Atlanta Journal and Constitution 5/22/88 Police believe, but can't prove, satanists are `o
Atlanta Journal and Constitution
Police believe, but can't prove, satanists are `out there'
By Charles Walston Staff Writer
`I don't know of any convictions [for satanic-related crimes]. But I
know some of these officers and they don't overreact. I don't think you
can chalk this up to us looking for something that isn't there.' - Cobb
police Capt. Sharon Moody
Armed with shotguns, automatic weapons and a no-knock search
warrant, a dozen police officers entered an east Cobb County home around
They held the owner at gunpoint in his underwear, according to a
federal lawsuit filed last month, and searched the house for blood,
bones, cages, altars and other bizarre items.
They were looking for evidence of satanism.
They found nothing.
In the year since that incident occurred, some local law enforcement
authorities and religious leaders have expressed increasing concern about
devil worship. Newspapers, magazines and television stations have
reported allegations that satanists commit hideous sacrifices and sexual
Despite police scrutiny and publicity, however, few cases of satanic
crime have been proven.
"There are lots of published accounts of people saying they were
victims and they witnessed murders, which may very well be true, but as
far as I know you're not gonna be able to substantiate it," said Cynthia
Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, a non-profit
group in Chicago that distributes information about cult activity.
Ms. Kisser knows of only one case in which a satanic murder was
proven in court: Members of a satanic group in California were recently
convicted of killing a drifter and carving a pentagram on his chest
during a ritual, she said. But there is no comprehensive source of
information on suspected satanic crime, she said.
There have been a few instances of such crime alleged in the metro
Atlanta area. The most notable case is in Douglas County, where three
teenagers were charged with the January slaying of a 15-year-old runaway
girl. Investigators said the suspects were satanists who had killed their
victim during a ritual.
One of the defendants, Terry Belcher, was convicted of murder Monday
and sentenced to life in prison. Belcher admitted he had been involved in
the slaying but denied any cult involvement, and the case shed no light
on the veracity of the allegation that satanism was involved. Two other
defendants are scheduled to stand trial in June.
Even when authorities suspect an occult connection to crimes, their
theories often are not presented in court, according to Donald Sparry,
director of the Coastal Georgia Police Academy in Brunswick, who speaks
about violent groups at seminars around the country. Prosecutors are wary
of trying to prove a motive that some jurors or judges may find
"You have a dead body, malice, a murder," he said. "Why complicate
it with all these allegations about rituals?"
While prosecutors may be wary of raising the issue in court, there
has been increasing police interest in learning about it.
Some jurisdictions have designated law enforcement officers to
gather information and intelligence about satanism. After the Douglas
County slaying, the sheriff's department created a task force to
investigate devil worship. No arrests have been made, but a department
spokesman said this week that the group is monitoring suspected cult
activity in the county.
Many police and prosecutors are convinced that devil worshippers
commit crimes ranging from cruelty to animals to desecration of churches
to murder. "Worshipping the devil is not a crime, but there are sometimes
crimes related to the rituals," said Douglas County District Attorney
"When you find literally dozens of officers communicating, and the
facts being very similar in cases, it makes you sit up and take notice
that there must be some truth to it," said Cobb police Sgt. Joe Renner,
who has attended several seminars about satanism in the past year.
"I don't know of any convictions," said Cobb police Capt. Sharon
Moody, who heads the unit that investigates crimes against children. "But
I know some of these officers and they don't overreact. I don't think you
can chalk this up to us looking for something that isn't there.
"I do think it's out there."
Renner said more parents of teenagers in metro Atlanta are calling
him to discuss their children's possible involvement, and Ms. Kisser has
noted heightened interest at the national level. "It might be getting to
the point of hysteria in some communities," she said.
There are several degrees of cult involvement, according to Ms.
Kisser. Satanists who are part of established "orthodox" groups, often
stretching back for several generations, shroud themselves in secrecy and
seldom attract attention.
"Dabblers" in satanism, often teenagers, are more likely to leave
evidence such as animal remains or significant symbols, including
pentagrams or the number 666, the biblical sign of the beast.
Even when such signs are present, cult connections are sometimes
tenuous. Ms. Kisser estimates that 95 percent of teenagers who dabble in
satanism are interested only in trappings such as heavy metal rock music,
clothing or jewelry, and are not likely to become seriously involved.
Some people worry that concern over satanism could become a
misguided obsession, creating an environment in which the statements and
beliefs of suspects overshadow their alleged crimes.
"People love this idea of `The devil made me do it,' " said Kenneth
Lanning, a supervisory special agent at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.,
who is an expert on child sexual abuse. "This is not only not new, this
is the oldest theory of crime that there is."
Police must guard against placing too much significance on theories
or evidence of devil worship, Lanning said.
"I think that a great deal of what's being alleged and talked about
[regarding] satanic crime may have nothing to do with a crime," he said.
"In law enforcement, you're investigating the crime. If I'm a sociologist
or a scholar, all this [the occult] may be real interesting to pursue."
Sparry said he has never known of teenage devil worshipers who were
not involved with drugs, and illicit sex is a lure for many youths.
"They're using devil worship as a vehicle for what they were going to do
anyway," he said.
"I don't see it so much as a cause for crime as a justification of
crime," Lanning said. "I see individuals who go out and kill and rape. .
. . The satanism is a symptom of their problem, not the cause of the
Allegations of human sacrifices and cannibalism may mask the real
objective of satanists, some experts believe. Some child molesters may
trick children into thinking they have witnessed murders to scare or
confuse them, Lanning said. If the victims do tell, their stories are
implausible and impossible to prove.
The search of the home in affluent east Cobb, in the early hours of
May 1, 1987, indicates that police suspicions about satanism are
sometimes unfounded. That incident has resulted in a federal lawsuit
filed April 19 in U.S. District Court on behalf of William Oakes and his
The complaint alleges that the search of the Oakes' home violated
their constitutional right to privacy, and that it was the result of a
"reckless" police investigation. Named as defendants are Cobb County, Ms.
Moody, police Officer James Davis, and Nancy Aldridge, a nurse.
The futile search resulted from allegations that arose in a
protracted divorce and child custody dispute involving a couple whom the
Oakes do not know. A 7-year-old girl and her younger brother told
counselers and police they had been sexually abused by their father and
others during satanic rituals, and had witnessed the sacrifice of four
adults and 10 children. The girl also said she had witnessed her father
having sex with foxes and other members of his family.
The girl said some of the rituals occurred in a "gray house," which
Davis later determined to be the Oakes residence. In a six-page affidavit
that he signed to obtain a search warrant, Davis stated that the girl had
pointed the house out to him, but he later testified during the divorce
case that she had initially seen the house when she was riding in a car
with her mother.
Oakes has never been accused of a crime, according to his attorney,
Harvey Harkness. "The only sin he committed in his life was painting his
No criminal charges have resulted from that investigation, and Cobb
police decline to discuss the search because of the lawsuit. An Emory
University professor said some aspects of the incident have disturbing
"That sounds so incredibly reminiscent of the Salem witch trials,"
said professor Nancy T. Ammerman, who specializes in the sociology of
religion. About 30 women were hanged as witches in Salem, Mass., during
the 16th century, Dr. Ammerman said, many of them named by children who
had heard stories about witches from a slave from the West Indies.
Some people, particularly religious fundamentalists, may have a need
to identify evil in order to explain to themselves why human atrocities
occur, Dr. Ammerman said.
"We should exercise caution of people who are engaged in these
[satanic] activities, and we also have reason to be cautious of our
response," she said. "We have ample evidence in history that accusations
of satanism and witchcraft have been used as reason to persecute people."
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank