ON ITS FACE, THE SUSPECTS "CONFESION" is a chilling document. In a 27-page statement, reprinted in part in Memphis's Commercial Appeal, Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr., 17—one of three teenagers arrested on June 3 for the gruesome murder of three 8-year-old West Memphis, Ark., boys last month—describes such cultlike rituals as eating the meat of a freshly sacrificed dog. He also recounts the final, terror-filled moments of the three children: Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

According to his statement, Misskelley witnessed the murder of one of them by his friends Michael Wayne Echols, 18, and Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, but did not participate. The newspaper reports his telling detectives that he helped lure the boss into the woods, then watched as his buddies choked them into unconsciousness, sexually mutilated one boy and raped a second. He also said he witnessed one of the boys being bludgeoned to death but told police he ran off before the others were killed. Although there are no overt references to satanism in Misskelley's statement, he describes the teens engaging in bizarre, ritualistic behavior: "We go out, kill dogs and stuff, and then carry girls out there [to the woods]...and we have an orgee [sic]."

The inflammatory account, printed four days after the teenagers were arrested, was another blow to this once quiet suburb just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., which was still reeling from the discovery of the children's bodies on May 6. It had been an article of faith in the close-knit community of 28,000 that the bloody crime had been committed by transients from one of the nearby interstate highways. The news that local boys had been charged was more than some residents could bear. Some among the 200 watching as the trio was led out of the municipal courthouse shouted "freak" and "baby killers." Inside, Steve Branch's father, Steven, screamed at the suspects, "I'll chase you all the way to hell!"

The alleged confession raised a different kind of furor, partly because it contains inconsistencies with previously released information. For instance, Misskelley states the second graders were killed around noon on May 5, after they had skipped school. But officials at Weaver Elementary have said the boys were present all day, and other witnesses—including parents and neighbors—reported seeing them as late as 6:30 p.m. Moreover, Misskelley's father, Big Jessie, 54, a mechanic, has named witnesses who he says were with Little Jessie nearly every hour of the fatal day. The statement in the newspaper is "a bunch of crap," says Big Jessie. "I think they just switched his words around to make what they wanted to hear."

Doubts in the case have been fanned by unusual official silence. Even one of the dead boys' fathers. John Mark Byers, says he initially felt "some anxiety that this might not be the right three." But then, he says, he was reassured by evidenee he cannot disclose. Police reports, which are generally made public, have been sealed. West Memphis police inspector Gary Gitchell, who headed the investigation, has declined to discuss any evidence or possible motive's—or even the detective work that led to the arrests. And the teens' parents and lawyers have complained of limited access to the suspects.

Friends and neighbors are particularly skeptical about the alleged involvement of Baldwin and Misskelley. "It can't possibly be true. It can't be Jason," says a neighbor who lives in the dusty trailer park just outside West Memphis, where Baldwin—a baby-faced high school sophomore—lived with his mother, stepfather and two stepbrothers. "He's always been courteous, always willing to help me out." Although Misskelley, a junior-high dropout and amateur wrestler, had a short fuse and some minor scrapes with the law, "I was just flabbergasted," says Jim McNease, owner of the garage where Big Jessie works and his son sometimes helps out. "Little Jessie loved kids too much." Indeed, Jessie has baby-sat for a number of neighborhood children.

Third suspect Echols, however, has a darker reputation. A high-school dropout who shared a trailer his pregnant 16-year-old girlfriend, he called himself Damien, dressed entirely in black, carried a cat's skull and, according to some, professed to be a devil worshiper. (His mother and girlfriend deny this.) Nor was Echols the only local resident affecting the trappings of satanism. A year ago authorities began looking into reports of ritualistic activities. Among the sites they investigated was "Stonehenge," a decaying local cotton gin decorated with satanic graffiti and strewn with animal carcasses, which a friend says Misskelley visited.

Such reports have left West Memphians with main troubling questions. Meanwhile, one of the slain boys' mothers, Ram Hobbs, has some words of advice. "Parents, please, always, always be a little over protective of your children," she told a school assembly at which her son Steve Branch was posthumously awarded three certificates for academic achievement. "I'm not saying tomorrow, next week, but always, forever—watch over your children."

PUM LAMBERT
LUCHINA FISHER and BARBARA SANDLER in West Memphis

  • Contributors:
  • Luchina Fisher,
  • Barbara Sandler.