In the weeks leading up to the summer of 1970, Americans could hardly turn on the news or pick up their papers without that infamous pair of eyes — intense and piercing — seeming to stare right back at them.

But as frightening as images of Charles Manson were, it was the identity of three of his fellow “Manson family” killers that unnerved Theresa Borden the most.

MANSON TIMELINE: See a timeline of the Manson family killings in a gallery at the end of this story

“They were young girls like me — like us,” she said.

Once that summer, on the off-chance of seeing the so-called Manson girls in the flesh, Borden and some friends braved the madness outside Los Angeles’ Hall of Justice, where their murder trial was being held.

“We just wanted to catch a glimpse,” she said.

“It was a carnival atmosphere,” she added. “It was just a frenzy with the media and all the looky-loos like me.”

They wouldn’t see the Manson girls — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — that day. But as fate would have it, Borden, a California transplant from Adair, Oklahoma, would eventually get much more than a glimpse.

She would get to know them in person.

‘They just never looked the type’

A former corrections officer at the prison where the trio served out their life sentences, Borden revisited the experience recently in an interview with the Tulsa World.

This Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9 and 10, marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous 1969 Manson murders.

“It was definitely an interesting time in my life,” said Borden, who moved back to her native Adair about 14 years ago.

Of the eight slain in the blood-soaked killing spree, best known was Sharon Tate, the Hollywood starlet and wife of director Roman Polanski. She was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed multiple times, along with three of her houseguests, at her Los Angeles home.

If the killings weren’t shocking enough on their own, the identity of the killers — young hippies acting on the orders of the enigmatic cult leader Manson — assured that the story would go down as possibly the most bizarre in the annals of American crime.

Five “Manson family” members were convicted. They included Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten, all in their early 20s, along with Tex Watson and — for his role in grooming and inciting his followers to murder — Manson himself.

By the time Borden met them, the women were a few years into their sentences at the California Institute for Women in Corona, the only women’s prison in the state at that time.

Her first impression, she said, was the same as when she had seen their images in the media:

“They just never looked the type” to do such horrific things, she said.

However, if Borden had any doubts, they were resolved when she read their files, something she liked to do to better understand the inmates she was dealing with.

As she pored over the details of the Manson girls’ crimes, she could hardly keep going.

“It was just brutal,” she said.

Borden is thankful she never saw any of that side from the women, who were now removed from Manson’s control.

Krenwinkel and Van Houten were “model” prisoners, she said.

The former “was quiet, kept to herself. Never in any trouble.”

Van Houten, who had a job as a clerk in the prison’s administration building, “worked hard. She was very helpful to new inmates and new staff.”

Borden felt like she had a good feel for the pair. When you spend “eight hours a day, five days a week together, you get to know the inmates,” she said.

Which is one reason she was always wary of Atkins.

“Maybe the drugs had a permanent effect, I don’t know, but Susan was just crazy. Like she was in ‘la la land.’ And she was a master game-player.”

Atkins died in prison in 2008. Krenwinkel and Van Houten, who have repeatedly been denied parole, remain confined at Corona.

‘They were still human beings’

Borden, who had been in the sixth grade when her family left Oklahoma for the Los Angeles area, took the job seriously.

“I tried to be a good cop ... firm, fair and consistent,” she said.

She remembers how “scared to death” many of the younger inmates were when they first arrived. She’d coach them in what to expect.

Borden was proud of those who went on to do well, especially any who were paroled and turned their lives around.

“It was like a momma being proud of your child,” she said.

As for the Manson girls, Borden’s opinion hasn’t changed much over the 40 years since she first met them.

She doesn’t excuse their actions and believes they deserved to pay. At the same time, she can’t help feeling some sympathy.

“They were still human beings. That’s how I looked at it,” Borden said. “They were young and impressionable. They had taken a lot of drugs.”

It made them vulnerable, she added, and they had the misfortune of running into a monster like Manson who knew how to take advantage of it.

“They were programmed” to commit murder, she said.

Borden even recalls a gentler side of Atkins.

The convicted killer once adopted a feral cat living around the prison yard. It had a litter of kittens, and Atkins tried to give one to Borden. She declined at first but eventually gave in and took it home to her two daughters.

“Susan wanted it to go to a good home,” she said. “She wrote me a little thank-you note.”

No one gets more of Borden’s sympathy than Van Houten.

Borden has kept up with her efforts for parole and once wrote a letter online to the governor of California in support.

“I think back to that young, vibrant face and now she’s old,” Borden said. “She’s lived her whole life there. You do the crime, you do the time — but I would love to see her live out her last days outside. I know not everyone agrees with that.”

One thing it’s hard to disagree with: the late Manson’s responsibility for much of what happened.

The power he wielded, the “ability to manipulate people into doing these things,” was frightening, she said.

Borden’s former husband once worked for the Orange County, California, Sheriff’s Department transporting prisoners. He saw Manson once and described the experience to his wife.

“He said he was this little wimp of a man,” she said. “But those eyes — pure evil. Pure evil.”

Photos: A look back at the Manson family murders

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Tim Stanley, 918-581-8385, tim.stanley@tulsaworld.comTwitter: @timstanleyTW

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