Tag Archives: West Memphis Three

UK pony death: Satanists? No, hungry animals.

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Photo by Flickr user treehouse1977.

Shortly after a pony was killed in Dartmoor, England in July, journalists were quick to report that a Satanic cult was involved. The pony was found dead “with its tongue and eyes cut out, and its genitals and right ear sliced off at Yennadon Down, a remote, bushy area of the Devon National Park,” the Telegraph reported. “Experts,” including the area’s animal-protection officer, said Satanists were to blame.

However, after a police investigation, a more likely culprit has come to light: wild animals took bites from the pony, causing the wounds described in the Telegraph. Here’s what they said:

Devon and Cornwall police concluded earlier this week that the pony had died of natural causes. The much-discussed “mutilation” was not, in fact, mutilation at all, but instead the normal result of wild animals eating the pony’s organs and scattering its entrails.

“Initial media reports linked the death of the pony to satanic cults and ritualistic killing,” the police said in a statement. “The police have sought the advice of experts and have come to the view that the death of this pony was through natural causes. All the injuries can be attributed to those caused by other wild animals. This incident received significant media reporting, some of which was clearly sensationalist.”

If this sounds in any way familiar to you, that may be because it’s similar to what forensic experts found in the West Memphis Three case — more than a decade after three teens went to jail for their supposedly “Satanic ritual” killing of three young boys. Originally, experts claimed that the marks on the boys’ bodies were caused by a ritual knife; that turned out not to be the case. The teens, now in their 30s, were later released under an Alford plea.

July’s pony killing is not the first time rural England has been gripped with speculation about an equine death linked to so-called “occult” practices. Last January, a shadowy (and likely made-up) group was blamed for a horse’s death, mainly because it was killed on a supposedly Satanic holiday that turned out to have been fabricated by conservative Christians. In another instance, Satanists were blamed for a horse’s beheading last May. I will grant that in the latter case, the activity of wild animals seems less likely. But Satanic activity is just as unlikely, considering most most Satanists don’t practice animal sacrifice.

The larger problem, of course, is that hardly anyone knows that. There’s so much misinformation about Satanic and other occult practices — misinformation that seems plausible enough that people actually believe it — that folks have little reason to dig deeper before they start pointing fingers. As the Livescience article says:

One problem is that most ranchers and livestock officials have no idea what occurs in a real animal ritual sacrifice, so they can hardly make a valid comparison. Though animal sacrifice has been a part of many religions (including Christianity, Judaism and Islam), these days, the practice is mostly limited to Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santería, which has very specific procedures and rituals for the sacrifice (and typically sacrifice chickens or goats, not horses). … Of course, with something as mysterious and clandestine as suspected satanists, anything could be assumed to be the result of their sinister actions.

Satanists make a convenient and exciting scapegoat for such incidents. But these kinds of allegations can result in very real consequences for practicing Satanists, who are suspected, as a whole, of brutally slaughtering animals. That isn’t accurate and it isn’t fair.

From the Satanic Panic to 12 years in Texas prison

You’ve heard about the West Memphis 3? Meet the San Antonio 4.

Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera have served 12 or more years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. So what were the women convicted of doing?

Satanic ritual abuse.

Yes, that again.

In, 1994, in the midst of the Satanic Panic, Ramirez’s nieces, 7 and 9, stayed with her for a week. Later, there were allegations that the girls were raped at gunpoint, by all four women, during that week. A doctor who examined the girls after they made their claims “thought she saw Satan’s hand in the unspeakable crimes described by the two young girls,” according to the San Antonio Current:

They described their aunt, Elizabeth Ramirez, with red wild eyes grabbing the girls and forcing them into her bedroom. … Kellogg, a widely respected child abuse expert and local pediatrician, examined the girls, deciding “this could be Satanic-related,” according to her exam notes. Based on her research and experience in the field, Kellogg later testified, “If there is a female perpetrator and there’s more than one perpetrator involved, there is a concern for [Satanic abuse].”

