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Dallas • A federal judge in Texas has blocked an attempt by the Los Angeles Police Department to use a search warrant to obtain decades-old tapes of conversations between a Manson family disciple and his now-deceased trial attorney.
U.S. District Judge Richard Schell's ruling stopped authorities from executing a search warrant earlier this month for the office of the bankruptcy trustee who has eight cassette tapes containing hours of conversations between Charles "Tex" Watson and attorney Bill Boyd.
Schell took the LAPD to task for what the judge called an apparent attempt to circumvent a court order making the tapes off limits until Watson's appeal of a previous ruling in bankruptcy court can be heard.
"This court understands and respects the desire of the LAPD to seek access to the 42-year-old tapes," Schell wrote in an Oct. 5 ruling. "However, the LAPD has provided no explanation as to why this court should shortcut the usual procedure for determining a bankruptcy appeal given that the investigation the LAPD wishes to reopen involves murders that occurred 42 years ago."
The LAPD is seeking the tapes on the belief that Watson, serving a life sentence in California for his role in the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others, may have discussed other unsolved murders with Boyd.
Boyd, who died in 2009, represented Watson when the Manson follower fled to his home state after the murders. The tapes are now in the possession of Linda Payne, the trustee in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding involving the law firm where Boyd worked.
In May, the bankruptcy court judge ruled that the LAPD should get the tapes because Watson waived his right to attorney-client privilege when he made them available to the co-author of his 1978 book "Will You Die for Me? The Man Who Killed for Charles Manson Tells His Own Story." The ruling by Judge Brenda Rhoades in effect supported Payne, who testified that she believed there was no reason not to give police the tapes.
Watson is appealing the decision, and Schell granted a stay until he can hear arguments from both sides. Attorneys for Watson and Payne are still preparing their briefs.
Andrew Smith, an LAPD spokesman, said Thursday he couldn't immediately comment on the matter.
Payne sought an emergency ruling from Schell on the search warrant after law enforcement officials from Los Angeles and Fort Worth showed up at her Dallas office on Oct. 3 seeking to search the premises, court records show.
Payne wrote that the intent to search her office put her "between a rock and a hard place" because, no matter how she responded, she could be considered in contempt.
"If (Payne) complies with the warrant, she risks contempt of this court's stay order," her motion stated. "If (Payne) fails to comply with the warrant, she risks being held in contempt by the state court (that issued it)."
Payne's attorney, Mark Weisbart, said he couldn't comment about the search warrant without consulting Payne, who he said was travelling abroad. Watson's attorney, Kelly Puls, said he wasn't surprised to learn that the LAPD tried to circumvent Schell's order but declined further comment.
The search warrant was signed by state District Judge Mike Snipes 45 minutes before the law enforcement officials sought to execute it. The warrant authorized the officials to seize the tapes "and any other criminal evidence associated with the offense of murder."
The search warrant affidavit, prepared by a Fort Worth police detective using information from the LAPD, has been sealed by Snipes.
In an interview, Snipes said he sealed the affidavit at the request of law enforcement officials who cited the sensitivity of the case and the fact that they believed evidence could be destroyed if the document was made public.
"They convinced me," Snipes said. "I wouldn't have done it otherwise."
Watson, a native of the small North Texas community of Copeville, was a key figure in the Tate-La Bianca murders, one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century. He, Manson and three others were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was briefly outlawed in California in 1972.
Watson was portrayed in trial testimony as Manson's lieutenant, a cruel killer who stabbed Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski, as she begged for her baby's life.
Boyd fought to prevent Watson's extradition from Texas. After Watson was returned to California, he was ruled insane and committed to a mental institution before it was determined he was fit to stand trial.
According to Payne's testimony in bankruptcy court, Boyd sold copies of the tapes to the co-author of Watson's book for $49,000 to cover his legal fees after the killer waived his right to attorney-client privilege. Given those circumstances, the tapes should be made available to the LAPD, she testified.
But Watson, now 66, has argued in court documents that he waived his attorney-client privilege only for the book. He has stated that he's willing to allow the LAPD to listen to the tapes but not take possession of them because he's concerned that the media would gain access as well.
"In the eyes of justice, I am fully willing for the LAPD to listen to the tapes to satisfy their investigation, but not to take possession, since they are not their property," he wrote in a motion filed in June.