Black & Blue: Damien Echols
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?
The most prolific local Echols critic is Michael Blatty, a Salem resident and a high school tutor and freelance writer with a wife and four sons, who has his own connection to the occult: His father, William Peter Blatty, wrote The Exorcist.
“It would be wonderful if Salem welcomed to town an innocent guy who’d been wrongly imprisoned,” Blatty said, “but he is not that guy.” Convinced of Echols’s guilt, Blatty has conducted a mostly online anti-Echols campaign on various message boards, and has authored many of the letters inundating the local papers. What upsets him most are his twin convictions that the media coverage of Echols has been universally celebratory, and that Echols seems to revel in the attention in a distinctly un–New England manner. “If he had moved to Salem and I’d heard he was living quietly and avoiding press, just trying to make a new life, I’d have left the guy alone,” Blatty said. “But he hasn’t.”
Blatty said he once watched Echols emerge from a store on Pickering Wharf and nearly found himself feeling sympathetic. “He had packages in hand, and he looked happy,” Blatty recalled. “And I felt a little bad about everything I’ve said online, the fuss I’ve made. He’s paid 18 years and he’s just a guy trying to do his thing. But then I think about how he’s made it his mission to blame everyone else for his crime and I think, No, I’m not going to cut him any slack. I’m not.”
In prison, Echols meditated up to seven hours a day to help pass the time, and to deal with pain. Now, in an office building on Salem’s Essex Street, in between a toy store and a church, he offers classes in meditation as well as one-on-one energy-work sessions. It’s his place of business, but a kind of man-cave, too. When he doesn’t have any clients, he’ll come to the small room to spend hours drinking tea, blasting Danzig from a boom box in the open window, and watching people and their pets in the square below, with only a replica Buddha for company.
On a spring day, in between takes for a photo shoot, he sat by the window making small talk with his wife. She asked him the name of a neighbor they’d just met. “Was it Lynn…?” she started. Slumped in his chair, head buried in his phone, he barely looked up at her except to sigh and answer with the tone of a put-upon teenager: “Lin-DA?” He sometimes seems annoyed or impatient in the presence of others, which is perhaps not surprising for a guy who spent the final decade of his imprisonment in solitary confinement, writing in his journals, meditating for hours on end, talking to himself. Now he’s the center of attention in almost every group, something that he seems to somehow both thrive on and detest.
In the two years since his release from prison, Echols has written a book—the New York Times bestseller Life After Death—coproduced a documentary, and said no to very few requests to probe into his new life, even though he often reverts again and again to the same talking points, most of them about prison. (He said he once gave 100 interviews in one day.) He’s active on the speaking circuit both to raise awareness of his case—he wasn’t the first man sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit, and he believes he won’t be the last—and to make a living. He and Davis earn part of their yearly income through speaking engagements. “It’s not fun,” he says. “When you have to get up night after night and talk about the most horrible fucking time of your life, it can be pretty miserable.”
Meanwhile, after years of working furiously to win her husband’s freedom, Davis’s life is now consumed with the minutiae of managing his celebrity. She books the appointments, handles the press requests, answers the emails, monitors the photo shoots, and watches out for things that might possibly upset him. “He’s getting more independent, but for a long time he just wasn’t capable of doing anything by himself,” she says. “He still doesn’t have the reserves that most of us have.” After he spent an entire night fretting over why the dog, Pumpkin, wouldn’t go to sleep, Davis was the one who decided that the animal should probably go back to the shelter.
Echols hopes to try the dog thing again, someday, maybe when they’re not traveling so much. A Chihuahua, he thinks. For now, though, he walks through town on his own, a regular route that takes him down Essex, through Derby Square, around Salem Common, and by the Bewitched statue in front of Flying Saucer Pizza, where he’ll often pop in for a slice before heading home. Sometimes Davis will join him. Sometimes Echols goes to the office, alone, to sit with the Buddha, and watch others for a change.
One recent afternoon, with the local weathermen issuing threats of a weekend storm, Echols and his wife went to Market Basket to stock up. There was a line of people outside waiting to get in, and inside was worse. Firefighters had been called to help control the throngs jostling for gallons of milk and canned goods. That’s when Echols came face to face with two teenage girls who did what teenage girls do. They stared, whispered, giggled, then whipped out their cell phones to document the moment on the Internet: @damienechols in Market Basket!!!
And Damien Echols did something he’d never done before: He turned away and ran to the frozen-food section, amid the Ben & Jerry’s and the microwave dinners. And he hid.