Thank you, Candy and Nuts!
Hibbing native Bugliosi, famous for prosecuting Manson, has his own struggle
By Rick Weegman on Aug 9, 2014 at 8:00 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — Vince Bugliosi's determination and zeal in prosecuting Charles Manson and four members of his cult led to convictions in the so-called "Crime of the Century," while a 20-year dedication to solving the John F. Kennedy assassination led to writing what many consider to be the definitive book on the presidential slaying.
But the Hibbing native and famed trial lawyer has faced an even more dogged foe in recent years and is just now beginning to win that battle.
Until a little more than two years ago, Bugliosi, who turns 80 on Aug. 18, considered himself to be in the top 1 percent healthwise for people his age.
But after colorectal cancer surgery and a bout of pneumonia, his body went into septic shock that nearly claimed his life.
"I had never even been on a medication in my life, and a couple days later I was almost dead," Bugliosi said earlier this year from his home in Pasadena, Calif. "I literally flat-lined and they brought me back. The word ‘miracle' is constantly used by doctors at Kaiser Hospital that I'm alive."
The man who won a Minnesota high school state tennis championship as a Hibbing junior in 1951 was unconscious for 70 days, spent seven months at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles and three more months at a rehabilitation center. His weight plummeted from 165 to 112 pounds.
Septic shock is a medical condition that can cause multiple organ failure and is fatal in about 40 percent of adult cases.
Bugliosi (pronounced bool-YOH-see) said his condition deteriorated so much that family members were notified to prepare for the worst.
"The doctors had concluded that I was going to die," he said. "One morning they called my wife (Gail) and said, ‘You better hurry down here because your husband is dying.' It was a fait accompli that I was going to die. One of the doctors said, ‘There's only one other option: We can try putting him on an infant respirator, but it's never worked with adults before.'
"For whatever reason — I joke that it's because I have the mind of an infant — they put me on the respirator and, little by little, I came out of it."
Believed now to be cancer-free, Bugliosi has yet to return to his former athletic self. He completely lost the hearing in his left ear and about half of the hearing in his right ear. His kidneys stopped functioning, and he undergoes 3½-hour dialysis sessions three days a week that leave him drained.
"If I went off dialysis, I'd live a week and a half, two weeks and flat-out die," he said.
Bugliosi tries to walk every day for about half an hour but struggles to keep the same positive attitude he was noted for having when arguing cases in front of a jury.
"I don't know if I have the same dedication to beating this thing," he said. "When you are in the hospital for almost a year, you start wondering, ‘Am I ever going to get out of here?' You lose a little bit of your spirit, but I never lost all of it. I kept fighting, but probably not as much as one might expect of someone like me. I did whatever was necessary, but not much more.
"Someone else in the rehab center had septic shock and he couldn't talk because his mind was shot. I said to myself, ‘I still have my mind.' If you lose your mind, you're no longer the same person. I think my brain is still intact, and therefore I am the same person."
Bugliosi hasn't lost his sharp wit, his memory of cases past nor his upbringing in Hibbing, much of which he detailed in a recent four-hour conversation.
Tennis prowess led Bugliosi to California
Nobody could have predicted when a teenage Bugliosi left Hibbing for southern California that, less than 20 years later, he'd make national headlines for prosecuting Manson and his followers for the savage killing of actress Sharon Tate and six others in a two-night terror spree across Los Angeles.
The youngest of Italian immigrants Vincent and Ida Bugliosi's five children, Vincent Jr. was born Aug. 18, 1934, and grew up across the street from the Hibbing Memorial Building. His father owned a grocery store before becoming a brakeman for the Great Northern Railroad, while his mother was a homemaker.
Growing up without a television in a town of about 16,000, Bugliosi, like many youngsters, couldn't comprehend the large scope of the world that's taken for granted nowadays.
"The biggest town in the country or world was Minneapolis," he recalled. "Nobody talked about Chicago, New York or L.A. If you went to Minneapolis, you were going to the biggest city anywhere. Going to Duluth was going to a big town, and going to Minneapolis was like going to the capital of the world."
