Written by Mara Leveritt
Published by Atria Books
Publication Date: 2003
Format: B&W – 404 pages
Hell-o, True Crime buffs (and false imprisonment Fighters). This review is for a novel that I hold near and dear to my heart. I am a big part in the battle in which this novel refers to. It is based on a true story that is still tragically true and unfolding today, as you read this review. I am talking about the story Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Bladwin… Also known to many supporters worldwide as, “The West Memphis Three.” Besides the HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, there are two books which tell the tale and continuing saga of the three teenagers ( now men) known as The West Memphis Three. This one being the rather more informative of the two. It was also written by my second favorite Author (behind Stephen King) Mara Leveritt (Author of The Boys on the Tracks). Mara has won several awards for investigative journalism, including Arkansas’ Booker Worthen Prize for her other novel. She is also a contributer to The Arkansas Times as an Editor. This review is on her Sophmore writing effort, The Devil’s Knot. In my opinion, right of the bat, it should win several awards of its own. To any True Crime Reader, this is just as informative as it is entertaining.
For a little bit of history on the tragic and brutal story itself, this is how it all began… On May fifth, nineteen-ninety-three, in West Memphis Arkansas, three eight year old boys were found murdered in a patch of woods in the back of a truck stop. The boys were missing for one day. The next morning, the Chief inspector and head of the detective division announced a search party for the three missing children. By noon, fifty officers and volunteers combed the area for the missing youths. At about one forty five in the afternoon, a shoe was found in the murky, dark water in a gully in the back of the truck stop. Soon after, the first of the three missing children’s body floated to the surface. Minutes later, the second and third were found. He was missing his scrotal sac and his penis had been “skinned.” West Memphis Police department recovered the boys under water in a patch of woods, known as Robin Hood Hills. When the boys were recovered, they were found naked, beaten and bound with their own shoelaces. Less than an hour later, the yellow, crime scene police tape surrounded the area. At three twenty, two bicycles and underwear were found. Nearly two hours after the first body was found, the Coroner was called. The three boys were pronounced dead at around four o’ clock that afternoon.
Just hours after the gruesome discovery, two women reported sounds of rituals being held in the woods. Rumors started to swarm around the town of Satan worship and the occult. Some believe that the three eight year olds were killed by someone they knew or were close to. Although, prior to this belief, the Chief Inspector had already made his claim of Satanism, the occult, or a gang of some sort.
On the day after the bodies were found, a local kid made a statement to the police that he had seen one of the boys talking to a black man after school. He claims that the boy climbed in the car with him. Although, this man was never identified or found. Twenty days had gone by after the bodies were discovered and there were still no autopsy reports. This made the Chief Inspector start to get very worried. Time was going by and they still had nothing. No clues and no witnesses, besides the two women that told the dark accounts of Satanic chants in the woods. The police force was starting to bite their nails with nervousness at this point. With no leads, clues or evidence at this point, some embraced the statement of the occult by the Chief. This seemed like their only hope for any success in finding out who committed these horrible acts upon the children.
The chief juvenile Officer had an idea of who might be a suspect. He had been keeping his eyes on him for the last year. Now, the Officer was determined to watch him even closer. He was seventeen at this time. He had long coal black hair and dark brown eyes. He was known as an outsider who wore solid black and a long black trench coat that he had found in a closet all of the time. He wrote dark and sometimes depressing poetry and was manic depressant. He mostly kept to himself, other than a small group of friends and a girlfriend. He also had a liking for heavy metal music and skateboarding. He was raised on Horror movies and loved to read. Especially Stephen King. His name is Micheal Hutchinson. He was later and better known as his desired name, which he had changed, to Damien Echols. He changed his name to have his stepfather’s last name. His first name “Damien”, he had chosen when he was studying to be a Catholic. He had heard of a minister with this name, which took care of diseased islanders and soon caught the disease himself and died from it. He was accused by many of being “weird” or “strange.” He had been in trouble with the police before, so it was all the more reason to suspect him. Although, these were petty crimes, it did not kill the thought in the juvenile officer’s mind, that he was capable of murder. Not only that, the murder of three adorable, eight year old boys.
