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Yesterday's Crimes: The Helter Skelter Heiress - July 9, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Yesterday’s Crimes: The Helter Skelter Heiress

Housekeeper Winnifred Chapman showed up a little late for her Saturday shift at 10050 Ciello Drive on Aug. 9, 1969. What she found at the estate just north of Beverly Hills sent her running to the house next door.

“There’s bodies and blood all over the place!” Chapman screamed. The neighbor called the police. After half a dozen police cars arrived on the scene, Chapman was taken to UCLA Medical Center to be treated for shock.

Actress Sharon Tate, whom the massacre would be forever named for, was found dead near her former lover and hair salon entrepreneur Jay Sebring. Tate was eight months pregnant. Somebody had stabbed her 16 times. Her husband, Roman Polanski, a movie director and future fugitive from a rape conviction, was in London at the time of the killings.

On the well-trimmed front lawn, the bloody body of 25-year-old San Francisco coffee heiress Abigail Folger was slumped under a fir tree just yards away from the corpse of her boyfriend, Wojciech “Voitek” Frykowski. Between Folger and Frykowski, the couple had nearly 80 knife wounds between them.

Abigail Folger, known as Gibby to her friends, was the great-granddaughter of J.A. Folger, who arrived in San Francisco in 1850 to pan for gold, but made his fortune in coffee instead. He founded the Folgers Coffee Company in 1860, and the name is still synonymous with the red cans of freeze-dried java that your grandmother probably buys at Safeway.

Abigail’s father, Peter Folger, sold the company to Proctor and Gamble in 1963, but still ran it from the building at 101 Howard St. that his father, James Folger Jr., had built in 1904. The Folger Coffee Company Building survived major earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 because the building’s supports were driven 40 feet into the SOMA muck with a steam-powered pile driver.  The University of San Francisco purchased the building for $37 million in 2011.

Abigail attended her debutante cotillion at the Sheraton Palace Hotel on Dec. 27, 1961, which the Chronicle describedas a “fantasy-like blaze of pinks and reds.” Folger soon left the rich girl trappings behind but hung onto the trust fund.

Inheriting a sense of noblesse oblige, she volunteered at the Haight Street Free Clinic with her mother Ines Meija Folger, who helped raise money to keep its doors open.

Folger also volunteered in some of L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods for the county welfare department, but the work left her spent. “A lot of social workers go home at night, take a bath and wash their day off,” she said. “I can’t. The suffering gets under your skin.”

Abigail then moved to New York where she worked at the Gotham Book Mart and met Frykowski, a Polish expat who coasted on his charms and his friendship with Polanski.

By 1969, Abigail was splitting her time between the Folger Mansion in Woodside and Los Angeles, but things weren’t going all that well for her down south. Folger volunteered for Tom Bradley’s campaign to become the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles. Bradley’s opponent, Sam Yorty, embarked on what Harold Meyerson of the LA Weekly described as “the most vile and demagogic campaign in the history of modern LA”

 Yorty paid young Black men to drive around LA’s whiter suburbs in a Cadillac convertible plastered with Black Panthers and Bradley for Mayor stickers. As a former police chief, the idea that Bradley was connected to Black Power radicals was absurd, but it didn’t matter. Yorty still won.

Folger and Frykowski moved into 10050 Ciello Drive in April 1969 to keep Sharon Tate company while Polanski was in London putting together movie deals and cheating on his wife. Tate got along fine with Folger, but Frykowski drove her nuts. He even ran over Tate’s Yorkshire terrier in July.

“I should have thrown him out when he ran over Sharon’s dog,” Polanski said when he returned to the house after the murders.

A month after Voitek squashed the pooch, Charles Manson, a failed folk singer and inept pimp who smelled like hot garbage, sent Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to the house on Ciello Drive with orders to slaughter everyone there.

“I never questioned what Charlie said, I just did it,” Susan Atkins recalled.

 During the night of carnage, Folger overpowered Krenwinkel and made it outside where Krenwinkel and Watson stabbed her 28 times. At least seven of these wounds were classified as fatal.

 “Stop! Stop!” Folger begged after several blows. “I’m already dead.”

 Although Folger was often described in the press as “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” news sources speculated that a séance she attended with Mia Farrow, star of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, could have brought on the ritualistic slayings. Revelations of Voitek’s drug dealing, the traces of MDA found in his and Folger’s system, and dirty movies Polanski made with Tate also inspired new rounds of media victim blaming.

 When Manson and his followers were arrested for the crimes four months later, the mélange of motives for the slaughter on Ciello Drive only made sense to them. Manson chose the site to send a message to the home’s previous occupant, record producer Terry Melcher, for not landing him a record deal.

Abigail Folger’s funeral was held at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church in Portola Valley on Aug. 13, 1969. If you want to visit her grave, she’s not far away; she is interred in the main mausoleum at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.