Bugliosi said he played sandlot football and baseball in the summer and was a basketball player in the winter. But tennis became his favorite sport because he had to work hard at it.
"Tennis was a challenge to me because it didn't come naturally," he said.
Hibbing only had outdoor clay tennis courts at the time, meaning it was impossible to play the sport year-round. Bugliosi spent much of the time hitting a ball against an outside wall of the Memorial Building, an odd sight that people remember to this day.
"At that time, on the southeast corner of the Memorial Building, there was a tall wall, about 12, 15 feet wide and maybe 20 feet high," said Jack Petrosky, a 1952 Hibbing graduate who played on the Bluejackets' state championship hockey team that year and was a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team that took silver in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. "He used to bat the tennis ball off the wall so it would come right back to him and he could hit it again. You never knew quite where it was coming back depending on how he spun it. He spent a lot of time doing that."
Bugliosi twice won regional high school championships in Duluth, even beating legendary hockey great John Mayasich of Eveleth along the way.
As a sophomore at the 1950 state tournament at the University of Minnesota, in between the morning semifinals and afternoon finals, Bugliosi walked close to a mile to have lunch at the campus cafeteria. He developed chills in the meantime and lost to David Ranthum of Rochester, Minn., in the finals.
"He probably would have beaten me anyway, but certainly I shouldn't have walked a mile and filled myself up with pie," he said laughing.
The following year, Bugliosi beat Ranthum in the semifinals and defeated Bob Reid, another Rochester athlete, in the finals. It took until 2002 when Duluth Marshall's Pete Torgrimson won in Class A for another Northeastern Minnesota player to win a state singles title.
But Bugliosi didn't stick around to try and defend his title. Long before transferring schools because of athletics came into vogue, Bugliosi left Hibbing and transferred to Hollywood High School in Los Angeles to spend more time on the court.
The elder Bugliosi didn't work on the Great Northern during the winter, and two of his older sons lived in the Los Angeles area, so the family packed up and moved. Tennis became young Vince's priority.
That dedication led to a partial tennis scholarship at the University of Miami.
Bugliosi's biggest success while in Miami came when he pushed Gardnar Mulloy, then the top-ranked U.S. player and a former coach at Miami, to five sets. The youngster won two of the first three sets before conceding the final two.
But Bugliosi must have earned admiration from Mulloy, who went on to win 125 national tournaments, because it was the now 100-year-old Mulloy who helped his pupil land a job at Henderson Park, then the main tennis facility in Miami. Bugliosi served as an assistant to the pro and lived in the back room, but working 70 hours per week there meant he had to leave the college tennis team.
Two other important, life-changing events came out of Henderson Park: Bugliosi met Gail Talluto, 58 years ago and credits with keeping him in line through the years, and he narrowed his career choice via process of elimination.
"I didn't have much of an interest in law school," he said. "But I don't like blood, so that knocked out being a doctor. I'm not good at mathematics, so that knocked out engineering. I can talk to a jury where you have a captive audience, but if I were a salesman and made a pitch and the person said, ‘No,' I would immediately turn around and leave. The reason why law appealed to me is that there was an emphasis on words. The whole purpose of speech is communication."
So after a stay at infantry officer's training corps at Fort Benning, Ga., where he reached the rank of captain in the U.S. Army, it was back to southern California to enter UCLA Law School.
That started the wheels in motion for what would become Bugliosi's shining moment as a prosecutor and a time when he would be inextricably linked to a madman for the ages.
For Bugliosi, Oswald 'trial' began 21-year journey
By Rick Weegman on Aug 11, 2014 at 10:50 p.m.
|Hibbing native Vince Bugliosi, famed author and prosecutor |
in the Charles Manson case, stands outside his Pasadena,
Calif., home on July 26.
(Sarah Reingewirtz / Pasadena Star-News)
"I said, 'I'm flattered but not interested,' " he recalled of the 1986 conversation.
But when Bugliosi learned famed defense attorney Gerry Spence would be handling Oswald's defense, no script would be used in the 21 hours of filming, actual witnesses from the 1963 killing in Dallas' Dealey Plaza would be called to the stand in London and he would be able to argue his point to an impartial American jury, he quickly changed his tune.
