Insights and Impact

The Smoking Gun


Illustra­tion by
Dahl Taylor

courtroom drawing of Steven Weiss testifying against Charles Manson in 1970

Standing before the wooden swinging doors in a packed Los Angeles courtroom on September 4, 1970, the 11-year-old boy—an earnest, bright-eyed sixth grader in a black clip-on tie—raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

As he recited the oath, Steven Weiss’s eyes drifted to a collection of gruesome crime scene photographs splayed across either the defense or the prosecution’s table—he can’t remember which. But nearly 50 years later, he still can recall how the images of five people who were sadistically murdered at a house on Cielo Drive, just three miles from his own, made him feel. 

“Up to that point, my parents had done a pretty good job of making sure I wasn’t privy to all the details,” says Weiss, Kogod/BS ’81. “But when I saw those pictures, it hit me how brutal this was.

“I suddenly felt like I weighed 10 times more than I did.”

With a “so help me God,” the sandy-haired Angeleno took a deep breath, crossed the courtroom to the witness stand, and began to detail his connection to one of the most heinous crimes in American history.

When young Steven wasn’t watching his beloved Los Angeles Lakers or shooting hoops himself, he was in the backyard of the family’s Sherman Oaks rambler, digging, exploring, and sliding down the steep hill in a cardboard box. “Like any kid, I knew every inch of my yard,” Weiss says. 

September 1, 1969 was a quintessential Southern California day: sunny, cool, with the hint of a breeze. Weiss, then 10, was fixing a sprinkler about halfway up the hill, which sloped up toward Beverly Glen Boulevard, one of the major streets that winds through Benedict Canyon—a swanky and secluded enclave whose celebrity residents have included Humphrey Bogart, Jimi Hendrix, and Ann-Margret. 

Suddenly, something under a bush caught Weiss’s eye: a 22-caliber Longhorn revolver with a broken grip and two live rounds in the chamber. 

It was not the first time the boy had seen a gun. Six months earlier, Bernard Weiss, an electrical engineer, had taken his only son on a road trip to Las Vegas. Somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the elder Weiss steered the 1964 Buick Skylark to the side of Interstate 15 and pulled a 22-caliber target pistol from the trunk.

“He showed me how to hold it and—thank God—he also showed me how to very carefully pick it up by the tip of the barrel and point it away from my face,” Weiss says.

Father and son shot some tin cans in the desert, then Bernard packed up the gun and they resumed the 300-mile drive to Vegas. 

After Weiss found the revolver in his yard, rumors swirled that he knew how to safely handle the weapon because he watched Dragnet. But it was just Hollywood fiction. He’d never seen the 1950s police drama and credits Bernard Weiss—not Joe Friday—with instilling in him a healthy respect for guns. 

According to a June 1968 Los Angeles Times editorial, “The Great American Slaughter,” there were 20,000 gun deaths in the US in 1967. Per an FBI report, about 10 percent of them were deemed accidental and many involved children. Two months after Weiss found the loaded revolver, the Times reported that two LA boys, ages 11 and 12, died just days apart in separate shootings. Both had been playing with a gun when it discharged.

“I didn’t even know my dad had a gun and to this day, I don’t know why he chose that day in the desert to show it to me,” Weiss says. Whatever the reason, “it was a twist of fate that I believe might’ve saved my life. If another kid found it, he might not have been as lucky.”

When Weiss spotted the gun—which, it was later determined, was tossed from a car racing northeast on Beverly Glen in the middle of the night by someone who was unaware of the houses below—he thought it might be a toy.

Dusty and rusty, the gun’s long barrel was loose and slightly askew, as if it had been used as a hammer. When Weiss gingerly picked it up by the tip of the barrel—just as his father had instructed—the gun’s heft immediately signaled its authenticity. Weiss carefully placed it on the patio table and called Bernard, who phoned the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). 

Rookie officer Michael Watson caught the call. 

“He put his hands—his fingerprints—all over it,” says Weiss, still as shocked by the patrolman’s carelessness as he was 50 years ago. “He had no way of knowing how important this gun would turn out to be.” 

Watson booked the revolver into evidence at the nearby Van Nuys station, where it was turned over to the property division, tagged, and sealed in a manila envelope. No one considered that it might have been used in the murders that had occurred less than three weeks earlier, just three miles from Weiss’s home—a crime that had yet to be connected to another brutal killing across town in Los Feliz the very next night. 

The gun was forgotten as abruptly as it was found—yet another mistake in a homicide investigation marred by them. 

A few months later in December 1969, Bernard was leafing through the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the city’s afternoon paper, when a story caught his eye. The LAPD, FBI, and Interpol were scouring the globe for the weapon used in the August murders, for which several people had recently been arrested.

“My father showed me a picture of the gun in the paper and said, ‘Boy, doesn’t this look like the gun that you found?’” Weiss recalls. It was then—as now—that all the pieces of the story fell into place.

Steven Weiss had discovered the revolver used by four members of the Manson Family to savagely murder pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others—a crime that paralyzed Angelenos in the fall of 1969 and has haunted and horrified the American public for the past 50 years. 

