A British Con Man Says the Devil Made Him Do It

updated 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 01:00AM

Beneath the tranquil surface of Newick, a quaint English village of 2,500 souls in the sleepy countryside south of London, the passions run deep, and something very strange has been afoot. Not half a mile along the Church Road, where the trees grow tall and thick, you will find the Church of St. Mary, command post for the village's recent battle against Satan and the forces of darkness. The struggle may not have left the villagers wiser, but it definitely left them poorer. In fact, village parishioners and others were left impoverished by about $324,000, and thereby hangs a tale.

Three springs back, the vicar of the church, John Baker, 50, found the devil's agent on his own home turf, handing out Christian tracts. Satan's pawn was, at the time, a paunchy, balding, 43-year-old man named Derry Mainwaring Knight. Soon, Knight began showing up at local Bible study groups and prayer meetings of Vicar Baker's Church of England congregation, some of whom are charismatic Anglicans. Knight began to confide in the good vicar. He said that he was deeply in debt and needed help. Vicar Baker never hesitated. Overnight, he raised $5,250 to help break Knight out of debt. Eventually he even provided lodging for him in the attic of the rectory.

Then came the terrible secret. Knight confided in the vicar that his grandmother, an ardent satanist and sorceress, had revealed to him at the tender age of 8 that he was possessed by the devil. She had told Knight that he was destined to lead a vast satanic movement. She arranged to have two platinum disks implanted in the young Knight's forehead to help him communicate with Lucifer. When he was 9, Knight went on, a faceless apparition had stood at the foot of his bed and informed him that he was born for destruction.

Knight said he had been struggling against Satan for much of his life, but it hadn't gone well. He wanted to break his possession by the devil. To prove his demonic leanings, Knight began to speak in tongues and tore up a Bible. He told Baker he needed more money to free himself of the Prince of Darkness. The good vicar, shocked and challenged, leaped into action. "I felt the Lord was asking me a question," Baker later said. "How much would it cost to redeem a man from the depths of hell?"

Plenty, as it turned out. Vicar Baker charged off to raise the money, eliciting donations from parishioners and from wealthy Christians in nearby towns. Then Knight said he needed even more money to dismantle the satanic organization from within. He would buy up and destroy artifacts of gold and silver, robes and jewelry used in satanic rituals. The contributors heard the call and were not found wanting. Susan Sainsbury, 47, a born-again Christian and wife of Tim Sainsbury, a supermarket millionaire and Tory member of Parliament, reportedly gave a total of $119,840. Wealthy farmer Michael Warren, 58, the former county high sheriff and now a justice of the peace, is said to have kicked in $83,250 to save Knight's soul from hellfire.

Meanwhile, Knight was busy purchasing satanic doodads and whatnots. Local jewelers were persuaded to melt down gold and silver chains, pendants and bracelets. Baker says Knight threw a golden scepter into the Thames. One night the vicar and Knight smashed a silver goblet in the rectory garden.

The major donors formed a group to pray about Knight's struggle with satanism. Baker would detail for them the latest news from the front. Then they would raise more money to fight the demonic forces. Lord Hampden, Anthony David Brand, a stockbroker who wears the Eton tie, proved outstanding. The nobleman reportedly bought a $55,875 Rolls-Royce Camargue, complete with a $4,170 scrambler telephone, for Knight's exclusive use. Knight wanted to keep up appearances while driving with his satanist colleagues, who were apparently snobs. All in all, it seemed Knight had turned the torments of hell into an earthly paradise.

Alas, it couldn't last. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr. Eric Kemp, 71, informed earlier about the battle for Knight's soul ("It was a bit unusual," says an assistant, "but we're in the business of the unusual"), learned in July 1984 that the sums being raised for Knight were rather large. He appointed a retired bishop and a layman to investigate, and the upshot was that police were summoned. Knight was arrested and questioned for two days. The testimony of Inspector Terence Fallon, who headed the investigation, would suggest that Knight, with convictions for rape, robbery and petty fraud, had simply been unable to resist the windfall of so many rich, naive suckers. Knight had been amazed when Vicar Baker collected $5,250 within 24 hours. Fallon testified that Knight said: "Every time I told him about a debt, he got money. We talked about witchcraft and satanism because he was interested in that sort of thing. It got out of hand. I tried to back out, but he just would not let me. He and his group had this fixation about destroying the devil organization, and no matter what you said, they just did not listen. Every time I saw him, he kept giving me brown paper parcels of money."

Testimony at the trial showed that Knight actually had made heroic efforts to put the war chest to bad use. He rented a lot of devilish hardware: a Lotus, a Cadillac and a Range Rover. He also rented software—dancers, showgirls, prostitutes, some of whom testified to Knight's devotion to the devil's cause. He arranged splashy parties and lavished jewels and furs on friends. He once chartered a paddle-wheel steamer for $4,500, then sailed up the Thames with 100 guests drinking champagne.

The jury found Knight guilty on 19 counts of obtaining money by deception. Judge Neil Denison, who sentenced Knight to seven years in prison and a $75,000 fine, called Knight's scam "a clever, calculated and, above all, callous fraud."

Vicar Baker and some of Knight's dupes still aren't so sure. Wouldn't you expect, the reasoning goes, that a man possessed by Old Nick would have to spend money on fancy women, flashy cars and debauchery? Knight's lying and stealing were proof he was possessed by the devil. "If we had been allowed to succeed," Vicar Baker still says, "what we were doing would have dealt a body blow to satanism in this country. Thousands of people are enslaved by it."

Meanwhile, Newick has returned to its quiet ways. The villagers could, perhaps, have avoided all this if they had only remembered some local history. Less than two miles to the northeast, there is a plaque commemorating the 1912 discovery of the skull of Piltdown man—the "Missing Link." It was proclaimed one of the most important archaeological finds ever. Until it was found to be a hoax.

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