For several months, Bugliosi threw himself into the case with the same fervor he had done years earlier when prosecuting Charles Manson for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in one of the nation's most publicized, lengthiest and costliest trials.
"Spence and I both worked on this case as hard as any other murder case in our respective careers," Bugliosi said recently from his home in Pasadena, Calif. "I'm known as a fighter and competitive in the courtroom. But he took me to levels I wouldn't have even dreamed about because he wanted to win that case."
The trial culminated with the jury finding, as the Warren Commission did 22 years earlier, that Oswald had acted alone.
"Like Time magazine said, that was the closest to a real prosecution that Oswald will ever have," Bugliosi said.
Even Spence, the white-haired, buckskin-clad lawyer who claims on his website to never have lost a criminal or civil case, expressed admiration for his adversary's prosecutorial skill by once remarking to the media: "No other lawyer in America could have done what Vince did in this case."
Spence, via email, declined comment for this story.
While Bugliosi's efforts at the trial largely became just a footnote in the vast expanse of Kennedy assassination literature, the gears began to turn in the UCLA Law School graduate's brain.
In the decades after the assassination, a majority of Americans polled believed in a conspiracy, and many thought Oswald was framed and murdered by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby as part of a cover-up. If the facts were presented in such a way that pointed directly at Oswald and conspiracy theories were thoroughly refuted, Bugliosi believed he could sway public opinion in a manner that the Warren Commission never accomplished.
"When I got into the case, I saw all these conspiracy theories were pure moonshine and Oswald was as guilty as sin," Bugliosi said. "At that point, a majority of Americans agreed with the conspiracy theorists. So I said, 'I have to write a book on this.' "
The result, 21 years later, was the release of "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," a massive, 1,632-page, 1.5-million word tome (with an additional 10,000 citations on CD) that points the finger squarely at Oswald, a la the Warren Report, and debunks all conspiracy theories in point-by-point detail.
While the book received rave critical reviews, some calling it the final word on the assassination, it did not register at the cash register. Bugliosi calls it his biggest regret as an author.
"I'm proud of the book, but it obviously did not receive the attention because no one wants books like that," he lamented. "When I write a book, my primary motivation is always to write something I can be proud of. That's the main thing on my mind. Secondly, I want to make money to feed the family.
"My wife kept telling me, 'Stop writing that book. You're killing the sales of the book.' People don't buy books that you have to be a weightlifter to pick up. It was selling for $80, plus tax. Nobody buys books like that. All my other true-crime books were bestsellers and this book did not sell well. That's bothered me because I worked on it for 20 years."
The book sold about 40,000 copies, far shy of the total sales of Bugliosi's other books for W.W. Norton Publishers. While Starling Lawrence, Bugliosi's publisher at Norton, says it would have been a better business decision to have an abridged version, that wasn't what the headstrong author wanted to hear.
"He likes to say it's my fault because I let him do it," Lawrence said by phone from New York. "It just means that I wasn't able to stop him from doing what he wanted to do. I had ideas on that book that might have worked if I wasn't dealing with Vince Bugliosi. There were ways that book could have been made shorter and more commercial.
"But you have to give a guy enough rope to hang himself. This was absolutely the book that he wanted to write. I certainly suggested how we would go about it otherwise."
Lawrence said the narrative account of "Reclaiming History," which was turned into a paperback, "Four Days in November," was powerful enough by itself to persuade the general public about Oswald's guilt.
But Lawrence said Bugliosi wanted to "methodically destroy every last conspiracy theory, like shooting the ducks in a shooting gallery. And not only destroy them, but back the truck over them.
"That's Vince's rhetorical style of calling them an idiot and then calling them an a———. I'm probably wrong, but I thought Vince could have been more persuasive on the page if he hadn't been quite been so destructive and punitive to his opponents."
Authored books on simpson, George W. Bush and God
While he originally wrote books about cases he was involved in, Bugliosi eventually turned his attention to writing about the big stories of the day.
That's how he became involved in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which in 1995 came in the middle of his research for the Kennedy book. At first, Bugliosi rebuffed Lawrence's inquiries into writing a book about the trial, which ended famously with the former NFL star acquitted of the ghastly murders of his ex-wife and a friend.