Damien smoked cigarettes, was bipolar, had been to a psychiatrist and had homemade tattoos out of India ink. He had one symbol of the Female sign and one that said “evil” across his fingers. He was not into Satanism, but he did dabble in white Witchcraft, also known as Wicca, or white magic. Even still, does this make him a child killer? Even more so, where does Satanism come into all of this? White Magic has nothing to do with Satanism. It is, as Damien said in his trial, the worship of earth, the trees, and water…nature. It looks to a woman as a God, rather than a man. As he put it…”We are all God’s children and men can’t have children.”
Damien had moved to Oregon. Although he was miles away from Arkansas, the Juvenile officer kept his sights of guilt firmly upon him. In December of nineteen ninety two, Damien had turned eighteen. As of now, the Juvenile officer’s sights were firmly locked on him like a hawk, stalking his prey… from over two thousand miles away. Also, at this time, Damien was going through his own inner and family troubles. This eventually boosted the officer’s suspicion of his guilt even higher than before. The doctors declared Damien as harmless, but this would not change the determined mind of the juvenile officer. It was planted in his mind that he knew who was guilty. To the officer, if he wasn’t guilty, he knew something about it.
Damien left back to Arkansas. He was seeing a local girl and had a best friend, named Jason Baldwin. Jason also shared a love for heavy metal music, skateboarding and snake hunting just as Damien. They would often trade clothes, hunt snakes together and trade heavy metal tapes. When one would get a tape that the other did not have, they would copy it for each other and write down the lyrics from the inside of the cover sleeve. They usually would hang out and play video games. Damien and his girlfriend loved to walk around at night under the moon and breathe in the Arkansas night air. This was very peaceful, tranquil and relaxing to him. As of today, he has not been able to do this in fifteen years.
Damien suffered from depression, just as Jason’s mother. Jason thought this helped Damien out a lot. He knew he wasn’t the only one suffering from this clinical disorder. Although Damien had dropped out of school, Jason still attended. He was a good student that excelled in Art and English. He also believed in God. As he would later put it”, Just like any other normal person around here does.” Jason had been on probation for breaking and entering and criminal mischief. Yet, just as Damien’s prior run-ins with the local authorities, does this make him capable of the murder of three innocent eight year old boys?
By this time, the police was receiving calls from a local Pastor, saying that he saw Damien and his girlfriend. Damien had the number six-six-six on his boots. Other rumors about the boys started to fly around the town and leak into the school where Jason attended. He would have kids come up to him and say that they had heard he and Damien had started a cult. Jason would be confused as to where they received their information and why someone would come up with that. He would ask them where they heard such stories and they would reply, “the police.”
The police had questioned Damien at his mom’s trailer, but did not take a single note, whatsoever. A few Short days after that, they would arrive at Jason’s trailer to question him. Damien and his girlfriend were there at the time. This is Damien’s second time to be interviewed by the police. They were also questioned on their religious beliefs. Damien said he believed in a God, but a woman God. The detective took these answers to heart and started to suspect him even more. The following day, Damien was called into the police station for further questioning. They were now considered to be suspects.
Damien was asked if he would submit a blood sample and to a polygraph test. He agreed to both of them. The detective did not report the polygraph review. He just gave a written report on it. This followed by an interview with Damien’s ex girlfriend. A week after the disappearance of the three boys, Damien’s mother was also questioned on the whereabouts of her son at the time of the murders. She said he was with her and his family going to visiting relatives. They were not home, so they went to get Damien’s prescription refilled and went home. Damien was on the phone with two girls from West Memphis for the rest of the night. Her story was just about identical to her son’s two nights before. The two girls from West Memphis also confirmed this story. Even without one bit of evidence against him, they continued to follow their Satanic theory. Now, with even more determination. A reward had been announced and then raised for information leading to the arrest of the ones responsible for this horrible crime. The Police department was getting leads from all over the place. Residents would call in with an array of myriad of different stories. This still led the police to nowhere.
One week after the murders, the police interviewed the little boy and his mother, who saw one of the victims get in a car with the black man after school. His mother decided to start her own personal investigation into this crime. Perhaps, some may think, for the reward money that has been offered and now raised. She started with a seventeen year old local boy that she had babysit her children. He had the I.Q. Of seventy two. Jason had known him since they were in elementary school. His name is Jessie Misskelley Jr. He was known as a fighter and always in trouble, even for such a small person. He said that on the morning that the boys disappeared, he had seen children that fit their description walking by the truck stop. Although, the three boys were in school at this time.
