Somaly Mam and the Dark Side of Charity

Since 1996, a non-governmental organization known as AFESIP (from the French, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) has been working to rescue and aid young female victims of human trafficking, operating three centres in Cambodia where the young women are housed and educated.
The guiding light of this effort is co-founder Somaly Mam, a Cambodian-born woman who claims to have been a child prostitute in the ’80s. She has become one of the world’s most prominent anti-trafficking activists, racking up prestigious awards and honours. According to Mam, over 4000 girls and women have been rescued from forced prostitution thanks to AFESIP’s efforts. AFESIP’s fundraising arm, the Somaly Mam Foundation, has raised millions since its inception in 2007.
So it came as a nasty surprise to many supporters when Mam stepped down as the head of her own foundation in May, amid allegations that she fabricated not only the stories of two of her spokespeople, but also her own life story. To hear other media outlets tell it, Mam’s downfall was brought about by a single Newsweek cover story penned by Simon Marks.

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A Distressing Situation

The Newsweek article is shocking, but here’s something even more shocking: Nothing in the Newsweek story is breaking news. Not one thing.

Back in October 2012, Simon Marks, along with Khy Sovuthy, published a piece in Cambodia Daily, “Questions Raised Over Symbol’s Slavery Story“, probing the accuracy of the horrifc story of sexual slavery and mutilation told by Mam’s most high-profile spokesperson, Long Pros (AKA Somana Long). This was just one of several articles Marks has written about Mam and AFESIP over the past two years.

Also in 2012, Cat Barton wrote several articles like this one, questioning the wisdom of the high-profile brothel raids engineered by Somaly Mam.  AFESIP has received a considerable amount of criticism from other anti-trafficking orgs for allowing journalist Nicholas Kristof to “live-tweet” a brothel raid in the northern Cambodian town of Anlong Veng in November 2011, as this violated the privacy of the young women removed from the brothel.
Barton also reported concerns that not all of the women and girls housed by AFESIP centres were there voluntarily; some had been dropped off by police following raids.

In November 2013, Lindsay Murdoch raised further questions about Somana Long’s  account and the integrity of Somaly Mam in a Sydney Morning Herald article, “Dark Truths or Fiction?

Another Marks article, published in El Mundo last year, exposed the same lies that Marks revealed in the Newsweek piece. In fact, there are few significant differences between the two articles. It’s disappointing that the world’s major media outlets ignored such an important investigative piece published by one of the largest newspapers in Spain.

In March, AFESIP launched an inquiry into the allegations raised by journalists over the years. Staffers knew that Marks was working on the Newsweek piece, and apparently realized it was time to deal with the issue head-on. The details of the independent, third-party investigation conducted by Goodwin Proctor LLP have not been divulged, but a statement posted on the website of the Somaly Mam Foundation makes it clear that the investigation results were the direct cause of Mam’s resignation. In other words, Goodwin Proctor discovered that aspects of her story were fraudulent.

With so many people raising the alarm about her, why has Somaly Mam been bulletproof for all these years?

The Long Con

One reason is the compelling stories told by young women she has rescued.

The first of these “pretty victims”, as Daily Beast* writer Amanda Marcotte has dubbed them, was Meas Ratha. Ratha, 14 years old at the time, appeared with Mam on the French TV programme Envoyé Spécial in 1998, only a couple of years after AFESIP was formed. This broadcast drew international attention to Mam’s work, winning Mam the endorsement of Queen Sofia of Spain and the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. She was subsequently able to gain some U.S. government funding, and donations began to flow into AFESIP.

Ratha spoke of being imprisoned in a Phnom Penh brothel, lured there by traffickers who promised her a job as a waitress. She said her father had abandoned his large family, leaving her mother destitute.
Last year, however, she admitted that she and her sister, Meas Sokha, were sent to the AFESIP center in 1997 by both of their parents, not because she had been a child prostitute, but because the couple was unable to provide for all eight of their children. Meas Sokha confirmed this, as did Marie Christine Uguen, a woman who was caring for Ratha at the time of her Envoyé Spécial appearance. Ratha confessed to Uguen, shortly after the TV show aired, that Somaly Mam had selected her to tell a scripted story on television.
Prior to their TV appearance, Mam told Ratha that the trafficking story had really happened to another AFESIP resident, Sokha, who was too traumatized to discuss the events publicly. Ratha was stunned to discover, last year, that Sokha had been featured on the same Envoyé Spécial broadcast, relating a completely different story of forced prostitution.

It was Ratha’s story that won the world’s interest in Somaly Mam’s work, but the young woman known as Long Pros became her most visible success story, and a haunting symbol of human trafficking in Cambodia.

When she first spoke out about her ordeal in a Phnom Penh brothel, Long Pros (Somana Long) said she was 13 in 2005, the year a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to the brothel. The teenager was twice impregnated by rapists and subjected to home abortions. She refused to service the brothel’s clients on the day of her second abortion, and this so angered the brothel owner that the woman seized a chunk of jagged metal and gouged out Long’s eye. She threw the girl out into the streets when the infected, oozing eye socket began to displease customers. Her own parents refused to take her in. Somana was then rescued by Mam’s organization.

An entirely different account appears in Traffik, a 2008 book by photographer Norman Jean Roy. In this version of the story, Somana’s eye became infected after she was kicked in the face by a pimp, and it was surgically removed in hospital. Roy has worked closely with Somaly Mam, photographing girls at AFESIP centres.
Long herself told Josephine Lim, in a 2012 interview for the Australian website Our World Today, that people at the brothel had taken out her eye with a piece of steel and that she was rescued by a police raid.
Asking if Mam had perhaps exaggerated the stories of survivors, Lindsay Murdoch pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald that Somana’s story changed over time, becoming increasingly gruesome and awful.

Two years ago, Cambodia Daily reported that Somana actually had her eye removed by surgeon Dr. Pok Thorn at the Takeo Eye Hospital in November 2005, because of a benign tumour that had been growing for years. Her parents, Long Hon and Sok Hang, confirmed this. They have since refused to discuss the surgery, worried that their daughter could lose her job if they do (she worked for an Australian nonprofit program affiliated with Somaly Mam’s organization).
Te Sereybonn, who was the director of the Takeo Eye Hospital in 2005, says his staff was responsible for Long’s placement in the AFESIP centre. She was not an abused child or a prostitute, but the staffers could see that her family was in financial straits, so they contacted AFESIP to see if she could be enrolled in one of their vocational training programs.
Goodwin Proctor also investigated Somana Long’s story, and it seems they found it to be untrue. The Somaly Mam Foundation has announced it is breaking all ties with her.

The pressing question is, why did Mam fabricate sex-trafficking tales? If her organization has, indeed, saved thousands of girls from forced prostitution, then surely a few of them would be willing to share their true stories. Even if the stories Ratha and Long told were 100% true, though, Mam’s use of these young women as spokespeople for her organization would be questionable. Having to relive their trauma over and over again in front of strangers could delay their own healing.

The Star Factor

Mam would not be where she is today – disgraced and unemployed – without the support of powerful people in business, entertainment, and journalism. She carefully courted these people, going to red-carpet and black-tie events in lovely gowns. She received endorsements from Queen Sofia of Spain, Ban Ki-moon, Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, and Meg Ryan. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Susan Sarandon are advisory members of the Somaly Mam Foundation board of directors. Mam worked closely with Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife. Her 2005 memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, received dustjacket endorsements from Mariane Pearl and Ayann Hirsi Ali, two women who have survived very real hardship and tragedy.

These people are not fools. Who among us, looking into the earnest, anguished faces of young girls as they recount abduction, rape, and torture, would ask questions like, “Is she putting me on?” In the end, journalists like Marks were the ones to ask the hard questions and dig up the hard, disappointing answers.
One of these journalists should have been Nicholas Kristof. He had observed the sex trafficking situation in Cambodia up close. In 2004, he spent $350 to buy two young girls out of a Cambodian brothel. Kristof is a good journalist, but even the best journalists are human. His emotional response to the plight of women in the Third World blinded him to the reality of the NGOs working with those women. In a 2009 New York Times article, he expressed admiration for the work of Greg Mortenson, the author of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson founded a nonprofit to educate girls in Middle Eastern countries, achieving worldwide renown for his efforts, but a 2012 investigation concluded that he had misspent $6 million that should have gone to his charity, and Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million. Like Somaly Mam, Mortenson had also fabricated portions of his life story to help promote his organization. When his lies were exposed by 60 Minutes, Mortenson hit back with angry denials; today, he thanks his detractors for putting him back on the straight and narrow. Sadly, his remorse came far too late to save the life of his co-author, David Oliver Relin. Relin committed suicide when the veracity of Three Cups of Tea was challenged.

Kristof embraced Somaly Mam’s work in the same manner that people had approached Mortenson’s accomplishments – with an uncritical eye and a deep willingness to believe in the strength of the human spirit. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, co-wrote the 2009 bestseller Half the Sky, a passionate call to justice for women in developing countries. This became a PBS documentary of the same name in 2012. Both book and film featured Somana Long telling her story in her own words. She subsequently appeared on Oprah, and her story is still posted on Oprah.com.
It would be difficult to underestimate the amount of credibility that Mam gained by her affiliation with Kristof. His New York Times pieces, his book, and the PBS doc boosted her already thriving NGO into the upper echelons of nonprofit stardom.

Based on a Lie

The fake trafficking victims are bad enough. Then there is the issue of Mam’s own distortions.

On December 7, 2004, police and AFESIP raided a Phnom Penh hotel called the Chai Hour II, removing 83 women and girls to the local AFESIP center. The next day, a group of about 30 men forced their way into the center and removed the females.
In a speech she gave before the UN General Assembly in April 2012, Mam stated that the Cambodian army had killed eight of these girls. This bizarre claim was immediately challenged, and Mam had to  admit that she did not have any firsthand knowledge of events following the raid; she had relied upon secondhand information (from a “reliable source) that eight girls and women had died after the raid in a “series of accidents that may have had something to do with their pimps and traffickers.”

That could be chalked up to a mistaken assumption, but the story of her daughter’s abduction is not so ambiguous. In The Road of Lost Innocence, Mam wrote that in 2006 her 14-year-old adopted daughter, Ning, was kidnapped and gang-raped by traffickers in retaliation for the Chai Hour II raid. When the police found Ning, she was in the company of a “boy she knew”, who acted as a lure for the traffickers.
Mariane Pearl wrote about Ning’s abduction in a piece for Glamour.
However, Mam’s ex-husband and Ning’s father, Pierre Legros, told Lindsay Murdoch that Ning was not kidnapped. She ran away with her then boyfriend. Legros’ version of the story is supported by Aarti Kapoor, who worked as a legal adviser to AFESIP from 2003 to 2006. No police report was ever filed in connection with Ning’s “abduction”.
The creation of false enemies and phony “brushes with death” is something we’ve seen over and over on this blog, among “former Satanists“, conspiracy peddlers, and fraudsters. If you have powerful foes, you must have a powerful message, right? Disturbingly, Kapoor told Simon Marks that other AFESIP employees knew the story was a fabrication, yet elected to remain silent.

Finally, there is Mam’s own chilling tale of survival.
As she tells it in her memoir, Mam was essentially a feral child, living out her earliest years in the forests of northeastern Cambodia with no one to look after her. Her parents and maternal grandmother abandoned her in the village of Bou Sra sometime in the late ’70s, when she was not yet 10 years old. As she repeatedly laments, she grew up without a mother.
Bou Sra was in a remote, forested area that had not been heavily affected by Vietnam or the Pol Pot regime, and Mam was sheltered from modern life. By the time she left the village around 1980, she had never seen a car, hot running water, or a pair of shoes. She had to forage for food and sleep in the open.
Around age 10 she was taken away to a far-off village, Thloc Chhroy, by a man who called himself her grandfather. She was subjected to daily beatings and forced to work in the rice fields. The Khmer villagers treated her like a slave, with the exception of a schoolteacher named Mam Khon and his wife, Pen Navy. This couple took her in, though they had six children of their own. Khon told her he was her paternal uncle, but Mam didn’t believe this. She was just grateful to be unofficially adopted by the family. “Grandfather” exploited Mam until she was approximately 14, then forced her to marry an abusive soldier. Without any medical training, she worked as a nurse in the military hospital at Chup, watching helplessly as soldiers and villagers died terrible deaths at the hands of untrained medical workers.
When her husband failed to return to Chup, Grandfather sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she was forced to have sex with half a dozen clients per day. She was “about 16 years old.” She remained captive there for about 3 years. She witnessed a brothel owner fatally shoot her best friend. She was subjected to brutal beatings, rape, and electric shocks.

By the time she was in her late teens, however, the brothel owners no longer held Mam captive. She admits she worked for them voluntarily, on and off, up until she decided to leave prostitution in 1991, having met future husband Pierre Legros, a young French biologist working in Phnom Penh.

At least, that’s one version of her story. Speaking at the White House in February 2012, Mam said she was trafficked at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade in the brothel. Sitting beside Susan Sarandon on the Tyra Banks Show in 2008, she said she was sold to the brothel at 13 or 14 and remained there for 4 or 5 years. Legros has stated that when he met his ex-wife in 1991, she was working freely as a prostitute, not in a brothel but in an upscale hotel bar. Some biographies of Mam, such as this one at Women’s Conference.org, would lead you to believe that she met Legros in France.

Simon Marks probed these discrepancies by interviewing villagers in Thloc Chhroy who had known Mam as a child. These people say that Mam was not an abandoned child. She was the biological daughter of the kindly couple she mentions in her memoir, Mam Khon and Pen Navy.
According to residents who were there at the time, the family arrived in the village in 1981 from a nearby community. Prior to that, Mam Khon had been assigned to teach in a remote part of northeastern Cambodia – the same area where Mam supposedly lived as an urchin of the forest for the first 10 years of her life. Furthermore, she attended school in the village from 1981 right up to graduation from Khchao High School in 1987, the period when she was supposedly being prostituted in Phnom Penh. After graduation, she and a friend both sat for a teachers’ exam in Kompong Cham. Then, around 1987, Mam left her family home voluntarily. Never, at any time prior to age 18 or 19, was she homeless or abandoned. She was not married off at the age of 14. She was not pushed out into the streets to sell herself. There was no abusive old man posing as her grandfather. She did not sleep beside the body of a dead mother in the military hospital. There simply wasn’t time for Mam to have been prostituted as a child. Again, this “not enough time” issue is a problem we’ve seen many times in Satanic ritual abuse accounts and self-glorifying autobiographies.

Many of the other stories in Mam’s memoir have yet to be verified, like soldiers decapitating a small boy in Thloc Chhroy, and another little boy being fatally wounded by a hand grenade during military training in the schoolyard, and another little boy (Mam’s best friend) being torn apart in an accidental rocket blast.

But She’s Helping Trafficked Girls, Right?

