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Hysterias about dark cabals of devil-worshipping bad guys have cropped up all throughout American history, from the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s to the Satanic panics of the 1980s. While most of these frenzies have proven to be simply mass delirium, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina a real devil worshipper exorcised actual dark influence.
Pazuzu Illah Algarad (born John Lawson) participated in the killings of at least two men while acting as a leader to a group of punks and outsiders, wreaking havoc on the otherwise somewhat evangelical town. In Viceland's newest true crime docu-series, titled "The Devil You Know," the socio-political failures that allowed Algarad to gain power amongst a group of society's rejects are examined in depth.
So, who was Pazuzu Algarad and what did he believe in?
Algarad was born John Lawson on August 12, 1978 in San Francisco, California. The accounts of his childhood vary greatly depending on who is telling the story, as noted by the director and producer of "The Devil You Know," Patricia Gillespie.
"There were a lot of varying accounts, in large parts because he reinvented the story for people he met later in life," Gillespie told Oxygen.com. "He told people he was from Iraq, he told people his father was some high priest. But the people who knew him as a child described him as a little off-kilter, a little emotional. Things that might indicate the beginning of a mental illness: harming animals, consuming alcohol and drugs at a very early age."
Algarad's mother, Cynthia James, remembers things a bit differently.
"All parents have arguments [with their children] and don't agree," she said of Algarad in "The Devil You Know."
"Yes, John had some mental problems, but he wasn't a bad guy," James continued, at one point describing her son as her "little warrior."
"They diagnosed him as being agoraphobic, schizophrenic, psychotic," said James. "That's when I started getting help for him. But to continue with the psychiatrists and so-forth, it takes a lot of money. You gotta remember the good things, and I block out any of the bad things. He wasn't by any means an angel, but he wasn't a bad person or a bogeyman or whatever phrases people have called him."
It's unclear when Algarad and James relocated to Salem-Winston, but the two lived in a home on the outskirts of the town, which has a large Christian population. Algarad eventually took on the name Pazuzu in 2002, according to KPIX of San Francisco, California. The moniker was an homage to a legendary demon king and the archfiend who supposedly possessed the fictional Regan MacNeil in the iconic horror film "The Exorcist." He became somewhat of an eccentric local character who the suburb feared.
"Pazuzu had done everything he could to make himself seem scary to the people in town," says Chad Nance, an editor of the Camel City Dispatch who extensively covered the Pazuzu case, in "The Devil You Know."
"He was trying to freak people out. He claimed to sacrifice animals, he claimed to be able to control the weather, he filed his teeth down ... he had tattoos printed over his face. He became Winston-Salem's own Manson-esque icon of depravity," he explained.
Gillespie notes how Algarad fed off Winston-Salem's unique brand of conservatism to create his persona.
"He wasn't accepted," Gillespie said. "Step by step he started to do more extreme things, like the sacrificing the animals and the creation of this mythos around himself. The fact that he chose to take elements of Luciferianism and Islam — two religions that are incredibly discordant — and put them together shows that he was exactly reacting to his Christian, post-9/11 community. So he keeps upping the ante, and upping the ante."
Algarad's group grows
As Algarad's mental health deteriorated, the abode he shared with his mother began to attract a mixed-gender group of locals described by Gillespie as "working class, the working poor, [and] otherwise disenfranchised people." Some of them even considered themselves followers of Pazuzu Algarad.
"He had a twisted sort of charisma, it's the kind of charisma that isn't going to appeal to everyone. But certain minds are going to be drawn in by that: the misfits, the outcasts, people living on the edge or people who wanted to live on the edge," Algarad's former friend, Nate Anderson, recalled in "The Devil You Know."
Those who occupied the house at the time remember the residence as lawless, chaotic, filled with sexual promiscuity, and totally filthy.
"We just hung out and chilled around and what not, maybe did a little bit of heroin every now and again. Just a crazy s--t-ton of drinking, cut ourselves and each other, maybe drank the blood of a bird or so. Just all around having a good time," "Krazy Dave" Adams, another friend of Algarad's, said in "The Devil You Know."
"People would come visit his house 'cause they knew it was free reign. There was no rules, there was nothing you had to abide by. You could piss in his carpet, you could smash a TV, you could hit somebody in the head with a beer bottle, you could throw a knife at his wall, it just didn't matter," Adams continued.
Townspeople, perhaps out of fear, tolerated the aberrant presence of Algarad and his makeshift clan. Meanwhile, rumors of bodies being buried in Algarad's backyard began to circulate amongst his acolytes.
Bianca Heath told the Huffington Post that during the one month of living with Algarad, she had heard him discussing killings alongside oblique mentions of cannibalism.
“Paz told everyone,” Heath said. “But I never believed him. I’m sure no one else believed him either. He laughed about the skeletal remains when telling the story on why he did what he did ... I never once saw the skeleton bodies, I honestly thought he was lying, now I’m not sure what to believe."
The murders begin
Deputies have since said they believe the first of Algarad's killings took place some time after June 1, 2009, according to WXII12 of Winston-Salem. They believe the disposal of the corpse at the Winston-Salem location was assisted by Amber Burch and Krystal Matlock, two denizens of the house who identified as Algarad's fiancés. Burch was believed to have killed a second male victim in October of 2009, and Algarad is believed to have helped bury this victim in the same backyard.