The prosecutors went even further, suggesting Satanic overtones even though they were forbidden from bringing up the subject directly in the courtroom:

“[T]he evidence is going to show that young woman over there held a nine-year-old girl up as a sacrificial lamb to her friends. … We’re going to ask you to believe a nine-year-old little girl who was sacrificed on the altar of lust.”

From there, prosecutors moved on to suggesting that some or all of the women might be lesbians. (Which is just about as relevant as Satanism accusations — which is to say, not at all relevant.)

So where did these ideas come from? It seems, as is often the case with such situations, that they came from the prosecutors themselves, which may explain why their stories made no sense:

the jury heard a maze of contradictions from the supposed victims. On and off the witness stand, their accounts changed, sometimes in dramatic fashion. The assaults happened at night, then in the morning, then in the afternoon while “Full House” was on TV. They were assaulted in the living room, or in the bedroom, either together or separate. Mayhugh wasn’t there. Or was she? Their father picked them up from the apartment following the assault. Then it was Ramirez and Mayhugh who drove them home. Ramirez pointed a gun at the girls as they spoke to their father on the phone, threatening them to keep quiet. Then, Ramirez and Vasquez each had guns. Then, only Vasquez had a gun.

This wasn’t the first time the girls had made such a claim. Earlier, they had told adults that they were assaulted by a “mysterious 10-year-old boy.” They made similar claims while their mother and father battled for custody, and again when their mother remarried. Although we should be careful to listen to children who say they were abused, it’s unlikely that this happened to them four times in their young lives. (Ramirez claims that the girls’ father had an unrequited passion for her; and when she rejected him, she believes he urged the girls to make the accusations against her.)

Oh, and one of their “victims” has since recanted.

There wasn’t much hard evidence against the San Antonio Four. Even examinations of their hymens weren’t conclusive — and then the doctor who photographed them said she couldn’t produce photos as courtroom evidence. All four of the accused have passed polygraph tests.

But they were convicted anyway. Three were sentenced to 15 years. Ramirez, the alleged ringleader, got 37.5 years in prison.

To bring light to their case, there’s a documentary in the works. Will it help spring them from prison? Will it remind the public the very real cost of fear and hysteria? How many more people remain in jail, convicted in the 1980s and 1990s of crimes they didn’t commit?

In Ridgeway death, “goth” is scapegoated again


Sensationalist media have had a field day with Austin Reed Sigg, Jessica Ridgeway’s alleged 17-year-old killer.

Is Austin Reed Sigg a goth who was infatuated with death? Did he hang out in the “goth corner” with the “metal heads” at school? Was he a Nazi wizard (whatever that is)? Did he play World of Warcraft and Call of Duty?

Over the past week, plenty of news has come out about the demise of 10-year-old Colorado girl Jessica Ridgeway and the 17-year-old boy who led police to human remains, which were underneath his house. He has allegedly confessed to killing her, and a prosecuting attorney has said there is DNA evidence against him.

It’s almost funny how many different tropes the media have tried to pin on Sigg: goth culture, heavy metal, violent video games.

Did Sigg do it?

If so, what would his choice of clothing, school hang-out spot, video games, music, or even speculation about a cross found at a crime scene have to do with it?

Whether or not Sigg committed this horrible crime is for the court to decide, and let’s hope that he has a fair trial, with competent people working both sides of the case and a jury that is capable of setting aside its biases. And let’s also hope that, if Sigg did kill Ridgeway, that he gets more than locked in a hole for life, because a 17-year-old (or anyone) who commits such a crime needs help, not isolation and abuse.

I say that because while I was away, I was lucky enough to see a press screening of West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s new documentary about the West Memphis Three. It is such a stark, vivid reminder of what happened to Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley, who were jailed for 18 years on charges of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas. Their case has some of the same hallmarks as Sigg’s: a gruesome crime against a child, a community hungry for justice, a teenage boy whose interests are less-than-socially-acceptable; a confession. Yes, there are differences, particularly the fact that Sigg turned himself in, had body parts under his house, and the DNA evidence (if the prosecuting attorney can be trusted); there was no such thing as DNA evidence when the WM3 were convicted, and there’s now ample DNA evidence that they were not involved.

Still, my point is that mistakes can be made this early in the game — mistakes that can send the wrong person to jail for a long time, while the killer may walk free.

My point is that a community starved for a scapegoat will sometimes land on whoever’s most convenient, particularly if he looks different or just never fit in. If something seemed “off” about him. There’s a big difference between someone who makes you uneasy and someone who’s guilty of murdering a child. One is a personal feeling. The other is for a judge and jury to decide.

My point is that calling this kid a goth doesn’t make him any more guilty than he may already be. Calling him a “Nazi wizard” doesn’t, either. All it does is imply that somehow the simple act of being a goth, or even a neo-Nazi, means you might as well be a murderer. And that’s an awful thing to say about a group of people, no matter how you feel about their beliefs.

Goths, understandably, are concerned. In that forum, “CallaWolf” said, “This, to me, almost felt like scapegoating. I wear all black on almost a daily basis (and as I’m writing this, I’m actually wearing a Slayer shirt), and while I do not know any fellow goths outside of this site, I still kinda consider myself a part of it in one way or another, but the very idea of doing these things is apalling to me.”

“Nephele” said, “This happens periodically: The news media confusing sociopaths with goths.”

And CanCanKant said:

Even if the perpetrator does consider themselves a goth, I don’t necessarily think that it was his “gothic” tendencies that caused him to commit heinous crimes. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met that are goth are very cerebral, calm, introspective types. Hardly the kind to do anything harmful to another human being, especially on this scale.

It’s the tendency of the general public to equate dark, or especially black, clothing, band paraphenalia, tattoos and piercings with the word “goth” that causes this confusion. So many music and art related subcultures use these things, but not all of them would be considered goth. You notice how it’s used to shock. It’s quite sad.

“West of Memphis” trailer

This is the trailer from West of Memphis, the upcoming documentary about the West Memphis Three, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Damien Echols (one of the Three), and Lorri Davis (Echols’ wife). It comes out on Christmas Day, 2012.

Knox exonerated, but Satanism remains on trial


Amanda Knox: still not a “She-Devil,” and never was.

As Amanda Knox — who was wrongly jailed in Italy for four years — gets ready for her first Christmas in freedom in many years, new details about her case reveal there was essentially no evidence against her. Including no evidence that she was involved in “Satanic orgies” the night her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was murdered.

The appeals court that exonerated Knox released an 143-page report this week uncovering just how badly the lower court bungled the trial. “No murder weapon. Faulty DNA. No motive. Even the time of death was wrong by nearly an hour. The Italian appeals court that cleared Amanda Knox in the killing of her roommate explained its ruling on Thursday: The evidence just didn’t hold up,” according to the Associated Press.

In short, the report finds that the original verdict:

… Was not corroborated by any objective element of evidence and in itself was not, in fact probable: the sudden choice of two young people, good and open to other people, to do evil for evil’s sake, just like that, without another reason. It is not, therefore, sufficient that the probability of the prosecutors’ hypothesis is greater than the hypothesis of the defense, not even when they are notably greater in number, but it is necessary that every explanation that differs from the prosecutors’ hypothesis is, according to the criteria of reasonability, not at all plausible.

We can probably also presume that Knox is also not a “Satanic, Diabolic, She-Devil,” as one prosecutor put it.

After her Italian nightmare, Knox must contend with many things: the fact that she was separated from society for four years for a crime she didn’t commit; the fact that she was so boldly convicted in the press; and the fact that her sexual life and supposed “Satanic” inclinations were the stuff of international headlines — even though none of those suggestions were true.

Deeper than that, though, is the troubling idea that simply being involved with Satanism or the occult makes you de facto guilty of violence, regardless of other factors. We’ve seen this again and again, most troublingly with with the West Memphis Three, who spent half their lives in jail for murders they did not commit — all because people in their small southern town figured if a boy wears black and practices Wicca, he must be an evil child-slayer. All an unscrupulous attorney has to do is raise the “Satanic” flag and his case is as good as won. When you step back and look at it, that’s not a very impressive lawyering technique, is it?

And yet, it keeps working — and will keep working, as long as people continue to fear and misunderstand practicing occultists. Who, as much as any other religious group, are respectful, peaceful, law-abiding people.

How will Knox shed the “She-devil” image?


American Amanda Knox was acquitted today of murder charges after spending four years in an Italian prison.

How do you return to your life after being accused — even convicted — of killing your friend in a “Satanic rite” involving rough sex? How do you live down being called everything from a “She-devil” to “Foxy Knoxy?”

That’s what Amanda Knox must figure out. Today, she was acquitted in an Italian courtroom of murdering her friend, Meredith Kercher, in 2007. Originally, Knox was convicted of the murder, but a higher court released her this evening.

From the moment she was arrested, Knox was dragged through the mud, by tabloids and prosecutors who saw in the fresh-faced 20-year-old Seattleite some kind of kinky, bloodthirsty occultist, and they spared no effort in letting the world know what they thought of her. Now, as she returns to her former life, echoing the release of the West Memphis Three, it seems that the only sex games or Satanic practices were in the minds of the prosecutors.

In a New York Post piece, Nina Burleigh breaks down how the Knox trial turned into a “witch hunt”:

[Prosecutor Giuliano] Mignini always included witch fear in his murder theory, and only reluctantly relinquished it. As late as October 2008, a year after the murder, he told a court that the murder “was premeditated and was in addition a ‘rite’ celebrated on the occasion of the night of Halloween. A sexual and sacrificial rite [that] in the intention of the organizers … should have occurred 24 hours earlier” — on Halloween itself — “but on account of a dinner at the house of horrors, organized by Meredith and Amanda’s Italian flatmates, it was postponed for one day.”

Likewise, Candace Dempsey writes for the Seattle PI about the parallels between the Knox case and the West Memphis Three, down to the prosecutor’s obsession with sex and the occult:

In the Amanda Knox and West Memphis cases, even high-profile reporters at major networks cling to exciting crime theories, no matter how loony or baseless. … In Amanda’s case, tabloid journalists are of course the worst offenders–still enraptured by the satanic four-way drug-fueled orgy that made them so much money, even though it was just a sexual fantasy on the part of prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Independent experts have rejected the DNA that put the two college students at the crime scene.

There is also the matter that plenty of people celebrate rites on or near Halloween — Satanic or not — without killing anyone, because murder and human sacrifice are not part of their practices. In other words, even if Knox was a devout Satanist, she wouldn’t have been any more likely to murder than if she belonged to any other religion.

If you were Knox today, what would you do? Would you make an effort to clear your name? Or would you ignore the bad press, hoping it would eventually be forgotten?

West Memphis Three could happen again


Half their lives ago, Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelly and Jason Baldwin were sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They were released today.

In 1993, three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly, were convicted of murdering three young boys. Almost from the beginning, many have maintained that the teens were innocent of the crimes. Today, after spending half their young lives behind bars, they are free.

These boys — Echols and Baldwin particularly — prove what can happen in a society that mistrusts teen boys, particularly teen boys who wear black clothing, listen to heavy metal music, and practice Wicca. In some parts of the South, “Wicca” is indistinguishable from “Satanism,” and “Satanism” is indistinguishable from “child sacrifice.” Wear black and practice Wicca and you might as well go straight to the gas chamber.

It is, in many ways, a relief that they’re free men. They can go home to their families and try to put nearly two decades of wrongful confinement behind them. However, because of the plea deal which freed them, they won’t be allowed to pursue a wrongful conviction case against the State of Arkansas — a case which otherwise deserves to go forward. And because these men were robbed of their early adulthoods, it may take some time before they can settle into the world — a world very different from the one they left in 1993.

The mistrust that put these boys in jail has not gone away. There are still people out there that would have us fear teenagers, since we don’t understand what makes a handful of them violent enough to kill. There are those who want us to fear teens who play too many violent video games. There are those who want us to fear teens who listen to too much heavy metal. And there are certainly those who want us to fear teens who explore pagan faiths. There’s no reason to believe that this couldn’t happen again. There’s no reason to believe that it hasn’t happened to other teens currently in prison. The West Memphis Three are free, but this fight isn’t over.