Updated: Sep 7, 2020
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Today I’m going back and revisiting a case I covered awhile ago, both here and on my corresponding YouTube channel. It was back when I was still doing list videos, and I only spent about 15 minutes on the case — not nearly as much time or attention as it deserves. It completely consumed me, even then, and I knew I had to go back and revisit it at some point. Let’s talk about the West Memphis murders and the men who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three.
On the afternoon of May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys went out riding their bikes in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas. They never came home.
Michael Moore was born on July 27, 1984. He was a natural leader, honor student and acted mature for his age. When he grew up, he wanted to be a police officer.
Stevie Branch was born on November 26, 1984. He was outgoing and loved singing and doing flips, which he’d taught himself to do. He also had a crush on Michael’s older sister, even buying her a $5 birthstone ring at one point.
All three boys were in second grade at Weaver Elementary and also did cub scouts together. They liked swimming, gave each other funny nicknames and “kicked like Ninja Turtles.” They all lived in the same West Memphis neighborhood and, on this particular afternoon, left that neighborhood to have some fun. Exactly what happened next is quite fuzzy and has been debated for years.
According to Stevie’s mother, Pamela Hicks (who was Pamela Hobbs at the time), Stevie still wasn’t home by 4:50 when she had to leave for a 5 pm shift at work. At first, she wasn’t too concerned, thinking he must have lost track of time. But when her husband, Terry Hobbs, picked her up after work around 9 pm, she learned none of the boys had come home yet and started to panic. When she got home, her daughter, Amanda, also told her that Stevie never came home. Pamela and the other boys’ parents searched for them throughout the night.
(Another source said the boys were reported missing around 8 pm. Both of these accounts technically could be true, though I’m not sure why someone wouldn’t have found Pamela at work to tell her her son had been reported missing.)
(Another source said the families went out to search at sundown. In Arkansas during Daylight Savings Time, this probably would have been between 7 and 8.)
The West Memphis Police Department began their official search the next morning. Later that day, an officer noticed two shoes floating in a creek in a wooded area known colloquially as Robin Hood Hills. When he saw the shoes, he got in the water to reach for them and noticed something else in the water. He raised his foot up and a body floated to the surface.
The bodies of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore had been dumped in a drainage ditch in Robin Hood Hills. They were naked and their hands and feet had been hog tied with their own shoelaces. Their clothes had been pushed to the mud at the bottom of the creek.
Autopsy reports would later list the causes of death for Michael and Stevie as drowning. Christopher’s cause of death was “multiple injuries” and most sources seem to think it was largely blood loss due to castration.
Unsurprisingly, this triple murder sent shock waves throughout West Memphis. Rumors started to fly almost immediately, including the theory that the murders were carried out as part of a Satanic ritual — a theory that police started to believe.
Because the murders were of young children and there appeared to be sexual mutilation, they believed they were at least the work of a cult (though, despite Christopher’s castration, the autopsy reports showed no evidence of sexual assault). There doesn’t seem to be much hard evidence of this being a ritualistic killing, but it was definitely something talked about.
Early on, West Memphis police asked Jerry Driver, their chief juvenile probation officer, to give them a list of kids or teenagers he thought would at least be capable of being involved. On the list of names he came up with were 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin.
I couldn’t find much about Jason and Jessie’s previous criminal records. Jessie got in a lot of fights, including a former friend who he fought with after stealing his bicycle, according to the boy. The only thing I could find on Jason was an arrest record for shoplifting from November 1992.
But Damien was already on police radar even before Jerry Driver’s list was made — in fact, he was interviewed for the first time the day after the bodies were found. There were rumors that Damien was involved in Satan worship and cult activity, and he later told investigators he was a member of a “white magic” group. At the time of the murders (and investigation), Damien was also on probation. About a year earlier, he’d been arrested after trying to run away with his girlfriend. They’d been found “partially nude” in an abandoned trailer and Damien had been charged with burglary and sexual misconduct.
For the most part, Damien was cooperative in this investigation, willingly providing consent for hair and blood samples. Despite their suspicions, investigators couldn’t find anything to definitively tie him to the crime.
