The West Memphis Three. Accused, convicted…and set free. Do you know their story?
In 2011, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American legal history was set right when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were released after eighteen years in prison. Award-winning journalist Mara Leveritt’s The Devil’s Knot remains the most comprehensive, insightful reporting ever done on the investigation, trials, and convictions of three teenage boys who became known as the West Memphis Three.
For weeks in 1993, after the murders of three eight-year-old boys, police in West Memphis, Arkansas seemed stymied. Then suddenly, detectives charged three teenagers—alleged members of a satanic cult—with the killings. Despite the witch-hunt atmosphere of the trials, and a case which included stunning investigative blunders, a confession riddled with errors, and an absence of physical evidence linking any of the accused to the crime, the teenagers were convicted. Jurors sentenced Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to life in prison and Damien Echols, the accused ringleader, to death. The guilty verdicts were popular in their home state—even upheld on appeal—and all three remained in prison until their unprecedented release in August 2011.
With close-up views of its key participants, this award-winning account unravels the many tangled knots of this endlessly shocking case, one which will shape the American legal landscape for years to come.
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At 7:41 P.M. on May 5, 1993, a full moon rose behind the Memphis skyline. Its light glinted across the Mississippi River and fell onto the midsized Arkansas town aspiringly named West Memphis. Sometime between the rising of that moon and its setting the next morning, something diabolical would happen in West Memphis. Three eight-year-old boys would vanish, plucked off the streets of their neighborhood by an unseen, murderous hand. Under the glare of the next day's sun, police would discover three young bodies. They would be pulled naked, pale, bound, and beaten from a watery ditch in a patch of woods alongside two of America's busiest highways. But the investigation would unfold in shadow. Why had one of the boys been castrated? How to account for the absence of blood? Why did the banks of the stream look swept clean? The police would stumble for weeks without clues until the moon itself became one.
John Mark Byers, an unemployed jeweler, was the first parent to report a child missing. At 8 P.M., with the full moon on the rise, Byers telephoned the West Memphis police. Ten minutes later, a patrol officer responded. She drove her cruiser down East Barton Street, in a working-class neighborhood. At the corner where Barton intersected Fourteenth Street, the officer stopped in front of the Byerses' three-bedroom house. Byers, an imposing man, six feet five inches tall, weighing more than two hundred pounds, with long hair tied back in a ponytail, met her at the door. Behind him stood his wife, Melissa, five feet six, somewhat heavyset, with long hair and hollow eyes. Mark Byers did most of the talking. The officer listened and took notes. "The last time the victim was seen, he was cleaning the yard at 5:30 P.M." That would have been an hour and twenty minutes before sunset. The Byerses described Christopher as four feet four inches tall, weighing fifty pounds, with hair and eyes that were both light brown. He was eight years old.
The officer left the Byerses' house, and within minutes was dispatched to another call, at a chicken restaurant about a mile away. She pulled up at the Bojangles drive-through at 8:42 P.M. Through the window, the manager reported that a bleeding black man had entered the restaurant about a half hour before and gone into the women's rest room. The manager told the officer that the man, who had blood on his face and who had seemed "mentally disoriented," had wandered away from the premises just a few minutes before she arrived. When employees entered the rest room after he left, they found blood smeared on the walls. The officer took the report but investigated the incident no further. At 9:01, without ever having entered the restaurant, she drove away to a criminal mischief complaint about someone throwing eggs at a house.
At 9:24 P.M., the same officer responded to another call, again from Barton Street this one from the house directly across from the Byerses'. Here a woman, Dana Moore, reported that her eight-year-old son, Michael, was also missing. Taking out her pad again, the officer wrote, "Complainant stated she observed the victim (her son) riding bicycles with his friends Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers. When she lost sight of the boys, she sent her daughter to find them. The boys could not be found." Moore said the boys had been riding on North Fourteenth Street, going toward Goodwin. That had been almost three and a half hours earlier, at about 6 P.M. By now, it had been dark for more than two hours. "Michael is described as four feet tall, sixty pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes," the officer wrote. "He was last seen wearing blue pants, blue Boy Scouts of America shirt, orange and blue Boy Scout hat and tennis shoes."
