No one could have guessed that May 5th, 1993 would be anything other than a typical day in West Memphis, Arkansas. Not until 8 p.m., when John Mark Byers phoned the West Memphis Police to report his step-son, 8 year-old Christopher Byers had gone missing. The sun had already set when Regina Meeks showed up at the Byers residence to take down the information. Chris hadn’t been seen by his family since 5:30 that evening, cleaning his yard. Meeks wrote down the details of Chris’s description and notified her department. She then left to handle other calls. One still haunts the community.
Later that night, Meeks handled another missing persons call directly across the street from the Byers home. This one from Dana Moore, mother of 8 year old Michael Moore. She hadn’t seen her son since 6 p.m., riding his bicycle with Chris Byers and another boy, Steven Branch. Around this same time, another distraught mother was talking to another member of the WMPD from her job at a restaurant. All three boys were friends. All were missing.
It didn’t take long in the sleepy little town for word to spread. Witnesses stated that they had seen the three boys riding toward a four acre patch of land that the neighborhood children frequented. It was known as Robin Hood Hills, a thickly wooded area just south of Interstates 55 and 44, which ran together in a single stretch through West Memphis.
Neighbors formed search parties that evening, combing Robin Hood Hills and surrounding neighborhoods, abandoned houses and building, anywhere three 8 year old friends could hole up for a while. Despite an extensive search from the parents, neighbors and the police, nothing tangible was uncovered. Panic had set in within the three households of the missing boys.
With the daylight of May 6th, the search intensified. Robin Hood Hills being the focal point of the search, despite the mosquitoes, which Arkansas residents joked were their state bird. Crittenden County Search and Rescue, supplied a john boat and poled down the Ten Mile Bayou, which separated the woods from the city proper. Nothing was found and the woods were abandoned to search other areas. A few stayed in the woods. One was juvenile officer Steve Jones from the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office.
Around one o’clock, he radioed that he had made a discovery in the woods, in a tributary of the bayou. A child’s shoe, without laces, floated on the water’s surface. Soon, Sergeant Mike Allen joined him and Jones led him to the site. Other officers soon gathered. Mike Allen waded in the water and picked up the shoe. As he lifted the shoe, a naked body came up with it. The body had been tied with shoelaces in a hog tied fashion.
Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell ordered the area cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. The search began in earnest for the other missing boys. Only West Memphis detectives were allowed past the tape. By the end of that day, the other two boys, their bicycles and all their clothing was found in and around The Ten Mile Bayou, with the exception of two pairs of underwear. The boys’ blue jeans were found still fastened and zipped, but turned inside-out.
The news radiated through the Delta area like waves in a still body of water hit by a rock. It didn’t take long for the national news services to pick up the story. Right behind the first wave came a second. Rumors flooded the area, mostly fed by the WMPD releasing too much information to the wrong people. Within a week, the entire populace of the metropolitan Memphis area was privy to some information that they shouldn’t have. To say this hampered the investigation is an understatement.
Before long, rumors that the murders were the result of a satanic ritual spread through the rumor mill. Who but Satanists could commit such an egregious and brutal crime? This was the mindset in the Bible Belt, where Satan was as real and tangible as anything in nature.
The cult’ angle had it’s supporters among law enforcement personnel. Primarily a county juvenile officer named Jerry Driver. Driver was considered an expert in the field of satanic cults, even with no formal training. He even had a prime suspect: Damien Echols. Driver and Echols had a long history. No stranger to the law and mental health institutions, it appears that Driver had made it his duty to nail Echols with something. He went so far as to contact authorities in Aloha, Oregon, where Damien resided for a while with his family. His inquiries were mostly ignored by Oregon officials, but when Echols moved back to the West Memphis area, Driver was right there and had Echols arrested for breach of his probation.
With the public demanding an expedient arrest, and in light of the fact that Echols was a self professed Wiccan witch; it did not take too long for the investigation to become myopic. Other potential leads were either merely touched upon, or ignored. Even the case file was changed from 93-05-0555 to 93-05-0666. This was denied by Gitchell, but there is evidence to contradict his claims.
Echols and his friend Jason Baldwin were now the primary targets of the investigation. Authorities only needed something to tie them to the crimes. This came by way of Victoria Hutcheson. She was suspected in a credit card overcharge at the convenience store she worked at during the investigative phase. She went to the WMPD with her son, Aaron, who was friends with all three murdered boys. The credit card investigation faded with an account that Aaron gave investigators about the murders, which appeared on the surface to directly implicate Echols and Baldwin. Aaron’s account would change wildly over the course of the investigation, but he had been instrumental in helping authorities hone in on their targets.
Victoria suggested that an acquaintance, Jessie Misskelly, may have information which would help investigators. On June 3rd, 1993, Misskelly was brought in for an interview. He was subjected to a polygraph. He passed, but was told that he failed. Detective Bryn Ridge and Gary Gitchell questioned Misskelly for hours. Misskelly had an I.Q. of 72, which put him in the borderline retarded category, something that was not missed by Ridge and Gitchell. Misskelly wanted to go home and reasoned the only way that would be possible was if he confessed to the crime and implicated Echols and Baldwin. I read the transcripts of this interview and even a novice such as myself could see that the confession was obviously coerced. Ridge and Gitchell simply supplied Misskelly with the correct information when his confession didn’t fit the details. Ultimately all three boys were arrested for the crime on the strength of this confession.
I would now like to present some facts of the case that bring into question the guilt of the three charged in the crime.
After Officer Regina Meeks was dispatched to take the missing persons report on Christopher Byers, her next dispatch was to a Mr. Bojangles restaurant, where it was reported that an African-American male had entered the establishment covered in mud and bloody and speaking incoherently. By the time she arrived, the suspect had left, but Meeks failed to enter the establishment to follow up. The next day, Gitchell took samples from the women’s restroom where the man had entered and took blood samples from the restroom wall, which he subsequently and conveniently lost sometime after the three boys were arrested. This may have been important to the investigation of the murdered boys.
The Robin Hills Woods were considered the murder scene to fit the confession of Jessie Misskelly. However, given the injuries sustained by the three victims, it is more likely to be a dumpsite. There was little if any blood evidence found at the discovery site. This would rule out the woods as being the murder scene, thus nullifying the Misskelly confession.
Despite the many holes in his official statement, John Mark Byers was ruled out as a suspect. Byers had a violent background. He was even suspected of a murder in his hometown of Marked Tree, Arkansas. A friend of his was eventually convicted of the crime. Some say he took the rap for Byers. Byers was also convicted of terroristic threats made against his first wife. Police witnessed this and Byers’ ex had the wherewithal to activate a tape recorder and record the act in progress. He was convicted, but his record was subsequently expunged.
Byers held a strange place in the community. He was a part-time jeweler. He was an informant for the WMPD drug task force, while at the same time dealing drugs himself. He threw huge parties and many of his guests were from the law enforcement community. One can easily speculate that Byers helped the police with drug arrests, effectively taking his competition off the streets, while the WMPD looked the other way. Coincidentally, the WMPD was under investigation by the Arkansas State Police for claiming to destroy confiscated weapons and then keeping them for their own personal use. The WMPD turned down offered help from the Arkansas State Police in the murder investigation.
Byers was also an habitual liar. Once while on the Leeza Gibbons’ Show, Byers claimed to have thrown a chair at a detective during his statement, when the detective accused him of the murders. This never happened. The true story is written in the transcripts of his official statement. Byers should have been investigated much more thoroughly, but it appears that the WMPD and Byers were both keeping their respective skeletons in their closets. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Byers and the WMPD are concerned.
Byers had given a knife as a gift to a cameraman of a documentary about the murders. It appeared to have blood on the blade. Subsequent investigation revealed that it was indeed human blood, which was consistent to not only Byers, but his step-son, Chris. The knife was consistent with wounds found on the boys’ bodies. When it was determined that Chris had a possible bite mark on his cheek, John Mark Byers conveniently lost his dentures.
Huge strides in DNA analysis have excluded the three imprisoned men as donors. In fact, some of the evidence ties Terry Wayne Hobbs (Steven Branch’s stepfather) to the scene. Hobbs claims it must have been a secondary transfer, but the hair with the DNA was inside one of the knots that hog tied one of the victims. Hobbs also has a checkered history. One with violent and also sexual overtones.
Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert on coerced confessions, stated at the Misskelly trial that without a doubt, Misskelly’s confession was coerced. Misskelly had recanted his confession earlier and refused to testify at the Echols/Baldwin trial. Jurors, apparently biased, did not give Ofshe’s testimony much consideration. Misskelly’s recantation should have been the death knell for the evidence against Echols and Baldwin, but this was not the case. They were convicted on a small amount of questionable physical evidence. All three boys (now men) had alibis for the time of the murders, confirmed by family members. It appears that “satanic panic” is alive and well in the Bible Belt.
Victoria Hutcheson and others have since recanted their statements, also. Hutcheson claimed she implicated the defendants in an agreement with the WMPD not to pursue the credit card case against her. I feel it was more likely that it way the $35,000 reward she was after.
There are many more questions that I haven’t mentioned that need to be addressed. At the very least, these three men deserve a re-trial without a biased jury and judge. The points I have mentioned deserve further investigation. It is my personal opinion that there were not 3 victims in this case, but six.
Here is some suggested reading:
“Devil’s Knot” by Mara Leveritt.
http://callahan.8k.com/ has a huge archive of documents.
http://www.wm3.org/splash.php the official site of the West Memphis Three.
http://www.jivepuppi.com/ another useful and informative site.