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?

By | Boston Magazine |
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Photo by Scott M. Lacey

He began to walk the moment he got to town, in the morning, at night, when he was anxious or bored or simply awake, through the rain and later the snow, when the city felt still and enchanted. Five months in, he still couldn’t believe he lived in Salem, the place he’d pined for ever since he was a kid obsessed with Halloween and falling leaves. He got a dog to walk with and named her Pumpkin. In his heavy black leather jacket and sunglasses, he wandered all around town, quietly but purposefully, like a ghost looking for something to haunt.

It’s hard to pinpoint when he lost his anonymity—when people started to notice, and talk—but very quickly he became part of Salem legend: Did you hear that Damien Echols moved to town? They whispered it, waiting to buy scratch tickets at 7-Eleven, in the locker room at the Y, over tea at Gulu-Gulu. Some in town were excited, fueled by stories in the local papers with headlines like “From Death Row to Witch City.” Of course, he had not expected to go entirely unnoticed. Not like he had in New York, where he’d first begun the walking as a way of burning through fear. In New York no one paid attention to anyone else, which meant he could walk the streets of Chinatown for hours and hours without interruption or incident, learning to reacclimate to humanity after 18 years in exile.

But in Salem, people took notice. They began coming up to him on the elliptical. Approaching him as he settled in with a pot of tea. Chronicling his every move. They were not always welcoming. At one point, someone etched a message into the side of a women’s bathroom stall in the East India Square Mall: “Murderers Walk Free.”

 

Twenty years ago, Damien Echols was one of three teenagers arrested for a widely publicized murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three little boys had been found dead, their bodies weirdly mangled, and the Satanic panic of the 1990s had the town in its grip. The police were so convinced that the murders had been committed by devil worshippers that they assigned the investigation a case number ending with 666. Echols, then 18, was a high school dropout with an interest in the occult and a penchant for black. He was tried and convicted—along with a friend, Jason Baldwin, and a third teen with mental disabilities, Jessie Misskelley Jr.—in a trial that later became widely viewed as a travesty of justice. Baldwin and Misskelley were given life in prison. Echols was sentenced to death.

The case received national attention thanks to the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Two more documentaries followed, along with half a dozen books, and tens of thousands of newspaper articles that dissected the case, turning up sloppy police work, prejudiced jurors, witnesses who’d lied under oath, and a prosecutor with a political agenda. Suddenly, the “West Memphis Three” turned into a cause célèbre. Among Echols’s legion of supporters were celebrities, especially celebrities who could see themselves in a charismatic, unapologetic misfit who read incessantly and flipped off courtroom cameras. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson—former outcasts all—pledged to help his cause.

Celebrities were not the only ones who became fascinated with Echols. Lorri Davis, a classically beautiful Brooklyn landscape architect, began writing to Echols after seeing a screening of Paradise Lost at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1998, she quit her job and moved to Arkansas to be closer to him. They married in 1999 in a Buddhist ceremony held at the prison, the first time they were allowed to even embrace. Getting him out became her full-time job. Eventually, she succeeded. In August 2011, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley took an unusual deal that allowed them to maintain their innocence but plead guilty. They were let out of prison, but forfeited any grounds on which to sue the state for nearly two decades of wrongful imprisonment. They weren’t exonerated, but they were free.

Through the entire ordeal, the specter of Salem was raised again and again, both by those who championed the West Memphis Three, and by those who condemned them. Defenders called the trial a “modern-day witch hunt.” Meanwhile, the father of one of the victims declared to a camera crew that Echols deserved to die: “I’m all for burning them at the stake, just like they did in Salem.”

 

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For Davis and Echols, Salem seemed like the perfect place to live: a town with a history that had innoculated it against witch hunts. (Photo by Scott M. Lacey)

Salem was the only place Echols and Davis even considered living. They knew they’d never go back to Arkansas. And after spending a year in Manhattan, they knew they didn’t want to live there, either. The subway gave Echols panic attacks. Salem—the witch trials, the idea of this magical place that seemed to exist in perpetual autumn where different sorts of people could live without persecution or even a side eye—had been a childhood fascination, along with Halloween, cold weather, and the Red Sox, the team that seemed to him to most embody hope.