By now a second officer had been dispatched to a catfish restaurant several blocks away. There another mother, Pamela Hobbs, was reporting that her eight-year-old son, Stevie Edward Branch, was missing as well. Hobbs lived at Sixteenth Street and McAuley Drive, a few blocks away from the Byerses and the Moores. She reported that her son, Stevie, had left home after school and that no one had seen him since. The officer who took Hobbs's report did not note who was supposed to have been watching Stevie while his mother was at work, or who had notified Hobbs that her son was missing. Stevie was described as four feet two inches tall, sixty pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. The police report noted, "He was last seen wearing blue jeans and white T-shirt. He was riding a twenty-inch Renegade bicycle."
Word of the disappearances spread quickly through the subdivision. As groups of parents began searching, other residents reported that they had seen some boys three, or maybe four riding bikes near the dead end of McAuley Drive shortly before sunset. McAuley was a major street in the neighborhood. The house on McAuley where Stevie Branch lived was a few blocks south of the corner on Barton where the other two missing boys lived across the street from each other. From Stevie's house, McAuley wound west for a few blocks, ending at the edge of a four-acre patch of woods, a short distance northwest of the other boys' homes. The woods separated the subdivision from two interstate highways and their service roads on the north. The small sylvan space provided the neighborhood with a welcome buffer from the traffic on their northern edge. For a few diesel-fumed miles, east-west Interstate 40, spanning the United States between North Carolina and California, converges in West Memphis, Arkansas, with north-south I-55, connecting New Orleans to Chicago. For truckers and other travelers, the stretch is a major midcontinental rest stop; where the highways hum through West Memphis, the city has formed a corridor of fueling stations, motels, and restaurants. It was easy for anyone passing through not to notice the small patch of woods bordering that short section of highway. What was more noticeable was the big blue-and-yellow sign for the Blue Beacon Truck Wash that stood several yards from the edge of the woods, alongside the service road.
Just as truckers knew the Blue Beacon, kids in the neighborhood to the south were familiar with the woods. The small plot of trees represented park, playground, and wilderness for children and teenagers living in the subdivision's modest three-bedroom houses and in the still more modest apartment building nearby. That the woods existed at all was an acknowledgment, not of the need for parks or of places for children to play, but of the need for flood control. Years earlier the city had dredged a channel, unromantically known as the Ten Mile Bayou Diversion Ditch, to dispose of rainwater that ordinarily would have flowed into the Mississippi River but that was prevented from draining by the great levees that held back the river. While the levees kept the Mississippi at bay, rainwater trapped on the city side of the levee had posed a different flood problem for years. The Ten Mile Bayou Diversion Ditch was dredged to direct rainwater around the city to a point far to the south, where a break in the Mississippi levee finally allowed it to drain. Part of that ditch ran through this stand of trees. In places, the ditch was forty feet wide and could fill three or four feet deep. Tributaries, such as the one that drained the land directly behind the Blue Beacon, formed deep gullies in the alluvial soil. Together, the combination of trees, ravines, water, and vines made the area a hilly wonderland for kids with few unpaved places to play.
They called the woods Robin Hood. Adults tended to make the name sound more proper, calling it Robin Hood Hills, but it was always just Robin Hood for the kids. Under its green canopy they etched out bike trails, built dirt ramps, established forts, and tied up ropes for swinging over the man-made "river." They fished, scouted, camped, hunted, had wars, and let their imaginations run. But at night, when the woods turned dark, most kids stayed away. The place didn't seem so friendly then, and the things that parents could imagine translated into stern commands.
Besides the risks from water and Robin Hood's closeness to the highways, parents worried about transients who might be lurking there. Many parents warned their children to stay out of the woods entirely. But the ban was impossible to enforce. Robin Hood was too alluring. And so it was inevitable, on that Wednesday night in May, as word flew from house to house that three eight-year-olds were missing, that parents would rush to the dead end of McAuley, where a path led into the woods. It was about a half mile from the homes of Christopher Byers and Michael Moore and only a few blocks farther from that of Stevie Branch.
