If memory serves, it was in August of 1996 that I received an e-mail from my friend Cheryl in Los Angeles. She said there was an episode of HBO’s “America Undercover” that Friday called “Paradise Lost” and I had to see it. Cheryl is my pal. If she says watch, I watch. I wasn’t expecting what unfolded. Within the first few minutes of the program I found myself deeply disturbed by the way one parent smiled while discussing her son’s murder and mutilation and shocked that anyone could land on death row without a shred of real evidence. I’ve been following this case since.
We tell ourselves we’re too sophisticated for something like the Salem Witch Trials to ever happen again, yet, here it is. Three innocents blamed for an evil that one small town felt could only come from the devil. All three teens were surrounded by either friends or family during the time allotted for their supposed criminal actions, but that doesn’t matter. They went to trial with evidence that was sketchy at best. To the world at large, it would seem their only “real” crime was being a little bit different.
On May 5th, 1993 three 8-year-old boys, Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers, went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. The search was launched in a wooded area known as “Robin Hood Hills,” where the boys often played. The very next day their bodies were found in that same area, beneath about two feet of water. All three boys were tied, wrist to ankle, with their own shoelaces. All three boys had been beaten. One boy died of blood loss due to heavy injuries, which would seem to make him the focus of the attack. The other two boys drown, presumably in that very ditch. The medical examiner didn’t think it important to make certain. Weeks later, very little blood would be found via Luminol test at the site. All that was found should have been attributed to the officers pulling the bodies from the water and resting them on the banks. I’m not a cop. I’m not a criminology student. But I’ve read enough books by Robert Ressler to know you don’t move the bodies, you drain the ditch.
Allow me to draw you a picture of West Memphis, Arkansas based on data from AreaConnect: Population 27,666 (I kid you not.), 42% white, 56% black, the other two percent is a smattering of about everything with .21% American Indian. You’ll understand the relevance of that tiny number later. The median age is 31 and women outnumber the men by 2,000. The crime level in West Memphis is higher than the national average. Theft is their offense of choice, numbering 814 in 2001. There are 29 churches, primarily Baptist with one Catholic. I now understand why it’s called the “bible belt.” My own town has roughly three times as many people but barely twice as many churches, evenly distributed by denomination. Murders? We had one, they had two.
What happens when children are murdered in a small southern town? These simple people, unable to conceive of such a crime, began grasping at any and every straw to make some kind of sense out of this act. Given a police department that was ill equipped and untrained to deal with such a case, you’d point the finger at a local “weirdo,” Damien Echols (18 years old), you’d rope in his best friend, Jason Baldwin (16 years old), and you’d bully a third kid, Jessie Misskelley (17 years old), into “confessing.” Local investigators fumbled along destroying, losing and ignoring much needed evidence.
A juvenile probation officer, who would later be in trouble with the law himself, showed up as West Memphis police worked the scene and launched a rumor that would take the town by storm. He brought up the name of Damien Echols as one likely to perpetrate such an evil. He claimed Damien had spoken with him about starting a cult. Thus the match was struck and the fire of Satanic Panic consumed the town. Rumors flew like a flock of starlings and suddenly everyone had a “Damien story.” I pulled a few gems from the www.wm3.org website: One man claimed that Damien levitated him during a "devil meeting." Another person claimed that they saw Damien wearing "dog entrails like a necktie." Another West Memphis resident stated that human skulls with skin still attached were found in Damien's closet. Another local person stated that they watched Damien kill a dog and eat the heart during a satanic orgy/ritual. Another version of this rumor specifies that he ate the dog's leg. If these people were close enough to have such detail, that is, to know the entrails were from a dog, surely they participated. Why weren’t they on trial? If they didn’t participate then why didn’t they go to authorities with such a story immediately, potentially saving the lives of these children?
One of the earliest and most heinous rumors actually began with a parent of one of the murdered children. John Mark Byers told reporters his child’s testicles were found in a jar of alcohol under Damien’s bed. What kind of parent floats such a rumor? Who in their right mind would want their child remembered this a way? I recommend you view the two documentaries on this case: “Paradise Lost: the Child Murders in the Robin Hood Hills” and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” for a better understanding.
On June 3, 1993 these teens were arrested for the murder of the three children. Later they would be convicted. Evidence exists to prove their innocence, however, it has been dismissed because the judge does not understand Forensic Odontology. They’re young men now, having been imprisoned for 13 years. Damien Echols, the supposed “ringleader,” is serving his time on death row.
I don’t know about you, but one month seems awfully fast to me. Especially when, as you’ll see below, much of that time was spent chasing a rumor, rather than actually gathering evidence in an attempt to find the real murderer(s). In the Laci Peterson case, police gathered evidence for 4 months, regardless of the “tremendous pressure” involved, before making an arrest.