At this point, an estimated 150 women and girls are living in AFESIP centres. We have no way of knowing how many of them were trafficking victims, and how many are simply young women seeking an education because their families cannot provide for them.

As mentioned, AFESIP has been criticized for taking in sex workers picked up in police raids. One former prostitute told Simon Marks she was taken to an AFESIP center by police on two separate occasions, and fled both times because the centre insisted she learn to sew.
This raises the question of what, exactly, the centres do to help women overcome their tough financial circumstances. In the interview below, Mam enthused that her girls may be doctors and lawyers in 10 years. In reality, the young women in her facilities are taught sewing, hairdressing, weaving, and other traditionally female skills that will allow them to eke out only the smallest incomes. Last fall, Estee Lauder announced it will be training sex trafficking survivors at a Somaly Mam beauty salon in Siem Reap.

It would not be out of line to call Mam’s behaviour predatory. She has been exploiting and manipulating vulnerable Cambodian girls to promote her cause. She has brazenly, outrageously lied to millions of people about ordeals that never occurred, which undermines real victims of trafficking and sexual assault. She has collected millions from donors under false pretenses. She has seized a heroine status that isn’t hers to claim. In a 2013 Daily Beast article, she actually likened herself to the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave. I think we’ve gone well past exaggeration, here. This is cold-blooded deception on a frightening scale. We could be dealing with a sociopath.

Most NGOs struggle. It isn’t easy to raise funds and effectively operate a charitable organization at the same time, especially if that organization is anchored in a remote area of a developing country. So when a relatively tiny operation like AFESIP achieves dazzling success and brings in millions, attracting some of the most influential people on the planet to its cause, one has to wonder if the money and prestige have become more important than the cause. AFESIP seems to have a lot of both; the SMF regularly ran full-colour, full-page ads in TIME. The ads didn’t show trafficking victims, but a glamour shot of Mam herself.

Sex tourism has long been a problem in Southeast Asia, but now sex trafficking survivors are drawing in tourist money. Last November, U.S. travel company OmLuxe took 20 people to Cambodia to meet with Mam. They were promised they would be able to spend time with sex-trafficking victims. What if anti-trafficking is becoming the new trafficking? This year’s trip, scheduled for November, includes a lunch with Mam.

The Problem Doesn’t End Here

The Somaly Mam debacle is not an isolated incident. Charity-related fraud is widespread, and it’s very easy to be taken in by slick, professional-looking campaigns that want your donations. A few of the problems in the NGO world include:

  1. Fake Charities/Charities that aren’t actually charitable
    One example of a bogus charity is Pink Pagoda, an organization that claims to have rescued 50,000 Chinese girls from infanticide and is trying to raise $1 billion to rescue a million more. While it has the outward appearance of an NGO, a legal disclaimer in teeny-tiny print on the bottom of its website states that it is not a charitable organization. It is a for-profit enterprise, and an extremely dodgy one. Its founder/director, Jim Garrow, appears to be engaged in the buying and selling of babies. I’ve covered Pink Pagoda in a recent post about Garrow at Leaving Alex Jonestown.
  2. NGOs that aren’t actually doing anything
    Many orgs have good intentions, yet suffer from mismanagement, poor planning, or misguided goals.  NGOs dedicated to ending malaria in Africa (Roll Back Malaria, Malaria No More, etc.) tout mosquito netting treated with chrysanthemum-derived insecticides as the most effective method of stopping the disease. Unfortunately, a 2003 study found that an average of 55% of African households given treated bed nets actually used them over sleeping children. This amounts to roughly 20 million children – an impressive number, but far from enough to make an impact.
  3. Trafficking Activists who may be mistaken or lying
    In Argentina, Susana Trimarco is receiving the same accolades Somaly Mam did. Trimarco became an anti-trafficking activist after the disappearance of her 23-year-old daughter, Marita, in 2002. She insists her daughter was abducted and sold into prostitution, though the evidence seems thin, and has implicated everyone from hospital staffers to the governor of her province. She began to disguise herself as a prostitute to infiltrate brothels, piecing together stray bits of gossip in an attempt to track down her daughter. By some accounts, she has now rescued about 150 South American and Spanish girls from sexual slavery. She has millions convinced that some of the highest officials in South America are complicit in human trafficking, but how much of her story is accurate?
  4. The crying wolf effect
    Charity frauds like Mam and Garrow harden people, making them less likely to donate time or volunteer hours to worthy causes.

* It should be noted that Daily Beast made Mam one of its “Women of the World” just three years ago. Last November, it published Mam’s firsthand account of her time as a child prostitute, in which she likened herself to the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave.

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Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: Stolen Imaginary Friends, Bigfoot Bears, & The Clinton Chronicles Redux

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  • With the recent passing of British comedian Rik Myall, you might have had nightmarish flashbacks to one of the most astoundingly awful films of recent decades: Drop Dead Fred. Or maybe you had fond flashbacks, because you were one of the people who cherished that movie. But did you know that the movie’s title character was stolen?
    Sometime in the late ’90s, I read the fantasy short story “Mr. Fiddlehead”, by Jonathan Carroll, in a 1990 collection of the year’s best fantasy and horror. In the story, a woman falls in love with her BFF’s imaginary childhood friend after he materializes as a carroty-haired, freckled, impish man. He appears only when the woman who created him is in emotional distress. He delights the two women with his practical jokes, childish sense of humour, and magical powers.
    I was appalled that Mr. Carroll had recycled the plot of a terrible movie.
    What I didn’t bother to notice at the time was that “Mr. Fiddlehead ” had already appeared in Carroll’s 1989 book A Child Across the Skytwo years before Drop Dead Fred was released. Somebody had recycled a plot, but it clearly wasn’t Carroll.
    The IMDB page for Drop Dead Fred credits one Elizabeth Livingston for the story. It is her only listed story credit. The script was written by Anthony Fingleton and Carlos Davis. Davis’s only other screenwriting credit is a TV children’s movie  from the early ’80s. What is he doing these days? Possibly working on the long-rumoured remake of Drop Dead Fred, his one and only big-screen effort.
    Are we dealing with out-and-out theft, or with the sort of “inspiration” that Yann Martel used to refashion Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats into a slightly different (but infinitely more famous) story? That’s a judgment call. But I would absolutely love to hear Ms. Livingston, Mr. Fingleton, or Mr. Davis explain how their shitty movie somehow ended up with the central character from a story they didn’t create.
    UPDATE: After additional research, I have found that Elizabeth Livingston is a freelance writer/editor who was a book editor with Reader’s Digest for many years. She co-authored two children’s books.
    In a 1991 interview with Fantazia magazine (reproduced here), Rik Myall said of the screenwriters, “They’d been talking with a mutual friend, Elizabeth Livingston, who was writing a story based on her little daughter’s imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred. They decided it would make a better film than series and approached me.”
    This doesn’t clear up the mystery, of course. It just establishes that Livingston was not simply the pseudonym of a writer who didn’t want to be connected to the movie.
  • Happy World UFO Day! International Business Times has a fun piece about a video hoax that involved both the secret space program and yet another alien corpse.
  • Two years after Melba Ketchum released the profoundly weird results of her Bigfoot DNA study, the group of UK researchers that was conducting a parallel study has announced its findings. Researchers at Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology, led by Bryan Sykes, have spent the past two years analyzing 30 hair samples suspected to be from Bigfoot, Almas, and the Yeti. The upshot? Not a single hair came from an unknown animal. Most were from bears. The rest came from horses, deer, wolves, raccoon, sheep, cows, a porcupine, a human, and a tapir. Curiously, a hair sample from the Himalayas turned out to be a match for a prehistoric polar bear.
  • Mother Jones has compiled one of the largest lists of Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories ever. We’ll be seeing lots of these in the run-up to the 2016 elections. One of the latest, crafted by a JFK researcher who loves boobies, is that Chelsea Clinton is actually Webster Hubbell’s daughter. Morrow also asserts that Bill Clinton is a serial rapist, and claims that a large number of U.S. presidents (including, um, Nixon) were secretly bisexual.
chelsea

Oh my glob, a morphing .gif. HOW MUCH MORE EVIDENCE DO YOU NEED?!

 

Top 10 Stupidest/Weirdest Jack the Ripper theories

Finger-pointing-225x300

125 years ago yesterday, the last known victim of an unknown serial killer was found stabbed and eviscerated in her dismal rented room in London’s East End Whitechapel district. Over the previous two months and ten days, this man had murdered at least four other area prostitutes, desperate and impoverished women in their forties. At 24 or 25, Mary Kelly was the youngest victim of the Whitechapel killer.

The killer had seemingly made a name for himself, quite literally, by writing letters to news agencies and professionals associated with the investigation. One of these missives was signed “Jack the Ripper”.  It is now believed, by former FBI profiler John Douglas and others, that this particular letter was a hoax sent by someone other than the killer. (Douglas and Olshaker, 2000)

Ripper - Signature

So it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what the killer really called himself, or what his name was. Nonetheless, theories about his identity continue to abound, even after countless other serial killers have come and gone. There’s something about the events of that dingy time and place that smear the public imagination like a mysterious, fascinating stain. At least once a year, some new theory about the killer finds its way into a mass market paperback or the pages of the Daily Mail. A few are worthy of consideration, but then there are the theories that are so tragicomically absurd you have to wonder if the writer is any saner than “Jack” was. Leaving out the obvious hoaxes (such as the James Maybrick and James Carnac “diaries”), here are my Top 10 Stupidest/Weirdest Jack the Ripper theories:

10. A “Satanist” named Robert Donston (or D’Onston) Stephenson

donston.photo

Donston entered the Whitechapel saga by way of Aleister Crowley. In an essay penned about half a century after the murders, Crowley relates the story of lovely authoress Mabel Collins, a devotee of Theosophy who became estranged from her male lover (Donston) by a treacherous female lover (Baroness Vittoria Cremers). The Whitechapel murders had already begun by the time this domestic drama was playing out.
Crowley believed that “Jack” was a cannibal, consuming parts of his victims’ bodies right at the scenes of his crimes. So did Miss Collins and the baroness. One day, as they were discussing how it could be possible for Jack to do such a thing without getting blood on his shirtfront, Captain Donston donned his opera cape for them and showed them how easy it would be for a man to protect his shirt with the dark, heavy fabric. Cremers thought little of this until she crept into Donston’s room, hoping to retrieve a packet of Mabel’s love letters to save the woman from any blackmail or embarrassment. In a trunk beneath his bed, she discovered five dress ties stained with blood.
On December 1, 1888, the Pall Mall Gazette published an article (here) in which the anonymous author postulated that the murders were black magic ceremonies designed to imbue the killer with power, in accordance with instructions in the writings of Eliphas Levi. The locations of the murders, Anonymous explained, would form a cross (Crowley changed this to a five-pointed star). Crowley dismissed this theory, believing (as many did) that there were seven “Ripper” murders in Whitechapel, but wondered if Donston had written the article, and if the killer had been following some astrological pattern in his selection of crime scenes (an idea brought to his attention by crime reporter Bernard O’Donnell).  After conducting his own research, Crowley concluded that at the time of each murder, either Saturn of Mercury was precisely on the Eastern horizon.
The interesting story of Captain Donston is exactly that: An interesting story. Donston was known to Crowley only as “Captain Donston”, and it’s unlikely he ever met the man in person. It seems all his information about him came from old Vittoria Cremers, a member of his O.T.O. lodge. Later writers discovered that an alcoholic confabulist named Robert “Roslyn” D’Onston (or Donston) Stephenson had lived in London at the time of the murders, and he was deemed a prime suspect by some Ripperologists (notably, the late Melvin Harris).
In a 2003 book, Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals, career criminal Ivor Edwards resurrected the black magick/Donston theory, positing that the Whitechapel killer really did plot out the five murders to form a giant shape (a vesica piscis). The snag in this theory is that D’Onston Stephenson was a patient at London Hospital at the time, being treated for neurasthenia. He checked himself into the hospital in late July, one month before the first murder, and checked out on December 7, one month after the last murder. Edwards gets around this by pointing out that the hospital was in the Whitechapel area. Security was so lax, he maintains, that curiosity-seekers regularly snuck onto hospital grounds to catch glimpses of John Merrick, the Elephant Man….so isn’t it plausible that Stephenson could sneak out, slay prostitutes, then sneak back in without being observed? Four times?
The evidence here is ridiculously thin, and Edwards pushes the envelope even further by insisting that Stephenson murdered his wife, Anne Deary, in 1887 (it isn’t even known if she died at this time). The only real, discernible connection D’Onston Stephenson has to the Whitechapel killings is that he had his own suspect in mind; Dr. Morgan Davies, one of the physicians at London Hospital. He reported his suspicions to the police, and gave a statement to Inspector Thomas Roots of Scotland Yard after his release. Other than this, and the secondhand tales of an old girlfriend, there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of evidence against Mr. Stephenson. Note that among three people who championed the black magic theory of the crimes, there were three different designs attributed to the killer (a cross, a star, and a vesica piscis).

9. Crowley

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before his Telly Savalis phase

Aleister Crowley was not known to be a violent man, despite rumours that he sexually tortured at least one of his wives. Yet the notion persists in some quarters that if you’re an occultist, you probably kill people. Crowley was portrayed as a pedophile serial killer in the web series lonelygirl15, and more recently has been called out as a Jack the Ripper copycat by historian Mark Beynon and blamed for six of the deaths linked to the bogus Curse of King Tut.
And, since he lived in London during the 1880s, why not make him Jack the Ripper as well? After all, he expressed interest in the murders, and had a theory about the killer. Good enough.
Crowley has never become a mainstream suspect (that is, no Ripperologists have written books about him), but he has been mentioned by fringe conspiranoids who dabble in true crime.

8. Lewis Carroll

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In 1996, an elusive character named Richard Wallace published Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend. It consisted almost entirely of anagrams formed from passages of a preschool version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Sylvie and Bruno. These scrambled, barely coherent verses were supposed to prove that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was one sick bastard, and probably slaughtered prostitutes alongside his friend Thomas Vere Bayne when he wasn’t doing math. This makes for some pretty hilarious reading, as this review shows. Of course, if you rearrange words in Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend, you can probably prove that Richard Wallace is actually Donald Trump.
Sadly, this hot mess was taken halfway-seriously at the time of publication. Harper’s excerpted it, Ripperologists and anagram enthusiasts went out of their way to refute it, and Lewis Carroll fans facepalmed themselves into concussions.
This was not Wallace’s first book about Carroll. In The Agony of Lewis Carroll (1990), he exposed “hidden smut” in Carroll’s books in an attempt to prove that Carroll was gay, which rather works against the idea that he murdered female prostitutes. 

Another writer, Thomas Toughill, sussed out clues to the Ripper’s identity in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, concluding that portraitist Frank Miles was the killer. He published his findings as The Ripper Code in 2008 (remember, kids, adding the word “code” to your title adds credibility).
Even if the passages Toughill highlights pointed unambiguously to Miles, though, wouldn’t this merely show that Wilde thought Miles was a good suspect? He was a playwright, not freaking Inspector Maigret.

