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An innocent teenager was jailed for almost 20 years for his love of rock and Stephen King's books

In the early 1990s, religious fanatics from a small town in Arkansas staged a veritable witch hunt. Three teenagers were unjustly accused of brutally killing children. They were found guilty only because of their lack of piety and love for the rock band Metallica. All three spent almost 20 years in prison, but in the end they achieved the truth - and, according to one of them, Damien Echols, not without the help of magical powers. Edition Lenta.Ru told his story.

Photo: Shutterstock

In May 1993, three schoolchildren disappeared in the quiet town of West Memphis, Arkansas. The police recruited dozens of volunteers to search for the missing children and began combing the area. After 6 hours of searching, one of the volunteers saw a children's boot near the river bank. Later, the bodies of second graders were taken out of the river.

All three boys were brutally killed. Before they died, the children were stripped naked, and their hands and feet were tied. The disfigured bodies were covered with numerous scratches, stab wounds and even teeth marks. One of the students had a terrible wound on the face, and the other boy had no genitals.

“It looks like Echols still got to the point of murder,” said one of the police officers about the situation. It was about a difficult teenager, whom he had been following for 2 years. The policeman suspected the guy was dangerous. Unlike other children, Damien did not go to church, was interested in neo-paganism, listened to the rock bands Metallica and Iron Maiden. For the inhabitants of a small town, this was enough to write him down as a Satanist.

The policeman believed that Echols and his friends performed the rite of sacrifice. Investigators readily jumped at this version. She explained everything and fit perfectly into their ideas about the world. The child murder case was immediately given the number 666. The police did their best to put Echols in jail. The options that he was innocent were not even considered.

The guy was interrogated several times, but he constantly denied any involvement in the killings. According to Echols, he was at home with his sister, mother and grandmother at the time of the murder. During this time, he used his home phone three times, and this could be confirmed by the telephone company, but the police decided not to go there. They found a book with a pentagram on the cover, as well as various editions of the famous horror author Stephen King. According to the police, this was the main confirmation that the guy is a Satanist and a murderer.

And while the pentagram might have convinced the townspeople and the jury, more evidence was needed for a legal arrest. And they came out of nowhere. A certain Vicki Hutcheson, a month after the murder, said that she was at a meeting of neo-pagans, where Echols boasted that he was involved in the murder of children.

The next day, Echols' 17-year-old neighbor Jesse Misskelly Jr. told police that Echols had killed the missing boys in front of him. He was assisted by his friend Jason Baldwin, and Misskelly himself caught one of the children when they tried to escape. According to him, before the killing of the second graders, they were beaten and raped. Then one of them was castrated.

As it turned out later, both witnesses lied. Misskelly was the first to admit. He said that the police threatened him and forced him to confess to what neither he nor the other people he mentioned had done. Hutcheson's story was also fictional, she did it in order to avoid punishment for theft. But none of this mattered anymore. Thanks to their testimony, the investigation received everything that was required for the arrest. By evening, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly were in jail.

Despite the available alibis and insufficient evidence, all three were convicted. Echols was sentenced to death as the chief Satanist, while the rest received life sentences. “The local press has written so many times about satanic orgies and human sacrifice that by the time we were brought into the courtroom, the jury considered the trial a mere formality,” recalls Echols. “Everything was decided before we came.”

Prison

Echols, 18, was sent to death row. His cell turned out to be with the camera of a couple of old criminals who were also awaiting execution. “One was named Jonas, the other was Albert,” says Echols. “They were in their 60s and had clearly seen better days. Jonas had no leg, Albert had no eyes. Both were obese. "

Jonas was ready for anything for a cigarette, and other prisoners took advantage of it. Echols once saw him agree to drink a half-liter bottle of urine just to be given a smoke. Albert had another hobby: he constantly invented intricate scams and tried to pull them off, most often unsuccessfully. When he was finally executed, he left his denture to Echols. Someone else got the glass eye.

Contrary to expectations, the real problem was not inmates, but security. They often beat the guy to the point that he urinated with blood.

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The films about prison life always show that the worst thing is the inmates. In life, everything is different. Guards and bosses are much more dangerous. They will go to great lengths to make the life of a person sentenced to death even harder and more intense, as if being on death row is not enough.

To pass the time, Echols meditated, read many books from the library, and also read letters from people. The loud process turned him into a kind of celebrity, so strangers often wrote to him. Every day he received at least one letter, sometimes 10 or even 20. Some cursed him, others sympathized and tried to support. The latter became especially numerous a couple of years after the trial, when a documentary about the murders in West Memphis was released on HBO. It showed how shaky the charges against Echols and his friends were.

Echols remembered a letter from a girl in New York called Lorrie Davis very much. “I understood from the first letter that a person was writing who was not like any of those whom I had met in my life,” he recalled. The girl saw the HBO film and realized that not long ago she herself could be in a similar situation. “He looked like me because in my hometown I was also an outcast,” she explained.

Echols decided to write her an answer right away, and very soon they talked every day. After a month of correspondence, he managed to talk to Davis on the phone, and six months later she came to the prison to visit him. To see Echols more often, Davis quit her job and moved from New York to Arkansas. By that time, they realized that they were in love with each other, despite the fact that they had never been around and communicated only through a glass partition.

“Lorrie and I couldn't touch each other until we got married in December 1999,” Echols said. "After the wedding, we were allowed to stay in one room, but only in the presence of a prison officer." But this did not last long either. In 2003, Echols was transferred to solitary confinement. He found himself in complete isolation from the outside world.

Magic

The execution was due to take place three months after the trial, but the execution was postponed many times due to appeals. Sometimes it seemed to Echols that he simply would not live to see the lethal injection prepared for him. “My vision was getting worse, my hair was falling out, I was terribly thin,” he later recalled. “I haven’t seen sunlight for nearly ten years and haven’t really contacted people.”