Bernard immediately called the Van Nuys division and told the officer on the other end of the line that the weapon the LAPD was searching for was right under their nose. 

“They told him that anything they’d had in their custody for that period of time [about three months] would’ve been thrown into the ocean and destroyed,” Weiss says. “My dad said, ‘Hold it, you may have thrown the murder weapon used in the biggest crime in LA history in the Pacific Ocean?’ And the officer replied, ‘We may have.’”

Gobsmacked, Bernard contacted an acquaintance named Clete Roberts, who anchored the 6 p.m. “Big News” broadcast on KNXT Channel 2. The seasoned war correspondent made a few calls of his own and discovered that “the LAPD had actually screwed up twice: first, by saying they threw out the gun, and second, by not actually following their own policy and throwing it out,” Weiss says. 

The gun that had been found, then lost, was found again. 

History has never revealed whether it was Roberts’s call or Bernard’s that led detectives to the basement of the Van Nuys division late on the evening of December 16. The story that ran four days later on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, “Police Find Gun Believed Used in Slaying of 3 Tate Victims,” made no mention of young Steven. But seven months later, his story would garner headlines of its own.  

Like so many people who’ve crossed paths with Charles Manson, Weiss was struck by his slight frame. At 5’2”, the 35-year-old cult leader stood just four inches taller than Weiss in September 1970, but his savagery and menacing aura made him seem larger than life. And his courtroom antics—including lunging at Judge Charles H. Older with a pencil and screaming, “Someone should cut your head off, old man!”—made him frighteningly unpredictable. 

“I had heard that Manson would stare down witnesses. He had these hypnotic eyes and he looked like the devil,” Weiss says. “But he didn’t do that with me.” 

Soon after taking the stand, Weiss, either by accident or out of morbid curiosity, locked eyes with Manson, who, along with his three female codefendants, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, had carved an “X” on his forehead to represent his exile from society.

Manson smiled at the boy.

Allegedly, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi had warned Manson not to intimidate the young witness. But the charismatic con might have been charmed by Weiss, whom the Chicago Tribune described as “a remarkably self-possessed and neatly dressed sixth grader.” 

“I was just this little kid in a clip-on tie and jacket, I think I provided some comic relief for him,” Weiss says. 

Manson wasn’t the only one who got a laugh out of the youngster’s 30 minutes on the stand. After Bugliosi walked Weiss through the particulars of finding the revolver, defense attorney Paul Fitzgerald “leaped up with a scarcely concealed smile to begin his cross-examination,” wrote New York Times reporter Douglas Kneeland. 

“The defense wanted to make the LAPD look stupid,” Weiss says. “He said, ‘You picked up the gun very carefully with two fingers. How did the officer pick it up?’ I responded, ‘He put two hands all over the gun’ and Manson just busted up. Everybody in the courtroom laughed. I felt sorry for that poor cop; he testified right after me.”

Weiss didn’t stick around for Watson’s pride-swallowing turn on the stand. As he and his father made their way out of the courthouse, the boy was swarmed by 30 reporters who peppered him with questions for 45 minutes. Video of Weiss led the CBS Evening News broadcast with Walter Cronkite, and his image appeared above the fold in dozens of papers across the country, including LA’s Herald Examiner.

By the time the afternoon paper hit driveways, the Weiss family’s phone was ringing off the hook and their neighborhood was swarming with friends, police, and—because all the papers printed their address on Longview Valley Road—more than a few looky-loos. 

 “We didn’t have dinner that night because of all the activity, so my dad took me out to a local coffee shop. We were sitting at the counter and the man right next to my dad was reading the paper with me on the cover,” he says. 

“But my parents were very smart about it. When I went to bed that night, they came in my room and said, ‘You have to understand something. Tomorrow morning, people are going to be using those papers to line their kitty litter boxes.’ And that was it. They didn’t even mention it the next morning.”

The Weisses may have moved on quickly, but almost half a century after Manson and five others were convicted of murdering Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, the public remains mesmerized by the sordid killing spree.

This year will see the release of four films about the Manson Family, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which hits theaters July 26. And 45 years after it was published, Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter—just one of hundreds of books about the murders—remains the bestselling true crime book of all time, with more than 7 million copies in circulation. 

A few years before Bugliosi died in 2015, Weiss ran into him in Las Vegas. Over beers, the star witness ribbed the storied prosecutor: “I asked, ‘So, can I get my gun back?’ and he said he’d look into it,” chuckles Weiss. “He sent me a letter thanking me for testifying and said, ‘I’ve done a little homework and I don’t think you can get it back.’”

Another thing Weiss will likely never receive: his share of the $25,000 reward offered by Tate’s husband, director Roman Polanski, and actors Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers, and Yul Brynner. In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi erroneously claimed that Weiss received $1,000.

“I didn’t discover the cure for cancer. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and stumbled onto the gun,” muses Weiss, a real estate developer and married father of two grown sons. 

“That said, I’m hoping one of these days I’ll walk into a restaurant in Beverly Hills and see Warren Beatty,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. “The least he can do is pay for my dinner.”