7. The Demon of the Belfry

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In April 1895, nearly seven years after the Whitechapel murders ended, two young women in San Francisco were raped and strangled inside  Emanuel Baptist Church. Blanche Lamont, 20, disappeared first. Nine days later, 21-year-old Minnie Williams vanished. On Easter Sunday, one of the church ladies opened a cabinet where teacups were usually stored and discovered Minnie’s body. Blanche’s body was soon found in the church belfry.
Because he was seen with both young women shortly before they went missing, a 23-year-old medical student named Theo Durrant was charged with the murders. He was the assistant superintendent of the church Sunday school.
At trial, Durrant’s defense attorney argued that the real killer could have been the church minister, John George Gibson. Gibson had been a pastor in Scotland until resigning from his post in 1887. Between that time and his arrival in the U.S. in December 1888, Gibson’s whereabouts are unknown.
Durrant went to the gallows in 1898, and few doubt that he was the “demon of the belfry”, as reporters dubbed him. But Robert Graysmith, author of Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, took note of that gap in John Gibson’s resumé. It matches up perfectly with the dates of the Whitechapel murders; Gibson left his post at least 8 months before they began, and arrived in America one month after they stopped. Coincidence?
Well, yeah, probably. First of all, the Emanuel Church murders – while certainly gruesome – were considerably less vicious than the Whitechapel murders. It would be essentially unheard-of for a serial killer to de-escalate in such dramatic fashion. Secondly, Durrant’s behaviour before and after the murders was peculiar. He offered outlandish theories about white slave trafficking to the aunt of Blanche Lamont, and was seen arguing with Minnie Williams the day she vanished. Gibson, on the other hand, isn’t known to have said or done anything unusual at the time of the murders. (McConnell, 2005)
An intriguing footnote to all this is the sensational Salome trial that occurred in London twenty years after Durrant’s execution. In the wake of the murders, Durrant’s sister, Maud, had turned to dance. Though she had no professional training, she was able to establish herself as a performer in England, specializing in “Salome dances”. In 1918, she staged Oscar Wilde’s Salome in London, and came under attack from a right-wing publication. The editor accused her of being a lesbian “honey trap” and a German spy, sent to undermine the morals of British patriots. Maud Allan sued for libel, but the unfortunate fact that her brother had raped and killed two women worked against her. She lost the suit.

6. A mad doctor

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Doctors came under heavy suspicion in the Whitechapel case because it was assumed, at the time, that anyone who could mutilate a body and remove organs in a short amount of time must have some degree of surgical skill. This is not the case, but that hasn’t stopped Ripperologists from implicating physicians and surgeons by the dozen. A few of the most notable:

Dr. Stanley
In the 1920s, Australian journalist and MP Leonard Matters introduced a bizarre theory: That a late physician he identified only as “Dr. Stanley” had gone on a prostitute-killing rampage because a prostitute had given his son an STD. He was searching for one prostitute (out of roughly 800 in the district), so he simply murdered each one he questioned until he found his real target – Mary Kelly. Supposedly, Matters had read the doctor’s deathbed confession in a South American newspaper, but he never produced the article.
Sadly, this lame theory was the subject of the first full-length treatment of the case, Matters’ The Mystery of Jack the Ripper (1929), and became the basis for the 1959 film Jack the Ripper.

Sir William Gull, Royal physician
Though he was elderly and partially disabled by a stroke at the time of the murders, Stephen Knight selected Dr. Gull as the central figure in his Freemason theory (see #3).

Sir John Williams, Royal gynecologist
In what has to be one of the weirdest Ripper theories of all time, Tony Williams implicated his own ancestor in his 2005 book Uncle Jack, proposing that the royal OB-GYN killed prostitutes and harvested their uteri as part of a research project aimed at curing his wife’s infertility. This had something to do with being a Freemason.
This September, an equally ridiculous book was put out by a woman who claims to be Mary Kelly’s great-great-granddaughter. Antonia Alexander claims Mary Kelly had an affair with Williams. He then killed her for some reason or other. The proof? His blurry photo is in a locket that supposedly belonged to Kelly.
You can find details of the Williams allegations in this Daily Mail article. 

Dr. Thomas Barnardo
Dr. Barnardo was not actually a doctor, but he identified himself as one throughout his life. He established a string of children’s charity homes between 1870 and his death in 1905.
Aside from pretending to be a doctor, Barnardo had a more-or-less unblemished reputation as a philanthropist right into the 1970s, when the late historian Donald McCormick suddenly decided he would make a decent Ripper suspect for his book The Identity of Jack the Ripper (though his suspect of choice remained the cross-dressing Russian assassin Pedachenko – one of the silliest Ripper hoaxes ever). Gary Rowlands, in his chapter of The Mammoth Book Of Jack The Ripper, expands on McCormick’s theoryBarnardo’s lonely childhood in Ireland, combined with religious zealotry, caused him to go on an anti-prostitute murder crusade. He only stopped killing because a swimming accident deafened him.
I don’t know about Rowlands, but McCormick was a notoriously shoddy historian; one of my favourite bloggers, Dr. Beachcombing, calls him Baron Munchausen, and accuses him of fabricating a creepy poem that “Jack” supposedly wrote.
It’s true that Barnardo worked in the slums, and claimed to have met victim Elizabeth Stride shortly before her murder. Other than this, how much evidence links Barnardo to the Whitechapel murders? None. Seriously. None.

Dr. Morgan Davies
Robert D’Onston Stephenson suspected Dr. Davies merely because Davies routinely discussed the murders with another patient at London Hospital, acting them out in some detail and opining that the killer was a sexual sadist. As a man familiar with mental illness, it wouldn’t surprise me if Davies had a better grasp of criminal behaviour than the people around him.

Francis Tumblety
Tumblety was not a real medical doctor, and in my opinion could still be a viable suspect. He also had an odd connection to the assassination of Lincoln.

5. Famous painters.

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Walter Sickert.

Sickert, like Crowley, is another person who apparently came under suspicion because of his interest in the case. Most people know of this from Patricia Cornwell’s 2002 book Portrait of a Killer, but Cornwell was not actually the first to suggest Sickert’s involvement. That dubious honour would go to Donald McCormick, who mentioned Sickert in his 1970 book The Identity of Jack the Ripper. Also in the 1970s, a man claiming to be Sickert’s son (Sickert had no known children) declared his dad had been chummy with the heir to the throne, Prince Alfred Victor (the Duke of Clarence, himself a Ripper suspect). According to Joseph Gorman, AKA “Hobo” Sickert, the duke knocked up a poor Catholic girl named Annie Crook around 1885. When the Queen and the Prime Minister discovered this, they were horrified, and arranged for Miss Crook to be abducted and “lobotomized” by the royal physician, Sir William Gull. Someone connected to the royal family then murdered the illegitimate child’s nanny, Mary Kelly. The illegitimate daughter of Annie and the duke, Alice, later became one of Sickert’s mistresses….and Hobo Sickert’s mother. Therefore, he could be considered an heir to the throne. All of these details proved to be false, and Joseph Gorman/Hobo Sickert admitted as such to the Sunday Times (June 18, 1978), though he continued to insist he was Sickert’s son.
The late Stephen Knight, whom we’ll meet shortly, incorporated the Annie Crooks story into his conspiracy theory about Freemasons and royals, asserting that Sickert had been part of a plot to murder prostitutes on behalf of the royal family.
In 1990, Jean Overton Fuller published Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, in which she laid out a theory that Sickert was the one and only Jack (incidentally, she was friends with Crowley associate Victor Neuberg, and was quite familiar with the D’Onston Stephenson story).
Then Patricia Cornwell took on the case. Thanks to her popularity as a crime novelist, Portrait of a Killer became a bestseller and unleashed a fresh flood of interest in Sickert-as-Ripper. In 2012, the Royal Opera House even parlayed Sickert’s fascination with Jack into a moody ballet, Sweet Violets
Cornwell’s theory rests heavily on Sickert’s supposedly deformed genitalia, alleged DNA matches between genetic material found on “Ripper” envelopes and on envelopes mailed by Sickert, and what she considers telling imagery in some of Sickert’s portraits. She points to the blurred or distorted faces of women, arguing that they represent the mutilation of the Ripper’s victims. Sickert was, unquestionably, inspired or intrigued by infamous London crimes involving prostitutes, though he didn’t begin to express this until nearly 30 years after the Whitechapel murders. In 1907 he painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom (below), and the following year he did a series on the Camden Town murder.

Walter Sickert Jack the Ripper's Bedroom

While it’s true that some of Sickert’s paintings are murky and vaguely disturbing, he also painted delightful street scenes and whimsical caricatures of ballet-goers. Furthermore, his Camden Town series was meant to be enigmatic, even baffling, in the style of Victorian problem pictures. And while the DNA evidence seems compelling, it should be noted that the envelopes and stamps from which DNA was extracted belonged to letters widely believed to be hoaxes (e.g., the “Openshaw letter“). There’s a good discussion of this evidence at the Casebook: Jack the Ripper site.
There is nothing in Sickert’s background to suggest that he was prone to violence. At the time of the murders, he may have been living and painting in France.

And speaking of painting in France…

Vincent Van Gogh

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Van Gogh is a recent addition to the suspect pool. Painter and writer David Larner spent five years (2006 – 2011) compiling research for his unpublished manuscript, Vincent Alias Jack.
Larner first suspected Van Gogh while trying to recreate Irises; the face of Mary Kelly simply jumped out at him from within the folds of a flower. You can see Larner’s side-by-side comparison of the Kelly crime scene photo and the painting here (WARNING: graphic imagery). Hello, pareidolia.

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“When you see it, you’ll shit bricks,”

But the painting isn’t the only “proof”. Apparently, Van Gogh is a good Ripper candidate because he consorted with prostitutes, hacked off part of his own ear (Catherine Eddowes’ ear was hacked off), and might have been in London at the right time. Larner also believes – with no solid evidence to back him up – that Van Gogh was responsible for the 1887-’88 Thames torso murders, which are only seldom linked to the Ripper. That’s about it.

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Besides, serial killers can’t paint.

4. Jill

A surprisingly popular theory at the time of the murders was that “Jack” was actually a woman, possibly a midwife who worked in the area, or a wife so enraged by her husband’s fondness for prostitutes that she decided to slaughter as many of them as she could. Possible “Jills” include murderess Mary Pearcy, who killed her lover’s wife and child in 1890 (the only female Ripper suspect to be named close to the time of the murders), and Lizzie Williams, wife of suspect Sir John Williams (according to this theory, she was driven insane by her infertility and began ripping the uteri out of prostitutes). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle favoured the theory that “Jack” was a lady, and his fans continue to put forward female suspects. For example, Constance Kent, who admitted (perhaps falsely) to killing her 4-year-old half-brother in 1865, has been named by E.J. Wagner in The Science of Sherlock Holmes.

3. Freemasons

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This theory was the brainchild of a young British writer named Stephen Knight, published in 1976 as Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, but the elements of it were culled from a variety of sources:

  • Retired doctor Thomas E.A. Stowell‘s article “Jack the Ripper – A Solution?”. This piece, published in the November 1970 issue of The Criminologist, proposed that the Ripper was an aristocrat who stalked, killed and eviscerated Whitechapel prostitutes in much the same way the aristocracy stalked, killed, and gutted deer. This young man was suffering insanity from the latter stages of syphilis, so he might have harboured great resentment against prostitutes for giving him the disease, which ultimately killed him. Stowell  hinted that this aristocrat was none other than an heir to the throne, Prince Albert Victor (the Duke of Clarence).  Stowell claimed this information came from personal notes of Dr. Gull (Stowell knew Gull’s daughter) – but Gull died two years before the duke.
  • The tales of Joseph Gorman Sickert
  • Conspiracy theories about English Freemasons
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The Duke of Clarence

Knight somewhat elegantly stitched together these loose threads to create the mother of all weird Jack the Ripper narratives: The Duke of Clarence impregnated a poor Catholic girl, Annie Crooks, and entrusted the care of his illegitimate child to Mary Kelly. Kelly and four of her friends unwisely decided to blackmail the royal family, and in retaliation Queen Victoria dispatched Dr. Gull and a gang of other prominent Freemasons to silence the women. One by one, they were lured to their deaths. The men kept their pact of silence for the rest of their lives because…well, because they were Freemasons. Bros before hos, yo.
As it turned out, this was all a complete waste of everyone’s time. The duke died of influenza just four years later.
The idea that a stroke-paralyzed physician would drag himself around the East End just to shut up a handful of prostitutes who wouldn’t be believed, anyway, makes for a good comic book and very little else. Over the years, however, people have grafted more Freemasonic suspects onto the theory, including Churchill’s dad.
Walter Sickert, incidentally, gave painting lessons to Winston Churchill.

2. The author of My Secret Life

This theory is weak for several reasons, but the first and foremost one is that we don’t know who wrote the book. My Secret Life was an erotic novel released in serialized form, beginning around the same time as the Whitechapel murders (the exact date of publication isn’t known). The author was listed simply as “Walter”. Hey, maybe it was Walter Sickert!

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In their 2010 book Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, David Monaghan and Nigel Cawthorne propose that “Walter” left clues about his identity as the Whitechapel killer throughout his book. Monaghan came up with this theory after noting the resemblance between passages of My Secret Life and the 1894 confession of Chicago serial killer Herman Mudgett (“H. H. Holmes”), particularly Walter’s description of a corpse floating in the Thames. Never mind that all of the Whitechapel victims were found on dry land.
Even if “Walter” truly had violent tendencies, there just isn’t enough here to draw a link between him and the murders. Weirdly enough, though, Holmes himself was named as a suspect by one of his descendants.

1. Hitler

I used to think this was a theory of my own invention, but it turns out some other lunatic already put the pieces together.
Bear with me, here. This is bulletproof. All you have to do is take the Stowell/Sickert/Knight theory that the Duke of Clarence had a role in the Whitechapel murders, and combine it with a fringe theory that the duke faked his death to begin a new life in Germany as one Adolph Hitler. Sure, the duke would have been considerably older than the man we know as Hitler, but didn’t Eva Braun describe Adolph as an “elderly gentleman” when she first met him?

But seriously, folks, any theory of the Whitechapel killings should take into account John Douglas’s profile of the killer. Based on victimology, the locations of the crime scenes, and especially the manner of the murders and mutilations, Douglas concludes the sole perpetrator was an asocial malcontent who might have worked for a butcher or a mortician, if he was able to hold a job at all. He lived or worked in the area. (Douglas and Olshaker, 2000, pp. 67-70)

In 2006, police affirmed that if they were looking for the suspect today, they would be knocking on doors in and around Whitechapel, rather than searching far afield for artists, dilettantes and Freemasons. They even issued a composite sketch of the Whitechapel killer.

Police_composite_of_Jack_the_Ripper

It was Freddy Mercury all along.