In 2010, Algarad was convicted on a charge of accessory after the fact in the shooting death of 30-year-old Joseph Chandler, whose body was discovered near a river by police on June 7 of that year after his mother reported him missing. Algarad was released on probation for the crime shortly thereafter, according to North Carolina Department of Public Safety records.
Algarad was also convicted in 2010 of misdemeanor assault of his mother, but James never went through with the prosecution. Deputies alleged that Algarad choked his mother at the home where they both lived until she couldn't breathe, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Police had, in fact, done at least one perfunctory search of the Algarad home, but it took five years for officers to perform a thorough enough examination of the residence to turn up the skeletal remains of two victims, Joshua Fredrick Wetzler, 37, and Tommy Dean Welch on October 5 of 2014. Both were determined to have died after being shot, according to WFMY News 2 of Greensboro, North Carolina. Animal corpses were found littering the property, which was filled with refuse and Satanic graffiti.
The circumstances of how Algarad became familiar with each of the men remain somewhat unclear, although James says in "The Devil You Know" that Wetzler was one amongst the many wayward souls who found his way to their home, looking for camaraderie.
"They were just friends, as far as I knew. They liked to sing music," said James. "He didn't have anywhere to stay ... They turned his heat off or something and [he asked if he could] sleep on the couch. I didn't have a problem with it. I enjoyed John having friends."
"I don't know where it came from," James recalled of the killing of Wetzler. "I really honestly think that he just didn't know what he was doing ... He was not himself. He was on drugs or alcohol or both, probably."
Algarad, Burch, and Matlock were all arrested and the home was condemned after being deemed unfit for habitation, according to WXII12.
As the news of the killings broke in local papers, a media frenzy began around the crimes. Attracted to a salacious story rife with lasciviousness and violence, Gillespie said many of the facts of the crime were lost or sensationalized in initial reports.
"I think when you're working in any kind of journalism there is a desire to please your advertisers and my work is not exempt from that reality," said Gillespie of the media maelstrom. "People have realized that sex and violence sells and that was leaned in to in the media such that a lot of the facts were obscured. There's certainly a lot of elements of an adult nature. [Some outlets] were calling it a 'sex cult' – and it's like, well … it wasn't really a sex cult. It was a bunch of people living in a dirty house. It was a bunch of girls that were more or less being abused to the point that they abused other people. Because they were left in a dirty house with a lot of drugs — they were hit and threatened. I think it's easier to say, 'Oh look, the brides of Satan!' than it is to point to systemic misogyny and a general disregard for poor people."
"We let those people disappear," Gillespie continued. "We often tell these stories about murder with the time of death, and the blood splatters, and the gun residue, but we rarely look at the shrapnel of violence that embeds itself in the larger community and I think that deserves a look."
Actual Satanists, reacting to the scandal, have attempted to distance themselves from Algarad's actions, despite reporting that indicated he was a follower of their religion.
"Obviously people are trying to pin him on us," said Liz Bradley, a practicing Satanist and member of the Satanic Temple, to Oxygen.com. "He clearly was a messed up person. I don't know why anyone would take anything he says super seriously. People love to use the scapegoat of Satan. We want to look for a solution or an answer, and since mental health is difficult to understand we can just point at Satan — especially in this particular case because the guy had a bunch of face tattoos."
Real Satanists, Bradley explained, place emphasis on "empathy and compassion. We strive for justice, seeking knowledge, and using science to guide our beliefs and not the other way around. General enlightenment values. And kindness."
"We're non-theistic," she continued. "We don't even actually believe in Satan, we use Satan as a metaphor ... Our third tenet is that one's body is inviolable, subject to one's will alone. So we're never going to violate someone's bodily autonomy. I just want people to understand that."
Algarad's mysterious death
Algarad was due to appear in court days before police say he took his own life in what was called an apparent suicide on October 28, 2015, almost exactly one year after the discovery of the bodies at his home. He was found unresponsive with a wound on his arm in his jail cell that day, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
The specific circumstances of his death remain mysterious, with police withholding considerable amounts of information from the public, including how exactly he died, specifics about the wound, whether there were any weapons in his cell, if he was on suicide watch, or if he had ever attempted suicide before. Some of the people interviewed in "The Devil You Know" were not entirely sure if the situation was, in reality, a suicide at all.
"When it comes to [the suicide], I'm never going to have the facts about those things," Gillespie said. "At the very least, it shouldn't have happened. Whatever sharp objects was used … the fact is this guy died and there was such a vague press conference about it, it's frightening. That to me is the real horror."
Despite his abhorrent behavior, Gillespie refuses to condemn Algarad as an evil person.
"I believe there are bad things in this world," she said. "I believe in — I shouldn't say the goodness in people, but the capacity for goodness in all people. I think when someone does something so devastatingly wrong and horrific, that means we should work through our fears and see it for the tragedy it is. The tragedy is that we weren't able to create an environment for this person where they could speak their own goodness."
"Of course Pazuzu and Amber actually shot and killed these people, but there were many points at which someone could have interceded. We, as a community, sort of messed that up," Gillespie concludes. "We should check on the weird kid a little more, or maybe we should hold our police a little more accountable."
The Algarad home has since been demolished, according to Tribune Media Wire.
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