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Crime News The Forgotten West Memphis Three

Did Satanic Panic Influence The West Memphis Three Case?

Law enforcement believed the 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys was the work of a Satanic cult led by local teen Damien Echols.

By Benjamin H. Smith

In the early 1980s, a moral panic rippled across the U.S., echoing the supernatural hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials 300 years earlier. Strangers and neighbors alike were accused of belonging to clandestine Satanic cults that indulged in ritualistic sex, child abuse and murder.

The McMartin Preschool Trials and the West Memphis Three are two of the more infamous cases that were swept up in what is now known as “Satanic Panic.”

With memories of the Manson Family and the mass suicides in Jonestown still fresh in the public mind, a pervading fear of cults lingered, and the 1980 publication of “Michelle Remembers” only fanned the flames of paranoia.

Written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, whom she later married, the memoir chronicles Smith’s reported sexual abuse by members from the Church of Satan.

“The actual ‘Big Bang’ moment of the Satanic Panic occurred with the publication of ‘Michelle Remembers,’” said author and ‘80s culture writer Mike “McBeardo” McPadden in an interview with Oxygen.com.

“The book is ostensibly Smith’s recovered childhood memories of being abused by a Satanic cult and includes lurid details of children in cages and devil worshippers feasting on dead babies,” McPadden said. “It successfully pushed the notion of a network of child-abusing Satanic cults throughout North America.”

Pazder went on to act as a consultant for the McMartin Preschool investigation, during which children claimed they were flushed down toilets to secret rooms and sexually abused during Satanic rites.

While law enforcement and religious groups warned society of Satanism, a new wave of heavy metal bands pushed the boundaries of Satanic rock, and it wasn’t long before authorities took notice.

“Everything went nuclear in 1984 to ’85. The McMartin Preschool trial got underway, serial killer Richard Ramirez left an AC/DC hat behind at a crime scene, Long Island metalhead Ricky Kasso killed another teenager after commanding him, ‘Say you love Satan!’ and an Arizona teen who survived a suicide pact said he got the idea from listening to Judas Priest,” McPadden said. “The way such things were reported, even the most sober-minded citizens were like, ‘OK, something seems to be afoot here with Satan in America today.’”

Although Satanic Panic began to dissipate in 1990 with the collapse of the McMartin Preschool case, it lingered in the “Bible Belt” states, where conservative Christianity still holds sway.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. The next day, their mutilated bodies were found nude and hogtied in a drainage ditch.

Authorities believed the murders looked like the work of a Satanic cult, according to former FBI special agent John Douglas’ book, “Law & Disorder: Inside the Dark Heart of Murder.”

When investigators pulled the boys’ bodies from the water, a local probation officer who was helping with the search “allegedly [said], 'Damien Echols finally did it. He finally killed someone.' And that's where the investigation went from there forward," host Bob Ruff told “The Forgotten West Memphis Three,” premiering Saturday, March 28 at 8/7c on Oxygen.

With his long hair and tendency to wear all black, 18-year-old Michael Wayne “Damien” Echols stuck out like a sore thumb in his conservative hometown.

Echols studied Wicca, which mixes elements of pre-Christian paganism and witchcraft, enjoyed horror books and listened to heavy metal.

“Growing up, I was always a metal kid: Megadeth, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Anthrax,” he later told Spin magazine.

Echols had already been on the radar of local authorities, and it didn’t help matters that he went by the same name as “The Omen” movie franchise protagonist, who is the son of the Devil. 

Damien Echols

Echols and Jason Baldwin, 16, were arrested after another teen, Jessie Misskelley Jr., a 17-year-old with an I.Q. of 72, confessed to the murders, reported the Arkansas Times newspaper. Although Misskelley later recanted his confession, it was enough evidence to convict him.

Misskelley was found guilty of first- and second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in February 1995, according to the Los Angeles Times.

During Echols and Baldwin’s trial a month later, “expert in occult killings” Dr. Dale W. Griffis testified that the killings had “trappings of occultism,” according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.

Both defendants were found guilty of three counts of capital murder, according to the Arkansas Times. Baldwin was given life without parole, while Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Ironically, the heavy metal and alternative rock community later championed the so-called “West Memphis Three.”

Metallica allowed its music to be used for free in “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” the first of three HBO documentaries that took a critical look at the case. Punk rock singer Henry Rollins also raised money through benefit albums and concerts that funded legal appeals and additional investigation efforts.

The case was not reignited, however, until 2007, when defense attorneys presented new DNA evidence that showed there was no physical link between Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley and the 1993 crime scene evidence. They agreed to a plea deal and were released from prison in August 2011, reported The New York Times.

Following his release, Echols was asked by Spin if he regretted his interest in heavy metal.

“I never blamed the music. I just blamed the close-minded people who would put you on death row for what kind of music you like,” he replied.

To learn more, watch “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” on Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 at 8/7c on Oxygen.