True Detective Season 3 and the West Memphis Three

While nothing has been established, bike stealing teens on True Detective season 3 might be a nod to the West Memphis Three.

True Detective Season 3 - West Memphis Three

True Detective Season 3 has only just begun and the suspects in the Purcell missing children case are piling up. Series creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto has been known to dig deep into the criminal underground for inspiration, and the state of Arkansas has more than a few skeletons buried in its mountainous woods. The kids who disappeared at the beginning of True Detective were spotted by quite a few of their neighbors on the afternoon they were last seen and we don’t know who are witnesses and who might be the abductor. We see a scrapper, several people on the block and a gang of teenagers in a purple Volkswagen Beetle. If the kids look guilty perhaps it’s because they might be a nod to the West Memphis Three.

The West Memphis Three were three teenagers who were accused of murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993 in what was presented to the press as a Satanic sacrifice.

Nic Pizzolatto already told Entertainment Weekly the third season of True Detective is “really not informed” by the Satanic panic of the late the 1980s. But Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali), who was called Purple Hays when he served in Vietnam, hassles one of the purple gang’s members for wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt. “That’s Satanic,” he says.

The cops who investigated the West Memphis Three case also mistook heavy metal sounds for the devil’s music. As a matter of fact, when the case came up for retrial several rockers took to the streets to attack the misinformation that threw the kids in jail. The case was dissected in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s HBO documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and its sequels. Peter Jackson and Damien Echols, one of the accused, produced West of Memphis, which was directed and written by Amy J. Berg.

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Paradise Lost makes a case that the accused were victims of a prejudiced police and legal system that discriminated against them because they were weird kids who dressed in black and liked heavy metal music. The films and the attention led to the men’s release in 2011.

It was an HBO documentary that brought national attention to the West Memphis Three case. The murder investigation, trial and retrial had lives of their own. Spawning two films and two albums: KOCH Records’ Free the West Memphis 3 from 2000, and Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three, it was a tale that caught America’s darkest imagination. Fears and conspiracies loomed just below the surface, as did a community which turned on itself when confronted with a mind numbing scenario of violence. Over the course of the third season, True Detective will sail a similar trajectory, following clues left in creeks only to reveal more clues. For those unmoved by Pizzolatto’s professed disregard for the area’s most horrific crime as a motive for his show, we dig deep into the Robin Hood Hills for a look at the emotional landscape.  

The Investigation

The story of the West Memphis Three begins on May 5, 1993, when three second-grade boys – Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers – were reported missing. The first report to the police was made by Byers’ adoptive father, John Mark Byers, around 7:00 p.m. The murders were thought to have occurred sometime between about 6:30 p.m., when the boys were last seen, and 8 p.m.

The police, Crittenden County Search and Rescue, and local volunteers conducted a shoulder-to-shoulder search of Robin Hood Hills and the surrounding area by forming a human chain at 8:00 a.m. the morning of May 6. Searchers found no sign of the missing boys. A police helicopter swept the whole area.

The boys’ bodies were found in a muddy ditch the next afternoon. May 7, in the Robin Hood Hills near West Memphis, Arkansas, on the border of Tennessee. The murder site is about a five hour drive from Fayetteville, where True Detective season 3 is set. Parole officer Steve Jones found a black tennis shoe near the Blue Beacon car wash that afternoon. Sergeant Mike Allen discovered a naked body in a ditch. Kids’ clothes were found in a creek, which led to the findings of two more bodies. The bodies were mutilated and bruised. They boys themselves were hog-tied by their shoelaces. Their right ankles were tied to their right wrists behind their backs, left arms were tied to their left legs. Autopsies found Branch and Moore died of drowning. Chris died of multiple knife wounds, and had the skin from his penis and scrotum removed.

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Luminol tests, which are chemical tests law enforcement uses to detect blood at crime scenes, found blood in the ditch and numerous locations around it, indicating the children were probably killed where they were found. The three victims were tied up with three different types of knots which led the police to believe they were killed by more than one person. Three local teenagers, seventeen-year-old Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., who was 16, and Jason Baldwin, 18 years old, emerged as the prime suspects likely because Baldwin and Echols had been previously arrested for vandalism and shoplifting.

It is often claimed there was no physical evidence to connect the West Memphis Three to the murder. A large folding Kershaw survival knife with a serrated edge and a circular opening was found in the lake behind Jason Baldwin’s trailer. It matched some of the wounds on the bodies of Byers and Branch. Prosecution experts at the trial would claim Byers’ wounds were the results of a knife attack and that he had been purposely castrated by the murderer. Defense experts countered that the injuries were more likely to be caused by animals who fed on the bodies post-mortem.

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Echols told the cops he was at home all night, talking to girls on the phone. Police interviewed the four girls Echols named. They all contradicted his account. 13-year-old Jennifer Bearden told the police she did talk to Echols a few times that day, but when she called at around 8 p.m., his grandmother said he was out. Heather Cliett and Holly George said they were unable to contact him between about 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Jason Baldwin’s lawyers did not present any alibi witnesses at the later trial because his story was too flimsy. Jessie Misskelley said he was at a wrestling game in Dyess at the time of the murders.

According to Paradise Lost, Misskelley was a local dropout who worked odd jobs, scored between 70 and 80 on IQ tests, had a history of petty crime and violence. Misskelley was interrogated for 12 hours, and confessed on June 3rd. Only two segments of the interrogation, totaling 46 minutes, were recorded. He later said he confessed out of fear and intimidation. While there are some reports that he was interrogated without his parents’ permission and without representation Sgt. Mike Allen said he talked to Misskelley’s father who signed a permission form to allow his son to be administered a polygraph test, which Misskelley failed. It has also been claimed that Misskelley was not read his Miranda rights but transcripts reveal he was read his rights on multiple occasions during the June 3rd interview.  Because he accused Baldwin and Echols, Misskelley was tried separately from the other two suspects.

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Echols lived at the Broadway Trailer Park in West Memphis, about two miles from the murder scene, on the day the killings occurred. He had once lived in the Mayfair Apartments, which overlooked the Robin Hood Hills area. Neighbor Narlene Hollingsworth told police that she and three family members were driving in the Robin Hood Hills area at around 9:30 p.m. when they saw Echols walking with his girlfriend Domini Teer about 200 yards from where the bodies were found. The family said Echols was covered in mud.

During his interrogation, Echols mentioned genital wounds the investigators had been hiding from the public. In Devil’s Knot, investigative journalist Mara Leveritt argues the information may have come from police leaks. West Memphis police detective Bryn Ridge’s notes from the May 7 interview report Echols said the person who did the homicides “probably felt good about what he had done and that he felt good that he had the power to do what he had done.” Echols became a suspect because he showed an interest in the occult. In a dossier known as Exhibit 500 that Echols’ defense team prepared for the sentencing phase of the trial, Echols reportedly said he believed he was possessed by a spirit called Rosey. 

The Satanic Scare Hits West Memphis

Stories that Satanic ceremonies were being held in the woods had been circulating in the community since the “Satanic Scare” of the 1980s. While the Ozark Mountains are filled with legends of magical practices complete with tales of people selling their souls to the devil, West Memphis was a Bible Belt town. Damien Echols dressed in black and had the word “EVIL” tattooed across his knuckles. He had an interest in the occult. Police officers James Sudbury and Steve Jones felt that the crime had “cult” overtones. Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist and criminal profiler, stated in the film Paradise Lost 2 that human bite marks could have been left on at least one of the victims. According to his files, Echols had a fixation with drinking blood. The police found hospital incident reports of the suspect licking blood off patients and trying to suck blood from people’s necks. A detention hall report said Echols sucked the blood from the arm of a kid who slit his wrist in a suicide attempt and then smeared his body with it saying he was a devil worshipping vampire. Echols’ psychologist would later testify during the death penalty sentencing hearing that Echols claimed he obtained super powers by drinking human blood.

