By Mary Slosson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Detectives are looking at the possible role of the Manson Family in a dozen unsolved killings from four decades ago, and believe old audio tapes from a bankruptcy case hold a key to the cold cases, a police official said.
The so-called Manson Family cult, a collection of runaways and outcasts known for their high-profile spree of at least nine killings in 1969, was brought together by a charismatic ex-convict, Charles Manson.
The 12 unsolved killings police are looking into had "similar circumstances, the same time period" as those committed by Manson's followers, Los Angeles police spokesman Commander Andrew Smith said.
"We think there's a chance that they may be related to the Manson Family," he added.
In 1969, Manson became one of the 20th century's most infamous U.S. criminals when he incited his mostly young, female followers to murder in what prosecutors said was part of a twisted plan to incite a race war between whites and blacks.
Among the victims was actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, who was stabbed 16 times by members of the cult in the early morning hours of August 9, 1969. Manson, now 77, is serving a life sentence.
If police can tie the Manson Family to any unsolved cases, it would confirm longstanding suspicions that they committed more killings.
The revelations about the number of unsolved cases investigators are pursuing comes amid a legal battle between the Los Angeles Police Department and an attorney for Manson follower Charles "Tex" Watson, who is serving a life prison sentence in California.
Los Angeles police, who have gone to court seeking to obtain eight hours of recorded discussions between Watson and his late attorney Bill Boyd, have disclosed few details on the cold cases, including the names of victims or dates of the killings.
The tapes, made more than 40 years ago, have resurfaced as a part of a bankruptcy case involving Boyd's now-defunct Texas law firm. In May, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Brenda Rhoades in Texas granted the request for the tapes, but an appeal is pending.
"We're just trying to obtain these tapes to see if they will shed light on these and other cases," Smith said.
Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck had said in a March letter to a U.S. Department of Justice trustee that the LAPD "has information that Mr. Watson discussed additional unsolved murders committed by followers of Charles Manson."
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Will Dunham)