Sources:

Douglas, J. and Olshaker, M. The cases that haunt us. (2000). New York, NY: Scribner.

McConnell, V.A. (2005). Sympathy for the devil: The emmanuel baptist murders of old san francisco. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: The Bogus Christian Memoir Hall of Shame

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Literary fraud is an important topic at Swallowing the Camel. Whether it’s middle-aged women pretending to be teen boys afflicted with HIV/AIDS (here and here), or James Cameron’s BFF letting himself be snowjobbed by a lying WWII vet, or fake Holocaust memoirists, no one gets a free pass when it comes to literary misdeeds. So why should Christians be any different? This week’s Weirdness Roundup covers some of the most egregious frauds involving inspirational Christian nonfiction, starting with the most recent case:

  • A year after diligent readers expressed their concerns, UK Christian publishing house Authentic Media has withdrawn a popular preacher’s autobiography from the market. Tony Anthony’s Taming the Tiger (2004) told the awesome story of how Jesus transformed him from an angry young criminal to the person he is today (I’ll let you decide if that was an improvement or not).
    Taming the Tiger describes how 4-year-old Tony learned Kung Fu from his grandfather. As the book’s cover reminds us, he ultimately became a “3 times Kung Fu World Champion”. His professional debut was in 1984. The following year, he went to work as a bodyguard for international VIPs, including the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Italy, and Cyprus. In 1988 or ’89, his world fell apart when his girlfriend of three years, Aiya, was killed in a car accident. He turned his back on everything good in his life and become an enforcer for his boss, threatening and beating and even killing people who posed the slightest danger to the ambassador. He then became a burglar to raise money for an expensive medical procedure his father needed, and started getting into confrontations with police in Cyprus, where he was then living. He landed himself in jail in Christmas 1989, and it was there that an Irish missionary introduced him to Jesus Christ.
    Upon release in 1992, Anthony returned to the UK and settled down to have a family. He considered himself a good Christian, but after he was arrested for killing a woman in a hit and run (and lying to police about it) in 2001, he realized he still needed a lot of work. His second awakening as a Christian spurred him to write the memoir, which has sold more than a million copies in 25 languages. Its success gave him the opportunity to preach all over the world, and he established an Essex-based international evangelism organization called Avanti Ministries.
    The whole thing imploded when skeptical readers decided to look into Anthony’s actual background. One of the first things they discovered was that he was born in 1971…meaning he would have been just 13 years old when he became a Kung Fu grand master, and 14 when he was supposedly protecting an ambassador. He would still have been a teenager when he ended up in Nicosia prison. Also, the Saudi ambassador to the UK from 1980-1992, Nasser Almanqour, was never sent to Italy or Cyprus.
    It wasn’t just readers who were skeptical. One director of Avanti Ministries, Mike Hancock, resigned because Anthony seemed reluctant to verify the stories in his book. Hancock joined forces with another former Avanti director and a few concerned Christian ministers to investigate Anthony’s claims. Last year, they submitted a summary of their findings to the board of Avanti, the UK’s Evangelical Alliance, and Authentic Media, resulting in Authentic’s decision to pull the book.
    Tony Anthony has issued a statement saying he “wholeheartedly” defends everything he wrote in Taming the Tiger, with the exception of some details that he claims he wasn’t aware of at the time he wrote it. He admits that some names, places, etc., were altered to protect the privacy of certain people. He also claims he recently tried to publish an updated autobiography, but was blocked from doing so by unnamed persons “intent on discrediting” his ministry. Hilariously, he seems astonished that anyone would be interested in the historical veracity of his work (which is categorized as a nonfiction martial arts book in libraries and bookstores).
    Anthony’s statement includes the announcement that Avanti Ministries will no longer be in charge of its outreach programs.
  • The story of “Lauren Stratford” is by far the weirdest, most convoluted bogus Christian memoir tale of the past several decades. In 1988, her book Satan’s Underground was published by one of the top Christian publishers in America, Harvest House. In it, Stratford described a nightmarish existence as an abused child prostitute, handed over to child pornographers and pedophile rapists by her own mother (a schoolteacher). As a teen, she became a virtual sex slave to a Satan-worshiping porno kingpin known only as “Victor”. Victor’s cult engaged in everything from infanticide to cannibalism, and Lauren was forced to participate in their hellish rites. She was the first former Satanist to claim status as a “breeder”, a woman forced to bear children for ritual sacrifice, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that within months of the release of Satan’s Underground, breeders were popping out of the woodwork to appear on Geraldo and Sally Jesse Raphael. Stratford herself was invited to appear on Oprah and Geraldo as a victim of Satanic ritual abuse. Her book became very popular with recovered memory advocates and Christian therapists, and other ritual abuse survivors credited Stratford’s book with helping them retrieve their own “repressed memories”.
    Then, in 1991, the Christian magazine Cornerstone investigated Stratford’s background. The reporters couldn’t find a shred of evidence that Laurel Wilson had ever been abused by Satanists or anyone else, but they did uncover evidence indicating that Wilson/Stratford suffered a factitious disorder.
    Toward the end of her life, Stratford re-emerged as a Holocaust survivor named “Laura Grabowski”. She said she had been one of Josef Mengele’s victims, and even had a touching reunion with a fellow child survivor of Auschwitz, Binjamin Wilkomirski. The problem was, Wilkomirski had never been in Auschwitz, either.
    You can read more about the peculiar Wilson/Stratford/Grabowski saga in Part IX of my series The Prodigal Witch.
  • In 1986, Christian pamphleteer Jack Chick published a bizarre book titled He Came to Set the Captives Free, by one “Rebecca Brown, M.D.” It told the story of a crusading Christian doctor (Brown herself) who was engaged in a life-or-death struggle against evil forces in Indiana. Satanists were dogging her every step because she had rescued a young woman named Elaine from their clutches. Elaine had been brainwashed by the Satanists from childhood, and as an adult was forced to literally marry Satan in his human form.
    Having divorced Satan and her second husband too, Elaine helped Dr. Brown foil Satanic assassins and rescue other cult victims. The duo claimed to have saved about 1000 witches from dangerous covens in the first half of the ’80s alone. Brown published a second book about her battles with darkness, Prepare for War, in 1987. That same year, she and Elaine appeared on one of Geraldo Rivera’s shows about Satanism.
    In 1989, writers G. Richard Risher, Paul R. Blizard, and M. Kurt Goedelman delved into the backgrounds of Rebecca Brown and Elaine for the Personal Freedom Outreach Newsletter. What they found was deeply disturbing. Brown was really Ruth Bailey, and she had been stripped of her medical license five years earlier, after colleagues discovered she had been giving massive (potentially fatal) doses of prescription painkillers to one of her patients, Edna Moses. Edna Moses was “Elaine”. The two women had been living together in a filthy house for years, telling neighbours they were sisters. Bailey was known for her violent, unstable, paranoid behaviour. Edna/Elaine died in 2005.
    Bailey/Brown left Edna in 1989 to marry an ex-con who claimed he was tortured by Swiss rabbis as a boy, and the couple now runs a small ministry called Harvest Warriors.
    Though many Christians recognize Brown’s books for what they are (pure batshit insanity), they remain in print and continue to captivate the more gullible members of the Christian community.  In 2010, a sixth-grade science teacher in Brooklyn was mildly reprimanded for distributing and selling copies of They Came to Set the Captives Free to some of his students.
    The full story of Ruth Bailey and Edna Moses can be read in Part VIII of my Prodigal Witch series.
  • In the early ’70s, a roly-poly young Californian named Mike Warnke took the evangelical world by storm. He was loved for his Christian stand-up comedy (yes, that’s a thing, I guess), but it was his truly sinister background that drew the most attention to him. As he detailed in his 1973 memoir The Satan Seller, Warnke had dropped out of college to lead one branch of a nationwide Satanic cult that practiced blasphemous rites, lured teenagers into their ranks with the promise of sex and drugs, and occasionally raped and dismembered innocents in the name of the Devil. You know, typical frat stuff.
    Just like Tony Anthony, Warnke founded a successful ministry on the strength of his testimony. It wasn’t until 1992, nearly 20 years after The Satan Seller was printed, that a group of Christians published an exhaustive refutation of Warnke’s claims in a Cornerstone magazine article. As writers Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein revealed, Warnke hadn’t been a Devil-worshiping drug addict in college; he had already become a Christian by that time, and spent most of his time doing ridiculously wholesome things that other square kids did in the late ’60s: Bowling, going out for ice cream, double-dating with his devoutly Catholic girlfriend, etc.
    Confronted with his make-believe past, Warnke weakly explained that his Satanic following may have been a bit smaller than he originally stated (around a dozen people, rather than 1500). He would not back down from anything else in his book. A few years ago, though, he admitted to Jim Bakker that he had felt compelled to present a dramatic conversion testimony to impress the evangelical community, and made a joke about “evangelasticity”.
    You can read more about Warnke in
    Part II of the Prodigal Witch series.
  • The same year The Satan Seller was published, Doreen Irvine’s autobiography From Witchcraft to Christ was released in the UK. A prim-looking older lady, Irvine claimed to have been a teen prostitute who was inducted into Satanism in London around 1950. Over the next 12 years, she developed the abilities to levitate several feet off the ground, read minds, render herself invisible, manifest apports, and kill birds in midflight just by looking at them. She was crowned Queen of the Black Witches of Europe. Then she walked into a church on a whim and was instantly converted to Christianity. After a grueling exorcism removed 47 demons from her body, she traveled to churches all over the world, sharing her story of redemption.
    No one has ever extensively refuted the claims in From Witchcraft to Christ, probably because they are too absurd to take seriously in the first place. But the book, and Doreen’s preaching, had a profound and lasting impact that has left at least one young woman dead. You can read more about her influence in Part I of The Prodigal Witch.

There are a number of other Christian memoirs that definitely set off my BS alarm, but the claims made in these books are so unverifiable that there is really no way to refute them. These include:

  • A Divine Revelation of Hell (1997) and A Divine Revelation of Heaven (1998) by Mary K. Baxter. Baxter, a Pentacostal preacher from Michigan, claims she was given walking tours of both Heaven and Hell by Jesus himself, so that she could bear witness to their physical reality. She says Hell is located near the planet’s core, is shaped like a human body, and contains many homosexuals. In Heaven, angels collect the tears of everyone on Earth and store them away in jars.
  • Blood Secrets by Isaiah Oke, as told to Joe Wright (1989). Oke is a Nigerian Christian who claims he was once a ju-ju shaman, and that he witnessed a brutal human sacrifice carried out by his mentor. The person who commissioned this sacrifice is described as a powerful colonel, and it’s quite obvious that Oke wants us to think he was Idi Amin.
    Oke became a Christian while studying accounting at college. As he and Wright tell it, a young American co-ed had annoyed him one day, but Oke was unable to “hex” her even after numerous attempts. Finally, he asked her why she was resistant to his magical powers, and she told him she was a Christian. He promptly converted, and continues to talk smack about Nigerian spirituality to the present day.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: Extra-Stoopid Edition

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It’s good to be back. My ThinkPad finally succumbed to a series of long-term ailments two weeks ago (Hans has a computer, but can’t type with cloven hoofs. I think he just uses it for porn). I’ve now replaced it.
So. On with the weirdness.

  • Folks love a good feral child story. Probably because feral child stories combine three of the things we want most in our Pixar films hard-hitting news coverage: Kids, the triumph of the human spirit, and cute fluffy animals. Sadly, some of these stories are ridiculously bogus. Amala and Kamala, the Bengalese girls raised by wolves, were actually urchins “rescued” by a minister who wanted to promote his missionary work (the famous photos of the wolf-girls walking on all fours were taken years after they died, using stand-ins). Misha Defonseca, the Belgian Holocaust survivor adopted by wolves at the age of 8, wasn’t even Jewish and spent the duration of the war safely ensconced in her grandpa’s house.
    Now we have Marina Chapman, a British national who claims in a new memoir that she was reared by monkeys in Colombia. She clambers up trees, makes monkey noises, and says it’s quite comfortable to scoot around on all fours. Supposedly, Marina was abducted from her family by two men around 1954, when she was 4 or 5 years old. One of them chloroformed her as she played in her yard, and she was taken to a remote area somewhere near the Venezuela-Colombia border. Then her kidnappers simply dumped her in the rainforest for no obvious reason, never to return.
    Marina says she gradually came to be accepted – even loved – by a troop of Capuchin monkeys, and survived by mimicking their behaviour and scooping up their dropped bananas. The monkeys groomed her and led her to water when she was sick, but the relationship Marina describes strikes me as one of tolerance rather than affection.
    Marina says she was rescued by hunters around age 9, only to be sold into sexual slavery in exchange for a parrot. She ran away from the brothel to become a street kid in Cúcuta, stealing food until she was saved again, this time by a family of “notorious” gangsters that treated her like a household slave. Finally, she was adopted by a decent family that migrated to England in the late ’70s. Marina settled down and raised a large family while working as a chef at the National Media Museum in Bradford.
    At this point, no one knows exactly who the hell Marina Chapman is. She says she can’t remember her name, or where she lived prior to the age of 4. She doesn’t recall her birth family at all, in fact. Her daughter Vanessa, who helped her write the memoir, hopes someone in Venezuela or Colombia will step forward to identify her.
    Aside from the obvious parallels with the wolf-girl hoaxes, there are a few other reasons to question Marina’s story. First of all, her memoir reads like a serial melodrama from the early 1900s. It’s The Perils of Pauline meets Tarzan, with absurdly evil villains lurking around every corner, scheming to trap the innocent monkey-girl. Secondly, Marina claims she totally lost the ability to speak Spanish during her time in the jungle, yet regained it with ease some 6 years later. How likely is it that Marina basically learned to speak for the first time as a pre-adolescent, without assistance? She would be the first feral kid to pull that off. Thirdly, she recalls the details of her abduction remarkably well…but she can’t remember a single thing about the family she left behind on the very same day? This whole thing smells.
    And speaking of smells…
  • The city of Quincy, Massachusetts is experiencing some rather weird shit. Perhaps literally. For the past several weeks, citizens have been complaining of sulfurous, noxious odours wafting through town, and at night they’re observing overflights of a mysterious plane they can’t quite identify. Theories range from ZOMG ALIENS to ZOMG CHEMTRAILS, though there doesn’t seem to be any direct link between the stink and the annoying plane. Also, the Patriot Ledger reported last week that the stench is probably coming from a malodorous brown algae, Pilayella littoralis.
  • If massive, non-human primates were roaming populated areas everywhere from Arizona to upstate New York, we would be finding copious signs of their existence; bones, poop, furballs, etc. But it seems Bigfoot only leave behind Blair Witch-style craft projects and magically vanishing corpses. About a week ago, a Bigfoot was supposedly shot and killed by an unnamed turkey hunter somewhere near Altoona, Pennsylvania, as overheard by a ham radio operator known only as Daniel C. This happened scarcely two weeks after the release of Shooting Bigfoot, a documentary about a 2012 Bigfoot murder in Texas. It includes footage of Rick Dyer luring a Sasquatch with some ribs, then shooting it (the Bigfoot stumbles off, fatally wounded, and is never seen again). Before that, in 2010, there was a double Bigfoot murder called the “Sierra Kills”. That incident produced a “Bigfoot steak” that may or may not have been examined by Dr. Melba Ketchum as part of her bizarro Sasquatch DNA study, but the bodies themselves were never recovered. And no one has presented the Pennsylvania Bigfoot yet, either.
  • Alex Jones thinks a magical government weather machine may have caused the tornado that ripped through an Oklahoma City suburb, killing dozens and leaving hundreds homeless and injured. Jones hasn’t seen this mechanism, he can’t even begin to explain how it might function, and he didn’t produce the name of a single scientist or agency involved with its development. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
    Looks like the Godlike Productions Forum guys have it all figured out, though…it was a HAARP tornado whipped up to distract us from government scandals. If so, it was kind of a bonehead move; the tornado itself is creating government scandals.
    Pat Robertson doesn’t know what caused the tornado, but he still says prayer can alter storm systems  if enough people join in. He doesn’t seem to realize what he’s revealing about himself, here. If he truly buys into this prayer-based weather manipulation deal, then he should park himself in front of the Weather Channel every single day and go on the air to tell his viewers to start praying for certain areas. The 700 Club has roughly 1 million viewers per day in the U.S. alone, and if half of them prayed under Robertson’s direction, he could theoretically prevent any tragedy from occurring ever again. Instead, he waits for a storm to hit and then gets all Dr. Brule on us, like, “Why didn’t you think of that, dum-dum?” From this we can infer one of two things: Pat Robertson is lazy, or he just doesn’t give a crap.
    Either way, he’s being a total dick.

