Former Charles Manson follower tells of redemption

The Miami Herald, June 16, 2003

Dennis Rice looks like he’s ready to give a talk on real estate law.

The 64-year-old’s receding gray hair, wireless spectacles, yellow tie and office blue shirt don’t give any hints about his previous life — as a member of the most feared cult in modern American history, the Manson Family.

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Now a minister with a not-for-profit church based in Tempe, Ariz., Rice told about 25 congregants at The Door Christian Church in Pembroke Pines on Sunday how he became involved with Charles Manson, and his journeys in and out of prison. He focused mostly on how he redeemed himself through Christianity.

”I found so much love from them,” he said of the cult. “But I was looking for what we all need and want. I was searching for meaning and acceptance.”

In the early 1960s, Rice called himself a ”hippie,” indulging in the usual fare of the time — drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. But his personality gave way to extremes. He violently opposed authority, and he and his wife struggled to kick drug addictions. She left him to raise four children whom he supported by selling pornography out of his wood-paneled station wagon.

Manson entered his life like the madman entered many Americans’ lives, through media coverage of the 1969 Los Angeles slayings of actress Sharon Tate and her friends, and, in a separate incident days later, an elderly married couple who were slaughtered in their sleep.

In each case, the killers — Manson followers in their early 20s from upper-middle-class homes — wrote their victims’ names in blood on the wall. The word, ”War” was carved in the abdomen of one of the victims.

”It spoke to me of revolution,” Rice wrote in a paperback booklet he gives to the members of 50 churches he speaks at each year about his experience. He visited Spahn Ranch, where Manson’s so-called family lived. Intrigued by their rejection of traditional living, he became a devotee and moved there with his four children. Rice’s fascination soured after he went to prison for an armed robbery he and other members organized in an attempt to free Manson from the Los Angeles County Jail, he said.

While incarcerated, he began to read the Bible, he said, partially encouraged by the jailhouse conversion of another infamous Manson family member, Charles ”Tex” Watson, who is still in prison.

”That is what began to speak to me,” Rice said forcefully, quoting Scripture. The Door’s congregants hummed agreeably, many praying passionately to themselves, while others raised their hands and shouted, “Amen!”

Depending strongly on street evangelism, The Door Christian Church is a member of an organization of about 1,100 churches around the world headquartered in Arizona, said pastor Carlos Morales.

The Pembroke Pines branch, a sparsely furnished one-room house of worship, invites people to come to its services at 6608 Pines Blvd. through fliers the church elders hand out at shopping centers around Broward.

Gloria Rivera, 58, of Miramar, a member of The Door for two years, said she wanted to hear Rice speak because she vividly remembers the Manson murders.

”It was horrifying that one man could manipulate people into doing that,” she said. “You can’t get any more weaker or needier than that. [Rice] shows me that someone can be saved by the grace of God.”

Nearly 15 children sat silently listening to Rice quote the Gospel. He spoke of his time with the Manson family only vaguely.

Nevertheless, there were few members who were apprehensive about bringing children to the service to hear Rice. ”This is real life and I don’t think my children should be kept from it,” said Susan Ortiz, 25, a Pembroke Pines mother who admitted she’d never heard of Manson until church officials told her about Rice’s talk. She did some research on the Internet, finding websites still espousing Manson’s rhetoric.

”You cannot shield. The children are out there doing worse today,” Rivera said. “The best thing we can do is get them here to learn that there is an alternative.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday June 17, 2003.
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