Not long into the investigation, a woman named Vicki Hutcheson got involved. Vicki’s son, Aaron, was friends with the victims, and the Hutchesons lived in the same neighborhood as Jessie Misskelley, who Vicki knew a bit, but not very well. Vicki claimed Jessie told her about his friend Damien who liked to drink blood. She agreed to “play detective” (as a lot of sources have put it) and help police find evidence to nail Damien.
Vicki talked to Damien under the guise of pretending to be interested in witchcraft. He agreed to take her to a meeting, which she recounted to police in a statement on May 28. According to her, Damien drove she and Jessie to a gathering of Satan worshippers in the woods, where a group of teenagers took part in an orgy. This probably confirmed to police that there was witchcraft involved, and that Damien was now more likely than ever to have ties to the recent murders. But they still couldn’t pin it on him.
On May 27, the day before Vicki Hutcheson gave her statement to West Memphis police, her son, Aaron, made a statement of his own at the nearby Marion Police Department. He claimed he, Stevie, Michael and Christopher had a club house in Robin Hood Hills and that, for the past several weeks, they’d regularly watched a group of people who met there and did “nasty stuff.” He also claimed these people killed a cat and ate it.
Then, on June 3, West Memphis police tracked down Jessie Misskelley Jr. to talk to him about his possible cult involvement and maybe witnessing the murders. Jessie headed to the police department around 9:45 am. At some point, police also told his parents he could get the $35,000 reward promised for information if he helped the police out.
Police interviewed Jessie around 10 am and gave him a polygraph, which he failed. Around 2:20 pm, Jessie said he was present when the boys were killed. At 2:44 pm, he began giving investigators a shocking story.
According to Jessie, he’d gone with Jason and Damien to Robin Hood Hills on the morning of May 5. They’d walked into the woods, where they found Stevie, Michael and Christopher. Damien and Jason began physically and sexually assaulting the boys. At one point, Michael ran away and Jessie ran after him and brought him back. Then the other two boys tied up their young victims and continued to assault them. Jessie left soon after, but got a call from Jason about an hour later asking why he’d left. He said he couldn’t take it anymore. Jessie claimed to hear Damien in the phone talking about how they’d “done it” and asking what they’d do if anyone found out. Jessie also told police about a cult he was in where members were initiated by killing and eating dogs, and later participated in orgies upon their admittance in.
The interview ended around 3:18 pm. About half an hour later, Jessie gave a second clarification statement which we’ll talk a bit more about later. Damien, Jason and Jessie were all arrested later that night.
A few days later, on June 9, Aaron Hutcheson gave another statement and claimed he was with the victims the day they were killed. According to him, he was even tied up with rope along with his friends but managed to escape. He said he hadn’t told anyone about this until now out of fear.
Because Jessie’s confession could implicate the other two, his trial was held separately. On February 5, 1994, he was convicted of first degree murder in Michael’s death and second degree murder in Christopher and Stevie’s. He was sentenced to life in prison plus two 20 year sentences.
On March 18, 1994, Damien and Jason were both found guilty of capital murder. Jason was later sentenced to life in prison without parole. Damien was sentenced to death.
but did they get the right guys?
For a lot of people, this was a fairly open and shut case. The three perpetrators had been caught and convicted and were right where they belonged. But others weren’t so sure that Damien, Jason and Jessie — who would come to be known as “The West Memphis Three” — were the real culprits.
One of the early doubters was journalist Mara Leveritt. She’s claimed the trials had a “witch hunt atmosphere” and that police severely blundered the original investigation. She went on to release Devil’s Knot in 2002, which is one of the most well known (and comprehensive) books on the case.*
During the investigation and trial, HBO producers had been on the scene, documenting quite a bit of the goings-on. The documentary Paradise Lost aired on the network in 1996, and thousands of people learned the story — and believed that the West Memphis Three had been wrongly convicted.
Paradise Lost and its two sequels have come under a lot of criticism for being biased, and for leaving out information that would have made the West Memphis Three look pretty bad. While these criticisms are well deserved, I still think they’re pretty good documentaries if you want to know more about this case, provided you go in knowing that they’re not the only sources you should look at. I will tell you — these documentaries, as well as West of Memphis, another popular documentary about the case, all show the bodies of the victims. In Paradise Lost, it’s one of the first things you see. So if you’re uncomfortable with seeing dead bodies, consider this your warning.
