Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

Ongoing tragedy and the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of 1988-91

Last week's news threw up a small story that, at first merely intriguing, turned out to be pretty much as sad as any I've read over the last few years.

"After 20 years, kidnapped brother and sister found," the Daily Telegraph reported from San Jose, California in a story concerning the rediscovery of a brother and sister from Murfreesboro, Tennessee who had been abducted on 1 March 1989 and had not been heard from since. Sounds heartwarming, till you read on to the details of the case. The people who abductred Christi and Bobby Baskin, then aged 7 and 8, changed their names and took them thousands of miles from home turned out to be their maternal grandparents. And the abduction, it seemed, had been planned because Marvin and Sandra Maple had become convinced that their daughter and her husband - a Baptist pastor - were actually Satanists who had ritually abused the children as part of their involvement in a murderous cult.

A year-long investigation at the time failed to turn up any evidence of the supposed cult - or of any abuse, ritual or otherwise. And the Baskins, it seems, never gave up hope of reuniting with their missing children; for 20 years their answerphone gave out a plea for Christi and Bobby to leave a message if they called.

The children, meanwhile, had their names changed to Jennifer and Jonathan Bunting and were, it seems, brought up to regard their grandparents as parents. Exactly what the pair were told of the circumstances of their abduction remains unclear - "I'm a little bit fearful of what they think about us, because they have been brainwashed for 20 years," their father said - but there's been no happy ending yet; when the Baskins travelled to San Jose hoping for a reconciliation, their children refused to take their calls or answer knocks at the door. "Basically, they're kind of spooked right now. Its now been revealed that the last 20 years have been a false 20 years. They've shut down," Mark Baskin told the local newspaper. "I'm not surprised. I'm really not surprised."

Many will remember the great Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) scare of 1988-1991, which began in the US but soon spread to the UK and several other countries - carried, like some bizarre contagion, by evangelical Christian social workers clutching lists of 'Satanic indicators' so broad ("The child may seem scared of ghosts") that it was hard not to diagnose abuse. Nowadays, the panic is recalled as a piece of mass hysteria, so intrinsically ludicrous it's hard to take seriously at this remove - the McMartin preschool case, with its reports of extensive networks of tunnels excavated under the property, or Little Rascals Daycare (which involved insane-sounding allegations that teachers were sacrificing toddlers to sharks) spring immediately to mind. But the long term chaos that the plethora of allegations caused is frequently forgotten. Lawrence Wright's brilliant book Remembering Satan discussed the case of Paul Ingram, a police chief so mentally fragile and so highly suggestible that - when his daughters accused him of similar crimes - he was able to 'remember' increasingly implausible examples of his own supposed behaviour, including the murder of numerous babies, ritual abortion of foetuses being carried by his daughters, and acts of cannibalism. Psychologist Richard Ofshe, who investigated the case, experimented by making some utterly fictional suggestions along similar lines to Ingram, and discovered that the policeman quickly 'remembered' further details. When the case came to court, the deluded defendant was refused permission to change his plea from guilty and Ingram eventually served seven years in jail. Here in the UK, nine children were taken from their families in Orkney and not returned to them for more than a year. In Rochdale, things were even worse: 21 children were taken into care, and the last of them were not reunited with their families for six long years.

I'm proud to say that we at Fortean Times realised early on what was actually happening, and that we published numerous articles and stories decrying the SRA scare; I even read one account, recently, that credited us with leading the campaign against the crazed social workers who were busily destroying families throughout the country. That's flattering, but hardly accurate - our then biannual schedule was not one best suited to campaigning journalism. I remember Kevin McClure writing some brilliant material on the subject, and Rosie Waterhouse of the Independent on Sunday leading the charge in exposing the Orkney case; in Rochdale it was the Mail on Sunday that exposed the damage being done, implausible as that may seem to those conditioned nowadays to see the Mail titles as bastions of the establishment. But I also recall that when the government appointed an anthropologist, the eminent Professor Joan LaFontaine, to make a full study of the satanic panic, she and I exchanged some very worthwhile correspondence, and that Professor LaFontaine was particularly interested in the concept of fantasy-prone personalities, which I think was previously unknown to her. That was back in 1997 and will, I suppose, most likely remain the only time FT is officially consulted for a government report.

None of this, of course, is likely to be of much comfort to the Baskin family. Their terrible experiences merely prove once again that few if any Fortean events have caused more misery, for so long, as the great SRA panic of 1988-1991.


Update: November 2009. Having written up the Baskins' story for FT, I added this follow-up story...

Marvin Maple, the Tennessee man who abducted his own grandchildren two decades ago because he suspected his daughter and her husband were subjecting them to Satanic Ritual Abuse [FT249:20-21], has avoided jail. A court in his hometown of Murfreesboro dismissed kidnapping charges against him on a series of legal technicalities and allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges of ‘custodial interference.' The 73-year-old received four years’ probation.

There is sti;; no indication that Maple’s daughter, Debbie Baskin, and her husband Mark, a Baptist pastor, have re-established contact with their children, who are now in their late 20s. ‘Could have something to do with the fact the Baskin children would not testify against their grandad and the Baskins did not want this to go to trial,’ a poster on the Murfreesboro Post website hazarded. ‘I guess if I ever feel like kidnapping some children I know to do it in Murfreesboro,’ spluttered another. Murfreesboro Post 22 May + Chattanooga Times Free Press 23 May 2009

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