The Satanic Panic and the West Memphis Three

DeLani R. Bartlette
13 min readAug 19, 2019

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Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin

It was eight years ago today that the three men, who had been in prison for 18 years for murders they did not commit, were able to take an unusual legal plea in order to gain their freedom.

Their case certainly isn’t the first one where innocent people were convicted and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit — the Central Park Five is another, much more famous, example. What I think makes their case interesting is how the police, the media, and the small east Arkansas community allowed themselves to be deluded by what was, essentially, a hoax.

But let’s look more closely at the case itself.

The Child Murders

On the evening of May 5, 1993, Mark Byers called the police to report his son, Christopher, missing. He had last been seen riding bikes with his two best friends, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, near a wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills. The three 8-year-olds often hung out and rode their bikes together.

The police searched the area until dark, then called it off for the night. Friends and neighbors continued searching, to no avail.

The next day, one officer spotted a child’s sneaker floating in the creek. Upon reaching into the water, one of the boy’s bodies floated to the surface.

The other two boys’ bodies were soon found in that creek. They were all naked, hogtied with their own shoelaces. One of them appeared to have had his genitals cut off.

The small West Memphis Police Department didn’t properly secure or process the crime scene; it was “trampled,” and any evidence like footprints or blood spatter was probably destroyed. The bodies were removed from the water two hours before the coroner arrived — time enough for evidence to be compromised and time of death to be skewed.

Basic gumshoe detective work, like interviewing people who lived near the crime scene, was not done. Even the coroner did what was described as an “extremely substandard” job — for example, he didn’t recognize that one boy’s “mutilated” genitals were actually the result of post-mortem animal predation. He thought anal dilation — a fairly common occurrence after death — was evidence the boys had been sexually assaulted.

Some might point out that WMPD was small and its resources overwhelmed by such a crime — but the Arkansas State Police had offered to help them, and they refused. It was a puzzling move, but might be explained by the fact that the WMPD was, at that time, being investigated for stealing drugs from a different police department’s evidence locker.

Instead of doing actual police work, the WMPD immediately jumped to the conclusion that the boys had been killed by a Satanic cult, and then worked from that assumption. They went to a local juvenile psychiatrist and asked him who he thought was capable of committing this kind of crime. The psychiatrist pointed the finger at Damien Echols.

Echols, who was 18 at the time, made the perfect scapegoat. In the small, fundamentalist town, he was an outsider who dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. He read Stephen King novels as well as texts on magick and the occult. He also struggled with some mental health issues and had spent some time in a mental institution, which is how the psychiatrist knew of him.

His friend, Jason Baldwin, who was 16, was known as a good student, rarely in trouble, and had some artistic talent. While he didn’t share Echols’ fashion sense or love of spooky literature, the two were both fans of heavy metal, and Baldwin often drew scenes inspired by the album art of bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Iron Maiden.

The two teens weren’t saints — they had been arrested for vandalism and shoplifting — but there was no evidence tying them to either the three victims or the crime scene.

By now, thanks to the documentary Paradise Lost and the book by Mara Leverett, Devil’s Knot (and its movie adaptation), the story of how they were convicted is fairly well known.

To recap: the WMPD leaned on Jessie Misskelley, Jr., a mentally disabled 17-year-old with an IQ of about 72. They knew that Misskelley knew Baldwin and Echols, though not well. They “bribed” his (very poor) family with promises of earning the reward money that had been offered — even talking about what kind of truck they could buy, if only Jessie Jr. told them what they needed to know. So Jessie’s father agreed to let the police question his son.

Which they did, for at least 12 hours, with no parent, lawyer, or child advocate with him. His “confession” that he, Echols, and Baldwin killed the three boys is all over the place, frequently wrong, and clearly coerced. He immediately recanted it.

The WMPD also coerced another “witness,” Vicki Hutcheson, who was facing a minor embezzlement charge. While she was at the police station, her young son told the cops he’d witnessed the killing by “Satanists speaking Spanish.” But it was a wild fable spun by a child, not remotely believable — but it was leaked to the press anyway.

Later, under pressure from the police, she said she’d gone to a “Wiccan ritual” in another town with Echols, where he got drunk and confessed to the murders. None of the facts of the story could be verified, and she later recanted her statement.

Yet despite all these facts, the three were tried and convicted for the murders of Byers, Branch, and Moore. Echols was sentenced to death; Baldwin, to life in prison. Misskelley, despite his statement being the key piece of evidence against Echols and Baldwin, was sentenced to life plus forty years.

Many who learn about this case are shocked: why would three strange, but harmless, teens be convicted of the brutal murders of three young boys with absolutely no evidence? The answer, in short, is the Satanic Panic.

The Satanic Panic

It all started with a book: Michelle Remembers, a lurid misery-porn “memoir” published in 1980. In it, Michelle Smith shares her supposedly recovered memories of ritual abuse at the hands of her mother and a coven of Satanists. According to these memories (helpfully uncovered by her psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Pazder), she had been abused by Satanists when she was 5 years old in some creatively sadistic — and cinematically inspired — ways. Smith claimed she was raped by snakes, forced to defecate on a Bible, saw other children and animals murdered, had a tail and horns surgically grafted onto her skeleton, and engaged in cannibalism … but at the end, the Virgin Mary in the Archangel Michael appeared and saved her, miraculously erasing all physical evidence of the crimes.

Some journalists did express skepticism at the time, but they were drowned out by the overwhelming chorus of journalists and other experts who accepted Smith’s claims (and Pazder’s Recovered-Memory technique) uncritically. This was at the dawn of the age when therapists first begin to recognize childhood sexual abuse, so the default position had become to believe first, ask questions later.

But let’s back up a little more. The widespread belief that Satan was real and working evil in the world did not come out of nowhere. In 1972, the Pope had warned that Satan was indeed real in a speech called “Confronting the Devil’s Power.” In the wider culture, the 1970s had seen a big resurgence in horror novels and movies starring Satan himself. First came Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, a taut little tale about an innocent housewife impregnated with the seed of Satan. It was so popular, the film rights sold before the book was even published. Then, The Exorcist, a baroque novel about a modern case of demon possession, made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1971 and stayed on it for 55 weeks. It sold 4 million copies when it was adapted to film in 1973. Those two books alone spawned dozens of imitations: Satan, demons, and devil worshipers packed the bookshelves for years afterwards. Then in 1976, The Omen terrified movie audiences with the story of Satan’s son wreaking havoc here on earth. So by 1980, the American zeitgeist had been primed for Satan’s big comeback.

Authorities on the Anti-Christ

But there were other, darker, forces at work in creating the Satanic Panic. In 1980, the newly formed Moral Majority (which, in reality, was neither), led by televangelist Jerry Falwell, Sr., begin flexing their muscles, electing divorced Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan to the presidency. The Satanic Panic was like mana to the religious right: it “proved” that the devil was real, and therefore propped up their waning cultural authority.

With its shocking claims of dark rituals and sadistic sexual abuse, the Satanic Panic appealed to another relatively new and powerful phenomenon in the 80s: tabloid TV, the pre-internet version of fake news. Tabloid TV thrived on violence and sensationalism, and it was ubiquitous at a time when, for the first time in history, the majority of American households had a TV. Between 1985 and 1989, TV hosts Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Larry King aired a total of eight shows about devil worship and witchcraft.

But perhaps the most memorable of these was Geraldo’s 1988 special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. It was given a special evening time slot only a few days before Halloween, and it was the highest-rated two-hour special that NBC ever aired. Of course it was just the kind of level-headed, truthful journalism you’d expect from Geraldo Rivera in the 80s, as he flitted from clergy members to alleged victims to cops, all with a befuddled Ozzy Osbourne looking down from a TV screen.