But the first Paradise Lost did help the case gain national attention. Over the years, the West Memphis Three have gotten several several celebrity supporters. The most notable one is probably Johnny Depp, and others include Marilyn Manson, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks…or the Chicks, as I guess they want to be called now. Two charity albums have been released to help fund the Three’s defense as well as their eventual lives outside prison. And thousands of dollars have been spent on things like DNA testing in an attempt to one day exonerate them.
But are these men really innocent? Were they convicted and jailed for crimes they didn’t commit? Let’s look at some evidence that people who say they’re guilty often cite, and then at some evidence that their supporters point out.
So let’s start with why they might be guilty. Police believe the murders occurred on the evening of May 5, between 5 and 6 pm. Multiple witness statements confirm that at least Damien and Jason were out of the house at that time. A friend of Damien’s named Jennifer Bearden gave a statement to police on September 10, 1993, saying she called Jason’s house between 4:15pm and 5:30pm on May 5. Jason answered the phone but Damien was there as well, so she talked to them for a few minutes. Then Damien said he and Jason were “going somewhere” and to call back at 8 pm. Jennifer called Damien’s house around 8, but his grandmother answered and said he still wasn’t home and to call back around 9. Jennifer wasn’t able to get hold of Damien until between 9:20 and 9:30.
Heather Cliett, who was dating Jason at the time, said she called his house around 4:30 but he didn’t answer. She tried to call again around 6:15 but the line was busy. Then she and tried to get hold of Damien, but couldn’t reach him until around 10:30 pm. This was obviously long before cell phones were readily available, so where were Jason and Damien all this time when people couldn’t reach them at home?
And what about Jessie? Jessie’s alibi at trial was that he was at a wrestling match. Multiple people said they remembered him saying he was going — but one person in the group he supposedly went with claimed under cross examination that they didn’t go to any matches until after the murders. And another witness claims he never saw Jessie where other witnesses put him at the same time. So what really happened?
Another eyewitness, Narlene Hollingsworth, claimed she saw “three little boys on bicycles” in the area where the victims would have been around 4:20 pm. Then, around 9:40 pm, she was driving and saw Damien and his girlfriend, Domini Teer, walking down the street covered in mud. Narlene’s husband and children were in the car with her and all reportedly saw the same thing.
Narlene also claimed she’d known Domini all her life and knew Damien too, but not very well. Despite this, Narlene wouldn’t let her children be around Damien because of all the bad things she’d heard about him. (I’ve seen some people say Domini was Narlene’s niece, but couldn’t confirm this.)
On June 7, a girl named Jodee Medford said she was at a softball game at the end of May and overheard Damien saying he’d killed three boys and planned to kill two more. Her statement was backed up by her mother, her sister, and at least one other girl with the same last name who I believe was a cousin. There has been some talk online about how this statement was later retracted, but I don’t believe it actually was. In a 2007 declaration, Jodee’s mother stated she didn’t believe Damien was confessing to a crime but merely trying to get attention. I think this is what people interpreted to be a retraction, but she was actually saying she didn’t believe it at the time. A few weeks later, after Damien was arrested, she reported the girls’ statements to police.
Jessie's many confessions
Another thing that keeps coming up is Jessie’s confessions. That’s right, confessions. Plural. Because he didn’t just confess to police on June 3 — he’s confessed numerous times.
His first known/reported confession was to his friend Buddy Lucas the morning after the murders. According to Buddy Lucas’s statement, Jessie began breaking out in sweat as they talked at his house, then later told Buddy he’d been crying and that he had to tell him something. He initially said he’d been in a fight and “hurt” someone, then said he was with Damien and Jason when they “sacrificed” the boys. Jessie reportedly told Buddy he would go to the police. He also gave Buddy a pair of shoes he said he didn’t want to see or have anything to do with anymore.
After his enormous June 3 confession, Jessie confessed again to one of his lawyers, Dan Stidham, on August 19. He confessed again on February 4, just after his conviction, and again to prosecutors and his lawyers on February 17. In this last confession, his lawyers advised him not to say anything, but he clearly didn’t heed that warning.
Another thing people bring up is Damien, who was probably on police radar for a reason. A complied list of documents that’s come to be known as the Echols 500 shows Damien’s long history of violence and mental health issues. One of the things mentioned here is Damien’s claim that he liked to drink blood because it gave him power.
