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The Robin Hood Hills murderer(s)

The Crime

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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletOverview
bulletThe murder scene
bulletThe police investigation
bulletThe community
bulletPossible alternative perpetrators

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Overview:

Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were found guilty of the assaults, rapes, mutilations and murders of three 8 year old boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, AR. Their guilt is very much in dispute. Their convictions appear to have been significantly influenced by the religious beliefs of the townspeople - particularly their misconceptions about secret, abusive Satanic cults. The police investigation was hopelessly bungled.

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The murder scene:

On the afternoon of 1993-MAY-5, three adults observed the three young boys riding their bikes near Robin Hood Hills. Some boys were seen entering the Robin Hood woods. In the early evening, Christopher's step-father, John Mark Byers, phoned the police. He said that he was worried that his step-son had not come home. The police and the parents of the missing children searched the neighborhood unsuccessfully until 3 AM the next morning.

The bodies of the three 8 year-old boys were discovered in a wooded area in Robin Hood Hills on the next day, 1993-MAY-6 at 1:30 PM. They were naked; each had had both left and right hands tied to their corresponding feet with black and white shoe laces. One child, had multiple wounds apparently made by a serrated knife, and injuries of a type often seen as a result of forced oral sex. A second boy had multiple stab wounds and indications of forced oral sex. The police believe that these two boys died by drowning. The third child appeared also to have been forced into oral sex. The skin of his penis was removed and he had been castrated. He had many cuts from a knife with a serrated blade. He had bled to death. Christopher Byers had welts on his back from the buckle of a belt. These were initially interpreted by the police to have resulted from ritual abuse by Satanists. However, Christopher's step-father John Byers testified at the trial that he had beaten his step-son with a belt at 5:30 PM on the day of the murder.

The boys' bodies had been dumped in a shallow drainage ditch which parallels Interstate 40 in West Memphis, AR. The water washed away fingerprints and other traces left by the murderer(s).

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The police investigation:

Since the early 1980's many police officers have attended seminars on Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). They have been taught that an underground, evil, internationally controlled network of Satanic cults kidnap, torture, kill and sometimes eat young children in their rituals. By the mid-1990s, most police officers had concluded SRA was either non-existent or extremely rare. If it did exist, then they would have expected to discovered:

bulletHard evidence of ritual killing during the previous 15 years of dedicated criminal investigations. 
bulletSome perpetrators who would have violated cult secrecy and provided evidence to the police, implicating fellow cult members. A conspiracy as large as SRA was alleged to be could not be kept hidden for long.

Even though evidence of SRA was missing, some police officers still believed in its existence during 1993; a few still do. The West Memphis investigators were under tremendous community pressure to quickly find the persons responsible for this terrible crime. One of the West Memphis police at the crime scene was a juvenile probation officer. He gave his opinion that the scene showed the results of a Satanic ritual. He felt that only person in the area that was capable of such a murder was Damien Echols -- a young man whose case the officer had followed for years. We suspect that the main thrust of the police investigation from that point onwards was to prove that Damien was the leader of a Satanic cult. If a jury could be convinced that the accused were devil worshipers, then a conviction would be easy -- even though there was no hard evidence linking Damien to the crime scene. A common local belief was that underground Satanic cults were widespread throughout the U.S. and that they regularly sacrificed infants and children.

Damien Echols quickly became the focus of the investigation. He was born on 1974-DEC-11 and was 18 years old at the time of the killings. Damien was considered weird by many in his very conservative community. He often dressed in black, occasionally wore T-shirts of rock bands who pretend to be Satanists, and enjoyed listening to heavy metal rock music. He has stated that he chose the name "Damien" out of respect for Father Damien, the founder of the leper colony in Hawaii. However, many local people assume that he based it on the anti-Christ character in the The Omen movies. When interviewed from prison he said: "People assumed that I was guilty and had made up their minds beforehand, simply based on my taste in clothes, music, etc. In a larger city, I would never have even been noticed but I happened to be in a small, conservative, traditional town where I was looked at as a freak.". Damien was picked up for questioning on MAY-9 and released without charges being laid.

Jessie Misskelley (D.O.B. 1975-JUL-10; 17 years old) was brought in for questioning on June 10. He was known to be an acquaintance of Damien's. He was given a lie-detector test which demonstrated fairly conclusively that he was innocent. (Lie-detector tests are generally regarded as being 85% reliable when conducted by trained investigators). He finally broke down, and confessed to witnessing the child murders. He had been interrogated for over 5 hours (some sources say 10 or 12 hours). No videotape or audiotape of the police interrogation was made. No written records survive -- only a brief recording of his confession.  He named Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin (1977-APR-11, 16 years old) as the two murderers. He said that one of the boys had tried to escape, but that he caught the boy and brought him back to the other two. He described the three teenagers as being Satan worshippers who attended cult meetings, sacrificed animals and planned the sacrifice of the boys. Jessie's initial confession was incorrect on two points: the material used to bind the boys, and the time of the killing. However he was subsequently prompted by the police to correct the latter. In his confession, he knew (or guessed) which of the victims had been castrated and that one had been cut on the face. That information had not been formally released to the public. However, many details of the crime scene had been circulating widely throughout the community as rumors. He retracted his confession afterwards, claiming that he had caved in under police pressure. All three teenagers pleaded not guilty at their trials.

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The community:

Adults in this area of Arkansas are mainly Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians. Belief in secret, evil Satanic cults who abuse children is widespread. Many conservative Christian churches regard the Occult as a pervasive evil. They include within the Occult many unrelated activities:  Wicca (a.k.a. "white magic") and other Neo-Pagan religions, Satanism, membership in the Masonic Order, Tarot card reading, casting Runes, Dungeons and Dragons & other fantasy role playing games, astrology, listening to heavy metal rock music, etc. These are considered to be linked together and part of a Satanic conspiracy which involves human sacrifice. We estimate that the percentage of SRA believers in Arkansas would probably be similar to that in Utah - an area which has a similar conservative Christian makeup. A newspaper survey has shown that about 90% of the adults in Utah believe in abusive Satanic cults. 1 

In the 9 months between the murder of the three children and the trial of the three teenagers, many articles were published in the local media with a Satanic theme. Stories included blood drinking, Satanic worship, homosexual orgies and demons. Newspapers and other media often did not differentiate between Wicca, other Neo-Pagan religions, religious Satanism and imaginary evil Satanic cults. One newspaper published parts of Jessie's confession. This by itself probably prevented the teens from getting a fair trial.

Considerable anger was directed by members of the public at a variety of Neo-Pagan and other minority religions during the investigation and trial of this case. The hatred erupted into an attempted mass execution by stoning. This happened during a march which had been organized to promote religious tolerance and freedom in nearby Jonesboro AR. One or more local ministers had preached that in Bible times, they knew how to handle people of other religions - they stoned them to death. Many deaths would probably have resulted, if it were not for the prompt action of over 5 area police forces who protected the demonstrators.

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Possible alternative perpetrators:

bulletOn 1993-MAY-5, at 8:42 PM (a few hours after the boys were last seen alive), Marty King, the manager of a Bojangles restaurant near Robin Hood Hills, phoned the police. He reported that an African-American male, who seemed dazed and was apparently covered in blood had been in the women's washroom for about an hour. A police officer came to the restaurant but did not leave her vehicle. The man subsequently left. After the boys' bodies were discovered, a detective came to the restaurant, and collected blood scrapings. These samples were subsequently lost.

bulletA few months after the killing, a similar murder of a single boy took place in Missouri, about 650 km (400 miles) away. The suspects in the Robin Hood Hills case were in jail at the time.

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Some people consider John Mark Byers, step-father of victim Christopher Byers to be another possible suspect. As Damien stated: "He had the knife with his son's blood on it, not to mention the fact that he could never keep his alibi straight. It was also proven in court that whoever killed those children had the skill of a surgeon and Byers was a jewel cutter. There was also testimony that his knife could have made the wounds on the children because the blade was consistent with the cut pattern." Byers gave a knife to the makers of the Paradise Lost film. It was found to have human blood on it, but the police only checked the blood type. It matched both Byers and one of the child victims. Unfortunately, the forensic check had made a DNA test impossible. In a HBO documentary movie, a psychologist for the defense suggested that Byers might be sufficiently deranged to be a suspect. In 1994-JUL, Mr. Byers was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He had allegedly instigated a knife fight between two minors. In 1994-JUL, he was arrested for burglary. Also during that summer, neighbors filed restraining orders against the Byers' for allegedly whipping a 5 year old neighbor boy and firing shots at a nearby home. In 1996-MAR, Melissa Byers died mysteriously.  An autopsy found drugs in her system, but not in concentrations high enough to cause death. 2 Her death has never been proven to be either of natural causes or a homicide. However, one of our readers noted that during the HBO movie "Paradise Lost 2: Revelation." Mark Byers referred to getting a DWI after his wife was "murdered." Could this be a confession of guilt? The only person who knows for certain that Melissa Byers was murdered would be her murderer! Finally, after learning about the bite-mark evidence described below, Byers lost all of his teeth. At various times, he has claimed that the dentist removed them, that they all fell out because of medication that he was taking, or that they were knocked out during a fist fight. 3

bullet On 2007-NOV-02, Alice Whitman Leeds of Public Relations in the Public Interest wrote about the WM3 on the West Memphis Three website:

"DNA testing has been conducted on dozens of pieces of evidence. The DNA results show no link whatsoever to Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley or Jason Baldwin and all of the experts agree that, under the prosecution theory of how the crime was committed, their DNA would be present at the crime scene if they were guilty. Instead, the DNA results match Terry Hobbs, the step-father of one of the victims. Our new filing also includes strong evidence from Pam Hobbs (the ex-wife of Terry Hobbs and the mother of one of the victims) implicating her former husband in the murders." 4

Actually, Leed's statement is not entirely accurate. The DNA results do not conclusively match that of Terry Hobbs. The sample is a matche to about 1.5% of the population. Terry Hobbs is one of that 1.5%

New evidence indicates that the boys were not stabbed with a knife. Their injuries were caused by animals. More details

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References:

  1. Deseret News Archives, 1992-JAN-1, P. A1-A2.
  2. Mara Leveritt, "The Strange Demise of Melissa Byers," Arkansas Times, 1997-DEC-26. Available at: http://www.arktimes.com/12-26-97_news03.htm
  3. Tom Vannah, "Between the lines: Pure evil," 2000-MAR-23, Valley Advocate, Hartford MA, at:  http://www.newmassmedia.com
  4. Alice Whitman Leeds, "Free the West Memphis Three," at: http://www.wm3.org/splash.php

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Copyright 1997 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated: 2014-FEB-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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