This feedback loop between the moralizing right and the tabloid media created, and was in turn created by, a number of self-styled experts who made careers for themselves as consultants and speakers. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, after leaving their respective spouses and marrying each other, became celebrities, going on a cross-country promotional tour and landing on the covers of People magazine and the National Enquirer. Others, such as Bob Larson, Gordon Colter, Dale Griffis (who testified at Baldwin and Echols’ trial), and numerous others, made their fame the pre-internet way: distributing photocopied pamphlets and copied VHS tapes, hosting AM radio shows, and traveling around the country speaking to church groups, parent-teacher associations, and even, in the case of Griffis, law enforcement. Many of these experts claimed to have once been high-ranking witches and Satanic priests, who later became saved. Their message was the same: dire warnings about the dangers of apparently numerous Satanic cults roaming the country, abducting and killing children, using Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal music to recruit more followers. But the first place where they found their victims, according to the “experts,” was in the one place no one would expect to find Satanists.

The Devil’s in the Daycare

In the 1970s and 80s, more and more mothers were working outside the home and leaving their kids in daycare. Already a source of anxiety for many working moms, the Moral Majority saw this as, at best, a sad symptom of the breakdown of the traditional family; at worst, an unforgivable act of selfishness that destroyed children’s spirits, all so some ball-crushing feminist could muscle in on men’s territory.

So it’s no surprise that the first victims of the Satanic Panic were the owners of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1983. One parent, Judy Johnson, an alcoholic with a history of mental illness who was going through an ugly divorce, claimed that her son had been sodomized by a teacher there. Investigators, seeking more evidence, sent letters to 200 parents accusing the McMartin family of a number of sexual abuses. Needless to say, the parents went into a panic, and the McMartin family’s guilt was cemented in the public’s minds.

The children were sent to Kee MacFarlane, who was not a licensed psychologist, to be interviewed. MacFarlane used some controversial (and later discredited) methods to get the children to reveal “yucky secrets.” Transcripts and tapes later showed that her questions led the children to tell her what she wanted to hear, and she would not accept their answers when they told her that the teachers had done nothing wrong.

It was the longest and most expensive trial in American history. After three years, the McMartins were eventually acquitted, but not until their business and lives had been destroyed.

Despite the fact that the McMartins were acquitted, the Moral Majority continued pushing the myth that daycares were potential slaughterhouses full of child-abusing, Satanic pedophiles. Before the decade was over, over 100 more preschools and daycares across the country were accused of similar abuses.

Satan, Laughing, Spreads His Wings

But the Satanic Panic would not be confined to ruining the lives of innocent childcare workers. The religious right saw the devil everywhere, especially in the games and music enjoyed by bookish loners — kids like Echols, Baldwin, and your humble author.

In 1981, Rona Jaffe wrote Mazes and Monsters, a ridiculously fictionalized story based very loosely on the disappearance and, later, suicide of James Dallas Egbert. He was a troubled college student who at one point played Dungeons & Dragons; the book claimed D&D somehow drove Egbert insane, unable to differentiate between the game and reality, causing him to kill himself. A year later, it was made into a cheesy made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks.

A year after that, in 1983, Patricia Pulling blamed D&D for her son’s suicide and formed Bothered About D&D. Using ridiculous, trumped-up scare tactics (including the Mazes and Monsters movie), BADD successfully lobbied to have D&D kicked out of public schools across the country. Some schools went so far as to punish students for even bringing D&D books or dice onto school grounds.

At the same time Mazes and Monsters hit the bookshelves, Christian DJ Michael Mills began touring America, warning Christians about “backmasking,” or backwards subliminal messages hidden in rock music. The following year, Minister Jacob Aranza wrote Backward Masking Unmasked and sparked a number of community organizations and pastors — most notably Gary Greenwald — to come out against the evils of rock music. One such group was the Parents Music Resource Center, headed by Al’s wife Tipper Gore. While the PMRC avoided directly accusing rock music of being a conduit for Satan, they did object to what they saw as “obscene” or “blasphemous” cover art and lyrics, and successfully lobbied Congress to affix parental warning labels on albums. Many stores, including Wal-Mart, refused to carry albums with the parental warning label.

