When the bodies of three 8-year-old boys — Steve "Stevie" Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore— were found in a West Memphis, Arkansas, drainage ditch in 1993, investigators discovered they had sustained multiple, brutal injuries.
The side of Branch’s face was ripped apart, and Byers' genitals were so badly mutilated he was essentially castrated, according to the documentary special “The Forgotten West Memphis Three,” streaming now on Oxygen.
They were nude and hogtied, and all three had what appeared to be scratches, bite marks and possible stab wounds.
Host Bob Ruff, who is also the creator of the "Truth & Justice” podcast, noted that “the mutilation led the original investigators to believe that this was a Satanic ritual.”
As a result, officials soon pointed the finger at three local teen outcasts, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. With a penchant for wearing all black, listening to heavy metal music and studying Wicca, Echols was theorized to be the leader of a local Satanic cult that killed the boys in a disturbing ceremony.
Ultimately, they were tried and convicted of the murders. A new batch of DNA testing in 2007, however, showed that no genetic material from the crime scene evidence was a match to Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley, and they were released from prison four years later after agreeing to an Alford plea, reported the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The case has long been referred to as a prime example of “Satanic Panic,” and Ruff even called the investigation “a witch hunt.”
“It’s been said to me that anything in West Memphis that wasn’t Baptist was Satanism,” Ruff said on “The Forgotten West Memphis Three.”
Through Ruff’s own investigation into the case, he learned that some of the boys’ more heinous wounds could have been the result of animal predation, not the handiwork of Satanists.
To learn more about the injuries, Ruff met with forensic pathologist Dr. Rebecca Hsu, who examined the autopsy reports and crime scene photographs, and noted that the injuries appeared to be a mixture of ante-mortem and post-mortem.
By examining the photographs of Stevie Branch, Dr. Hsu noticed several “gouging, large gaping injuries.”
“The first thing people might be inclined to say is ... could this be some sort of torture, some kind of ritualistic thing?” Dr. Hsu said.
The wounds, however, appeared to have been made post-mortem and could be the result of bite marks from animals like turtles and fish. Additionally, Dr. Hsu noted that clawed animals such as turtles will dig their appendages into a food source to gain traction while they’re eating.
“So you’ll get these different puncture marks, and it’s a mixture of punctures and scratches and so forth,” she said.
In regards to Byers' extensive genitalia injuries, Dr. Hsu said if they had been inflicted with a knife, the wounds would be more “consistent” and “cleaner.” She said, however, that "there's a really good chance, high probability that that is purely animal activity post-mortem."
Overall, only the boys’ head injuries appeared to have been inflicted before they died, and their most likely cause of death was drowning, said Dr. Hsu.
To test the likelihood of animal predation, Ruff lowered chicken carcasses into the bayou where the boys’ bodies were found. Almost immediately after dumping them into the water, “turtles came out of nowhere and just ripped all of the meat off,” Ruff said.
Ruff then met up with herpetologist Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee, who introduced him to multiple turtles that would typically be found in environments such as the crime scene.
Neuman-Lee examined the autopsy photos and said the injuries to Byers’ genital area looked consistent with turtle feeding, particularly because he had gouge marks on his inner thighs that could have been made by claws.
Several other injuries inflicted on the boys, including Branch’s facial wounds, were also consistent with turtle beaks and claws, Neuman-Lee said.
Some of the boys’ head lacerations, however, appeared to be inconsistent with turtle activity or other animal predation, which aligns with Dr. Hsu’s theory that they may have sustained those wounds before drowning.
Ruff’s research in “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” only further confirms what has already been theorized by some experts.
Former FBI profiler John Douglas noted in his 2014 book “Law & Disorder: Inside the Dark Heart of Murder" that the “West Memphis Three” defense team hired forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz and forensic scientist Dr. Jon Norby, who concluded that the genital wounds on Byers were from “postmortem animal predation.”
Their report was released in 2007 and helped to alter the public’s view of the case. Even Byers’ stepfather, John Byers, became convinced of the men’s innocence after its publication, reported ABC News.
"I didn't want to see it," Byers said in 2007. "I felt like Benedict Arnold. I'm going against everything I believed for 14 years.
While Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have been free since 2011, they are still technically convicted killers. It’s unknown who’s responsible for the slayings of Branch, Byers and Moore, and their families continue to fight for justice.
To learn more, watch “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” on Oxygen.
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