Black & Blue
Damien Echols was famous long before he moved to Salem last year. Convicted of murdering three young boys in Arkansas, Echols spent 18 years on death row until a series of documentaries and articles destroyed the case against him. He’s free now, but as he attempts to rebuild his life on the North Shore, will a city best known for its witch hunts ever let him?
Early on, Coale found herself telling Echols things that only a few very close friends knew. “Damien can sit with things,” she says. “He can sit with anything and we can sit with anything. And we know that once the moment is gone, it’s gone, and you can move on and talk shit. It feels very natural. I love him to death.”
Coale just had one concern: her son Harper, who was eight—the same age as the boys who’d been murdered all those years ago. “I was not worried about Harper’s safety, but about whether or not having a child the same age as those three boys would be the horse on the table in our relationship,” she says. “I never said that, which is unlike me, but I thought, Well, let’s just kind of see where things go.” Then, in February, the two couples and some other friends were walking home from dinner downtown at Howling Wolf. “Everyone was joking around, running into the street,” Coale said. Then Harper threw a snowball at Echols, hitting him in the head. “And I had that momentary…” Coale paused at the memory. “I went right to, ‘Oh God, should we talk about this?’ But there was this three-second pause and then instantly Damien was on him, chasing him, and it was fabulous.”
For Christmas, she and Schutte gave Echols a “box of black”: black toilet paper and paper towels, black gum, black tea, black Q-tips. Echols and Davis presented Harper with a bat skeleton mounted on black wood and framed in glass.
Those closest to Echols—for the most part normal folks with barely a tattoo among them—are protective, and a bit reverential. Echols bristles at the word celebrity, but there is the sense that his friendship makes people feel special in a way, like they’ve been chosen. “He’s very calm and quiet but the intensity level, that fire that’s in him…it’s magnetic,” says his friend Brian Consolazio, a Wenham window-and-door salesman who remembers one of his family’s first outings with Echols and Davis last fall, to the Topsfield Fair, where Echols rode the mechanical bull alongside Consolazio’s young son. Consolazio and his wife, Lauren, met Echols and Davis when Lauren, a real estate agent, sold them their new house. They first heard about the West Memphis Three through Pearl Jam, Consolazio’s favorite band, and Consolazio considers his close friendship with Echols to be something of a work of fate.
“When we’re together, we all maybe give a hairy eyeball to those groupies who are too interested,” Consolazio says. “Is this person okay? Is this person too close? They see a couple articles and think they know him. They don’t know him.”
The first message was posted on Friday, October 19, 2012, at 11:19 a.m., among the solicitations for contractors and cleaning ladies, under the subject line: Is a Child Murderer Living in Salem? “Anybody care to discuss a new Salem resident…?” read the message, which was posted on the Salemweb.com community board. “I understand that a longstanding interest in witchcraft and the occult is in part what led him to move from New York City to Salem and that he has been welcomed here by our Wiccan community. I do not know this for a fact, however. Maybe this is a mere coincidence.”
Now, 2,000 posts later, Damien Echols is the most discussed topic on Salemweb.com, and perhaps in all of Salem, a town otherwise known for being not just tolerant but welcoming. Neighbors convinced of Echols’s guilt dissect his whereabouts, his latest media interview, his sunglasses, his outfits, his hair, the way he poses or smiles (or doesn’t) in photographs, who he hangs around with. They analyze his every tweet. They sneer at him in public, then go online to boast about it. They organize protests before his local appearances and readings. The Salem News has fielded dozens of letters about Echols.
One night in early March, Echols stood, waiting to be introduced, at the back of a CinemaSalem theater, a dank room with curtains of thick dust clinging to the walls. One hundred or so of Echols’s friends and new neighbors had come for the local premiere of West of Memphis, a documentary coproduced by Echols and Davis about the campaign to release the West Memphis Three. The movie was funded and also produced by Peter Jackson and features celebrity supporters such as Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, and Patti Smith. The two-and-a-half-hour film tells Echols’s story and strongly suggests who the real killer might be, in a way that feels as much a piece of propaganda as art. Before the screening, the Salem News had published a letter from Todd Moore—the victim’s father, who once called for Echols to be burned at the stake—urging residents to boycott the film. “The Salem Film Fest and CinemaSalem should be ashamed of themselves for supporting a convicted child murderer,” the letter read. “In the eyes of the law, he is a child killer. It is shameful for anyone to support this monster…. I believe you have a very dangerous individual in your city. Please be cautious. He certainly shouldn’t be celebrated.”