Not long after his release, Echols and Davis came to Boston to go to a Red Sox game, where they sat in the owner’s box and met Jonathan Papelbon, Echols’s favorite player at the time. The next day, they took their first trip to Salem. Davis remembers how people were kind and helpful in a way she wasn’t used to, having spent the previous two decades under constant duress. She and Echols went on a ghost tour.

“Of course, they tell you about the hangings, the witch trials and all that, but the guy says, ‘and that’s why Massachusetts is such a blue state now,’” Echols recalled. “Because we learned our lesson back then.”

One afternoon in March, Echols, 38, reclined in a cubby at the Salem tattoo shop Witch City Ink, the needle drilling into his arm a welcome distraction from the latest reporter who’d come to analyze him. He was dressed in black, his hair grown out to his shoulders, with prescription sunglasses—he can barely see without them—perched on his pale nose for most of the conversation. A liquid kale-ginger concoction rested on a shelf beside him. “I have about 20 years of bad nutrition under my belt, and I hate vegetables,” he explained. “But this is pretty harsh.” Davis, a vegetarian, has been trying to get him to eat better. He prefers steak tacos, pizza, and bagels spread with both cream cheese and butter. Echols has been serious about tattoos since he got out of prison, when one of his first stops was to a West Hollywood parlor with Johnny Depp to cover up an old self-administered tattoo, the name of a high school girlfriend. Depp and Echols chose matching hexagrams from the Chinese classic text I Ching, a symbol of moving forward and overcoming obstacles.

Echols estimates that he now has about 40 tattoos, many of them religious in nature, all of them symbolic, and all of them very new and black: old Viking runes, Chinese and Egyptian characters, dragons, angels. He enjoys the act of getting tattoos, and he likes the armor they help create—the way they help make him feel in control of how people see him. “It feels like you’ve got some sort of buffer between you and the outside world,” he says.

He also likes being able to blend in here in Salem, where any given afternoon on Essex Street—which is lined with shops hawking spells, tarot readings, and magical merchandise such as potions and voodoo dolls—might include an encounter with a fuchsia-haired psychic, or a guy dressed up as a pirate. It is at once quaint and completely contrived. Davis says that it hasn’t been easy to make friends as adults in a new town, but Echols disagrees. “People just come right up and talk to you,” he says.

“To you, they do,” she corrects him.

“People have the sense that they know me before they even meet me,” Echols explains. “Though most want to tell you their stories, not hear yours. They want to tell you about the bad hardships going on in their lives, to pour out whatever baggage they have.” Or they give him presents: drawings, a light switch fashioned in his likeness, jewelry for Davis, a painting of his upper body with the lower half of a centaur. In many ways, he becomes who they want him to be.

 

Lucia Coale and her husband, Ed Schutte, found out about their new neighbors back in September, not long after Davis and Echols had signed the papers on the 1810 Colonial a few houses down. Someone on the street sent out an email: “Oh my gosh, guess who’s moving here?” Coale remembers it saying. “We all went through a period where we checked [Echols] out on the Internet and watched Paradise Lost.” Coale herself began to follow Echols on Twitter, which is how she learned that weeks after they’d moved in, he and Davis still didn’t own a TV, which meant that every time Echols had a television appearance, which in those days was often, they were heading down to the Hawthorne Hotel to watch it.

Some time later, Coale and Schutte were out on a bike ride when they saw Echols and Davis out walking. “I tend to be a very chatty person, so I just kind of walked up and I said, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m your neighbor,’” Coale recalled. They invited Echols and Davis over to watch TV whenever they wanted. “I didn’t know we would become friends with them,” Schutte said. “Are you going to be friends with someone who was in solitary confinement for years? How would that work?”

But it did. The men talked about music. The women went to yoga. They all loved Mexican food and laughed at the same jokes. They didn’t talk about prison, unless Echols brought it up, and after meeting Echols in person Coale and Schutte said they had no doubt of his innocence.

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.”

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/06/25/damien-echols-salem/