The Prodigal Witch Part XV: Stephen Dollins

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Stephen Dollins left Satanism for Christ in 1978, becoming a preacher and a crusader against the occult, but it wasn’t until the late ’90s that he gained prominence as a powerful enemy of Harry Potter and the Tooth Fairy.

The following comes from a talk Dollins gave to The Prophecy Club in 1998 or ’99. I must say, his killer mullet-and-tie combo makes him one of the most striking PC speakers in recent memory.

Dollins was born in the late ’50s to a policeman and a nurse, who for some reason put him up for adoption in his infancy. He was adopted by a Christian couple in Oklahoma. His adoptive father was a professor of psychiatry and head of education at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. This would probably be the late Dr. Joe Dollins.
Dollins believes there may been generational witchcraft in his family (he doesn’t specify which one, the biological or adoptive) because as a child he could “make bad things happen to other kids”, Carrie-style. As we have seen with many of the witches and occultists in this series (for instance, Johanna Michaelsen), some fundamentalist Christians believe that any form of occult practice can imbue a person with supernatural powers of a demonic nature, and that these powers can be passed on to descendants like a curse.

Dollins’s troubles with the Devil began in 1969, with an innocent high school assignment on comparative religion. He decided to write his paper on the inefficacy of witchcraft. This led him to a young hippie couple, Kenny and Christie, who not only introduced him to a wide range of illicit substances, but gave him his entré into Satanism. They said a group of their friends would tell him all about the powers of witchcraft if he attended one of their meetings, which were of course top-secret and invitation-only. “When they call, be ready to go,” the hippies warned.
One month later, a coven priestess called Alexandria phoned Stephen just before midnight. He found some pretext to slip out of his house, and was conveyed to a private home in another neighbourhood (this was presumably in or near Alva, Oklahoma, where the university is located). The house had been converted into a ritual space. Nude women were singing around a circle-in-a-pentagram on the floor. The air was already charged with spirits by the time Stephen arrived, so he was instructed to sit in the centre of the circle for his own protection.
The witches obligingly answered all of his questions about hexes, spells, and charms. If they were weirded out by some strange kid doing his homework assignment during one of their rituals, no one said so. In fact, they took a liking to him because of his “inborn powers”, and invited him to another meeting.

This second meeting was held in a ritzier neighbourhood, in a house decorated with an inverted cross and paintings of Hell. Dollins was surprised to find that one of his old biology teachers was the high priest. He was even more surprised to learn that the Satanic witches wanted to recruit him. “We’ve been watching you very carefully,” the biology teacher told him. They tried to entice him into joining their grotto, offering up buffets of coke, mescaline, heroin, and women on demand. But their talk of human sacrifice ultimately scared Stephen away.

In September 1970, Dr. Joe Dollins died. Stephen says he was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bike.
This tragedy drove Stephen straight into the arms of Satan. He wanted nothing to do with a God that would allow his father to die such a cruel, untimely death. He renounced Christianity and filled out an application to join the Church of Satan, formed just three years earlier in California.

He somehow ended up in Clarksville, Texas (the one the Monkees didn’t sing about). He established himself as a high priest in the Church of Satan there, summoning demons to do awful things to people who annoyed him.
He once tried to hex an elderly Christian women by summoning Astaroth. The demon appeared to him in the form of his worst childhood fear: The Wolfman peeking out of an orange cloud. And it was not happy. “Don’t you ever send me after a Christian again!”, Astaroth-Wolfman bellowed.

This sort of incident is repeated again and again by former witches; their demonic powers prove worthless against Christians, before whom even the most powerful minions of hell quiver. You can send demons against anyone, even heads of state, but woe betide you if you send a demon to a pepperpot with a Bible.
These incidents also indicate that demons are not unionized and have to make their own labour complaints.

                  Picture not related

Dollins seems a bit confused about which Satanic organization he joined. At first he calls it the Church of Satan, but later in his talk he identifies it as the Brotherhood, the same nationwide cult to which Mike Warnke supposedly belonged in the mid-’60s. The “denomination” he describes is certainly not the Church of Satan. He mentions that his former co-religionists believe Satan will triumph at Armageddon, and Church of Satan members believe in neither Armageddon nor a literal Satan.

Dollins doesn’t give the size of his Satanic network (perhaps he learned a lesson from the Warnke affair), but he does hint at a massive Satanic conspiracy of the sort John Todd described. He claims the police and sheriff’s departments of a certain town in Texas were in the pockets of local Satanists, and tells us that one Brotherhood member of his acquaintance took part in animal sacrifice and child abduction (he doesn’t tell us if he reported this guy to the proper authorities or not, but given later events and Mike Warnke’s example, we can safely assume he did not).

In Topeka, Kansas, Stephen wed his high priestess. This is where the powers of Hell abandoned him (apparently, even Satan doesn’t like Kansas). He ended up broke and suicidally depressed. Then he remembered reading Mike Warnke’s memoir, The Satan Seller. The book had been given to him by the same Brotherhood member who sacrificed animals, after he was saved by a Christian ministry called Crisis Answers.
Thanks to Warnke’s book and his child-kidnapping buddy, Dollins realized he could leave the Brotherhood.
Remember, this talk was given in the late ’90s, six or seven years after Warnke’s lies were exposed by Cornerstone magazine. Tying his story to Warnke’s was a serious tactical mistake on Dollins’s part. More than anything else, this indicates that his story is 100% fictional. Sure, maybe he met some hippies in Oklahoma who smoked hash and dabbled in witchcraft, but he didn’t become a high priest of the Brotherhood. There is no Brotherhood. It was Warnke’s invention.

Anyway, Dollins phoned up his animal-sacrificing friend and learned, to his amazement, that a group of Christians had been praying for his salvation for the past seven years. The friend arranged for him to meet with two pastors who love-bombed the hell out of him, literally. He was saved on Groundhog Day, 1978.
This part of the story jives perfectly with the other remarkable conversions we’ve seen in this series. No former witch or reformed Satanist is content to say, “I worshiped the Devil for x number of years, then I got bored with it and became a Christian.”

Though Mike Warnke faced the threat of assassination after leaving the Brotherhood, Dollins mentions no retaliatory measures. That’s to his credit. In the stories of John Todd, Doc Marquis, “Elaine” (Edna Moses), and Warnke, it’s very hard to believe that an enormous cult with the powers of Hell at its beck and call can’t manage to bump off a few unarmed guys who regularly appear in public without so much as a single bodyguard. It makes for some compelling Christian testimony, but in the realism department it gets a big, fat zero.

Dollins has dedicated his Christian life to warning against the hazards of the occult. Now you would think by “occult”, I mean summoning Wolfman demons and putting curses on old women and whatnot, right? Well, Dollins doesn’t get quite that far. Just like the anti-occult crusaders and former witches of the ’70s and ’80s, he decided that the best way to keep kids out of Satanism is to make sure they aren’t exposed to any occult influences at a tender age. Don’t let your kids read the Harry Potter books. Don’t hang dreamcatchers over babies’ cribs; Native spirituality is not Christian, therefore it is demon-inspired. Don’t tell your child about the Tooth Fairy.

Wait, what? The Tooth Fairy?

Yes, the Tooth Fairy. Dollins asks his audience, in all seriousness, “How many know fairies are demons?”, then tells us, “When you talk to your child about the Tooth Fairy, you’re actually telling them about a demon.” *

I thought we were giving kids a convenient explanation for why we take their teeth and replace them with small amounts of money.

Dollins also warns against Pokemon (because it encourages children to become “masters”, seems to involve cute little demons with occult powers, and may cause seizures), Sarah Coventry jewelry (“occult” designs), and role-playing games. “The more you get into the fantasy world, the more it seems real, and all of a sudden now you don’t know what’s real and what’s not,” he says without the faintest trace of irony.

Dollins actually wrote an entire book about the dangers of Harry Potter, Under the Spell of Harry Potter (Global Distributing Services, 2002). It’s not the only one, of course, but it does seem to contain the least amount of integrity. In the intro, Dollins quotes two young Harry Potter fans as “anonymous sources”, implying that these were children he personally interviewed. In reality, the quotes came directly from two San Francisco Chronicle articles, as pointed out by the pro-Potter website Dollins Debunked.

To sum it all up, there isn’t much to say about Mr. Dollins. He wasn’t even creative enough to come up with his own Satanic cult mythos; he just recycled discredited stuff from the ’70s, threw in some weirdness about demonic fairies, and jumped on the anti-Harry Potter bandwagon with numerous other fundamentalists. He followed a script, laid down by Doreen Irvine in the early ’70s, that is now extremely familiar:

– A Dickensian childhood full of abuse, exploitation, and deprivation (Dollins skipped this step, as his adoptive parents were perfectly nice Christians).
– An early introduction to Jesus that would pave the way for salvation later in life
– An absence of time markers (the only two dates Dollins provides are the year of his introduction to devil worship and the date of his conversion to Christianity)
– Lack of detail about the beliefs of Satanists (scripture, philosophy, etc.), but extraneous detail about the practices of Satanists (sacrifice, crime, etc.). Dollins mentions absolutely no scripture at all, not even the fictional tome called The Great Mother that Warnke’s Brotherhood used.
– Helplessness. Rather than being led into Satanic evil through his/her bad choices, the protagonist is usually a naive and vulnerable innocent victimized, lured, or coerced into sin by more worldly people. Once ensnared, escape is impossible. Teenage Dollins was heavily dosed with drugs before being enticed into Satanism. He was just a nice, normal kid trying to finish a school assignment.
– Supernatural events and paranormal abilities are common. Demons and angels materialize, Satanists use death curses against their enemies, and sometimes Satan himself makes an appearance. Dollins caught the attention of Satanists because he possessed inherited supernatural powers, and later trained himself to physically summon demons.
– A remarkable conversion experience
– Complete redemption and forgiveness through Christ
– Expert advice on the occult. After sharing his/her testimony, the ex-witch or former Satanist gives us pointers on how to avoid occultism, prevent children from becoming involved in it, and/or how to expunge it from our communities. There are typically warnings about Ouija boards, Halloween, and occult literature. Or in Dollins’s case, fictional boy wizards and the freaking Tooth Fairy.


*
Please note that Dollins did not mention telling your kids about Tom Noonan. So feel free to do that.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

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  • Leah Haley was by far one of the most interesting alien abductees on the scene today. She has a couple of firsts to her credit: She was the first to write a children’s book designed to help kids view their alien abductions as positive, edifying experiences, and she was the first to claim she was inside an alien spacecraft when it was shot down by the U.S. military. Now, however, Haley believes that every last one of her “alien” encounters was actually a military abduction, or MILAB. In March, she told UFO blogger Jack Brewer that none of it was real; it was all a cover for government mind control experimentation. Farewell, Ceto.
  • In related news, Charles Hickson passed away on September 9. Hickson was involved in one of the strangest UFO encounters ever reported, the Pascagoula incident of 1973. He and his 19-year-old fishing buddy, Calvin Parker, were supposedly levitated into a spaceship and examined by eyeless, carrot-nosed aliens.
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government leaders are proof positive that once you deny the Holocaust (or any major, well-documented historical event, for that matter), you no longer have to live in reality. In June, he declared that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to stoning for adultery in 2006, wasn’t really given a death sentence – that was all a media hoax. An Iranian official had already tried to stifle the worldwide outcry against Ashtiani’s sentence by stating, in contradiction to all previous statements, that Ashtiani was also convicted of murdering her husband (she was actually acquitted). And Youcef Nedarkhani, the Christian minister sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam? He’s really on trial for rape and extortion, even though the court documents only mention blasphemy.
  • Face discovered in testicular tumour“. Stay classy, Telegraph.
  • Who is the artist known as the Philadelphia Wireman? His or her enigmatic metal sculptures were salvaged from the trash in the early ’80s, and since that time there have been murmurs that they’re a hoax perpetrated by John Ollman of the Fleischer/Ollman Gallery. The Wireman’s pieces are currently on display there.

The Prodigal Witch XIV: Linda Blood

Seriously, hell hath no fury…

Linda Blood is quite different from all the former Satanists we’ve seen so far. She actually was involved (very briefly) with an organized Satanic church, the Temple of Set (ToS), and after leaving it she did not become a born again Christian.
She frankly admits that her time as a Satanist revolved around her love affair (requited or unrequited, depending on who you ask) with Michael Aquino, founder of the Temple of Set and a favourite target of anti-occult conspiranoids.
In the ’80s she jumped into the Satanic panic fray, armed with what she believed was damning information about Satanism and occultism, and continued her campaign well into the ’90s with the publication of her influential (but misinformation-packed) book The New Satanists.

Aquino as he appeared on Geraldo’s Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground in 1989. “Former Satanist” Lauren Stratford also appeared on this program.


She Said

Blood’s romance with Aquino is not exactly chick flick material. By all accounts, it began with a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and a piece of Star Wars fanfiction.

