Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The West Memphis Three

Prime Suspect

Damien Echols, police photo
Damien Echols, police
photo

The day after the boys' bodies were discovered, Lieutenant James Sudbury, of the West Memphis Police Department, contacted Steve Jones, a Juvenile Officer for Crittenden County, Arkansas. During their conversation, Sudbury and Jones expressed their shared belief that the murders had strong overtones of a cultic sacrifice. Jones then informed Sudbury that there was one person he knew of that was involved in cult activities that could be capable of committing such a crime. He named Damien Echols. They agreed to meet at Damien Echols's residence to interview Damien.

At 12:00 p.m. on Friday 7 May 1993, Sudbury and Jones arrived at 2706 South Grove in Broadway Trailer Park in West Memphis, Arkansas, where Echols lived. They talked briefly with Damien's mother, Pamela Hutcheson, and father, Eddie Hutcheson and gained their permission to interview Damien. They conducted this initial interview in Damien's bedroom. At that time, Lieutenant Sudbury took a Polaroid photograph of Damien Echols and noted that he had a tattoo on his chest of a five-pointed star or pentagram and another unidentified tattoo on his shoulder or arm. Two days, later an official interview with Damien was conducted. During this interview Damien was asked whether one of the boys was more savagely attacked than the other two, to which Damien told them that he believed one of the boys had been mutilated more than the others and had his genitals cut. Police considered that this was information that would only have been known by the killer(s), but it was, in fact, common knowledge in the community. The prosecution later used this statement to support their case that Damien had prior knowledge of the crimes that was not generally available. When the interview was completed no charges were pressed and Damien was released.

Damien Echols was born Michael Wayne Hutcheson on 11 December 1974. Until their divorce, Damien's parents were constantly on the move because of his father's work. They would only stay in an area for a short time before they would have to relocate again, usually without any notice. Damien learned to enjoy his own company, making few friends due to his transient lifestyle. When his mother re-married, Damien was adopted by her second husband Jack Echols and they moved to Echols's home in West Memphis. When he was thirteen, and five years had passed since he had last seen his father, Damien dropped his father's name and assumed that of his adoptive father. His new name was only the beginning of the many changes that Damien would experience over the next few years. In junior high, Damien's once good grades began to plummet, a situation that did not improve during high school. At fifteen his relationship with his mother, which had been very close in the past, began to deteriorate with arguments becoming a daily occurrence.

Damien was seen as different by his peers, a view he shared and deliberately cultivated. By this time the black clothing he wore had become his trademark and included a long black overcoat which he wore no matter what the weather. His clothing reflected his emotional state of isolation and depression which increased dramatically over the next couple of years. His search for spiritual truth and meaning, although present at an early age, became a focus of his life at this time. He had attempted for many years to find meaning in Jack Echols's Pentecostal-style church but with no success. He explored a number of other religions including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam before he discovered Catholicism. For a time he felt that he had found what he was looking for and was baptized and received Communion, but no matter how devoutly he studied, the emptiness continued. It was during this time that he changed his name to Damien, after Father Damien a 19th-century Catholic priest who cared for lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The rumor mill in West Memphis would report that he had named himself after Damien in the series of "Omen" movies.

With his depression deepening, Damien still found no comfort in religion or girlfriends. Catholicism was soon discarded and replaced with Paganism, which he had discovered after studying Stonehenge and the Druids. Here Damien finally found something which made sense to him. The worship of nature and the belief in karma seemed logical and real to Damien, although it would not help his depressed emotional state. Between 1991 and 1993 he attempted to commit suicide a number of times by a variety of methods including hanging, an overdose and even drowning.

His first contact with police came about when he was seventeen. He and his girlfriend at the time decided to run away from home together. On their first night they broke into an abandoned house for shelter. Within an hour police were there. Damien was arrested and was subjected to a number of psychological tests. From there he was sent to Charter Hospital in Maumelle. During his stay there he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and was prescribed the anti-depressant drug Trofanil, which he continued to take until he arrived on death row. It was after this arrest that Damien first met Jerry Driver, chief Juvenile Probation Officer for Crittenden County and partner of Steve Jones. According to Damien, in a later interview, Driver had been convinced that Satanic cults were behind many criminal activities in the area and was determined to prove his theories. Damien and Driver's paths would cross many more times in the future as Driver would investigate Damien in regard to a variety of unsolved crimes in the area, none of which he was able to pin on Damien.

The first few months after his release from Charter brought with it many traumatic changes. His mother and Jack Echols divorced and she remarried Damien's biological father, moving with him to Portland Oregon. As Damien was still on probation, his parents informed the authorities in West Memphis of the move. These changes did nothing to help Damien's condition and he began to drink heavily. His condition deteriorated so seriously that his parents called the police when Damien locked himself in his room after he had threatened to kill himself with a knife. Again he was treated for depression and alcohol rehabilitation but was soon released when he informed doctors that there was nothing they could do to make him feel better.

After his release he immediately left Portland and returned to Arkansas. Records in Portland show that the authorities were properly informed of this change and that Driver's office was notified, however, there is no record that this information was entered in the Arkansas office. Damien was staying with an old school friend on the conditional terms that he return to school. On the day he applied to the school for re-admittance he was told to return with a letter from his parents. Driver arrested Damien as he left the school grounds. The complaint filed by Driver at the time was that Damien had violated his parole when he left his parental care in Portland and because he had threatened the lives of his parents.

Damien was immediately returned to Charter Hospital where he spent two weeks. When he left, he found that his depression had greatly improved because the doctor who treated him did not allow him to dwell on his problems and insisted that he mix with other patients at the hospital. In December 1992, Damien sat for and passed his G.E.D test, fulfilling the terms of his probation. As soon as he was released from hospital, Damien moved in with his girlfriend Domini Teer in West Memphis. Some time after this, Damien's parents returned to West Memphis. At the time of the murders Damien claims that he was dividing his time between his parent's home and his now pregnant girlfriend, Domini's home.

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