Old black magic: Does the defendant of the moment have an antique defense?
Satanic cult theories were all but debunked 15 years ago. Can such a defense work for Scott Peterson?
By Harriet Ryan
MODESTO, Calif. 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 frontlines 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, like 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 witchhunt," 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............