"I kept getting messages from the sales department: 'Don't take no for an answer,' " Lawrence said. "If you can imagine, not taking no for an answer from Vince is probably worth your life. But Vince wrote a terrific book, probably the go-to-book on that subject.
"I don't remember where he was in the Kennedy book, but it was something like 20 years overdue so we were only asking him to do something that would be a short detour from the Kennedy book. The Kennedy assassination was always going to be there."
The Simpson book — "Outrage: Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder" — was a bestseller and left no doubt where Bugliosi pointed the blame: in the same prosecutor's office he used to call his workplace.
For a while, Bugliosi, who says he didn't follow the proceedings while they happened, kept copies of articles on the case from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Time and Newsweek in the small chance he would be appointed special prosecutor if a hung jury had been declared.
"I would have loved to prosecute (Simpson) and he would not have walked out of that courtroom (a free man)," Bugliosi said. "At the minimum, it would have been a hung jury. I've often said that there was mind-boggling incompetence (on the part of the prosecution)."
Before his book, Bugliosi says few blamed the prosecution for the not guilty verdict. But he pointed out that the prosecution was more to blame than the jury.
"It was such an enormously big case — the whole country was watching it," he said. "It was an enormous miscarriage of justice, one of the darkest chapters in American jurisprudence history."
With a hand in the Manson, Kennedy and Simpson cases, Bugliosi appeared content to continue venturing into dark chapters of Americana.
"The three biggest murder cases of the last 50 years, I'm intimately involved with," he said. "I don't know anyone else out there who is intimately involved with those three cases."
Bugliosi says he was offered a million dollars to write a book on Jon Benet Ramsey (he declined), though he didn't need the promise of a hefty paycheck to take a stab at the United States Supreme Court when he wrote "Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President" in 2001, in response to the Bush v. Gore presidential election the year before.
After the court decision that allowed George W. Bush to retain Florida's electoral votes and win the election over Al Gore, he stayed up into the middle of the night and hammered out a 2,500-word essay in a "state of rage" — no small feat considering Bugliosi never has owned a computer and insists on writing everything down on a yellow legal pad. The next day he called Nation magazine publisher Victor Navasky and beseeched him to run his article.
"He said, 'Try to keep it under 3,500 words.' I said, 'Victor, I can't say hello in 3,500 words,' " Bugliosi recalls. "I wrote 7,500 words and they published it and, according to them, they got the biggest response in the history of the Nation, which dates all the way back to the end of the Civil War in 1865."
Since releasing his massive book on Kennedy, he has written about prosecuting President George W. Bush for murder in regard to going to war with Iraq without finding so-called weapons of mass destruction and he revealed his agnostic views in "Divinity of Doubt: The God Question," a book which received scathing reviews from the Catholic Church.
But it's in regard to Manson and Kennedy where Bugliosi remains a favorite for television talking heads.
"For the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I think I was on TV more than any other person," he said.
Once a Ranger, always a Ranger
A Boston Globe reporter once commented to Bugliosi about the unusually high number of famous residents from his hometown, considering Hibbing's population has remained at about 16,000 for the better part of 90 years.
NBA player Kevin McHale, former Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, former single-season home run king Roger Maris and Jeno Paulucci, the late frozen-foods magnate, all were born there, while folk singing icon Bob Dylan moved there from Duluth as a youth.
Though Bugliosi plays down the notion that his likeness would be included on a Hibbing Mount Rushmore, he says that being 63 years removed from his hometown doesn't mean he doesn't still consider himself an Iron Ranger.
"I still feel very close to the Iron Range, but the weather, particularly for someone like me who plays tennis, it's too cold up there," he said. "I have fond memories. I tell people from Minnesota that if I had a choice, I'd live among them as opposed to where I'm living in now in L.A. It's the weather that keeps me away."
Bugliosi went back to Hibbing upon getting married in 1956, returned again for a late-1970s reunion and one more time in 1998 to receive an honorary high school diploma. He recalls his days there fondly.
"Hibbing was a great little town," he said. "I love northern Minnesota. I love the people, I love the culture."