Just by skimming a few books on cults at the library I learned cults kill their own. Reality is very unlike the media portrayal of cults cleaning our streets up of the indigent or snatching children off dirt roads. If they need to kill someone, they draw someone in then cut them from family and friends so they will not be missed. If they want a child sacrifice, they impregnate one of their own.
I asked a local cult expert what one might find in a wooded area where cult activities were supposedly performed. He commented that different things would be found with different types of cults. I explained that the accusation was of a satanic cult. I was surprised by his answer. Learn something new every day! Let me summarize what he said:
First you have to classify them in the correct way. Satanism is not devil worship. They don’t go into the woods, they’re too controlling. They keep to themselves. They’re more interested in orgies and the like. Satanism isn’t worshipping satan. They are their own gods.
Different sects of satanism may intermingle with devil worship or demon worship. With devil worship you’d find demonic symbols, rune script or satanic script carved in the area, a burnt out fire area and candle wax but no sacrificial knives.
The expert asked point blank what the question referred to. I told him there were three young men in jail, convicted of the “satanic sacrifice” of three children. He asked on what evidence and all I could tell him was none. Not a shred. He asked what symbols had been carved into the victims. Symbols?
“There would have been demonic symbols carved on the victims.”
Really??!! (I didn’t bother to mention what the prosecution’s “occult specialist” [see below] said in court. I didn’t want him to choke on his lunch.)
Knowing full well he was innocent, trusting in the judicial system, and seeming to enjoying the spotlight, Damien was all too eager to give information about himself quite freely. That information would later be used against him. Damien professed to be a practitioner, or student, of Wicca at that time. He would state emphatically that he was never part of any group. However, the prosecution would use this against him, equating the earth-centered religion to satanism.
I had planned on interviewing a practicing Wiccan for my article. I thought it would be great to get some information from an active source on their beliefs. However, I just haven’t been able to get one to volunteer. With what I know about this particular case, I understand why. None of them would want to end up on death row. The very basic principles of Wicca are “Harm none” which is self-explanatory and The Three Fold Law. That is to say, anything you put out into the universe comes back to you three fold. If you case a love spell, three will be cast upon you. (Whew, let’s hope he’s not ugly!) If you murder three children 9 close to you will be murdered.
The prosecution would call upon Dale Griffis as an expert in the occult. He pointed to Damien’s particular style of dressing in black as evidence of his occult practices. They actually held up a concert t-shirt in court as proof of his cult status. I surveyed 6 ladies in my monthly Bible Study group. Three had black jeans in their closets. All six had black t-shirts, two mentioned specific concert tees. Other “evidence” mentioned in court as proof of Damien’s cult activities were books he read and music he listened to. I asked about those specific writers and bands used against Damien in court and found two of my ladies have also read Stephen King and two had Pink Floyd albums in their CD collections. One young lady mentioned having seen a movie made of a Stephen King novel. She makes a good point. I bet more than 50% of the people in that courtroom had seen “The Shining.”
Much was made of the just the name Damien. He was actually born Michael. His stepfather introduced him to church. Eventually he would join West Memphis’s only Catholic church and be confirmed taking the name of Damien after Fr. Damien of Molokai. But the people of West Memphis had seen “The Omen” one too many times and would insist he took the name under darker pretenses.
Had Damien lived in California, he would have numbered among the hundreds upon thousands of average teenagers. Moody, loved heavy metal music, dressed in black and oozing of teen angst. During the trial, comments were made about his long black hair. People said he dyed it as part of his “cult persona.” Damien is part American Indian. His hair is naturally black, stick straight and at that time he wore it long. He is also rather pale. A physical appearance “Goth” kids around here strive for. But Damien isn’t from around here. He’s from a hick town in the Bible belt.
As I read Mara Leveritt’s interview with Damien from the archives of the Arkansas Times, one thing hit me hard. This kid has both a monastic and ecumenical heart. He seems a lot more like Thomas Merton or Bede Griffiths than Anton LeVey (who, by the way, never advocated human sacrifice by any means). I was also shocked to read in that same interview that the probation officer who launched the “cult campaign” viewed speaking and reading Latin as satanic. Imagine a worst-case scenario. This kid continued on his path to Catholicism and at some point discovers the “Rule of St. Benedict.” He is drawn to monastic life and becomes a Benedictine Oblate, which is a third order or secular monk. He takes the oblate habit, black hooded robes. He learns to chant the psalms, with his intelligence and love of study probably memorizes them in Latin. If these things had come to pass, there wouldn’t have been a trial. There would have been a lynching.
It should be mentioned that Damien named his first born, Azariah. A good sound biblical name. However, the townspeople were apparently ignorant of the Bible and decided it was a demonic name. In the Book of Tobit: Azariah is the name the Archangel Raphael gives, to hide his true identity, when he comes in answer to a man’s prayer. In 1 and 2 Kings, Azariah is the king of Judah (one of the 12 tribes of Israel.) In 2 Chronicles, Azariah is a prophet of God. In Daniel, Azariah is the name of one of the boys who survives the “firey furnace.”
