WM3 supporters like to cite this factoid: the FBI has never found a single authentic case of Satanic ritual murder. The key source for this claim is FBI agent Ken Lanning (now retired), author of Satanic, Occult, Ritualistic Crime: A Law Enforcement Perspective (1989) and Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse (1992). Supporters argue that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were victims of 1980s-90s Satanic Panic, just like the McMartin preschool teachers and others, since the very notion of a “Satanic murder” was a fantasy concocted by superstitious yokels.
I partly agree with WM3 supporters here: the massacre in Robin Hood Hills was not a case of Satanic ritual murder. But this doesn’t change the overwhelming evidence that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were guilty as charged.
To untangle this question, it’s worth looking closely at (a) what the prosecution actually argued in this case, and (b) what Ken Lanning actually said about occult murders.
In the 1992 Investigator’s Guide, Lanning defined his terms:
Rather a satanic murder should be defined as one committed by two or more individuals who rationally plan the crime and whose primary motivation is to fulfill a prescribed satanic ritual calling for the murder. By this definition I have been unable to identify even one documented satanic murder in the United States.
No one has ever claimed that the WM3’s primary motivation in killing the three eight-year-old boys was to fulfill a prescribed satanic ritual.
The best study of the Satanism/motive question in the WM3 case is the article “Motive?” written by Farm (alternate link), founder of the West Memphis 3 Hoax message board. Farm has done more than anyone to counter the pro-WM3 disinformation campaign, and this article is a great example. Go read the whole thing. I’ll wait.
In short, the prosecution did not argue that this was a Satanic ritual murder, and they did not argue that the WM3 were Satanists.
And as Farm points out, Ken Lanning drew a clear distinction between “traditional, Orthodox” Satanists and non-traditional, unaffiliated “youth subcultures” or “self-styled dabblers” in the occult. Lanning’s not one documented satanic murder in the US claim clearly refers to the traditional, Orthodox category. Here’s how Ken Lanning described the latter categories in his 1989 article:
1. Youth Subculture — … The teenagers who have more serious problems are usually those from dysfunctional families or those who have poor communication within their families. These troubled teenagers turn to satanism and the occult to overcome a sense of alienation, to obtain power, or to justify their antisocial behavior. For these teenagers, it is the symbolism, not the spirituality, that is important. It is either the psychopathic or the oddball, loner teenager who is most likely to get into serious trouble. …
2. Dabblers (Self-styled) — for these practitioners, there is little or no spiritual motivation. They mix satanism, witchcraft and paganism. Symbols mean whatever they want them to mean. Molesters, rapists, drug dealers and murderers may dabble in the occult and may commit their crimes in a ceremonial or ritualistic way. This category has the potential to be the most dangerous, and most of the “satanic” killers fall into this category. Their involvement in satanism and the occult is a symptom of a problem and a rationalization and justification of antisocial behavior. Satanic/occult practices (as well as those of other spiritual belief systems) can be used as a mechanism to facilitate criminal objectives.
Lanning wrote that four years before the WM3 killed three children in the woods, but he nailed the killers precisely. All three were troubled, alienated teens from dysfunctional families. Echols was a raging psychotic and psychopath with homicidal fantasies. Echols and (to a lesser extent) Baldwin dabbled in the occult, mixing Satanism, witchcraft, demonology, spirit possession, Wicca, horror movies, vampire lore, metal lyrics, serial killer chic, goth fashions, whatever. (There’s no evidence Misskelley had any interest in Echols’ occult mumbo-jumbo.) The occultism was a rationalization and justification of their antisocial behavior, not a cause.
Here’s Farm again:
And the fact is, the only “satanist” catagory Echols DIDN’T fall into was the traditional or “true believer” Satanist.
The real ones.
The ones for which no evidence of serious criminal activity exists.
He was the very definition of the type “satanist” who has traditionally committed violent crime – the psychotic, drug addled self-styled teen dabbler from a dysfunctional family who had issues of obtaining power over others.
Lanning isn’t simply speculating on a “psychological mindset” like some sort of profiler, he developed these distinct catagories through researching documented historical examples.
This wasn’t real “satanic panic” – the people of West Memphis weren’t afraid of cloak wearing, latin speaking figures lurking in the shadows snatching babies, they were afraid of a group of stoner anti-social teens who sat around campfires tripping, killing animals, and playing “devil worshiper”.
Ken Lanning himself has spoken dismissively about the prosecution case against the WM3. That’s disappointing, but it doesn’t change my thinking. I suspect that Lanning has a superficial knowledge of the case shaped by the standard Paradise Lost story, and that he’s never read Misskelley’s post-conviction confessions or Echols’ psychiatric records or the key witness statements.