While Damien dabbled in different religions, he was definitely interested in witchcraft. Even before his arrest, a dog’s skull and a book about witchcraft were seized from his bedroom, and he once told a detective that he had a tattoo of a pentagram on his chest. (This has been backed up by Domini Teer.) He’s also expressed a lot of interest in “magick” in the years following the murders.
But he wasn’t suspected just because of his unusual beliefs. He’d threatened his girlfriend’s parents several times, as well as at least one police officer. (I assume the ‘girlfriend’ these reports are referring to is Domini Teer.) He also reportedly threatened to kill and eat his own father while living with him in Oregon. Damien denied saying this, though he and his dad did have at least one physical altercation.
Damien didn’t fare well at school either. He was suspended multiple times for fighting, and in one incident he tried to claw another student’s eyes out. He set at least two fires at school and would threaten to put hexes on teachers. Another classmate named Shane Divilbiss began dating Damien’s ex Deanna Holcomb after she broke up with Damien to be with him. After this, Damien reportedly threatened to kill Deanna, Shane and some of Shane’s family members. He later tried to fight Shane in the hallways at school.
Joe Bartoush, who I believe is a cousin of Jason Baldwin, claimed Damien once killed a dog at his trailer park and kept the dog’s skull in his room. Remember, a dog’s skull was found in Damien’s room months before the murders. There’s also a report that said Damien and Domini wanted to have a baby and sacrifice it to Satan. They did have a baby later on, but obviously I have no idea if their sacrificial plans were real.
And even Damien has admitted he didn’t come across as the most sympathetic defendant at the time. With regard to Jodee Medford and her statement, Damien initially denied it, then later said if he did say it, he probably meant it as a joke. In Paradise Lost, he talked about how people would remember him as “The West Memphis boogeyman” — not exactly compassionate when you’re accused of a brutal triple child murder. He admitted in Paradise Lost 2 that he was joking and making light of the situation.
So now let’s talk about physical evidence. Fibers found on clothes from Damien and Jason’s houses were similar to fibers found on clothing from the victims. The witchcraft book seized from Damien’s home had what appeared to be blue candle wax on it, and blue candle wax was found on one of the victim’s shirts, I believe Christopher’s.
On November 17, 1993, investigators recovered a knife from the lake behind Jason’s home. During Damien and Jason’s trial, Damien’s ex Deanna Holcomb testified that Damien carried around a knife with a compass on the end while they were dating. A knife manufacturer testified right after her and said the lake knife had a place where a missing compass was supposed to be.
When Damien was arrested, he was wearing a necklace that was taken from him and had some questionable red spots. The necklace was tested and the spots were proven to be blood. The DNA results didn’t come back until close to the end of his trial. As it turned out, there were two separate DNA sources; one was consistent with Damien’s blood, another was consistent with Stevie’s blood as well as Jason’s.
So before we go on, let’s talk about Jessie again for a minute — specifically the debate over his IQ. Multiple sources have claimed Jessie had an IQ between 70 and 72. One even said he had been “diagnosed as mentally disabled.” But the people who say the Three are guilty claim Jessie’s IQ is actually much higher. So what is the truth?
According to testimony by Dr William Wilkins, who administered Jessie’s IQ test in 1992, his “performance IQ” was 88 and his “full-scale IQ” was 73. In at least the Wechsler Adult Intelligent Scale, which Dr. Wilkins used, performance IQ measures nonverbal skills, while full scale IQ is more comprehensive and measures all the different elements of the test put together. According to Dr. Wilkins, these results would put Jessie in the range of average. Some sources say a 73 IQ would be slightly below average, but they might have been using different methods.
But now let’s talk about why there are cracks in the story when it comes to why the Three might be guilty. Concerning Jessie, even if he has a higher IQ than we thought, there were still plenty of problems — namely the numerous details in his first confession that just didn’t add up. Police knew the murders happened in the evening, but Jessie said they happened at noon — when all the victims were still in school. Jessie said the boys were sexually assaulted, but the autopsy reports showed no evidence that they were. He said the boys had been hog tied with ropes, but it was actually shoelaces. He said “the blonde boy” was castrated, presumably referring to Stevie — but the boy who had injuries to his genitals was Christopher. Jessie also said Christopher was chocked with a stick, but there was no evidence of this. In his clarification statement, Jessie changed his initial story and said the victims didn’t even get to the woods until between 6 and 8 pm.