The delta was already beginning to warm up for the summer. At 9 P.M., even on May 5, the temperature was seventy-three degrees. An inch of rain a few days before had already brought out the mosquitoes. The insects were a nuisance everywhere, but they were especially thick in places that were moist and overgrown shady places like the woods. The officer who'd taken the missing-person reports on Christopher Byers and Michael Moore later reported that she'd ventured into the woods near the Mayfair Apartments to help look for the boys, but the mosquitoes had driven her out. The officer who'd taken the report on Stevie Branch also said later that he'd entered the woods and searched with a flashlight for half an hour. But those two efforts were the only police action that night. No organized search by police would begin until the morning.
As officers assembled at the West Memphis Police Department for their usual briefing on Thursday morning, May 6, 1993, Chief Inspector Gary W. Gitchell, head of the department's detective division, announced that three boys were missing and that he would be directing the search. A search-and-rescue team from the Crittenden County Sheriff's Office would be assisting. When a few hours had passed without sign of the boys, the police department across the river in Memphis, Tennessee, dispatched a helicopter to assist. By midmorning, dozens of men and women had also joined police in the search. Detectives and ordinary citizens checked yards, parking lots, and various neighborhood buildings, including some still damaged from a tornado that had struck the town the year before. Others fanned out across the two miles of fertile, low-lying farmland that separates the east edge of West Memphis from the levee and the Mississippi River. The most intensive search, however, remained focused on the woods. For hours, groups of as many as fifty law enforcement officers and volunteers combed the rough four acres that lined the diversion ditch. At one point the searchers gathered on the north edge of the woods, near the interstates, and marched shoulder-to-shoulder across the woods until they emerged on the other side, near the houses to the south. But even that effort turned up nothing. Members of the county search-and-rescue team slipped a johnboat into the bayou and poled it down the stream. But still, nothing. By noon, most of the searchers, their alarm increasing, had abandoned the woods to search elsewhere.
But one searcher stayed. Steve Jones, a Crittenden County juvenile officer, was tromping through the now empty section of the woods nearest to the Blue Beacon Truck Wash when he looked down into a steep-sided gully, a tributary to the primary ditch, and spotted something on the water. Jones radioed what he had found. Entering the woods from the subdivision side, Sergeant Mike Allen of the West Memphis Police Department rushed across a wide drainpipe that spanned a part of the ditch, and clambered to where Jones was waiting. Jones led Allen to a spot about sixty yards south of the interstates. Standing on the edge of a high-sided bank, Jones pointed down at the water. Floating on the surface was a boy's laceless black tennis shoe.
The time was approximately 1:30 P.M. The area had been searched for hours. Yet here, alarmingly, was a child's shoe. Police converged on the spot. Sergeant Allen, wearing dress shoes, slacks, a white shirt and tie, was the first to enter the water. It was murky, with shoe-grabbing mud on the bottom. Allen raised a foot. Bubbles gathered around it and floated to the surface. The muck beneath his shoe made a sucking, reluctant sound. Then a pale form began to rise in the water. Slowly, before the horrified officers' eyes, a child's naked body, arched grotesquely backward, rose to the surface. It was about 1:45 P.M.
Word of the discovery spread like fire through West Memphis. Searchers swarmed back to the woods, but now only Gitchell's detectives were being let in. By 2:15 P.M., yellow crime tape was up. Police cars were stationed at the McAuley Drive entrance to the woods and at the entrance south of the Blue Beacon. For the detectives, in a dense and seldom visited part of the woods kids called Old Robin Hood, the job ahead was as odious as obvious. If one body had been submerged in the stream, the others might be as well. Detective Bryn Ridge volunteered for the unnerving job. Leaving the first body where it floated, the dark-haired, heavyset officer walked several feet downstream and waded into the water. Lowering himself to his knees, he spread his hands on the silty bottom. Then slowly, on all fours, he began to crawl up the narrow stream, searching the mud with his hands, expecting and dreading that at any moment he would touch another dead child. He encountered instead a stick stuck unnaturally into the mud. He could feel something wrapped around it. Dislodging the stick and pulling it up, he found a child's white shirt.
