bad guy while they cash in on it,” Channels said. “It’ll always be about (the fact that) he was my friend and you just don’t do that to my friend.”

Charles Manson’s friend and collector, Michaels Channels sits with boxes of hundreds of Manson personal correspondence and collected items in his living room in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

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