In Jessie’s third confession, on February 4, he claims he lied about the boys being tied up with rope to “trick the police and to see if they were lying.” But all the other contradictions don’t seem to have much explanation.
During Jessie’s trial, the defense said they believed at least his first confession had been coerced, a claim Jessie states as well. While Jessie’s father, Jessie Misskelley Sr., did give verbal consent for his son to be searched, he also claims Jessie Jr. was questioned without a parent or lawyer present — strange for someone who was just 17 at the time. Jessie also claimed that investigators told him he would die in the electric chair if he didn’t comply. According to his lawyer Dan Stidham:
“Children want to please, and he’s essentially a child. The police are authority figures. When they told him they had a machine that said he was lying, and that if he didn’t tell the truth he would fry in the electric chair, he complied. Give me thirty minutes and I could get Jessie Misskelley to confess to shooting JFK.”
And remember, Jessie never actually confessed to taking part in the murders — just to witnessing them and chasing Michael down when he tried to escape. Even if his story is to be believed, he’s an accomplice but not a murderer. According to Dan Stidham, Jessie thought he was helping, and almost certainly didn’t expect the results he got.
It is worth noting that Stidham still maintains that Jessie is innocent, which defense lawyers don’t always do. Does he really believe this, or is he just putting on a front because it’s more popular to think they’re innocent? And why did Jessie’s first two confessions have inaccurate information? Jessie said in his last confession that he’d been drinking to the point that he puked. Did he remember things incorrectly in his drunken state? Did he just get confused, as Inspector Gary Gitchell claimed at trial? Or was his confession really coerced?
And Jessie’s testimony isn’t the only one that’s changed. Michael Moore’s sister, Dawn, changed her initial story years later. At first, she said her mom asked her to go look for Michael around 6 pm and then cooked dinner. In 2018, she gave another account that said her mom wasn’t even home that night to cook dinner — or tell her to look for her brother.
poor police work
And the West Memphis police have been criticized for their work in the investigation. They barely spent any time questioning the victims’ families, even though families are usually the first people looked at in child murders as they’re often the perpetrators. In fact, Terry Hobbs wasn’t interviewed at all about the case until 2007.
There were also problems with the trials, especially Damien and Jason’s. During that trial, the judge learned that a lot of jurors had already looked at TV and newspaper accounts of the murders — something they’re obviously not supposed to do. Jessie’s confession was never played for Damien and Jason’s jury, but they reportedly found out about it anyway. This alone could be grounds for a mistrial. A petition for a retrial was filed on these grounds, but denied. In addition to all this, an “expert” on witchcraft who testified for the prosecution turned out to have received a certification from a mail order university.
And Jessie’s lawyer Dan Stidham admits he wasn’t fully prepared for what he was getting into. He was a much younger and inexperienced lawyer at the time — in fact, Jessie’s case was the first murder case he ever took on. He also claimed not to have enough funds to hire expert witnesses, saying: “My Visa Gold card literally financed the defense.”
Now let’s go back over the physical evidence. Remember, fibers found at the crime scene were similar to fibers found in Jason and Damien’s houses — specifically to a robe in Jason’s house. But they were never proven to match, and specifically described as “microscopically similar.” “Microscopically similar” fibers don’t really have much in common. Even at Damien and Jason’s trial, Lisa Sakevicius, the criminalist who examined the fibers, gave the example of going to Wal-Mart and seeing a rack of clothes that were all made at the same time and “have the same characteristics.” Sakevicius went on to say “a number of people might have that garment in their household.”
In 2012, the fibers were re-examined by forensic scientists. They concluded the fibers weren’t similar enough to prove that they were related at all.
And remember the candle wax? Blue candle wax was found on one of the victim’s shirts, and a blue substance resembling candle wax was also found on a book in Damien’s room. These were never proven to be a match either, and I don’t think the substance on the book was ever proven to be candle wax at all. Even if it was, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Plenty of people have blue candles in their house. While I was researching for this script, I even came across a blue candle stuffed away in one of my own drawers that I’d completely forgotten about. They’re not exactly rare.