The woman asked Jessie Jr. if he knew who Damien was. He said yes, he just knew who they were, but did not hang out with or talk to him. Even so, she wanted more information and was going to use Jessie Jr. to get in touch with Damien. She told Jessie Jr. that she wanted to go out with Damien. She was in her thirties at the time. This did not stop her bloodhound intent to sniff out all of the evidence that she possibly could. They were introduced. The police told her it would further their investigation if she could make it seem like she was interested in the occult. She purchased books and set them out in plain view for anyone to see, hoping they would catch Damien’s attention. The next time Jessie Jr. saw Jason and Damien in his neighborhood, he brought them to her trailer, introduced them and went back to his trailer.
The woman told the police department that she had a romantic involvement with Damien for a little over a week. One that involved no sex. She told Damien that she wanted to learn more about satanism. She asked him why, out of all of the people in the area would they choose him. He replied, “because I’m evil.” She said Damien invited her to an Esbat, or a gathering of witches. She claims Damien picked her up in a vehicle, which, he did not have one, nor was he able to legally drive. She said she went with him and heard running water. She noticed a group of people painted in black and touching each other. She was quite offended and told Damien to take her back home. She said he did, but left Jessie Jr. back at the orgy.
There was no moon that night and she said she could not see what any of them looked like. Besides the fact that Damien was never known to drive a car, no one in his family owned the description of the car she gave to the police. The police also had another witness that said Damien said he has raped one of the boys and cut him up with an eight inch knife. The police department called in the woman and her son again. This time, her son said they he had a clubhouse where he and his friends would watch a group of people sit in a circle, sing songs and chant about the Devil.. .and touch each other in adult ways. The next day, she returned with an earring that she said was Damien’s. It had a skull with a snake wrapped around it. Much like the popular Powell-Peralta skateboard, the Mike McGill model. Damien was at one time, a skater. To most, this would hold no water as key evidence of anything, especially a triple homicide. To the police, they were grasping at anything they could get their hands on. This was a start down the path that they were trying so hard to follow. Her son told her it was the same earring wore by one of the men he saw before in the woods. The police then asked her to hide a tape recorder in her room, invite Damien over and tape the conversation. She claims she did, but the tape was of very poor quality. It could not be heard and later, the tape had vanished.
Jessie Jr. was absolutely unaware that his friend and neighbor, the one he had babysat for and mowed her lawn, was tying him in with the triple murder accusations. He had no idea that Damien was a suspect and that the police department, along with his”trusting neighbor” was tying him in with the other two suspects. The next morning, Jessie Jr. was awakened by a loud wrapping at his trailer door. It was his father. He said the police wanted to talk to him. Before the freshly awakened teen knew it, he was on the way to the local police station for questioning.
Once Jessie Jr. arrived at the police station, the police told him that he could not tall them anything without his father signing some papers. He also threw in that there was a thirty five thousand dollar reward for any information. Jessie’s father told him that if he did know anything, to tell them. He just told them that he had witnessed some kids on a service road. After this statement, they gave Jessie Jr. a polygraph test. His father signed the papers without an attorney. He also did not sign a paper granting him his constitutional rights. His son was read his Miranda rights. They hammered Jessie Jr, with questions. Some of them repeated more than once. They asked him if he had been into the woods, if he was on drugs and if he was involved with Satan worship.
They said they knew he was lying, because he sold drugs. They yelled in his his face, which got him scared and angry. Every question asked to Jessie went unrecorded. They told him he could “ be on the good guys or bad guys side” basically. Moat of Jessie’s answers were not too vivid and many contradicted each other. He would also name one name, and point to another person, not the correct person. He would have to be corrected by the officer. They put words into his mouth by asking him something, then saying “right”, afterwards. Jessie would agree, but had never said that. He stated that he saw them cut the boys and castrate one of them in the woods, yet, there was not a drop of blood in the entire area. Jessie had also given the wrong time of day, being that the three victims were at school at the time. Every officer present knew this was false, but they persisted with the questions. One the night of the interview, although it takes longer to obtain a search warrant, the police had planned to search the three boys and Damien’s girlfriend’s house. This was unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, they police did it anyway. Several police cars pulled into the trailer park. They knocked on Damien’s trailer door. His sister answered. Jason came walking out and Damien was already in handcuffs. Soon, Jason would follow. That whole day, the police had Jessie Jr. right where they wanted him. He is now joined by Jason and Damien.