The wife of the convicted person tried with all her might to get the case reviewed, looked for lawyers and collected money. She managed to win over Johnny Depp actor, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, Pearl Jam leader Eddie Vedder and other celebrities to her side. Then the matter got off the ground, but even that took years. Meanwhile, Echols was slowly losing vitality in his cell.

In prison, he realized that excessive attention to the outside world only increases suffering. To distract himself from dark thoughts, Echols began to study various spiritual practices from around the world. He read about Taoism and Kabbalah, about Gnostics and pagans, until he came across a book about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a famous secret society that operated in Britain during Queen Victoria's time.

The Golden Dawn Order practiced ceremonial magic using elements of Gnostic Christianity, Judaism, and Taoist energy practices. This society consisted of many famous people of that time, including the famous occultist Aleister Crowley, the creator of "Sherlock Holmes" Arthur Conan-Doyle, the author of "Dracula" Bram Stoker and the creator of the most famous tarot deck Pamela Coleman-Smith.

In practice, the magic of the Golden Dawn had a lot in common with Eastern esoteric teachings, albeit with a certain occult bias. The ceremonies included meditations, breathing techniques and chants in Hebrew and Aramaic. Echols was seriously carried away by the "Golden Dawn" and decided to test this magic in practice. "If Crowley could perform the rituals on horseback, then in a prison cell I will all the more succeed," he reasoned.

Echols decided to start with a small ritual of the pentagram. When learning magic at the Golden Dawn, it was supposed to do it twice a day - in the morning and in the evening. This required drawing a pentagram in the air, reciting the names of the angels. The first Echols was not embarrassed, but with the angels it was more difficult. He was sent to prison through the fault of fanatical Christians. After that, he lost all desire to deal with their religion. And the angels, whatever one may say, were part of it.

In the end, Echols decided that he needed to take an example from the ceremonial magicians of the past. “All the greatest magicians in history have worked with angels to one degree or another,” he reasoned. “People I consider to be geniuses, like John Dee or Queen Elizabeth’s court magician, Edward Kelly, have focused almost entirely on angelic magic. Almost every member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn that I have heard of has dealt with angels. "

Echols completely abandoned the harsh prison reality and devoted himself to magic. He turned his cell into a kind of monastery cell and practiced magic ceremonies for hours. When they beat him, he represented the archangel, who was protecting him from blows. Instead of light, he had a ritual of solar breathing, during which he felt the energy of the Sun flowing through his limbs. It helped.

“When I was in prison, one of the main things that pushed me so hard to do ceremonial magic was physical pain. I was constantly looking for new techniques that would help me, if not ease, then at least withstand it. Pain from beatings, from hunger, an appalling amount of pain of all types. If I were free, I could go to a doctor, to a dentist, or perhaps to a psychotherapist. There was no such opportunity in prison. Only magic saved me there, ”explained Echols.

Doubts about magic disappeared when the angel personally appeared to Echols. According to him, the angel was different from the usual idea of ​​them - no wings, no halo. The body looked like a black triangle, and the other triangle was his head. “He had no discernible features, but I knew it was an angel,” Echols recalled. - Only then did I understand why angels appear in the Bible with the words “do not be afraid”. This thing is really scary. "

Freedom

In 2007, Echols' wife secured yet another check of the evidence collected at the scene of the murder of the children. Testing revealed traces of DNA from three people, but neither Echols, nor Baldwin, nor Misskelly were among them. The charges that put them in jail began to burst at the seams, but finally collapsed only four years later. The unjustly convicted trinity was offered a legal deal: freedom in exchange for refusing compensation. They agreed.

Who actually killed the three boys remains a mystery. For almost 30 years of investigation, many new facts have surfaced. A few days after the murder, the police arrested a local resident who was in a hurry to leave the city and even talked about his involvement in the murders, but the police did not pay attention to this, as they firmly decided to imprison "Satanists".

But on the other hand, the parents of the dead schoolchildren did not tell the whole truth either. On the hunting knife of the adoptive father of one of the dead, traces of human blood were found, and the hair, possibly belonging to the stepfather of the other, was stuck in the knot of the lace that was tied before his death. But nobody is in a hurry to check this evidence.

On August 19, 2011, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly were released. After spending 18 years behind bars, adapting to a new life was not very easy. After being in solitary confinement, Echols' health was irreversibly compromised. After several years in the semi-darkness, his eyesight deteriorated and there were blackouts. “If others hadn't taken care of me, I would probably have turned into a homeless person and sat on a corner somewhere until I starved to death,” he says.

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“People think that survival is a matter of strength. I do not quite agree with this. It seems to me that in order to survive, you need to be able to adapt. Like that fable about oak and reed. Oak is the strongest tree, but if a storm hits, it can break it in half and throw it back several blocks. The reed is much weaker than oak, but very flexible. She bends, lays down, follows every breath of the breeze - and this is what helps her survive, ”Echols argues.

Only a few years later, Echols' life returned to normal. His memoir of life is on the New York Times bestseller list. Then Echols published a collection of love letters with his wife and wrote a textbook on ceremonial magic - their sales were also quite successful. In addition, he published a book about angels and archangels and voiced the cartoon, which was directed by the creator of Adventure Time, Pendleton Ward.

He also has a small army of followers studying his magical techniques. Echols conducts classes in different cities and shows them the rituals that helped him in prison. “Every time I do this ritual, I get a tic. I am like a monkey with arthritis who waves his arms, ”he jokes.

Now Echols is 45 years old, he has come to terms with the way his fate has developed. “If not for the prison, I would have lived like my parents - a hopeless job, terrible health, an unhappy life,” he admits. - Even as a child, I understood that there must be something more. But that was the world that I knew. "

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