A well known wiccan author recently told me, “Ignorance coupled with power is evil.”
It isn’t bad enough that Damien is on death row with literally no evidence linking him to the crime. We have Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley who really are collateral damage. Simply put, the way to “get” Damien. Reading interviews and watching the documentaries on the case, it’s easy to see why Damien and Jason were best friends. Jason is a happy kid with a ready smile, even in the midst of accusations and small town belligerence. His bright and cheery personality must have alleviated much of Damien’s angst. Jason’s defense attorney claimed it was simply ‘guilt by association.’ Although it’s a true statement, I find it sad that he made it seem as if he actually believed Damien was guilty.
Jessie Misskelley was to be the “tool” police in West Memphis used to “get” Damien. Jessie is another sweet, smiling kid who wants nothing more than to make people happy. A woman he knew who was in trouble with the cops pointed the finger at Jessie as someone who knew something. Police had offered to help her clean things up if she would help them get their man, I mean - teenager. They picked him up on June 3, 1993, for questioning. Jessie didn’t know Damien, and Jessie wasn’t even in town the night of the murders. He was badgered, bullied and shown horrid photos until he coughed up what was thought to be enough material to put Damien behind bars. In a desperate attempt to tell them what they wanted so he could get out and go home, he accidentally implicated himself. After 12 hours in the interrogation room, a very tiny segment of what Jessie said was put to tape as his “confession.”
Much has been made about Jessie’s I.Q. as a reason for his “confession.” However, people falsely confess to crimes all the time. That is one essential reason police don’t tell all the elements of a crime to the media. They need to hold on to enough that if someone confesses the key will be in elements of the crime undisclosed to the media. It is then up to police to research the confession. What is real, and what is bogus. Take the case of Jack the Ripper. Police received hundreds of letters, both mocking and confessing, yet only a one marked “From Hell” would stand out.
Jessie gave police all that he could remember from what he’d read in papers. Some very important details were so blatantly wrong it’s surprising that police would even try to use this so called confession. Jessie would state the children were taken and killed at a time when they were still in school. Jessie would claim the children were tied with brown rope when they were actually tied with their own shoelaces. Police would make excuses for details that didn’t fit, but be adamant about what did. In the end, Jessie refused to allow his bogus confession to be used against Damien and Jason even after being offered a reduced sentence for himself.
Criminal Profiler, Brent Turvey, joined the defense team around 1997. Upon viewing the autopsy and crime scene photos, one thing stood out to him. Human bite marks on one of the victims. He dismissed claims of cult sacrifice and stated that this killing was punitive in nature, aimed at one child specifically. The other two children, seemingly, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dental impressions were taken of Damien, Jason and Jessie. These impressions did not match bite marks on the child’s face thereby showing the teens factually innocent. So why are these kids still in jail? Because the judge doesn’t understand “forensic odontology.”
The devil runs rampant. More and more highly educated people believe. Exorcism and deliverance are on the rise. 10 years ago, the global Catholic Church had 6 active exorcists. As of three years ago, the US alone has over 300. In 2005, the Holy See gave a class in exorcism that proved so popular they had to turn away potential students and schedule a second class. My own local exorcist, a Franciscan monk, has more work than he can handle. He repeatedly sends out requests for prayer.
Deliverance Ministry is one of Protestants most popular at the moment. What is the difference between exorcism and deliverance? Exorcism is a Catholic rite, involving use of the Roman Ritual of Exorcism and done only with the approval of one’s bishop. Exorcism is done only after certain criteria have been established. Everything else, including priests and secular individuals not using the rite, is deliverance. In 1999 the Pope updated the rite, De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam ("Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications"). The rite was first written in 1523 with its last revision being made in 1614. Books on demons, and casting them out, ride the bestseller lists with such titles as “American Exorcism,” “Hostage to the Devil,” and “They Shall Expel Demon.” Even the Vatican’s own official exorcist, Gabriel Amorth has written two books on the subject.
The devil not only makes an appearance to incarcerate the innocent, but his name is also tossed around in attempts to free the guilty. The “I was possessed” plea used by Ronald DeFeo, Jr. and “It wasn’t Scott, it was a satanic cult” defense about to be used in the Laci Peterson case.
In conclusion, I can honestly say the West Memphis Police Department desperately needs a copy of the CSI first season DVD. It sounds like a joke but if they had such an item, three innocent teens would not have spent the last 13 years in prison. The PD’s own medical examiner was in trouble with Rhode Island for selling body parts and their forensic pathologist flubbed in court as to which day he examined the bodies of the three children. He didn’t see the importance of taking core temperatures of the bodies to establish time of death. He would also change his testimony many times.
I would encourage you to go to the West Memphis Three web site and read the information given. Hope is not lost. Rick Walker, who had been incarcerated for 12 years was finally freed due to family, friends and one determined attorney.
May is West Memphis Three Awareness Month. Hence the reposting of this article. Spread the word. Get active! FREE THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE!