September 30th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Personal History: Me versus a Religious Bigot Cop

Going all the way back to the "cult brainwashing" moral panic of the early 1970s, which more or less coincided with a huge expansion in occult book publishing around the same time, there have been cops who were convinced that Pagans and Witches were a danger to children. Pagans and Witches weren't the main targets of the anti-cult hysteria of the 70s; that particular moral panic was much more interested in the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. But there were a few cops, here and there, who were convinced that Pagans and Witches were just as big a threat. Not in the traditional, Renaissance witch-hunt sense (witches are using spells to kill children) but in the cult-brainwashing sense. But it was hard to hang that label on movements as egalitarian (in rhetoric, if not necessarily in practice) as Neopagan Witchcraft when there were better, more authoritarian-looking examples to pick on. Unfortunately for many of us, though, the cult-hunters moved Neopaganism, Witchcraft, and all occult religions way up their target lists after the publication of Lawrence Pazder's wildly successful 1980 hoax "exposé" of a huge nation-wide conspiracy of devil worshipers who were sacrificing babies to demons and raping teenage girls to brainwash them into service of Satan, Michelle Remembers. The resulting "Satanic Ritual Abuse" panic gripped the nation after the most ethics-impaired man in modern journalism, Geraldo Rivera, devoted an entire series of shows to "Exposing Satan's Underground" in 1987 and 1988. (I see now that in 1995 he apologized for this and recanted. Much good it does now.)

The claim that occultists were getting away with murdering and raping children, which thanks to Geraldo's relentless flogging of the story was eventually picked up by every TV station and newspaper, obviously excited much interest among police. By 1989, pretty much every police department in the country had at least one officer investigating claims of Satanic ritual abuse. In that year and over the next several years, under pressure from parents, virtually every kid who was suspected of having been sexually abused underwent very coercive questioning techniques by therapists out to persuade them to identify members of this nationwide cult and testify against them; dozens of people went to jail for long prison sentences because of that testimony, which was admitted as evidence even when rudimentary fact checking showed that it was physically impossible for it to be true. Kids testifying to having been abused in rooms that don't exist, in buildings that don't exist, in ways that are physically impossible, and by people who were demonstrably on the far side of the country at the time were nonetheless treated as credible by juries eager to "believe the children." But once the FBI looked into it and published a response, sent to every police department, proving categorically that it was a hoax, most departments quietly backed off from looking for more prosecutions for occult ritual crime.

Not here, though.

By 1989, I'd already come to the attention of the D.A.R.E. officer for the city of St. Ann, Missouri, Sergeant Jim Mantle. He was a fundamentalist Christian who many years before 1989 was already very, very disturbed by all the heavy-metal pseudo-Satanic graffiti he was seeing on overpasses and such, and started spending as much or more time questioning the high school kids he came in contact with about the occult as he did about drugs. Some of those kids mentioned my name. You see, since late 1983 I'd been running the nation's largest, and second oldest, BBS that dealt with the occult (among other things, including gaming and science fiction and the SCA), Weirdbase. Some of these kids had modems or knew friends who did, and were dialing into Weirdbase to download ASCII versions of the writings of Aleister Crowley, or Neopagan Witchcraft primers, or copies of Principia Discordia. Jim Mantle took one look at Weirdbase and came to a very anachronistic conclusion, one that I was much more used to seeing in 1969 than I was in 1989. Jim Mantle believed that it's perfectly normal (if unhealthy) for teenage boys to be interested in science fiction and space ships and UFOs and the occult and knights in armor and role-playing games, but as far as he was concerned it was a universally known 100% true and obvious fact that everybody grows out of that no later than about age 17 or 18, about the time they discover girls. It was therefore obvious to him that since no adult could possibly be interested in any of these subjects, the only reason that an adult man would pretend to be interested in these subjects was in order to gain sexual access to teenage boys. So he spent a lot of time, I later found out, trying to find any little boy in St. Louis who would testify that I had made sexual advances to him. Even in the absence of such evidence, he kept warning parents groups about me as a probable pedophile, and even gave an interview to the local NBC affiliate's TV news show to that effect. (My lawyer told me to let it go. He said that hardly anybody had seen it, that even fewer of them would remember it, and that a lawsuit even if it cleared me would only cement the accusation in the public's mind. I followed that advice, but I still resent it.)

So when he first heard of Satanic Ritual Abuse, he was determined to come gunning for me, and not just for me, but for the entire St. Louis pagan community as my accomplices. He subscribed to every crank and kook publication and handed them out to parents groups all over the area, including then-notorious File 18 Review and Lyndon LaRouche's Executive Intelligence Review, the publication that once headlined me as the second most dangerous man in America. But he didn't become truly dangerous until shortly after November 18th, 1993. You see, that was the date of the St. Louis area's most notorious and grisly still-unsolved murder. A 9 year old girl named Angie Housman was kidnapped somewhere between the school bus stop and her home, tied to a tree somewhere in the woods, sexually molested, and then left tied to that tree to slowly die of hypothermia. Jim Mantle pulled every string he could find to beg, wheedle, and/or bully his way onto the multi-jurisdiction Major Case Squad assigned to that case, because it was exactly what he was looking for. Even though nobody else saw any evidence of any kind of religious or occult ritual anywhere near the crime scene, Jim Mantle was convinced that he had finally found the body of one of the (in his opinion) 80,000 children per year that were murdered in occult rituals. And he knew, knew beyond any need for evidence, who had done it: one or more groups in the St. Louis occult community.

He spent years trying to make that case, even long after he'd been thrown off of the major case squad because they realized he was a kook and because none of the so-called "leads" he brought them were even vaguely plausible. Quite a few of us (not including myself, oddly enough) were targets of religiously-motivated search warrants based on dishonest informants. At one point, he thought he finally had his crack in the case: a little kid at school, talking with other kids about the Angie Housman case years later, let slip details that only police and the criminal would have known. So he leaned on that kid hard. The kid admitted where the information had come from: a friend, who'd gotten it from a friend, who got it from his parent, a cop on the major case squad. But because the kid's mom was on Mantle's list of suspected Neopagan Witches (and she was one), he didn't believe that, so he kept leaning on the kid. When that failed to work, he dragged up yet another lying informant to make anonymous child abuse allegations against the kid's mother, then went to the mother and offered to make the Child Protective Services case go away if she'd testify against her fellow witches in the Angie Housman case. She had nothing to say, since we didn't do it; she ended up losing her kid thanks to a judge who openly admitted to believing that a woman who believed in magic and the occult probably had no business raising a kid.

Jim Mantle's reign of error and terror is over now. Some years ago, after his wife's death, he was caught openly and blatantly sexually harassing a female civilian employee of the St. Ann PD, and forced to resign. Not long after, the mayor who'd been protecting Jim Mantle's anti-Wiccan crusade because he, too, "believed the children," was voted out of office in an election where his close ties to Jim Mantle were a major campaign issue. All that's left now are the bitter and angry memories. Well, and Angie Housman's real killer, who thanks at least in part to Jim Mantle's efforts to distract the cops from finding him, is presumably still at large.