Hutcheson let police install hidden microphones in her home while she had Echols over for a conversation on or about June 1, 1993. Police said the recording was “inaudible.” On June 2, 1993, Hutcheson told police she Echols, and Misskelley attended a Wiccan meeting in Turrell, Arkansas about two weeks after the murders were committed. Hutcheson claimed Echols was drunk and openly bragged about killing the three boys. Aaron recanted his story in a October 2003 interview to the Arkansas Times. His mother Vicki also later stated every word she had given to the police was a fabrication.

The West Memphis Three had trials in 1994. All three pleaded innocent at the trial and maintained that innocence ever since. Echols and Baldwin were tried together. Misskelley was tried separately. Misskelley was convicted by a jury of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder on February 5, 1994. He was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, or 40 years in prison.

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Echols and Baldwin went on trial three weeks later. During the trial, the prosecution claimed the children were killed as part of a Satanic ritual, based on the testimony of Dale W. Griffis, a graduate of the unaccredited Columbia Pacific University. Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley was sentenced to and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.

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In May 1994, the three defendants appealed, but the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions which were upheld on direct appeal. Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin submitted imprints of their teeth to be compared to the alleged bite marks on Stevie Branch’s forehead. No matches were found. John Mark Byers had his teeth removed in 1997, claiming the seizure medication he was taking caused periodontal disease.

The families of the victims were divided on the West Memphis Three’s guilt. John Mark Byers, stepdad of one of the victims, said before the hearing, “They’re innocent. They did not kill my son.” In 2000, Rick Murray, the biological father of Christopher Byers, expressed doubts about the guilty verdicts. In 2007, Stevie Branch’s mother Pamela Hobbs calling for a reopening of the verdicts and further investigation of the evidence. John Mark Byers announced he believes the Memphis Three are innocent in late 2007.

The Retrial

Echols defense lawyers filed Second Amended Writ of Habeas Corpus retrial papers in federal court on October 29, 2007, citing DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, to the crime scene. Circuit Court Judge David Burnett denied the request on September 10, 2008, citing the tests as inconclusive. In July 2008, it was revealed that the jury foreman on the Echols-Baldwin trial, Kent Arnold, talked about the case with a lawyer before deliberations began. He was accused of advocating for guilt and sharing inadmissible evidence with other jurors. In September 2008, Misskelley’s lawyer Daniel Stidham testified at a post-conviction relief hearing that Judge David Burnett made an improper communication with the jury during deliberations. The Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the appeal on September 30, 2010. On November 4, they ordered a lower judge to consider the DNA evidence and juror misconduct.

Judge David Laser ordered a new trial. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released from prison as part of an Alford plea deal on August 19, 2011. The defendants plead guilty to lesser charges of first- and second-degree murder, conceding prosecutors had sufficient evidence to secure a conviction but asserted their actual innocence. Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced them to time served. The Memphis Three were released with 10-year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison. He added a 10-year suspended sentence, which meant if they did anything illegal they would be sent back to prison for 21 years.

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Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, filed a defamation lawsuit against Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines for implying he was involved in killing his stepson. In 2010, district Judge Brian S. Miller dismissed the suit and ordered Hobbs to pay $17,590 in legal costs.

Damien Wayne Echols married landscape architect Lorri Davis and moved to New York City after his release. He co-wrote the lyrics to the song “Army Reserve” which was on Pearl Jam’s album “Pearl Jam” in 2006. Echols and former Michale Graves, formerly of The Misfits, released the album titled Illusions in October 2007.

The case of the West Memphis Three is still fiercely debated. If the three men who were accused are innocent, there are still killers at large in what is now a thirty-five year old cold case.  

West Memphis is a four and a half hour drive west on Highway 40 to Fayetteville, where True Detective Season 3 takes place. While Pizzolatto has gone to pains to explain away the connections between the two crimes, he still feels it necessary to include a subliminal nod to the investigation. True Detective Season 3 will also allude to a fictitious pedophile ring the documentary-makers learn about through local newspapers. While none of the characters correlate to real life participants, the area itself is a character in the series, and that area holds mysteries. The clues are still being uncovered on the show, Pizzolato continues to look into the darkest places, where we only see what he wants us to see..

True Detective Season 3 debuts on January 13 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.