So let’s talk about the necklace. There were two separate DNA sources in the blood on it, one consistent with Damien, the other consistent with Stevie and Jason. But that second DNA source is also consistent with 11 % of the white population. That’s quite a lot of people.
While we’re on the subject of blood, there was no blood found in Damien or Jason’s houses when they were searched. There was a decent amount of blood at the crime scene — numerous luminol photos show this. Yet when Damien and Domini were reportedly spotted late that night covered in mud, there was no mention of blood. Did the Hollingsworths not notice any blood that might have been on them because it was dark? Or did Damien not have any blood on him? And, if so, how would he avoid getting blood on his clothes or in his house after coming from such a bloody crime scene?
But the main thing West Memphis Three supporters keep bringing up is the pre-judgement of the men — basically boys at the time — as well as the concept of Satanic Panic. So, what is Satanic Panic? The most succinct explanation I could find was at gotquestions.org, a website that answers “spiritual related questions” from a Christian and biblical perspective. According to them:
“The so-called Satanic Panic was a widespread preoccupation of certain American (typically conservative) groups in the 1980s and 1990s with allegations of satanic ritual abuse (or SRA) in a variety of settings. Essentially, some evangelical Christians and similar demographics became worried that satanic ritual abuse was a significant problem and that an underground network of Satanists had gained control of secular society and pop culture. The “panic” over satanic ritual abuse was fueled in part by media hype, popular Christian speakers, and the readiness of some to believe any allegation of demonic activity. The Satanic Panic therefore bore at least superficial similarities to the Salem witch trials, which were also largely driven by religious concern over the occult and its practitioners.”
Supporters of the West Memphis Three claim they were pre-judged from the start. They were all from lower class families and had been in trouble with the law before. Damien was into some unorthodox religious practices, liked to wear black, listened to heavy metal and read Stephen King novels — all things that plenty of law abiding citizens do even today. Were the boys targeted by police — and the public — because of the way they looked and presented themselves?
In 2004, Vicki Hutcheson recanted her entire statement. Her meeting with Damien and Jason and riding with them to a Satanic orgy — none of it was true. She claimed police coerced her into making the false confession by threatening to take Aaron away from her if she didn’t comply. She also claimed West Memphis police had their minds set on the Three from the start, even claiming they had a dartboard with their faces on it. She blamed juvenile probation officer Jerry Driver for “planting” the Three. According to her, she’d decided to speak out now, a decade after the fact, because she could no longer lie anymore and felt terrible about putting the men she believed were innocent behind bars. She said she wanted to clear her conscience “in order for God to forgive me.”
Aaron Hutcheson, who was now 18, also recanted the statements he’d made at the time. He said he wasn’t sure if he actually witnessed the murders or if “his mind played tricks with him during a period of severe trauma.”
And the Hutchesons weren’t the only “witnesses” who later walked back their statements. Michael Carson, a cellmate of Jason’s, claimed Jason confessed committing the murders to him in graphic detail. Carson even testified at Jason and Damien’s trial. He later apologized to Jason and said none of it was true. He implied prosecutors knew he was on drugs at the time and had hallucinations from them, so he might remember things wrong — and that he might be more willing to make things up in order to get out of his own charges.
So let’s go over some other men who people have speculated over the years might have actually been involved. It’s important to remember that, as far as I know, none of these men have ever been considered official suspects, and all are innocent until proven guilty.
Chris Morgan and Brian Holland
Chris Morgan and Brian Holland were two teenage friends who lived in West Memphis. They didn’t appear to know the victims very well, but Chris drove an ice cream trunk and sold ice cream to Stevie Branch at least once. A few days after the murders, Chris and Brian abruptly left and went to Oceanside, California. They were interviewed there by police in mid May, given polygraphs and fingerprinted. In one of Chris Morgan’s interviews, an investigator noted that he said “I’m going to lie…ok I killed them.” Less than an hour later, the investigator’s notes say: “freaked out….may have killed them.”
Chris Morgan later testified at Damien and Jason’s trial, but I couldn’t find much more information about them or any sort of suspicion surrounding them.
