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Old black magic: Does Scott Peterson have a dated defense strategy?

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

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MODESTO, California (Court TV) -- When Jeffrey Victor, a sociologist who studies the occult, learned Scott Peterson's defense team may blame a satanic cult for the murder of his wife and unborn child, he couldn't help but shake his head.

"Not this again, not this nonsense," Victor recalled thinking.

If much of the country seemed intrigued by reports that Laci Peterson's disappearance coincided with a "satanic high holiday" and that her body showed signs of a ritual murder, Victor and others who were on the front lines during what he calls the "satanic panic" of the late 1980s and early 1990s were more circumspect. To them, Peterson may be the suspect of the moment, but his defense, if he uses it, seems a thing of the past.

"What's being raised in California is kind of a vestige from a national obsession of 15 or so years ago," said anthropologist Phillip Stevens Jr. of the years when allegations of vast, international Satanic cults committing ritual murders and child abuse dominated afternoon talk shows. The allegations resulted in scores of controversial prosecutions and civil suits against day care centers and others.

Back then, Stevens, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, contributed to a report that investigated nearly 12,500 alleged instances of Satanic activity and concluded there was no evidence such cults even existed. He said recently, "This is a non-issue now. It burned itself out. People finally wised up."

Regardless, a satanic connection is being treated seriously by Peterson's lawyers. The defense has pointed to a brown van, reportedly adorned with satanic symbols, seen near the Peterson home, and some witnesses recalled a group of suspicious men, one sporting a 666 tattoo, in the area. After several reports about possible cults in the Modesto area, a young woman stood outside the courthouse last week with a handmade sign reading, "Modestans are not Satanists."

Stanislaus County Sheriff Les Weidman, who began his law enforcement career in 1969, has found himself defending the area's honor.

"I can't think of a single victim from satanism. Categorically, this community is safe. There is no reason to think it is some kind of breeding ground for satanic cults," he said.

Back in the day

Although the Peterson case has revived the discussion about possible satanic influence in crime, the speculation pales when compared to the hysteria that gripped many portions of the country in the late 1980s. Then there were widespread fears that an underground network of Satan worshippers was committing child abuse and murder on a mass scale during elaborate religious rituals.

Although there is some controversy about how the public concern began -- and some believe that satanic cults still exist and commit crimes -- people who have studied the phenomenon say it resulted partly from a laudable desire to believe accounts of sexual assault victims, especially children. The accounts were influenced by the new "recovered memory" therapy movement, which encouraged adults to use hypnosis and other approaches to remember repressed childhood incidents, especially sexual abuse.

At the panic's height, about 1990, so-called "ritual abuse" experts -- often therapists who had treated adults who claimed to have been victims of Satan worship as children --  told conferences of law enforcement officials that these cults killed as many as 50,000 people a year and secretly disposed of the bodies through cult-controlled hospitals and mobile crematoriums. Police assigned officers to occult beats, and states issued guidebooks to investigators to interpret satanic evidence at crime scenes.

Talk show hosts, such as Geraldo Rivera, devoted show after show to the topic. Guests included women claiming to have spent years as cult "breeders," producing infants for ritual sacrifice, and other cult "survivors" who recalled elaborate rites and systematic molestation.

In several sensational cases, children accused caregivers of sexually abusing them during elaborate satanic rites. In San Diego, police arrested a church volunteer named Dale Akiki after youngsters said he was part of a ring of satanists who physically and sexually assaulted them during rituals marked by torture and the sacrifice of animals, including giraffes and elephants.

"It was the modern version of the witch hunt," said Victor, whose 1993 book "Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend" sought to debunk the conspiracy theory. He was among those who began to question the accounts of alleged victims.

In a widely read adviser paper published in 1992, FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, who worked on ritual abuse cases in the agency's Behavioral Science Unit, noted he could find "little or no corroborative evidence" for the widespread, coordinated murder and abuse alleged. There were simply no bodies, no wire taps, no hidden videos, no concrete proof that even one murder or molestation had been committed as part of a group satanic rite.

"Until hard evidence is obtained and corroborated, the public should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that Satanists are taking over America's day care centers or institutions," Lanning wrote.

Some who believed in the ritual abuse quickly labeled Lanning a satanist, a charge he denied. The outlandishness of the allegations and the lack of physical evidence also convinced juries to reject the theories of some prosecutors. In San Diego, Dale Akiki was acquitted of all charges in 1993 after spending more than two years in prison. He later settled a wrongful prosecution suit for $2 million.

Modesto had its own brush with satanism allegations. In 1990, five men dressed in military garb crept into a rental apartment late at night and massacred an acquaintance and three friends with knives and bats.

At his trial, one of the defendants admitted being present for the killings, but said the group leader was a satanist who forced the others to engage in bloodletting rituals and exercised "mind control" over weaker members. The jury didn't buy it. The panel found the man guilty of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 64 years in prison.

"It was totally absurd, a quantum leap stretch," said Sheriff Weidman of the satanic defense. "It never had legs."

Rick Ross, a cult expert based in New Jersey who has worked with law enforcement agencies investigating occult allegations, said no charge of organized satanic criminal activity has ever been borne out by evidence.

"Over and over, when we actually looked closely at these cases, they were proven to be dead ends," Ross said.

He noted that some avowed satanists are basically hedonists who don't engage in any criminal activity. Other "self-styled satanists, mostly psychopaths," such as "Nightstalker" Richard Ramirez, have committed murders, and cults, like the Manson Family and the People's Temple, have engaged in mass killings, but there is no evidence of the large-scale victimization for the purpose of fulfilling satanic rites.

No devil in the details

Richard Ramirez
Richard Ramirez

Interest in satanic allegations had all but died off before the Peterson case, said Lanning, now retired from the FBI. At the height of the satanic panic, he fielded two calls a day asking advice. These days, he gets about two calls a year.

He is skeptical when people talk about satanic "holidays," signs and rituals. Since no cult killing by satanists has even been documented by police, how can anyone profess expertise, he asks.

Still, there are believers. San Diego therapist Mary Battles, who a decade ago asked police to investigate a local church after some of her patients recalled repressed memories of a cult sacrificing children to Satan there, said she remains convinced that ritual killings and abuse go on throughout the country.

"Where you'll find the evidence is in the men and women who went through it and have scars on their bodies," said Battles. She said she has treated 50 people who were victims of satanic cults and, "I still get a steady stream of them."

Stevens, the anthropologist, said for many people, no amount of proof -- or lack of proof --will ever be enough to dissuade them from believing in satanic activity.

"It touches on the basic fundamental human fears that go deep in our evolutionary biology -- fears of cannibalism, fears of the night, blood, harm to children and perhaps the biggest fear of all, fear of death. It pushes reason aside," Stevens said.

But even with that resonance, Stevens said he doubts Peterson will attempt a satanic cult defense.

"I can't think Scott Peterson's lawyers are dumb. They've got to be aware of the credibility problems with this defense," he said.

Surprisingly, Battles, who believes satanists routinely engage in murder, says she does not see cult members at work in Laci Peterson's killing.

"It doesn't sound like satanic stuff," she said. "They take people that nobody will miss. And they have big boats."




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