According to Blood, in 1978 she was 34 years old and had just relocated from Greenwich Village to a New York suburb with her husband of 9 years. She had a successful career as a designer of something-or-other (the details are sketchy). In August of that year, she picked up the latest issue of Famous Monsters at her local grocery store and read one of Michael Aquino’s Star Wars stories. She was entranced by its “mysterious and romantic aura” (is it just me, or is that the nerdiest thing you’ve ever read?).
She began a correspondence with Aquino, and was surprised to learn he was a Satanist serving in the U.S. Army. She was a bit put off by what she calls his “authoritarian politics” and his love of German philosophers like Hegel, but she appreciated his imagination and intelligence. By his third letter, she was “halfway in love with him.”

Now let’s hold it right here. I don’t mean to insult afficionados of fanfiction (well, maybe I do), but who writes to a fanfiction author out of the blue and then becomes infatuated with that person after three letters? This indicates, at the very least, some emotional issues.
These issues become even more apparent when Blood describes the effect her correspondence with Aquino had on her life. She claims it led her into the “confused and agitated state common to those who become involved with cults.” How does writing letters to a Satanist equate to cult involvement? She hadn’t yet joined the Temple of Set, and to sever her ties to Aquino (who lived in Colorado at the time), all she had to do was avoid licking a stamp.
I suggest it was not “cult involvement”, but Blood’s own actions and conflicted emotions that were causing this turmoil to herself and those close to her. She admits her husband, family, and friends were “bewildered and alarmed” by her behaviour during this time.

Her decision to join the the Temple of Set was voluntary. Aquino had told her she would have to join to learn more about it, and she did. There was no pressure to join, no cultish recruitment tactics like love-bombing. In its 3 years of existence, the ToS had never been identified as a cult by ex-members or cult watchdog groups.
In fact, Blood offers no evidence that the ToS was a cult. She writes instead of the “clannish and condescending” attitude of some members, likening the temple to an exclusive club. This may be true, but exclusivity does not a cult make. In fact, in their early phases of development, cults will take just about anyone they can get so the leader(s) can establish a power base.
She makes much of the fact that Aquino was a psychological warfare specialist for the army, without documenting any crossover from his working life to his spiritual life (by all accounts, Aquino was professional enough to separate the two).

Blood, who claims she had no prior interest in the occult, immersed herself in the ToS. In June 1979 she attended one of its annual conclaves with about 30 other Setians, and met Aquino in person for the first time.

Blood’s marriage ended that year. She claims she and Aquino became lovers during a trip to Washington, and his refusal to leave his soon-to-be wife Lillith caused her great emotional distress.

Michael and Lillith Aquino

Since her love object kept his distance from her, Blood directed her frustration and anger at other Setians. In response, they “emotionally abused” her and ejected her from the ToS.
Her relationship with Aquino continued until early 1981. This was followed by four years of depression. She would phone Aquino and his wife and scream into their answering machine.
To indulge in a little armchair psychology for a moment, I believe what we see here is not a cult victim at all. This is an emotionally unstable woman struggling with unrequited love and rejection, bad choices, and a divorce. She projected her feelings onto Aquino and his group, branding it a cult. This excused all her own mistakes: She didn’t emotionally abandon her husband for a gloomy geek – she was lured into a cult by a psy warfare specialist!

In the mid-’80s, years after her ToS experience, Blood was still out for blood. She joined the American Family Foundation (now known as the International Cultic Studies Association)*, which worked closely with the Cult Awareness Network (before the Scientologists took it over), becoming assistant editor of the two organizations’ newsletters. Her contacts with other former Satanists, “ritual abuse” victims, and their support networks convinced her that certain forms of occultism pose “long-term dangers” to society. This view culminated in her 1994 book The New Satanists, which we’ll examine at the end of this post.

He Said

Aquino’s take on the matter is, quite frankly, more believable than Blood’s. He contends that Blood became infatuated with him after reading his fiction, initiated a correspondence with him, and proceeded to pursue him aggressively for the next ten years. When he made it clear that her affection for him was not mutual, she began to leave bizarre, obscene, and abusive messages on his answering machine. Not one of them is suitable for a PG-13 blog like this one, if Aquino’s transcriptions are accurate. She even heaped verbal abuse upon Aquino’s elderly mother, referring to her as a “Nazi bitch”.

Aquino points out that in letters Blood sent to him during her time with the Temple of Set (a few excerpts are here), she expressed delight with the ToS and wrote fondly of her fellow Setians.

At some point in the early ’90s, Blood finally stopped leaving nasty phone messages. Aquino assumed she had moved on, until he learned she was working with anti-cult organizations that promoted belief in Satanic crime and Satanic ritual abuse. Then, in 1994, a subsidiary of Warner Books published The New Satanists.

The New Satanists

There isn’t room here for a detailed analysis of Blood’s book. Let’s just say it is rather typical of earlier books on the same topic. Satanic ritual abuse is real, Satanists are dangerous criminals, yadda yadda yadda. The only thing missing is the Christian bias, though Blood’s moralizing does veer awfully close to piety at times. She even argues that “occult” crime must be placed into the wider context of warfare, genocide, and terrorism. “Perhaps then we will take effective steps to combat this ancient and persistent form of evil.” (34)

Unlike most authors in this genre, Blood is actually knowledgeable about various Satanic groups in Europe and the U.S., and she makes a few valid points about the creepy links between certain Satanists and neo-Nazi/white supremacist beliefs. However, she goes seriously awry when it comes to that “occult crime”. Among the absurdities she gives us:

  • “According to law enforcement officials, in addition to child and adult pornography and prostitution, they [Satanists] are involved in drug and arms trafficking and serious forms of while collar crime such as computer scams and insurance fraud.” No sources. No examples. People who self-identify as Christians have engaged in all these crimes, so should we also worry about a wave of “Christian crime”? (21)
  • Listing examples of weird S&M porn involving dead animals, gore, etc., she asks, “Where does porn end and satanic ritual begin?”. (21)
  • She attacks skepticism, essentially saying that because of it, guilty men like Robert Kelly and Paul Ingram are being considered falsely convicted. Sadly for her, these are textbook examples of false conviction.
  • “In the West Memphis case, the local Crittendon County authorities had been forewarned.” Librarians had reported books with sacrifice/cannibalism passages underlined, and there was suspicion of rituals and animal sacrifices in the area. I don’t understand how this in any way constitutes “forewarning” of a triple child murder. Does this woman honestly believe such a crime may have been averted by arresting kids who scribble in library books? Should the police have staked out wooded areas to prevent Satanists from legally gathering? The more you think about her statement, the more ridiculous it becomes. (Keep in mind that this book was written before the trials even commenced.)

Blood makes her distaste for Satanism clear, calling it one of many “philosophical hazardous waste dumps” and a “sophomoric junk-food substitute for serious intellectual challenge to dogmas”. After covering its history and its tenuous connection to crimes ranging from graffiti-spraying to cannibal holocausts, she zeroes in on Aquino. Specifically, the Presidio affair and its aftermath.

Hysteria, Hoax, or Cover-up?

In 1986, California parents were seriously concerned about their daycare centres. And you can’t really blame them. For the first time in the history of daycare, toddlers were complaining of bizarre forms of abuse involving costumes, movie cameras, the Devil, dungeons and secret tunnels, even murder. In Manhattan Beach, a grandmother and several members of her family stood trial for allegedly molesting and satanically abusing kids, using a secret tunnel beneath their daycare centre to access a specially-constructed ritual chamber. In Berkeley, a psychiatrist and his mentally ill wife were informing anyone who would listen that their son and countless other children had been raped and tortured by a large group of adults wearing robes and masks. It took the boy’s mother 20 years to admit the abuse never occurred.

And in San Francisco, a 3-year-old boy informed his mother that “Mr. Gary” had touched his penis and sodomized him with a pencil at the Childhood Development Center, an Army-run daycare located on the Presidio Army base. He was referring to Gary Hambright, a 34-year-old substitute teacher who worked at the centre. Hambright had been substitute teaching in Bay Area schools since the late ’70s, without any complaints lodged against him.

Joyce and Mike Tobin did not report the suspected abuse, but an army chaplain who heard the story from Mike relayed it to the base’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). An investigation was immediately launched.
Using an “anal wink” test, now discredited as a tool for diagnosing sexual abuse, Dr. Kevin Coulter of the Child Adolescent Sexual Abuse Referral Center at San Francisco General Hospital determined the Tobin boy had been sodomized.
In early December, about two weeks after the CID investigation began, a strategy group was formed to address the possibility of multiple victims, though there had been no other complaints against Hambright. This may have been prudent, but the CID’s next move was not. Just as police did in the McMartin case, the Army mailed letters to every parent who had a child in Hambright’s care at the Childhood Development Center – 242 people. This letter may have sparked hysteria among parents, causing them to see warning signs that didn’t really exist. Presidio parents began to see nightmares, bedwetting, masturbation, and other normal childhood events as evidence of sexual abuse.

Five of the roughly 60 preschoolers who may have been molested tested positive for chlamydia at Letterman Army Medical Center. However, it later emerged that the wrong kind of culture was taken and the tests were invalid.
The stories told by the children included bizarre, “ritual” elements. One child alleged that Hambright dressed up as a “bad lobster”. Another claimed Hambright murdered and resurrected him. Others spoke of guns being fired, animals being slaughtered, and sex acts being filmed by Hambright and other adults at the CDC. Yet no physical evidence was uncovered during the course of four separate investigations (by the CID, San Francisco police, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco).
Nonetheless, Gary Hambright was arrested in late ’86 and charged with abusing the Tobin child. The charges were dropped three months later, after Judge William Schwarzer refused to allow hearseay statements from parents to be used at trial. The U.S. Attorney’s office decided that without this inadmissable hearsay evidence, the case against Hambright was simply too weak to take to trial.

I’ll note here that Blood gets many basic facts of the case wrong. She tells us that Hambright was arrested and charged in January ’87, when this actually occurred in December ’86.

That should have ended the matter, but things were about to get far stranger at the Presidio. After Hambright’s arrest, Army chaplain Larry Adams-Thompson reported that his 3-year-old stepdaughter (real name Kinsey, here called “Lisa”) was wetting the bed and having nightmares. She had been under Hambright’s supervision four or five times in ’86.
Questioned by the FBI, Kinsey denied that anyone had touched her inappropriately. However, a therapist at Letterman Army Medical Center said she spoke of being abused by Hambright, a man named “Mikey”, and a woman named “Shamby”, on several occasions.

On August 12, 1987, 4-year-old Kinsey spotted Lt. Col. Michael Aquino at the Presidio Post Exchange and hid behind her stepfather. Larry and his wife, Michelle, asked her if she knew the man. “Yes, that’s Mikey,” she reportedly replied. In the parking lot, Larry Adams-Thompson saw Lillith Aquino, pointed her out to Kinsey, and asked if she recognized her. “Yes, that’s Shamby,” Kinsey allegedly told him.

Kinsey was re-interviewed by FBI Special Agent Clyde Foreman the following day. This time she described being abused by the three adults in “Mr. Gary’s house”, which had black walls and a “plastic lion’s foot tub”.  She was taken to the 2400 block of Leavenworth Street to see if she would recognize the Aquinos’ house, and she did indeed point out the residence, calling it “Mr. Gary’s house.”
When San Francisco police searched the Aquinos’ house, they found that the living room was painted black. Despite a yearlong investigation by the SFPD, however, no evidence of wrongdoing by either Aquino was found. The case was closed in April of ’88.

Michael Aquino was re-assigned to Missouri because of the adverse publicity the investigation attracted. In its November 16, 1987 issue, Newsweek ran a story on Aquino headlined “THE SECOND BEAST OF REVELATION”. For the first time, Aquino appeared on TV to discuss his religion, in an effort to allay fears that Satanists like to abuse, torture, abduct, and eat children. This is when several preschoolers supposedly recognized him and told their parents he was one of the adults who ritually abused them in various daycare centres throughout the U.S. (what Blood doesn’t mention is that no criminal charges were filed in these cases, due to lack of evidence. They include allegations against sisters Barbara and Sharon Orr at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.)

Hambright was rearrested and once again faced federal charges (because the alleged abuse occurred on a military base). This second set of charges was dropped six months later for lack of evidence. The federal investigation into the Presidio allegations was shut down in September of ’88. By that time, a group of Presidio parents led by Larry Adams-Thompson were loudly crying cover-up. In June, some of them filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army, seeking $55 million in damages. A settlement was reached, and the family of Kinsey Adams-Thompson received over $300,000.

It’s not unheard of for the military to hush up deviant behaviour on the part of officers. For instance, the prime suspect in the 1959 murder of Lynne Harper should have been Royal Canadian Air Force Sgt. Alexander Kalichuk, but civilian police were not informed of his arrest for attempting to entice preteen girls into his vehicle. The army kept a lid on that, allowing a 14-year-old boy to be falsely convicted and sentenced to death.
But was there a military cover-up in the case of the accusations against Aquino? Probably not. Here are a few factors militating in favour of Aquino’s innocence:

  • Aside from Kinsey Adams-Thompson, the kids identified him only after seeing him on TV. They did not give descriptions of him prior to that time – and let’s face it, anyone who sees this guy is going to remember him.
  • His alibi has never been challenged. He was all the way across the country when the abuse supposedly occurred. During the time that Kinsey Adams-Thompson was in daycare (September 1 – October 31, 1986) he was attending daily classes at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
  • Is it likely that Aquino and his alleged cohorts could usher screaming, crying children in and out of Aquino’s house without being noticed? The Aquinos lived in a fairly quiet neighbourhood, and did not have children of their own.
  • Prior to the ’80s, no one complained of sexual misconduct on Aquino’s part. He had no known interest in children at all, much less sexual interest. This would be quite unusual for a pedophile.
  • There is absolutely no evidence that Aquino was acquainted with Gary Hambright, nor anyone else at the Child Development Center. One has to wonder how a civilian Baptist and an Army Satanist would even meet.
  • Because the alleged abuse occurred off-base, in the Aquinos’ home, it was a civilian matter. For a military cover-up to occur, the Army would have had to effectively interfere with the SFPD and the FBI. Not likely.
  • As the events below demonstrate, the Army itself was suspicious of Aquino and wanted to get rid of him.

The Aftermath

Again, this should have ended the matter. But the accusations of cover-up, together with public outrage over Aquino’s religious affiliation, left the Army feeling uneasy. In late 1988, CID investigators reviewed documents related to the Aquino investigation and picked out what they felt were the six strongest allegations against him. Investigators assembled “lineups” using Oprah footage and footage of Aquino lookalikes/soundalikes, and the children (number not given by Blood) unerringly picked out the real Aquino.
For this reason, the Army “titled” Aquino for indecent acts with a child, sodomy, conspiracy, kidnapping, indecent acts, and false swearing.

There are no easy answers in the Presidio case. Because most of the children were too young to remember their daycare experiences as adults, even they don’t know for certain if they were abused.
But I do have a theory about what may have happened here. I suspect that Hambright’s homosexual orientation terrified several parents at the Presidio. Giving in to fears that gay men who look after children could be pedophiles, some of these parents looked too hard for evidence of sexual molestation – and of course they found it. Everything from temper tantrums to bad dreams could be chalked up to abuse-related trauma. Once the CID investigation began, hysteria took over.

