Bradenton resident Jason Freeman says he will use money from estate for humanitarian causes if he wins legal battle over memorabilia
The specter of Charlie is everywhere, it seems, and the wild-eyed, mom-can-I-sleep-in-your-room-tonight face remains as sinister as Satan’s, if not as familiar: It’s on a tattoo at the Siesta Key drum circle, a hat on a guy driving up Interstate 75, a magazine cover in the checkout line at Publix, right above the Frosty the Snowman gift bag, and just in time for the holidays, too.
Indeed, somewhere between 1969 and last spring, when Charles Manson’s ashes were scattered over the Gulf of Mexico and nearly scared away the red tide, the iconic face of the “Most Dangerous Man in America” became the macabre logo for a commercial brand, kind of like the McDonald’s Arch or the Nike Swoosh, only of Evil.
Even Jason Freeman says of the face that launched 1,000 nightmares: “It’s scary.” And he’s Manson’s grandson. Freeman, however, sees the image as something more than spooky. Depending on how a court case shakes out, it may be a vehicle for the betterment of mankind. It may bring shoes to the homeless, hope to prison inmates and aid to drug-addled communities. That’s Freeman’s vision, anyway. Who saw that one coming?
Freeman, a Bradenton resident who was ruled by a California judge to be Manson’s grandson and was awarded his body after he died on Nov. 19, 2017, is currently in battle with a Manson memorabilia collector over the cult leader’s estate, value unknown. Manson was serving a life sentence for orchestrating the murders of nine people when he died at 83.
Michael Channels, Manson’s former pen pal, is the other person laying claim to the estate. He says Manson signed a will that names him as the executor. Freeman and his attorney dispute its validity. A judge has yet to rule.
At stake are music royalty rights as well as image and publishing rights. Manson was said to have written over 100 songs — Freeman has five recordings himself; one was recorded by Guns N’ Roses and another by The Beach Boys.
As for Manson’s image, it hasn’t really faded in the nearly 50 years since the murders shook America to its core, and all things Charlie still have monetary value, twisted as though it may be. To wit: A Victorian bedframe a victim was killed on recently fetched $14,000 at auction.
You can find anything on the internet, from Charlie coffee mugs to motorcycle vests to T-shirts that say: “I joined the Manson Family and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” There are nearly 2,000 Manson items for sale on eBay, and if Quentin Tarantino’s movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio hits theaters next summer as scheduled — a movie about Hollywood centered around Manson — interest will only grow.
“Everyone is making bank off my grandfather,” Freeman said.
‘I love you’
Freeman’s father is Charles Manson Jr., who changed his name to Jay White and committed suicide in 1993, in part because he reportedly couldn’t handle the family name. Freeman was largely shielded from the family tree growing up. Eventually he learned of it. Later he embraced it. Though the first time he saw Manson in person was in a morgue, he spoke with him frequently on the phone.
“From time to time, every now and then, he’d say ‘I love you,’” Freeman said. “He’d say it back to me. Maybe a couple times he said it first. It took a while to get to that point though, trust me.”
Freeman, affable with a good sense of humor, is raising a family in Bradenton and is heavily involved with a local church and its outreach program. He also spends time at Hardee Correctional Institute speaking to inmates where he sees “so much potential lying dormant.”
“I don’t want to be viewed for the actions of my grandfather,” he said. “I don’t want the backlash from society. I walk a different walk. I want that to be known up front.
“I’ll talk freely about it. It’s part of my testimony. It is part of my story.”
Freeman has plans. He would like to travel Florida’s west coast in a van and pass out shoes and coats to the homeless. He would like to bring water to impoverished villages in Africa on mission trips. He would like to help tackle the drug problems in Ohio, where he grew up, and in Manatee County, where one of the worst epidemics in the state exists.
“We need to give back and be involved with changing lives, changing communities, changing mothers and fathers so they can raise their children,” Freeman said, nearly in tears. “The drugs in our communities are pulling us apart.”
If Freeman were to win the rights to Manson’s estate, he said he may use whatever money it generates to further his charitable causes, whether through a foundation, his church or directly.