As soon as the three were arrested, the next day, the police notified the media. The Chief did a press conference. On for the local news. A reporter asked him on a scale of one to to ten, how solid is the case. He replies “Eleven” , with a smirk and a nod. Everyone cheers. To the public… three savage, Satanic, bloodthirsty teenagers, guilty on three charges of Capital murder…have been captured. With absolutely no evidence… but a liking for Horror, the color black, heavy metal music, different religious beliefs and an error ridden confession from a scared, borderline mentally handicapped kid…the town was sure they had caught their viscous, cold blooded killers.
Their hearings were divided into two different trials because of Jessie Jr.’s error infested confession of inconsistencies. His trial was first and by himself. Damien and Jason had a trial together. Through Jessie’s trial, he had his head down. Court spectators asked why he had his head down. He said because he was told to. They played back the last part of the taped confession by Jessie Jr. The defense team commented afterwards on his head burying. They put it as “He won’t look at you.” In the end, Jessie Jr. was sentenced to life in prison, plus forty years.
During Jason and Damien’s trial, many things were popping up against them…but were they creditable? Any of them? Some were proven lies, some were later confessed lies, and some were very vague accounts…from two girls under the age of twelve. There was also a self proclaimed “Expert on the Occult”, who earned his degree from a brochure ordered college in the mail…Without taking a single class in the two year course…Creditable? The proven lies consisted of, besides the false accounts of overhearing Damien bragging that he killed the children, Jason confessing to someone that they killed them, a little boy’s voice, claiming to be one of the accused and his mother, which was later wanted for embezzlement.
Two girls, below age twelve, said that they overheard Damien in a baseball field say that he killed them and was going to kill a few more before he turned himself in. They could not remember what he said before that…or what he said afterwards. Just recently, one of the girls and their mothers came forth and said they lied about this incident. The kid that said Jason confessed to him was known for a fact to be making it up. His juvenile officer called Jason’s then lawyer and said he knew he was lying, because he had told him about the murders months before. The taped voice was claimed to have been one of the accused. Later, the mother came out and confessed it was her son. He was absent during the trial…
Also, there were rumors going around about the accused, such as a jar of testicles was .found under on of their beds. This did not happen. Another interesting thing about the trial, is that one of the fathers of the murdered boys gave a knife with blood between the handles and blade, to a production company, doing a documentary. The blood type matched his son’s and his own. He later passed a lie detector test. For a while, some thought he either did it or had something to do with it. He was asked several times to submit his teeth impressions and had several different stories why he could not. He sometimes down right refused. Many were suspicious of his guilt. Especially after his first wife died mysteriously.
Another mysterious and unsolved matter is an African American male that came into a local Chicken restaurant covered in blood and mud and very disoriented and spaced out. He left a toilet paper spool drenched in blood and blood on the wall. The police were called, but the officer drove through the drive through window, instead of investigating the scene. She left to investigate a vandalism down the street. Samples were later taken from the bathroom by police, but the evidence was supposedly lost, according to authorities.
The proclaimed “expert” in the Occult that had no prior classes gave a very vague suggestion of why these were Satanic driven murders. He said he has observed kids into Satan worship dress in black, paint their nails and hair black and tattoo themselves. He did believe that this was a Satanic triple slaying. Not only did he convince himself, but some spectators and some of the public as well.
A medical doctor came in and was also questioned about the amount of blood left at the scene…not a drop. He was asked if he were to dump a bucket of blood on the floor, wouldn’t it be hard to clean. He agreed. Also he was asked about the precise skinning of the penis…not to mention, in the dark and surrounded by biting insects. They did not have a bite on them. This led some to believe the crime scene was a disposal site only, not an actual murder scene.
The woman that was trying to get information for the police had a tape with a kids voice saying “ No one knows but me” This was claimed to have been one of the three accused. It was later found out that it was actually the woman’s son. He was absent at the trial. In later years, she was wanted for embezzlement.