The allegations against Aquino may have been of a very different nature, though. Aquino maintained from the start that Larry Adams-Thompson fabricated Kinsey’s allegations, and the later behaviour of the Adams-Thompsons unfortunately points in that direction.
After receiving their $300,000 settlement from the government, they placed half the money in trust for Kinsey, stipulating that she would become a co-trustee when she turned 18.
Kinsey moved in with her biological father at the age of 13. When she turned 18, the lawyer retained by her mother and stepfather assured her she would be given a copy of the trust documents to review before she signed on as a co-trustee. She had one month to sign. If she did not sign in that time, the money would default to the Adams-Thompsons.
Larry Adams-Thompson promptly filed a lawsuit against his teenage stepdaughter in an attempt to delay the signing process and secure the trust fund for himself. Luckily for Kinsey, a probate court terminated the trust. She was given not only her share of the trust monies, but compensation for her legal expenses, as well. This is documented in an appeal stemming from the lawsuit Kinsey filed against her stepdad’s lawyer.
It is my opinion that any man who would attempt to screw his teen stepdaughter out of her trust fund is the same kind of man who would fabricate abuse allegations in order to sue the government.
Aquino was an easy target, because his Satanism was known beyond his inner circle of superiors and peers. Who would the authorities believe: An Army chaplain, or a devil worshiper?

After his Satanism became a subject of nationwide interest, more “ritual abuse victims” crawled out of the woodwork to accuse Aquino. In the early ’90s, a young male prostitute named Paul Bonacci even accused him of purchasing Johnny Gosch, a 12-year-old boy abducted in Iowa in 1982. That allegation was too groundless to warrant investigation, and Bonacci was never charged with his supposed role in the Gosch abduction. But the story continues to be propagated by numerous conspiracy researchers (and Johnny’s own mother) as part of the “Franklin cover-up”.

Linda Blood’s book, though now outdated and discredited, remains influential. It is often cited as a source in other anti-occult literature.

* Some of Blood’s work, such as this 1991 paper co-written with deprogrammer Kevin Garvey, is available on the ICSA website.

The Prodigal Witch IX: Lauren Stratford Part III

continued from Part II

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Another Frying Pan

In the summer of 1997 a new face appeared at a support group called the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles. Laura Grabowski didn’t share much about her background at first (she was even reluctant to identify her country of origin, Poland). She said she had kept her past a secret from everyone throughout her life and was fearful of revealing it, but over several months she told members of the group a few stories about her time as a child inmate of Auschwitz.
Her parents died during the war, so after Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, 5-year-old Laura was sent to an orphanage in Krakow. In 1950 she was adopted by a couple from Washington state.
Soon, Laura was so close to her fellow survivors that she referred to them as her new family. (1)

There were many gaps in Laura’s story. She never gave her birth name or the names of her parents, never explained how she came to be adopted by foreigners, never spoke of her other family members. She did, however, describe the experiments at Auschwitz in some detail. She could remember the doctors giving the children candy. She remembered Mengele injecting chemicals into her eyes, rendering her temporarily blind. She remembered the procedure that left her unable to bear children. (1)

There was nothing in Laura’s story that indicated falsehood up to this point. Roughly 3000 Polish children and teens were incarcerated at Auschwitz, and 52 of the liberated inmates were children under the age of 8. (4) Mengele did attempt to change the colour of the iris by injecting dyes into children’s eyes, and experimented with sterilization.
But Laura’s Mengele stories were problematic. His subjects were mostly children with disabilities or unusual traits, and very few of them were allowed to live. As the above numbers show, most of the Polish children were murdered or died of disease. (5)

There were other not-so-subtle hints that Laura’s story was fabricated. She posted this to an online Holocaust survivor forum called H-HOLOCAUST: “For myself, the Holocaust is about individual suffering… And if some call themselves survivors who are not survivors in any sense of the word, does this upset the whole survivor movement? I think not.” (1)

Meanwhile, historian Jennifer Rosenberg set up an About.com page to share her Holocaust research. Shortly before she traveled to Auschwitz in 1998, she was contacted by Laura, a frequent visitor to the site who used the screen name Child Survivor. She asked Rosenberg to place a pair of pink sandals at the death camp to commemorate her friend Ana, a little girl who died there.
Rosenberg did so, and said Kaddish for Ana and others. As she wrote on her website, the tiny shoes were a poignant reminder of how young and innocent some of the victims had been, bringing the darkness of Auschwitz into sharp relief for her and other members of her tour group. (3)

Laura befriended another frequent visitor to Rosenberg’s website, Monika Muggli, and the two began an e-mail correspondence. Laura told Muggli she was desperately ill with a rare blood disorder. While she still could, she wanted to travel to Los Angeles in April 1998 to meet Binjamin Wilkomirski, a fellow child survivor of Auschwitz whose widely-acclaimed memoir, Fragments, had been published in 1995. (3)
Wilkomirski, born in 1941, had been just two or three years old when he entered the camps. His memories of that time were repressed until he entered psychotherapy as a middle-aged adult and began “recovering”. The memories he recovered were fragmentary and mysterious, so he wrote his memoir from the perspective of a young, confused child. Tanks became “big gray monsters”, and the inmates’ uniforms became pajamas. (2)
Laura and Wilkomirski had been corresponding since the previous year, and could recall meeting each other in Auschwitz and in a Krakow orphanage.
Their experiences had been stunningly similar. They were the same age. They had both been adopted by Christians after the war, and raised away from their countries of origin. They had both been victims of Mengele, and both suffered blood diseases they believed to be caused by the medical experiments. Binjamin could vividly recall Laura’s white-blonde hair (their heads had not been shaved, leading Binjamin to conclude they were probably unregistered inmates). They compared notes and realized they both had their coccyx bones broken by the camp doctors. They had so much to share.
Sadly, Laura’s California doctors said she must fly first-class to make sure she received the attention her fragile condition required, and she simply couldn’t afford the airfare to L.A.
Muggli promptly sent $1000 to her American friend. (3)

Bruno Grosjean, AKA Binjamin Wilkomirski

The meeting between two child survivors drew international media attention. The BBC recorded a concert held at a Beverly Hills synagogue on April 19 (Holocaust Remembrance Day), in which Mr. Wilkomirski played his clarinet and Laura Grabowski sang an original piece, “Ode to the Little Ones”. Incredibly, though they had met only briefly 50 years earlier, Binjamin recognized Laura on sight. He movingly described how he was sitting disconsolately in the mud, believing himself to be the last child in the camp, when white-haired Laura and her little friend Ana appeared hand-in-hand.
Laura admitted she didn’t remember Binjamin right away, but eventually realized he was the boy known as “Andrzej”. She told the BBC, “He’s my Binje, that’s all I know.”
A local Jewish newspaper noted that Wilkomirski was helping his long-lost friend reconstruct her half-remembered childhood memories, her own “fragments”. (3)

Exposed, Again

Somehow, Jon Trott or the Passantinos learned that Laura Grabowski could be Laurel Willson/Lauren Stratford. This was quickly confirmed. Documents signed by Grabowski included Laurel’s Social Security number and address, and in one letter Laura signed her name “Laura Stratford-Grabowski”. As mentioned in Part I of this post, Grabowski was the maiden name of Laurel’s mother, Rose Willson. Anton and Rosalio Grabowski emigrated from Poland in the 1890s. They were lifelong Catholics.
The three writers also compared signatures of Laura and Laurel, finding them nearly identical. Photos of Laura showed a distinct resemblance to old photos and film footage of Lauren Stratford.
The Cornerstone team learned that Stratford/Grabowski had applied to the World Jewish Restitution Organization. An anonymous source told them that in ’98 and ’99 Jewish Family Services made 24 disbursements to Grabowski, totaling $2,188. (1)

Laurel Willson was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington in 1941, and the Willsons began adoption proceedings within days of her birth. She did not live in Poland until the age of 10. In fact, she had never left the U.S. at all. The entire story was a fantasy. Family photos provided to the Cornerstone researchers by Laurel’s sister, Willow, show Willow and Laurel together as little girls. In one photo, they pose with a group of nuns.
In her books, Lauren/Laurel said she was abused from the age of four by her mother, Satanists, pedophiles, and child pornographers. She gave detailed descriptions of her life in Washington before the age of 10, descriptions that evangelistic Christians like Johanna Michaelsen and Hal Lindsey found highly convincing. Those stories were not true, and the Holocaust stories of “Laura Grabowski” were not true.

The Holocaust survivor community that had become Laura’s family didn’t know how to respond to the revelation that she was a Gentile who had never lived abroad. Jen Rosenberg told Forward magazine she didn’t want to deal with the issue at all. (3)

And what of Laura’s long-lost friend from Auschwitz, Binjamin? As you may know, he was also a fraud. In August 1998, the Swiss news magazine Weltwoche published an article by writer Daniel Ganzfried, laying out evidence that Wilkomirski was really a Swiss Gentile by the name of Bruno Grosjean. Grosjean had remained in Switzerland throughout the war, and was never in a Polish orphanage. His father was not killed in Latvia. He never knew his father. His mother did not die in the camps. (2)
Wilkomirski initially responded to the allegations by explaining he had been given the name of a Christian boy, Bruno, after the war. This satisfied many of his admirers. (2)
However, Ganzfried’s findings were confirmed a year later by Stefan Machler, the historian hired by Wilkomirski’s literary agency. He uncovered still more damning information: When Yvonne Grosjean died in 1981, Bruno contested her will because he knew he was her illegitimate child.
More damning still was Bruno’s “recognition” of Laura Grabowski, a woman who had never been in Auschwitz.

DNA tests conducted in 2002 showed that Bruno Grosjean’s biological mother, Yvonne, and “Wilkomirski” were indeed mother and son. There is absolutely no question that “Binjamin” the Latvian Holocaust survivor was really Bruno Grosjean, born 1941 in Switzerland and adopted by the Dössekker family of Zurich in 1948. (3)

It is quite obvious that Laurel Willson mined Fragments for information about the Holocaust. She placed herself in a Krakow orphanage, just like Wilkomirski.

Of the two hoaxes perpetrated by Laurel Willson, this one was probably more damaging. Though short-lived in relation to her Satanic cult hoax, it defrauded at least one organization that could have been assisting a real Holocaust survivor. And like other Holocaust memoir hoaxes, it has been used by Holocaust deniers to argue that all such memoirs are fictional.

The stories of Lauren Stratford and Binjamin Wilkomirski were known to be “recovered memories”. While there are indications that traumatic memories can sometimes be forgotten and spontaneously recalled, this would seem to be an exception to the rule; most memories of traumatic events are consciously recalled. For this reason alone, those eager to promote their stories should have verified them to the greatest possible extent before making them public.

This entire sad affair mirrors the meeting between Eugenia Smith, a woman who pretended to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and Mikhail Goleniewsky, a man who pretended to be the Tsarevtch Alexei. The two “siblings” instantly recognized each other. Later, as their credibility eroded, both denounced the other as a fraud.

The End of the Underground

Lauren Stratford never publicly responded to the exposure of her Holocaust imposture. Nor did she recant any of her Satanic testimony, though the two overlapping accounts wildly contradicted each other. No evidence ever surfaced to validate either version of her life story, so her former supporters quietly backed away from Satan’s Underground.
None of the people who helped promote Lauren’s story have expressed regret for failing to verify even the most basic details before presenting her terrifying tales to the public.

Lauren Stratford passed away in California in April 2002. To my knowledge, she remained estranged from her adoptive family to the end of her life.

It is now generally accepted that the woman known as Laurel Willson, Lauren Stratford, and Laura Grabowski confabulated her stories of Satanism and Holocaust survival. There are only a few diehards who insist Satan’s Underground was factual, like Satanic ritual abuse survivor Gregory Reid. As late as 2002, Reid defended the veracity of Lauren’s account and hinted that the Cornerstone writers were complicit in a cover-up of the “real” story. He brought no evidence to the table.

Examing how and why Satan’s Underground came to be, and why it affected so many people, offers us invaluable lessons about critical thinking. If only Joanna Michealsen, Hal Lindsey, Pat Robertson, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, and the other SRA advocates of the late ’80s had learned them…


Sources:


1.
“Lauren Stratford: From Satanic Ritual Abuse to Jewish Holocaust Survivor” by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine. Vol. 28, Issue 117 (October 1999).
2. The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth by Stefan Machler (Random House, 2001)
3. A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski by Blake Eskin (W.W. Norton, 2002)
4. The “Children in Auschwitz” page of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum website
5. Mengele: The Complete Story by Gerald Posner and John Ware (McGraw-Hill, 1986)

The Prodigal Witch IX: Lauren Stratford Part II

continued from Part I

Unearthing the Underground

In 1989, Christian authors Bob and Gretchen Passantino teamed up with Jon Trott, one of the Cornerstone magazine writers who would expose Mike Warnke’s deceptions in 1991, to investigate the story told in Satan’s Underground. They had been alerted to possible problems with Lauren Stratford’s testimony by another Cornerstone researcher, Eric Pement. A colleague expressed doubts about Stratford’s credibility to Pement after he booked Lauren as a speaker at the Rockford Conference on Discernment and Evangelism. (2)
The Passantinos were extremely skeptical of Satanic ritual abuse stories, and realized that Christian writers played a role in fomenting the hysteria.

As with Warnke’s The Satan Seller, nearly everything in Satan’s Underground turned out to be at odds with the facts. First of all, “Lauren Stratford” was really Laurel Willson. Secondly, the chronology was wonky. Willson was born in 1941 (as I guessed, she grew up in Washington state), so if her timeline is accurate she ran away from her adoptive mother in 1956, met Victor in 1959, and left Victor’s cult when her father died in 1960.

Trott and the Passantinos learned that Laurel’s adoptive father, physician Frank Willson, left the family when Laurel was nine years old, not when she was four. He died in 1965. This means Laurel was twenty-four years old, not twenty, at the time of his death. And Laurel lived with both her adoptive mother and father at various times after the age of fifteen.

This timeline, which makes Laurel Willson a good deal older than Lauren was when she was supposedly a virtual hostage of Victor’s Satanic porn empire, undermines the impression given in Satan’s Underground that Lauren was a dewy innocent during her year as a Satanist. She would actually have been in her mid-twenties and out of college.
Lauren had gone to great lengths to prove to us she was never a Satanist by choice, that everything she did was done under duress. This would be easier to believe of a 19-year-old who had never lived away from home.

More surprising was the fact that Laurel had a sister, Willow. Though Lauren didn’t explicitly state she had no siblings, she strongly implied she was totally alone with her deranged mother after her father left the family. This was not the case. Laurel and Willow often visited their maternal grandfather, Anton Grabowski, in Tacoma. (4)

And what of Lauren’s adoptive mother? Was she really a demented, violent, raging harpy who allowed homeless drunks to rape four-year-old Laurel? Did she really invite child porn film crews to set up shop in her basement? Did she beat Laurel and abuse Frank so viciously he ended up in hospital on several occasions?

Rose Willson was a schoolteacher. In 1941, the year they began adoption proceedings for Laurel, she and Frank lived in the town of Buckley, Washington, not far from Tacoma. Willow was five years old.
The Willsons were older parents. Frank Willson, born around 1899, earned his medical degree from Loyola University in 1926.
According to Willow, the Willsons were devout members of the local Bible Presbyterian Church, and raised their daughters in a “very sheltered, strict Christian” environment. Both had volatile tempers and argued frequently, but Willow says their anger was not directed at her or Laurel.
Willow described Rose Willson as straightlaced. In her opinion, her mother would never have become involved with child pornography. (3)
At any rate, it would have been very difficult for a middle-class Tacoma woman to do in the early ’40s. It’s very unlikely Rose Willson herself had been a victim of child pornographers, having grown up in pre-WWI Tacoma.

Willow’s and Laurel’s upbringing was completely average for small-town kids in the ’40s. They made trips to the beach, played in local parks, and rode their bikes around the neighborhood. The Willsons fostered Laurel’s musical talent by paying for lessons in voice and various instruments. As a teen, Laurel was part of a singing trio and belonged to several school clubs. (3)
Recall that in Satan’s Underground, Laurel claimed she was deprived of toys, outings, and extracurricular activities throughout her childhood.

In short, Willow noticed nothing out of the ordinary in the Willson household. She was a Christian missionary in 1989, so she was probably not just covering up her family’s alleged Satanic porn activities. (2)

Other parts of Lauren’ story were at least partially true. Laurel did run away from home (around the age of sixteen), and was sent to live with Frank at his new home in San Bernardino, California. However, she didn’t stay there long. She returned voluntarily to her mother’s home in Tacoma. This fully contradicts Lauren’s claim that she escaped her mother’s nightmarish household and never looked back. (3)

Interestingly, there have been many rumours of Satanic cult activity in and around San Bernardino. It was at San Bernardino Valley College, Mike Warnke claimed, that he was recruited into the violent Satanic sect known as The Brotherhood.
Crackpot “mind control researcher and deprogrammer” Fritz Springmeier (who got out of prison last year after serving seven years for his role in an armed robbery) states in his nonsensical article about the “McDonald bloodline” that San Bernardino is a “major headquarters for the Illuminati and Satanic Hubs”, with thousands of black magic practitioners residing in the area. Springmeier is a major purveyor of misinformation about the occult. He claims to have deprogrammed an Illuminati slave called Cisco Wheeler, and together they authored several books about Illuminati mind control. He vociferously defended “former Illuminati member” John Todd after Todd’s stories were shown to be fraudulent.
In addition to the nonsense of Warnke and Springmeier, Devil Canyon in San Bernardino has supposedly been the site of Satanic rituals involving animal mutilation. But these stories weren’t circulating when Laurel lived in the area. The rumours reportedly began in 1981, after the Kimberly Crest mansion in Redlands was used in the filming of the slasher flick Hell Night.

For a time, 17-year-old Laurel lived with Willow’s family in Seattle. This is when signs of severe emotional problems began to surface. She accused Willow’s husband of sexually molesting her, the first of many sex abuse allegations she would make. In 1959, shortly after enrolling at Seattle Pacific College (a Christian school now called Seattle Pacific University), Laurel told a classmate she had been forced into prostitution by her mother and molested by staff members. According to Willow, Laurel admitted to the dean that she had fabricated these stories to “impress” her friend. Shortly after this incident, she made her first suicide attempt by cutting her wrists. (3)
By the Satan’s Underground timeline, Lauren was in California, hopelessly addicted to pills and under the control of the pornographer Tony and his minions.

Laurel’s condition seemed to improve when she returned to San Bernardino and enrolled as a music major at the University of Redlands (then a Baptist school that required daily chapel attendance). She became the choir director at a First Assembly of God church. On the surface her life was back on track, but she told friends her father was molesting her, and made numerous suicide attempts over the next six years.
In 1962, she attached herself to an older Christian couple and moved in with them. Seeking sympathy and stability in the homes of others would become a lifelong pattern for Laurel. This eerily parallels the behaviour of “serial teenager” Treva Throneberry, who attached herself to Christian families and falsely accused several men of sexually abusing her. Treva, too, told horrific tales of Satanic ritual abuse.

Laurel lived with Norman and Billie Gordon for nearly a year, and required far more attention than their children. She told them her mother had died when she was very young, and her stepmother abused her physically and sexually. On one occasion she showed up at the Gordons’ home with a bruised forehead, claiming her stepmom had bashed her with a can of peaches. Under questioning, she admitted it was a lie.
She experienced periods of hysterical blindness that she later admitted were fake – which sheds some light on the episode of blindness recounted in Satan’s Underground (supposedly experienced on the day she ran away from home). She engaged in self-mutilation.
The Gordons washed their hands of Laurel after she lunged at Billie with a broken vase. (3)

Laurel returned to live with her father and attended another First Assembly of God church. She told a friend that two lesbians in the congregation had seduced her. It’s highly unlikely that even one lesbian would attend a Pentacostal church.
Despite her emotional turmoil, Laurel earned her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Redlands in 1964. Then she left home without telling anyone where she was going, and pretended to be a drug addict to gain entrance to an L.A. rehab program called Teen Challenge (she was twenty-three at the time).
After her father’s death in 1965, Laurel lived on her own and held down a job as a music teacher at Hemet Junior High School. In ’66 she married a younger man, a minister’s son, after three or four dates. The marriage was annulled two months later. (3)
None of these events are mentioned in Satan’s Underground.

In January 1968 Laurel left Hemet Junior High. She later told people she worked as a guard or a counselor at the California Institute for Women in Chino from 1969 to 1971, but there is no record of her employment there. If she did work at the Institute, it was her last job outside the home.
During this period, Laurel sang with a gospel trio called Delpha and the Witnesses. In ’71, she lived for a time with the family of group member Ken Sanders in Bakersfield, and she remained in Bakersfield for the rest of her life. She told Sanders and Delpha Nichols that her mother and several men had sexually abused her “in the name of Christ.” This abuse had been so brutal that she doubted she could bear children, she told them. She didn’t mention Satanism or Satanic ritual abuse at all until the ’80s, after the publication of Michelle Remembers.
Nichols and her husband, Willie, were so touched by this damaged woman that they legally adopted Laurel when she was thirty years old. But she continued to seek support from others. To a church friend, she related stories of abuse that the woman later realized were drawn from the book Sybil. Clearly, Stratford was familiar with Multiple Personality Disorder long before she was diagnosed as having it, and was not above passing off others’ suffering as her own. (3)

By now, Laurel’s mental instability was obvious to everyone who knew her. It prevented her from working outside her home (she gave private piano lessons and drew mental disability payments), singing with a group (Delpha and the Witnesses split in ’74), or maintaining relationships. She put such tremendous demands on one close friend’s time that the woman began to feel alienated from her family, and attempted suicide. Laurel deliberately estranged herself from her mother and Willow in the late ’70s, telling them she had a new family. (3)

Enter Satanic Panic: Bakersfield and McMartin

It was California’s pedophile ring hysteria and daycare ritual abuse allegations that led Laurel on a circuitous route to Johanna Michaelsen and Hal Lindsey, the people who would make her story famous. Without her marginal involvement in two infamous cases, Lauren may never have met them at all and her bizarre stories would never have been believed.

Unfortunately, by sheer chance, Laurel happened to live in a city in which sex-abuse hysteria and Satanic panic would establish a firm grip in the mid-’80s. It all began in 1982, when 38-year-old Mary Ann Barbour learned that one of her husband’s granddaughters, 7-year-old Becky McCuan, may have been touched inappropriately by a family member. Barbour was furious that the alleged abuse hadn’t been reported to the authorities (though Becky had undergone therapy, and visits with the family member were supervised). She decided the McCuans were unfit to parent their two daughters or to continue running a daycare centre in their home. Questioning her stepdaughters closely, she “discovered” they were abused not just by one relative, but by a huge group of local pedophiles – including their own parents. The Barbours were granted custody of the two girls.
The investigation mushroomed into a literal witch hunt. For the next three years, children were aggressively interrogated until they “revealed” horrific abuse that included torture, murder, child pornography, and Satanic rituals. Many of these children later recanted their testimony, and 34 of the 36 convictions in the case were overturned on appeal, but the damage has been permanent for some families. Alvin and Debbi McCuan, for instance, weren’t released from prison until 1996, and remain estranged from their daughters to this day. (5)

Laurel contacted a foster parent involved in the Bakersfield case, Pat Thornton, to say she feared for her life because she had inside information about the perpetrators – Satanic cultists.
Laurel fell into her usual pattern with Thornton. She called her at all hours with emotional crises, demanding attention. She said she had been a “love slave” to a Satanist named Jonathan for many years. Jonathan belonged to a huge Satanic pedophile/pornography ring involved in the Bakersfield abuse. It was headed by man known as Elliot.
Laurel had been an unwilling cult member her entire life, as both of her parents had been members. She was sexually abused by both of them. Her youth had been spent in a farmhouse basement. She had lost more than one child to human sacrifice. The first, Joey, died when she was fifteen, and she said she still possessed an audio recording of his death. For two years, she had been confined to a Los Angeles warehouse along with other cult breeders.
Laurel was enrolled in high school and living with her mother and sister at age fifteen. According to Willow and others who knew her during that time, she was never pregnant.
Laurel told Thornton she began to resist the cult after her father died in 1983. She wanted to leave the cult and expose it, but Jonathan and Elliot continued to force her to attend late-night ceremonies that included ritualistic sexual abuse of preschoolers. This was ongoing in 1985, yet in her book Laurel would say she left Satanism over two decades earlier. (3)

If Laurel could meet privately with individuals involved in a high-profile child abuse investigation, what prevented her from leaving the cult? Surely, if Jonathan and Elliot allowed her enough freedom to associate with “the enemy” on numerous occasions without any interference, she had enough freedom to slip out of the area?

Laurel also claimed to have inside information about the McMartin preschool case; members of her cult were involved in that, too. She said she had a lesbian affair with one of the accused, Virginia McMartin. No evidence has ever emerged to indicate that the elderly Mrs. McMartin, who died at the age of eighty-eight in 1995, was a lesbian.
Pat Thornton didn’t believe Laurel really had inside information. Nonetheless, she arranged for her to meet with a private investigator working for some of the McMartin parents, Judy Hanson. Laurel appeared for the meeting in a wheelchair, carting an oxygen tank. She told Hanson she was terminally ill. Again, this speaks against the notion that Satanists were forcing her to attend rituals. Would Jonathan and his fellow cultists really haul Laurel’s wheelchair and medical equipment to and from remote sites just so she could be witness to their abuse of children? Even if this was happening, couldn’t she seek shelter in a hospice (or impose herself on strangers, as she so frequently did)?
McMartin parent Bob Currie video-recorded Laurel’s testimony and shared it with several other McMartin parents. They all agreed her story was not credible, and could end up damaging their case. All of the details she offered were either unverifiable or had already been made public in media reports. The district attorney, Colleen Ryan, reached the same conclusion.
It was Currie who provided Johanna Michaelsen’s contact information to Laurel, at Laurel’s request. (3)

Virginia McMartin during her trial

As mentioned in my thumbnail sketch of Johanna Michaelsen, Michaelsen was aware of the contents of Laurel’s McMartin-related testimony before Satan’s Underground was published. She admitted to the Cornerstone writers that she didn’t know if it was true or not. (3)
This is a damning admission, because the McMartin testimony flatly contradicts Laurel’s later testimony, having a completely different timeline and very different details. In this earlier account, Satanism had always been part of Laurel’s life and she was still active in it during the mid-’80s. Why would Michaelsen overlook these inconsistencies and uncritically accept Laurel’s later stories? Why would her brother-in-law lie about having documentation? Why would Harvest House publish such a disturbing memoir without securing any evidence that it was, in fact, a memoir? According to Cornerstone, the publisher received nothing more than character references from people who hadn’t know Laurel very long. No one from Harvest House contacted Laurel’s family to confirm even the most basic information. (3)

If Laurel really possessed all the evidence she claimed to have, and if her stories were accurate, prosecutions probably would have resulted. “Victor” or “Jonathan” could have been tracked down. Rose Willson, who was still alive, would surely have been investigated for possible involvement in a child pornography ring. Laurel could have led police to the other women who were forced to be breeders for the cult. Law enforcement would have been keenly interested in everything she had to say.
Laurel tried to persuade her supporters that this was, indeed, the case. She told them she had given the specifics of her case to Justice Department official John Rabun, and that Rabun was one of her advisors on Satan’s Underground. As it turned out, Rabun worked not for the government, but for the National Center for Missing Exploited Children. He told the Cornerstone researchers he had spoken to Laurel Willson only once, over the phone. Just like the Bakersfield investigators and the McMartin parents, he didn’t find her story believable. (3)
This episode demonstrates that Laurel Willson was not merely delusional, but on at least some occasions engaged in deliberate deception in order to make her fictional stories seem credible.

There are also indications that Laurel attempted to erase the contradictory stories she had told. After her book was released, she legally changed her named to Lauren Stratford. She asked Bob Currie to give her the videotapes of her McMartin testimony. She stopped communicating with Pat Thornton. (3)
The name change, the physical distance and estrangement from her family, and her cutting of ties with certain people helped ensure no one would uncover her true background. But the Cornerstone article documented Laurel’s real life so thoroughly that Harvest House yanked her book from publication (it was subsequently reprinted by another publisher).

Her speaking engagements dwindled in the early ’90s, forcing her into bankruptcy in 1994. (3)
Eyewitness accounts of Satanic evildoing were no longer novel or shocking; Lauren had a lot of competition. Also, skeptics of the whole phenomenon were beginning to be heard in the media. The 1992 BBC Panorama program on which Lauren appeared, In the Name of Satan, had a distinctly critical tone, to her annoyance. This same program, which is not to be confused with the cheesy video documentary of the same name by evangelist Bob Larson, also documented the mental abuse Pastor Doug Riggs was inflicting on his parishioners. The tide had turned.
When Satanic panic finally subsided in the U.S., Lauren Stratford altered her name and background once again. This time, she became a Holocaust survivor.

Part III: Out of the Frying Pan, Into Another Frying Pan


Sources:

1. Satan’s Underground by Lauren Stratford (Harvest House, 1988)
2. “Lauren Stratford Update” by Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine vol. 18, issue 91. 1990.
3. “Satan’s Sideshow” by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine. 1989.
4. “Lauren Stratford: From Satanic Ritual Abuse to Holocaust Survivor” by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine
5. Dateline NBCreport by Keith Morrison. Broadcast October 22, 2004.