The Laci Peterson (search) case has all the makings of a made-for-TV movie: murder, sex, infidelity and most incredibly, an alleged satanic cult.
Scott Peterson's (search) defense attorney, Mark Geragos (search), has suggested that a satanic cult abducted and killed Laci, citing reports of a mysterious brown van seen outside the Petersons' Modesto, Calif., home around the time the 8-months-pregnant woman vanished.
They also say that a noose-like wrapping of tape around her unborn son's neck when it washed ashore may have been the work of such a cult.
But experts on ritual abuse, abduction and satanism say that satanic cult slayings are more myth than murder.
“I don’t think there’s any compelling evidence that satanic cults exist,” Bill Ellis, an associate professor of English and American Studies at Penn State University and past president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, told Fox News.
This may come as a surprise to those who have heard about satanic cults from popular books and talk shows. But according to Ellis and other experts, organized satanic killings are nothing more than hysteria that surfaced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The so-called “satanic panic” began when mental health professionals started reporting cases of their patients recalling sexual abuse by parents or close family friends. About 17 percent of these patients recalled a ritualized type of abuse in occult settings.
In 1980, a psychological patient, Michelle Smith, and her psychiatrist as well as future husband, Dr. Lawrence Pazder, published a book, Michelle Remembers, purporting to be Smith’s account of surviving ritual abuse by satanists as a child. Michelle Remembers and books like it set off a wave of speculation about underground satanic organizations; tabloids, talk shows and respectable news organizations alike followed up on multiplying allegations of satanic cults abducting, abusing and murdering innocent people.
But experts say after all that hype, there was never any credible evidence that satanic cults existed at all.
A 1992 FBI report that investigated over 12,000 allegations of illegal activity by satanic groups in the U.S. concluded that there was no evidence of satanic cults operating in the country. Similar large-scale studies by Great Britain and the Netherlands came to the same conclusion.
Many of the “victims” of satanic abuse were, in fact, victims of unsafe psychological examination techniques that led to the development of False Memory Syndrome, a psychological disorder where patients develop memories that they believe to be of real events but are actually caused by suggestion from a therapist. Subsequent investigations into the majority of satanic abuse allegations found them to be hoaxes.
Jeffrey Victor, author of Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend and a former professor of sociology at the State University of New York, says that the satanic hysteria was fueled by special interest groups that perpetuated the myth of satanic cults to advance their ideology or make money. These groups included fundamentalist Protestant sects, feminist organizations, seminar presenters for law enforcement, social workers, psychologists, shock journalists and talk shows, Victor says.
“There are no satanic cults as organizations, not even as minuscule groups,” Victor told Fox News.
Victor pointed out that there have been cases in which individuals have committed crimes and then claimed to be satanists after the fact. Most of these cases, however, involved severely disturbed individuals who knew little or nothing about satanism, he said. Even in cases in which the perpetrators really believed themselves to be satanists, the culprits did not belong to any sort of organization or belief system, and the methods they used to dispose of their victims did not fulfill any type of ritual.
Ellis said that the physical description of the bodies in the leaked parts of the Peterson autopsy don’t resemble any descriptions of satanic rituals of which he has ever heard.
“I think what the defense is saying is there’s some weird details in the autopsy report and there must be some weird circumstances that brought them about. It’s a fancy, dramatic way of saying, ‘We don’t know who’s responsible for this, so we’ll assume the worst.’”
But if there’s no reason to believe in satanic cults, why is the defense pushing the satanic cult theory?
Geragos might be using the satanic cult theory to elicit sympathy for Scott Peterson in the potential jury pool, said Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew P. Napolitano.
“His initial goal is to neutralize Scott in the public’s mentality, to give the public a reason to pause before judging him innocent or guilty,” Napolitano said.
He said this strategy could be beneficial for a defense that needs to “undemonize” Peterson in the eyes of the public, but he warned that it could backfire if Geragos doesn’t substantiate his claims with concrete evidence after the prosecution lays out its case next month. On the other hand, Napolitano noted that because the burden of proof is on the state, the defense might be able to unnerve the prosecution with its satanic cult theory.
“If the defense can make the government waste its time and resources disproving these wild theories, it disrupts the prosecution’s thinking and stops them from effectively pursuing the case,” he said.