Carefully, Ridge stood up and returned to the floating body. It didn't seem right to him to leave it there. He lifted the body to the bank. The officers knew from photographs they'd been shown of the missing boys that this was the body of Michael Moore. And they could see that between the time the boy was last seen and now, he had endured tremendous violence. Michael's hands and feet were behind him, bound in what some would describe as a backward, hog-tied fashion. But it wasn't that, exactly. The limbs weren't tied together. Rather, the left ankle was tied to the left wrist; the right ankle and right wrist were tied. The boy had been tied with shoelaces. The bindings left the body in a dramatically vulnerable pose. The boy's nakedness, the unnatural arch of the back, and the vulnerability of his undeveloped sexual organs, both to the front and to the back, suggested something sexual about the crime. The severity of the wounds to his head suggested a component of rage.
Once begun, the gruesome search intensified. In quick succession the ditch yielded Michael's Cub Scout cap and shirt, a pair of blue jeans, and the grim, forewarning sight of two more pairs of tennis shoes without laces. Reentering the water and resuming his search by hand, Ridge found more sticks stuck like pins into the muddy bottom. Twisted deliberately around them were other items of clothing. Before long, all the clothing listed on the three missing-person reports had been pulled out of the water, with the exception of a sock and two pairs of underpants. The detectives were especially intrigued by the trousers, two of which were inside out. Yet all three were zippered up and buttoned.
Ridge reentered the water farther downstream, and this time he felt what he had feared. Pulling against the mud's suction, he released a second naked form. As it rose eerily to the surface, the detective and officers on the banks could see that this body was also naked and bent backward like the first, and like the first, its thin arms and ankles had been tied together with shoelaces. This was the body of Stevie Branch. He too showed signs of having been beaten, and the left side of his face bore other savage marks. It was hard to tell the wounds were so deep but on top of everything else, it looked like Stevie's face may have been bitten.
Minutes later, Ridge found the body of Christopher Byers. Like the others it was submerged facedown in the mud. He was also naked and tied in the same manner as the others, but when detectives rolled him over in the water, they were assaulted by another shock. Christopher's scrotum was gone and his penis had been skinned. Only a thin flap of flesh remained where his genitals should have been, and the area around the castration had been savagely punctuated with deep stab wounds. By now it was 3 P.M.
Detectives found the two bicycles thirty yards away, also underwater. At 3:20 P.M., nearly two hours after the first body was recovered, someone at the scene thought to call the county coroner. When the coroner arrived, he found all three of the bodies out of the water and lying on the bank. He pronounced the boys dead at the scene, at approximately 4 P.M.
What had begun as a search now became a murder investigation, with Gitchell still in charge. His officers photographed and videotaped the scene alongside the stream, where the three white bodies lay. By now, however, the bodies had been out of the water for so long that they were attracting flies and other insects. Gitchell ordered the stream sandbagged above where the bodies were found, and the section below it drained, in the hopes of recovering Christopher's missing genitals, the missing underpants, and maybe a murder weapon or other evidence. Then he walked to the edge of the woods, where a large crowd had assembled. Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch's stepfather, was ducking under the yellow police tape as Gitchell approached. Gitchell stopped Hobbs and gently reported the news. Yes, the boys' bodies had been found. And yes, it was clear that they had been murdered. Hobbs crumpled to the ground and cried. His wife, Pam Hobbs, Stevie's mother, fainted.
Gitchell spoke briefly to reporters. Then he walked over to John Mark Byers, whose stepson Chris had been mutilated. Byers was leaning against a police car. As a photographer for the West Memphis Evening Times aimed her camera and clicked the shutter, Gitchell held out a hand to Byers, as if to support or even embrace him. Byers, who stood almost a head taller than Gitchell, draped his arm over the detective's shoulder. When a reporter approached, Byers shook his head in a gesture of bewilderment. He had searched that very site just the night before, he said. "I was out looking until four-thirty. I walked within ten or fifteen feet of where they were found," he said, "and I didn't see them." The remark struck no one as odd. Many people had searched the area and seen no trace of the missing children. Byers then provided the reporter more information than Gitchell had divulged, information he said the detectives had given him. One of the boys had been hit above the eye, Byers said; another boy's jaw was injured, and the assault on the third child had been even "worse than that."
