SIOUX CITY | The story of how Greg Dunn became one of the few people (possibly the only person) in Sioux City to correspond with the late, infamous cult leader Charles Manson began at an auction sale that he didn't attend.
Dunn, a retired vice president at IBP Inc./Tyson Foods, had a co-worker who worked a side job as an auction clerk. At an auction in Jefferson, South Dakota, in the late 1990s, the co-worker was poring over a jumbled box of items for sale.
In the box, she noticed a copy of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry's "Helter Skelter," about Manson's leadership of the Manson family cult in the late 1960s.
She thumbed through the book. Tucked away inside was an August 1976 postcard from the imprisoned Manson to a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, man.
In the postcard, Manson characteristically complained of the Beatles changing the lyrics to their song "Helter Skelter," and signed his name with a curvy swastika.
Apparently she wasn't the only one to notice the postcard. Bidding on the otherwise-unremarkable box was heated.
"The boxes were selling for 25 to 30 cents a box," Dunn said. "It came to this box. She starts bidding on it -- before she knows it's up to $50. I think she bought it for like $75. And then after the auction, this guy that was bidding against her came over and he said, 'You knew what was in that box, too, didn't you?'"
Some time after that, she brought the postcard to work and Dunn asked to make a photocopy of it.
Dunn retired in 2005. In late 2009, he decided to reach out to Manson and ask him if he remembered the 33-year-old postcard. He did a little research and found Manson's address had changed to the California State Prison, Corcoran.
He sent the letter, with a photocopy of the old postcard. It would be the only time Dunn wrote to a famous person.
"I wondered if I wrote a letter to Charles Manson if he'd remember it, and he'd send me a letter back," Dunn said. "I just wanted to see if he'd write me a letter back."
Much to his surprise, about a month later he received a typewritten response, on bright, cheerful stationery -- butterflies and flowers graced the envelope.
"Now isn't that something, for a guy who spends his life in prison?" Dunn said. "Look at that stationery! I mean, it's first class!"
Dunn said he had considered going public with the letter earlier, but feared that the then-alive Manson might take it the wrong way.
With Manson's death on Nov. 19 (just over eight years since the letter was sent), Dunn said there was no reason not to talk about it. Oddly enough, the grim tale of Charles Manson didn't end when he died -- there's an ongoing legal dispute over who is the rightful owner of his corpse.
Air, Trees, Water, and Air
Manson's reply began: "Hello Greg, Would like to thank you for your letter and the copy (of) my old postcard that I don't even recall it, it was a long time ago. I can't even remember what I did yesterday."
Manson went on to hope Dunn was "in good spirits and in the best of health," but noted that, "As for me, nothing but a bunch of ones and zerros (sic)."
Most of Manson's letter was spent soliciting for "Air, Trees, Water, and Air," which was most likely a typo of "Air, Trees, Water, Animals," -- Manson's environmental rallying cry in his later years.
With Dunn's (and everyone else's) support, Manson suggested, "'ATWA' would surely live for another 100 years." That support, he said, should come in the form of a money order made out directly to him.
But Manson gave Dunn other options for supporting the cause.
"I'm also in dire need of stamps," Manson admitted.
Dunn could see the wily old Manson at work in the ATWA solicitation.
"Well he's still trying to lead people, you know and manipulate," Dunn said. "Also, he can't help but try to get money from you."
As with the 1976 postcard, Manson signed his name with a large swastika over it. He also included a signed headshot of himself from his 1970-71 trial.
The statements in the letter are unusually coherent for Manson, who was famous for raving nonsensically at his parole hearings, and for his shenanigans at trial -- which included threatening the judge with a pencil. Dunn said he suspects these antics were "an act" on Manson's part, an effort to come across as even more unhinged than he really was.
Manson closed his affable letter with:
"If you like art, let me know and I'll see what I can do for you. A friend, Manson."
When Dunn first received the letter, he showed it off to friends in his coffee group -- but since then, he hasn't done much with it.
People ask Dunn once in a while why he decided to write a letter to such a reviled character. His answer is perfectly reasonable -- he had retired and figured, why not?
"I'm kind of a curious guy, and I just thought I'll go down this trail and see where it leads me," he said. "Plus I had time on my hands."