He’s not sure which avenues he would take, but he may demand a cut of any books or movies about Manson and use the money to help others. Another option, he said, might be sending out cease-and-desist letters to block any merchandising and remove Manson’s image — that creepy face — from the world’s view.
“Every time he’s on TV, there are ratings and there’s money,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of music that is making money. There are companies that strictly just print Manson stuff and distribute it, so I want to go to the root of where it’s at and either compromise or shut them down.”
Still, he knows the image and face remain among the most recognizable in American culture, just as Manson was aware of it while in prison. Manson was aware that his signature on a parole hearing document was worth money, for example. He gave away art, letters and music for friends to sell, and was concerned about staying relevant, according to Freeman, saying to visitors: “So, are they talking about me out there?” And if the media demanded a madman during interviews, then Manson gave them an outright lunatic. Maybe he was one, who knows, but he clearly enjoyed playing the part. He knew it sold.
“He didn’t want to lose that image, because then everyone would lose that money,” Freeman said. “There wouldn’t be any value. You can’t give the world a good guy. You’ve got to give them a bogeyman, right?
“But you know what’s crazy? His closer friends, they were not dark. The image and the monster look that he had in society and that the news cameras built, he still played that until he died, but that wasn’t him.”
Maybe tougher in death
If it was tough being the grandson of Charles Manson in life, it may be worse after his death. Freeman handled Manson’s funeral in California, and there were those, he said, who resented him for it, and those who still do.
He said he has received backlash, even threats on the internet, from people concerned he would sell Manson’s personal belongings, to those upset Manson was given a Christian funeral, to those who view Freeman as an impediment to the inexplicable attachment they had to a false prophet they can’t seem to let go of after 50 years.
“I’m worried about someone doing something and saying, ‘I’m doing this for Charlie,’” Freeman said. “Or someone saying, ‘He can’t get that estate, he’s a Christian.’ Or, ‘He’s going to take everything and we ain’t gonna see Charlie again.’”
Manson items, such as the hospital gown he wore before he died, were donated by Freeman to a museum in Las Vegas, he said, and not sold. He did not sell the death certificate. He said he didn’t take the photo of Manson in his casket and cash in with TMZ either, though someone did. It was the same thing with Manson’s ashes.
Some ashes were spread in the Sierra Mountains in California during the funeral service, while ashes and bone were given by Freeman to loyal follower Sandra Good. The rest of the ashes, Freeman said, were scattered over the Gulf of Mexico, in a spot between Bradenton and St. Petersburg.
“It’s a comfortable setting, a good atmosphere and a spot where I fish,” Freeman said. “I ain’t the best fisherman, so I might just sit on the boat and read.”
Freeman had a film crew present as he spread the ashes in Florida, so his detractors would know he didn’t hold onto any, he said. A documentary about Freeman and Manson has been shot and is expected to appear on television in the upcoming months.
Manson, who upon his death was on the cover of the New York Daily News under the headline “Burn in Hell,” was known for the swastika carved into his forehead, but what the public never saw, Freeman said, was the cross tattooed on his ankle.
Though likely to be one of a select few, Freeman believes Charles Manson is in heaven.
“It may be hard to believe for most people, but yeah,” Freeman said. “We’re all God’s children, and he made mistakes in his life, but I know he was right with God before he died.
“There are so many things in this world going wrong today that Charles Manson is nothing. Whatever he did, if it was now, would be on the news for a day and gone.”
Freeman was recently sitting in a chair near the Gulf on a breezy day, peeling tangerines and eating them, and before he left he was asked if he thought the grandfather he knew, not the image everyone saw, was proud of him.
“I’ve talked to his friends, and they have said, ‘By going to the prison to talk and just being involved in the community and giving to your kids he’d be proud of you,’” Freeman said. “And I think so, too. Yeah, I can sleep at night.”
Now that Manson is dead, and the baby boomers continue to age, the story of the murders will eventually fade and disappear.
It’s the image of Manson that may linger a little longer.
And Freeman, one of the few biological “Family” members Manson ever had, could be the one who finally kills it.
“The image of him now,” Freeman said, “they still have to keep it alive, like Jason Part 18, but if I can have the opportunity to shine some light onto the whole picture and turn everything back around by bringing something positive into this world, then it may fade all by itself.”