A trend began to emerge in communities across the United States during the 1980s and early ‘90s: people recovering repressed memories during therapy of satanic ritual abuse including human sacrifice, cannibalism and other horrifying crimes.
Many of these reports made their way to police, who were flummoxed by the assertion secret satanists might be operating under their noses.
Investigators spent untold hours attempting to verify the terrifying stories but supporting evidence proved elusive. Critics also questioned whether overzealous psychologists or social workers might be driving the panic, planting the ideas in the minds of their patients.
This period has come to be known as the Satanic Panic.
Joyce Yost and the Satanic Panic
The Satanic Panic came very near to knocking the South Ogden, Utah police investigation into Joyce Yost’s 1985 disappearance permanently off track. In March of 1988, police had received an anonymous call from a woman who went by the pseudonym “George” who reported Joyce had died at the hands of a satanic coven.
In 1990, South Ogden police Sgt. Terry Carpenter learned “George” was actually a psychologist, who’d called on behalf of a patient named Barbara. Barbara had recovered memories during therapy of having witnessed a blond woman killed in a ritual ceremony involving her father and several of his associates.
Terry invested a great amount of time and effort attempting to verify Barbara’s account. It was, at the time, the only lead he had in a case that had gone cold.
“I can’t tell you the hours that we put in to trying to prove it or disprove it,” Terry said in an interview for Cold. “She thinks Joyce Yost was killed by her dad and the coven and, just didn’t happen.”
These events were described in Cold season 2, episodes 5 and 6.
Satanic scare in Utah
The satanic coven lead in the Joyce Yost case might seem far-fetched to people looking back now, especially to younger people who didn’t live through the cultural moment of the satanic panic. But it’s important to understand how pervasive these kinds of accounts were at the time.
A January 17, 1992 Deseret News story cited a poll that showed 90% of Utah residents “believe in the existence of satanic or ritualistic abuse of children, even the sacrifice of babies.”
This bonus episode of Cold uses archival news recordings to help explain development of that public perception.
It follows two significant criminal cases involving claims of ritualistic abuse that were occurring contemporaneous to the Joyce Yost investigation: the 1987 prosecution of a Lehi, Utah man named Alan Hadfield and the 1991 raid of an Ogden, Utah polygamist group called the Zion Society.
Mike King and the Zion Society
Mike King was working as an investigator for the Weber County Attorney’s Office in the summer of 1991 when a woman came forward to report she’d been involved in a cult that was sexually abusing children. The informant had fallen into orbit of the group’s leader, a man named Arvin Shreeve, after fleeing a failing marriage.
Shreeve had cultivated a group of followers, telling them he’d received personal revelation about how to attain exaltation in the afterlife.
“He was then dictating that they should have relations with each other, a same-sex relationship, all in what he believed was his God’s approval,” Mike said in an interview for Cold. “It continued to pervert, as always it seems these sexual predations do, and it soon became ‘now the children need to be involved.’”
Mike said the Zion Society’s abuse of children was ritual abuse, even though Shreeve’s religious teachings did not include satanism or the occult. Instead, the rituals Shreeve employed were a perversion of Christian theology.
“He took seemingly intelligent people who had likeminded beliefs of wanting to just be a little better than anyone else, to have more light and knowledge than the next guy and slowly crafted and groomed them to the point that they believed that this, okay as distasteful as it might be, is my pathway to heaven,” Mike said.
Ogden police raided the neighborhood where the Zion Society had taken root in the summer of 1991. Mike led that operation and subsequently took part in criminal prosecutions against Shreeve and several other Zion Society members.
“Ritual abuse is happening,” Mike said. “I don’t believe ritual abuse means satanic abuse.”
Ritual abuse task force
As the Zion Society case was unfolding, forces within Utah’s government and culture were pushing to legitimize the notion of widespread satanic ritual abuse.
In 1990, the Utah Governor’s Office created a special task force to gather information about ritual abuse and educate both the public and professionals on the issue. A psychologist named Noemi Mattis, a believer of the recovered memories accounts rising from therapy patients, led the group.
“Perpetrators maintain prolonged concealment, not only of their acts, but also of their membership in the secret society which is united in the commission of crimes.”Utah State Task Force on Ritual Abuse
The task force issued a report in 1992. It described “generational” satanic cults which were believed to be operating in secret.
“Some scholars are convinced that such groups have existed for centuries,” the report read. “Their abusive cult activities may co-exist side by side with traditional worship; that is, members may publicly practice an established, respected religion. The members are often well-known and respected within their larger communities.”
Noemi Mattis explained away the lack of corroborative evidence supporting this claim when interviewed by KSL-TV about the report in May of ’92.
“Very difficult to prove any cases in a court of law which involve ritual abuse simply because the people who are involved with it have real expertise at hiding their tracks,” Mattis said.
Utah Ritual Abuse Crime Unit
The task force recommended Utah’s Legislature invest money to further investigate reports of secret satanic cults.
Lawmakers set aside $250,000 to fund the creation of a ritual abuse crime unit within the Utah Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general invited Mike King to join, due to his experience investigating cult activity in the Zion Society case.
“It was way outside of normal police work to say we’re going to pursue Satan,” Mike said. “We were actually given almost 300 cases of ritual sexual abuse where it was determined that children were sexually abused and satanism was involved, either in the controlling aspects or in rituals or in other ways.”
Mike and his partner, another experienced investigator named Matt Jacobson, spent the next two years attempting to track down evidence to support the claims made in those cases.
“We were only able to truly get confessions where someone had used satanism or satanic beliefs or doctrine as part of their control mechanism in about three or four,” Mike said.
Ritual Crime in the State of Utah
Mike and his partner summarized their findings in a 1995 report titled Ritual Crime in the State of Utah. Their report tossed cold water on the concept of generational satanic cults.
“Allegations of organized satanists, even groups of satanists who have permeated every level of government and religion were unsubstantiated,” the report read.
Mike did conclude though it’s possible and even likely that there were isolated instances of child sex abusers using satanic or occult imagery to scare victims into silence.
“We wanted to give a true assessment that after looking at this many cases, there’s only a small subset that were even close to being possible and none of those would support that some mystic being was showing up, only that they were using satanism as a guise to have power over the children,” Mike said.
Hear more from Mike King about investigating ritual abuse in a bonus episode of Cold season 2: Satanic Panic
Research, writing and hosting: Dave Cawley
Audio production: Nina Earnest
Audio mixing: Trent Sell
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Workhouse Media executive producers: Paul Anderson, Nick Panella, Andrew Greenwood
Amazon Music team: Morgan Jones, Eliza Mills, Vanessa Rebbert, Shea Simpson
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-2-transcript/satanic-panic-full-transcript/