The charges against D&D and rock music were the same: that they would drive the players/listeners crazy and/or somehow manipulate them into worshipping Satan, inevitably killing themselves and/or other people. In 1986, Ozzy Osbourne was actually brought to court by the mother of John McCollum, who killed himself under the supposed influence of Ozzy’s music. The charges were dropped. Judas Priest found themselves charged with the same thing four years later, and were found not guilty.

And let’s not forget another group targeted by the religious right: Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, and anyone dabbling in New Age or occult practices. Many of these beliefs had gotten pop-culture chic in the 60s and 70s, and the number of actual practitioners continued to rise in the 80s. But according to pastors, priests, and various “occult experts” of the time, anything remotely associated with these beliefs was deemed Satanic. The pentagram (the symbol of Wicca), altars (used by nearly all Neo-Pagan and indigenous religions), candles (again, used by people of a variety of religions, including Catholicism), and books on any of these topics were “proof” of Satanism. In fact is was Echols’ interest in the occult that was used as “evidence” that he was responsible for murdering the three boys.

The Devil’s Downfall

By the end of the decade, Satanic Ritual Abuse was widely accepted as fact. Law enforcement training materials claimed upwards of 60,000 people were killed every year by Satanists. Note that this is three times the number of all reported homicides in a year.

Yet as more and more hysterical claims began piling up, and still no evidence was being found, people began to question the belief that there was a vast network of Satanists abducting, abusing, and killing thousands of children.

So in 1990, a journalist for the The Mail on Sunday decided to investigate the claims in Michelle Remembers. She found not one person who could corroborate anything in the book. In fact, many of Smith’s “memories” were demonstrably false.

At one point, the technique Pazder and others had used to “help” victims “recover” their memories of abuse was condemned as unethical and leading by psychologists. Now, Recovered-Memory Therapy is not listed in DSM-IV and is not endorsed by mainstream ethical and professional mental health associations.

In 1992 — a year before the West Memphis murders — Kenneth Lanning, a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, researched hundreds of cases of alleged Satanic Ritual Abuse. His monograph, published by the Department of Justice, irrefutably debunked the myth of systemic ritualistic occult abuse in America.

As more psychologists, sociologists, and journalists began to debunk the claims made by dubious occult “experts” and alleged victims, it became clear America had been hoaxed. The Satanic Panic eventually collapsed under the weight of its own ridiculousness — but not after three teens in West Memphis were convicted of murder.

Back to West Memphis

Fortunately, the West Memphis Three did see justice in the end. Documentaries, books, and tireless activism by celebrities shone a light on their case. Thanks to new evidence uncovered by a private detective, the state of Arkansas allowed the three to take an Alford plea on Aug. 19, 2011. While this plea means the case remains closed and the three are still left with murder convictions on their records, they at least got their freedom.

Misskelley returned home to live with his family and, understandably, stays out of the media. Baldwin moved to Seattle and is working hard to build a new life for himself. Echols moved first to Salem, Massachusetts, then New York City with his wife, where he continues to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. He creates occult artwork and writes books; his latest, High Magick, is a primer on ceremonial magick.

But like any good horror monster, there is the threat that the Satanic Panic might rise again. With the spread of fake news on social media, coupled with the resurgence of the religious right, the conditions are ripe for a resurrection. The Pizzagate incident — which also claimed the existence of an underground child sexual abuse ring, just without the robes and candles — may have been the first warning shot. I hope what we learned last time around will be enough to keep this particular monster in its grave for good.

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Want to see more? Check out these episodes of The Deadly Digest about the West Memphis 3 (parts 1, 2, and 3).

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DeLani R. Bartlette

AKA The Murder Nerd. Obsessed with true crime. Check out my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdxTGygvkRU4fABcuCTBLhQ