Eventually, onlookers saw a black hearse drive east on the service road and turn into the Blue Beacon Truck Wash, where it backed up to the edge of the lot. Police covered in dirt and sweat carried three body bags through the opening on the north edge of the woods, across a grassy field, and loaded them through the open rear door.
By then, reporters from Memphis, Little Rock, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, a city about twice the size of West Memphis sixty miles to the north, had converged on the scene. Though the reporters begged Gitchell for information, he told them he had nothing more to say. That night, however, reporters at the Memphis Commercial Appeal tuned in to their newsroom's police scanner and picked up a broadcast from the Arkansas State Police. It contained details Gitchell had not revealed, news that made the front page of the next morning's Commercial Appeal. The scoop established a dominance for that paper that would continue as the story unfolded.
The details the paper picked up from the state police report included references to how the boys were tied. It also said incorrectly that all three had been sexually mutilated. When reporters questioned Gitchell about the sexual mutilation, the detective would not comment. He did, however, confirm that all of the victims had been bound hand to foot. He also remarked on the intensity of the search in the woods, noting, as if mystified, "That area where the boys were found was saturated hard and heavy that morning and even the evening before."
The place where the boys were last seen was just a few hundred yards from where their bodies had floated up. The site was a half mile due north of the corner where Christopher Byers and Michael Moore lived. When reporters knocked on the door of the Byerses' house, Christopher's mother, Melissa, answered. She was crying and had little to say. "I won't let them tell me what happened to them," she sobbed. "I don't want to know." Before closing the door, she added, "All I know is that my child is dead and so are the other two. I'm so sorry. I just don't want to talk about gory details. I don't know."
West Memphis went into shock. On Friday, May 7, the day after the bodies were found, teachers at the elementary school the boys attended met to discuss their students' fears. "I think we can tell the children that the person who did this is very, very sick," one of the counselors advised. Adults wanted to know more than that, but Gitchell was saying little. Faced with silence from the police, the media focused on the victims' families. Of all the parents, John Mark Byers was the most willing to talk. As the weekend approached, he told reporters that besides the weight of his family's grief, the murder posed a financial burden. He explained, "I've got to find a way to bury my son."
Neighbors and sympathetic church groups began to organize collections. By Mother's Day, which fell that weekend, donors had contributed nearly $25,000 to pay for the children's funerals. And a reward fund had been started for information leading to the arrest of the murderer or murderers. But by the weekend it was also becoming clear that this crime would not be quickly solved. On Monday, May 10, the fifth day of the ordeal, the optimistic headline in the West Memphis Evening News announced: "Police Still Confident They'll Solve Murders." Gitchell tried to reassure the paper's readers. His officers were tired, he said, but he added, "We're going to make it."
Gitchell said little more for the next several days, though he did make one statement that caught the region's attention. He noted that his detectives were considering a wide range of possibilities, including that the murders might have resulted from "gang or cult activity" though he quickly added that he had seen no evidence of either. To outsiders it seemed a strange pronouncement, an acknowledgment that detectives were considering an unusual explanation for the murders, despite the fact that no evidence suggested it. But readers in West Memphis understood. Within hours after the discovery of the bodies, rumors attributing the killings to satanism had begun to circulate. Two women had already reported sounds of devil worshiping in the woods. Whatever had prompted Gitchell's remark, it suggested that he and his detectives were taking the rumors seriously. Word that the case might have satanic overtones was prevalent enough that when the West Memphis Police Department assigned the case number 93-05-0666 to the murder file, reporters asked whether the last three digits had been deliberately chosen. Did the number 666 suggest a police theory of the crime? Did it refer to the Antichrist? Gitchell insisted that it did not. The assignment of that particular number, he said, had been entirely coincidental. He explained that cases were numbered according to the date the crime had occurred and the number of cases that had already been entered for the year. It was entirely by chance, he said, that this particular case, which occurred in the fifth month of 1993, just happened to be the 666th worked by the department so far. Years later, discovery of a report written by Detective Ridge and dated two days after the bodies were found would cast doubt on Gitchell's contention. That report which was among the earliest in the case identified it as #93-05-0555.
Copyright © 2002 by Mara Leveritt
What People are Saying About This
Brutal, riveting....The true horror of Leveritt's well-written book is that this barely believable fate could potentially befall any American.