The Bojangles man
Around 9:30 pm on the night of the murders, a black man stumbled into the bathroom at a Bojangles restaurant in West Memphis. He had mud on his feet and was covered in blood. The man ran to the women’s bathroom, bleeding from one of his arms, and appeared to be disoriented. The police were called and took blood samples from the restaurant, but the man was never identified. The blood samples were eventually lost.
Like I mentioned earlier, when children are murdered, the first potential suspects police often look to are the children’s families. The last two men we’re going to talk about fit that bill.
Terry Hobbs was, of course, the stepfather of Stevie Branch. In the years following the murders, he’s come under a lot of suspicion. Interestingly, one of the people speculating about his involvement is Stevie’s mother and Terry’s now ex-wife, Pamela Hicks.
According to her, her husband had trouble accepting and forming a bond with his stepson. A few weeks before he died, Stevie even asked his mother to leave Terry because he (Terry) didn’t love him (Stevie). Stevie’s half sister, Amanda, has also alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Other family members have speculated Terry might have also sexually abused Amanda, and both Pamela Hicks and Terry’s first wife have also alleged physical abuse. According to another report from 1982, Hobbs broke into a female neighbor’s home while she was in the shower and grabbed her from behind. He was later charged with assault and criminal trespassing. According to the neighbor, Terry was angry with her because she’d recently caught him physically abusing his first wife and their child.
His story has also come under suspicion. Terry claims he didn’t see the boys at all that day, but witness testimony says otherwise. A neighbor claims she saw Terry calling out to all three boys around 6:30 that evening, telling them to come home. The neighbor remembers the time because it was a Wednesday and she always left for church around the same time every Wednesday. It would also be a bit strange for Terry to not have seen Stevie at all by that evening since he lived with him, but I suppose it’s possible if their schedules just happened not to cross.
In 2007, a hair found in one of the shoelace knots at the crime scene was DNA tested. The DNA was a match for Terry Hobbs and a friend of his, David Jacoby. However, just like the bloody necklace, this isn’t terribly strong evidence. The hair could also match about 1.5 % of the population — again, a lot of people.
In 2007, celebrity West Memphis Three supporter Natalie Maines posted a blog entry that talked about Terry Hobbs’s DNA being found at the scene. He sued her for defamation, but she won the lawsuit and he had to pay her legal fees. The judge said that “Hobbs had voluntarily injected himself into a public controversy over whether three teenagers convicted of killing the three 8-year-old boys had been wrongfully condemned.”
In 2013, Pamela Hicks and her lawyers filed an affidavit that said Terry Hobbs and “his drinking buddies” were actually the killers. The year before, the documentary West of Memphis had revealed a new allegation against Terry Hobbs. A call had been made to a West Memphis Three tip line by a friend of Michael Hobbs Jr., Terry Hobbs’s nephew. Hobbs Jr. had reportedly overheard his uncle Terry confess to killing Stevie, Michael and Christopher. They referred to it as “the Hobbs family secret.” Multiple witnesses corroborated this story, signed declarations and passed polygraphs, but not much seemed to happen after this.
Terry Hobbs denies any involvement in the murders and still believes the West Memphis Three are guilty. In 2019, he teamed up with author Vicky Edwards to release Boxful of Nightmares, his personal memoir about the murders.*
John Mark Byers
John Mark Byers was married to Christopher Byers’s mother, Melissa. According to many sources, he also adopted Christopher, making him legally his father.
During filming of Paradise Lost, Byers gave the film crew a hunting knife. The knife had blood on it, so it was turned in to police. Byers said at one point that he didn’t know how blood got on the knife, but later testified the blood was from when he cut this thumb while cutting up meant. A DNA test done on the knife was inconclusive.
In Paradise Lost 2, Byers was looked at more as a potential culprit. The film noted that there were bite marks covering the victims’ bodies, and Byers had his teeth removed around that time because he needed dentures. He said at one point it happened before the murders, but his dental records said they weren’t removed until 1997. A forensic odontologist later concluded the bite marks didn’t match Damien, Jason or Jessie.
After the murders, the Byers family moved from West Memphis to the city of Cherokee Village. On March 29, 1996, John Mark found his wife unconscious on the floor. She was rushed to a hospital but, sadly, efforts to revive her failed and she was pronounced dead. According to her autopsy report, IV marks on her hands and feet were found to be from failed attempts at CPR. Traces of a drug called Dilaudid were also found in her system, and she had two fractured ribs and several bruises. Her cause and manner of death were listed as “undetermined.”