The kid that got on the stand and said one of the three convicted confessed to him was known to be a liar and was known to be telling a false story. Weeks earlier, he was told about the case by a juvenile officer. He got on the stand and said that he had a kind heart and hated seeing people suffer. He was in juvenile detention for robbery. He told the court everything that his juvenile officer had told him and had heard off of the news and in the media.
The defense attorney said there was nothing wrong with heavy metal music in and of itself and nothing wrong with wearing black or reading Stephen King novels. He then added, when you put them all together, there is something wrong. He said you can “look into Damien’s eyes and there’s not a soul in there.” Damien later had a baby, during the hearings. He got to hold it for the first time during the trial. He was very happy to know that he could create another life after his own…
During the whole trial and a year leading up to it, HBO filmed an award winning documentary called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. This documentary aired in 1996 and got many others involved in the case. It was directed by Joe Berlinger ( Book of Shadows: The Blair witch Project 2) and Bruce Sinofsky, who collectively directed the documentaries Brother’s Keeper (prior to) and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (later). The two books (the other called The Blood of Innocence, written by Guy Reel, Bartholomew Sullivan and Marc Perrusquia) were also documented and written based on the trial. Devil’s Knot talks about much more than the documentaries do not let you see or hear. For a book with one Author (no offense to the other whatsoever) compared to a novel with three, this one is much more informative.
The book starts out with a meaning of the word “occult” and a diagram of the small area known as Robinhood Hills, where the heinous crime took place. The Prologue follows and leads into part one: The Investigation. This tells what went on up to the killings. It starts out with chapter one, The Murders, which leads into the second chapter, The West Memphis Police. This shows the poor job the force did when investigating the crime scene. Then we move along to the third chapter, The Police Investigation: Part One and the forth chapter, part two. Chapter five introduces the main “Characters” of the novel, The Prime Suspects. Chapter six, The Volunteer Detective, talks about the woman that chose to take on the case of the murdered children herself and help frame the boys pointed at for the crime. Chapter seven, The Confession, explains Jessie’s harassment by the police force and ruthless questioning without a Lawyer present or recorder on for most of the time. Chapter eight, The Arrests talks about how the three teenagers were soon sought out for these crimes, based on one reputation.
The other was his best friend and the other knew of the two. Chapter nine goes into The Defendants, and is titled the same thing. There are more police files throughout the book than revealed in the documentaries. There is also a chapter entitled “No one knows but me,” which reveals a woman recording her son and saying that it was one of the defendants. Fifteen chapters later(twenty four in all), we come to almost where we (or more importantly, they) are now “A Decade behind Bars(which to be accurate, is now five years over a decade).” The book ends with an afterword, fifty three pages of court and trial notes and an index. I have had the pleasure of meeting miss Leveritt and she has signed my copy of Devil’s Knot. We still keep in contact today. Not only is she my second favorite Author, but a Mentor and dear personal friend. That of course is not why I rate this book so high and drench it in praise. If you read it, you would see how wonderful it was written and how informative it truly is.
The novel is a best seller. The movie rights have been sold and a film is in pre-production. Brad Pitt has been sought out to star in the theatrically released feature, with Scott Derrickson (Director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose) directing. Although some are looking forward to the movie, they believe the book portrayrf them in a negative light. The movie should be just as compelling as the novel and I hope like a motherf*cker that it sticks to the facts. With that being said, I give this brilliantly written and informative novel, Devil’s Knot, TWO EYES GOUGED (CHECK IT) OUT.
Until the next time, this was Jay. Feed your dead brains, read until your eyes burst open and for f*ck’s sake, FREE THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE, they are INNOCENT… Later.
For more information on The West Memphis Three, visit www.wm3.org, www.skeletonkeyart.com or www.freethewestmemphisthree.org. Watch the documentaries, Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and (along with this book, of course) read The Blood of Innocence or Damien Echols'(one of the three convicted) book, Almost Home.
For a complete list of movies I’ve reviewed and upcoming book releases, check out my page at www.myspace.com/headlinesnovel. Look for the Horror Anthology, Moral Horror (featuring Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London), coming to a bookstore near you on October 1st. Available now for pre-order at Amazon, Betterworldbooks Barnes&Noble, Books-a-Million, Borders, Powells and Target.com.
Available from Atria Books
Available from Amazon