After her death, even more suspicion fell on John Mark Byers. His neighbors questioned why he called them first instead of the police when he found his wife unconscious. There has been speculation that Byers killed Christopher, Stevie and Michael, and later killed Melissa because she knew too much. With all the accusations against him, Byers voluntarily took a polygraph and passed.
At the time of Melissa Byers’s death, both she and her husband had pending burglary charges against them. John Mark Byers later made a plea deal in the case that involved him largely paying fines and restitution. In 1995, he was also convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after supervising a group of teenage boys fighting.
Just after the murders, just like most of the parents, Byers believed the West Memphis Three were guilty. Later on, he changed his mind and believed they were innocent, citing the evidence against Terry Hobbs and speculating he and David Jacoby might have done it. Sadly, Byers was killed in a car crash in June 2020 at the age of 62.
John Mark Byers was looked into by police at one point. But, like I said earlier, I don’t think any of these men were ever considered official suspects.
Shortly before the release of Paradise Lost, New York based landscape architect Lorri Davis caught an early screening of it. She became fascinated by the case and believed the Three were wrongly convicted, but had a special interest in Damien. A few weeks later, she decided to write a letter to him, and they struck up a relationship. Lorri eventually moved to Little Rock to be closer to Damien and quit her job to work full time on the case. In December 1999, while Damien was still on death row, he and Lorri were married.
In 2007, when DNA found a match to Terry Hobbs and David Jacoby on the hair at the scene, it was also discovered via DNA that there was no match in genetic material between the victims and the West Memphis Three. Evidence filed with these DNA tests also said mutilation of victims’ bodies was actually done by animals. Damien’s lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, but it was denied the following year.
In November 2010, a new evidentiary hearing was ordered in the case. On August 19, 2011, 36-year-old Damien, 34-year-old Jason and 36-year-old Jessie all entered Alford pleas. This rare legal maneuver means a defendant says they’re innocent, but acknowledges the state has enough evidence to convict them. Upon acceptance of these pleas, their sentences were reduced to time served and a suspended sentence of 10 years. They were released that same day — though they could go back to prison if they get in trouble with the law again.
Even prosecutor Scott Ellison seems to think their release was inevitable. He believes a new trial probably would have been granted otherwise because of the new DNA evidence as well as the allegations of jury misconduct in the original trial. He also thinks they’d probably have been acquitted at that trial “given the prominent lawyers now representing them, the fact that evidence has decayed or disappeared over time and the death or change of heart of several witnesses.” Ellison also knew that if the Three were retried and exonerated, they could have sued the state of Arkansas for wrongful imprisonment.
After the West Memphis Three were released, Terry Hobbs said it was “like ripping a Band-Aid off a wound. It hurt all over again.”
After being released, Jessie has largely been off the radar. I have read that he lived with a girlfriend at one point, but I’m not sure if they’re still together.
In 2017, he was arrested for driving without a license, not having car insurance and driving with “one or more headlights.” (I assume at least one of his headlights was out.) However, despite his suspended sentence, he wasn’t expected to go back to prison at the time unless he committed a violent crime.
Jason eventually moved to Seattle and, later, to Austin, Texas. He founded a nonprofit to help overturn wrongful convictions and credits the Paradise Lost documentaries with freeing the Three.
But Damien is the one that’s been in the public eye the most. He has a big social media presence where he still talks about “magick” and credits it with setting him free. However, like Jason, he also gives credit to the Paradise Lost trilogy with helping with the Three’s release and, in his case, saving his life. He’s released several books, including a memoir while he was still behind bars in 2005* and one about magick in 2018.*
I know this has been a long one so, if you're still with me, thank you. Before we go, I want to mention a website frequently referred to as Callahan. It’s run by two guys; one is a supporter of the West Memphis Three and the other thinks they’re guilty. But they don’t talk about that on the site, which is basically an archive of all the documents and official transcripts of the case — and there are quite a few of them. I got a lot of my information from this site, and I don’t think I’ve watched a single video on the case that didn’t also use them as a source. Major props to these guys for putting this all together, and you can check it out here.