CW: lots of murder
In 2012, a man in Atlanta shot the husband of a co-worker he was allegedly having an affair with. Rusty Sneiderman had just dropped his young son off at the Dunwoody Day Care when he was murdered by Hemy Neuman. Neuman’s lawyers brought a strange defense before the bench–Neuman believed he had been visited by an angel and a demon, who told him that Sneiderman’s children were actually his and that he needed to protect them by killing Sneiderman. The angel and demon appeared in the forms of Olivia Newton-John and Barry White, respectively. My name…
A surprising number of people have actually gone to court claiming they were not responsible for their actions because they were possessed by demons or under the command of the devil, a sort of metaphysical Nuerenberg defense. One of the most famous examples was David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, who claimed the devil ordered him to kill through a demon who possessed his neighbor’s dog, but he’s far from the only example. A man in Norfolk, Virginia verbally abused one police officer and bit another. His wife claimed that he was possessed at the time and that she got video evidence of the demon. No word on if that video was used in court. In 2002, a man and woman in Germany said they were not responsible for stabbing a friend 66 times because the devil had commanded them to “kill, sacrifice, bring souls.” They had chosen that particular friend to sacrifice because he was “so funny and would be the perfect court jester for Satan”. Even if that defense weren’t as flimsy as tissue paper, they had a habit of dressing bizarrely, making the horn hand gesture and threatening witnesses. Both were sent to secure psychiatric facilities.
In 2008, an Uber driver in Michigan was found guilty of a spree of shootings that killed six and wounded two. He continued picking up fares between shootings. The motive behind his crimes? His Uber app was possessed. He told police “ he recognized the Uber symbol as being that of the Eastern Star, and a devil head popped up on his screen. When he logged onto [Uber’s app], it started making him be like a puppet… the devil head would give you an assignment, and it would literally take over your whole body.” The app devil also told him to put on a bullet-proof vest before he started shooting random people. His shot at an insanity defense fell apart when he was cleared by psychiatrists, leading him to plead guilty.
A 65 year old man in Wolverhampton, England narrowly escaped death when he caught a 17 year old trying to steal his car and then found himself on the receiving end of a vicious stabbing. His attacker went on trial for attempted murder, but told the court that he was not responsible for his actions, as he had been possessed by a demon that day. The court didn’t buy the possession story, but they did take into account the fact that the 17 year old had previously been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was convicted of grievous bodily harm and burglary, rather than attempted murder, and sent to a secure mental hospital for an indefinite length of time. Another brutal stabbing was blamed on demonic possessions, this time in New York when a 31 year old man stabbed a 28 year old woman over 80 times. He didn’t help his case by trying to add that the had “trust issues.” He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Then there are cases where it’s the victim, rather than the perpetrator, that’s thought to be possessed. Many of these victims are children, so I won’t be discussing their cases in detail. In 2012, an Illinois woman murdered her son and a friend’s daughter, as well as dogs belonging to each family, because she believed the children were possessed. Her defense team tried for an insanty plea, but the woman had had the presence of mind to tell police someone broke in and murdered the children, and she was convicted of murder and animal cruelty. An Oklahoma woman choked her adult daughter with a crucifix and beat her severely in what seemed to be a DIY exorcism. She admitted she tried to pretend she had memory problems to be found incompetent for trial, but was sentenced to life without parole for first degree murder.
Sometimes, the demons possess multiple people at once. Or do they? To give us alternate theories on the most famous devil-oriented trial of all time, welcome Kate from Ignorance Was Bliss podcast, who hails for a little town you may have heard of, Salem, Mass.
Thanks, Kate. The man who was pressed to death in an attempt to force a plea was pretty badass. His name was Giles Corey and he only said to words during the hours and hours that rocks were piled on top of him: “More weight.”
You know who else is badass? The folks who boost the signal on our social media, like Augie, Eric, Richard, and Turn of Phrases podcast, to name a few. Remember, sharing your favorite podcast is still the fastest, easiest, and most effective way to help it grow. Today’s episode was brought to you by our amazing supporters at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts, like Adam Bomb, Baron, Dan, James, Robin, and Pam.
(last time: Vera, cripsy, michael, seth, nathan, trisha)
Believe it or not, even in this secular, technological age, exorcisms are on the rise. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States reported last year that it was seeing a rise in the overall number of exorcisms throughout the country, with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis alone received 1,700 exorcism requests between January and December 2018. While rituals to remove harmful entities from people exist in almost every religion in the world, when people refer to exorcism, they usually mean Catholic. You may think exorcism has been an integral part of Catholicism for centuries, but you’d be wrong. Originally a tool that could be used by priests and lay-people alike, exorcisms had decreased in commonality with each passing decade. Priests were counseled not to use it unless all other methods of helping the afflicted person had been exhausted. Even in the 90’s, the Vatican guidelines stated, “the person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness.”
Just as movies featuring a dog cause a spike in breeding of that kind of dog, it was The Exorcist that had Catholics and non-Catholics alike seeking to have their demons cast out. The movie came out a decade after “Vatican 2,” the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church that made sweeping changes to modernize the church. Nuns no longer had to live in cloisters and could learn to drive cars. Catholics could be cremated without that infringing their chances of being Raptured. Masses would be conducted in the language of the congregants, rather than in Latin, which almost no one spoke or understood. Many inside the church saw these changes as dangerous, that they would open the church and its people to evil. How could things be as sacred and safe as they had once been if people could now talk to God casually? There was also the sexual revolution and civil rights to make people feel like the narrowly-defined, rose-colored world they knew was going away. The early 70’s was also a turning point in mental health treatment, and not always onto the right path, with false reports of multiple personalities and recovered memories. The fuse was primed and The Exorcist was the spark. The priests who consulted on The Exorcist and the book it was based on found themselves inundated with requests for exorcisms. People from all faiths and walks of life wanted demons driven out of themselves or a loved one. (It’s worth mentioning that a person saying they are possessed is a strong indicator that they are not.) Those people were disappointed, as the consultant priests had never performed exorcisms themselves because they were so rare, and the priests steered them toward more appropriate therapies. Other priests were not so reserved exorcisms were back on the map, not only with Catholics but also Protestant denominations.
In 1974, an exorcism was carried out in West Yorkshire, England. The possessed subject was one Michael Taylor, a 31-year-old married father of five children, who had been struggling with depression after an injury made it hard for him to work. His life seemed to turn around when his family joined a local church group, the Christian Fellowship Group, and the previously not-particularly-religious Taylor began attending services regularly. Part of that might have been the group’s preacher, a 21 year old woman named Marie Robinson. Rumors began to swirl that the two were having an affair, all the while Taylor’s attitude became increasingly dark. Things came to a head when Taylor and Robinson were found naked together, which Taylor blamed on an evil spirit in his body. A local Anglican vicar was called in to perform an exorcism. The procedure lasted all night, during which the vicar and other ministers claimed to have driven forty demons out of Taylor, including the demons of bestiality, incest, lewdness, and blasphemy. But the exhausted ecclesiastics clocked out even thought they still believed Taylor had three demons left—murder, violence, and insanity. I might have started with those ones and gotten around to the demon of bestiality later, but that’s me. A few hours after they left, Taylor was found naked in the street, covered in blood, which he claimed belonged to Satan himself. The blood was actually his wife Christine’s. Her badly mutilated body was later discovered in their home. A rare entry for this list, Taylor was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity, but did spend four years in secure mental facilites.
Exorcisms played a key role in a case that became known as the Demon Murder case or the Devil Made Me Do It case. It was the first case, or at least the first major case, in the US to be blamed on demonic possession. It was a media sensation and even involved Ed and Lorraine Warren, the couple The Conjuring movie series is based on. Harken back to the time just before the Satanic panic of the 80’s, in a Connecticut town so peaceful, it hadn’t had a single murder in its 190 years of existance. The murder in question took place in 1981, when 19 year old Arne Cheyenne Johnson stabbed his landlord, Alan Bono, with a pocket knife, fatally wounding him. But the build to that moment began the previous year, with an 11 year old boy named David.
David was having recurring nightmares about “a man with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns and hoofs.” David called this figure The Beast Man. The Beast Man warned David to “beware.” David’s parents were concerned. He didn’t watch horror movies and wasn’t prone be a while imagination, and he was becoming increasingly nervous and withdrawn. David’s older sister Debbie asked her fiance Arne to stay with the family and help any way he could. The situation went from off to frightening as scratches and bruises began appearing on David’s body without apparent cause. There were noises in the house no one could explain. Now David was seeing the Beast Man even when he was awake, in the form of an old bearded man in faded clothes. The family turned to their church for help. A priest blessed their house, but the noises only got louder and the visions more menacing. What’s worse, David began hissing at people and quoting Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which he certainly had never read. The family had to watch over David all night; at least once an hour, he would wake up screaming or have a seizure.
It was their priest who contacted the Warrens. The demonologists came to interview David. Lorraine later told People magazine, “While Ed interviewed the boy, I saw a black, misty form next to him, which told me we were dealing with something of a negative nature. Soon the child was complaining that invisible hands were choking him—and there were red marks on him. He said that he had the feeling of being hit.” According to the Warrens, they, along with four priests, performed three exorcisms to free David from the hold of now two, but 43 demons. According to the diocese of Bridgeport, they investigated the case, but that was all they would confirm. During one of the exorcisms, Arne taunted the demons within David, baiting them by saying they were too cowardly to take over a grown man like him. He basically called them chicken.
By that fall, things were looking up. David was checked out by a psychiatrist and his family doctor and declared to be okay, though he had a slight learning disability and still had trouble sleeping. Debbie and Arne moved into their own apartment, rented out by Alan Bono. David had returned to normal, but Arne had changed. He’d been a fine young man, by all accounts, leaving school to work full time to help his mother support his family. Now, Arne was seeing The Beast Man and going into trances where he would growl and of which he’d have no memory when it was over. He also started to run afoul of the law. Minor things at first, but then came February 16, 1981. Debbie and Arne’s sister Wanda were at their job at a kennel. Arne called out of work and joined them, as did Debbie’s cousin Mary, who had the day off school. Alan Bono showed up and took them all out to lunch at a local bar. Bono was doing some serious day-drinking, as was Arne according to some reports. Things were tense when the quintet returned to the kennel. Bono and Arne began arguing and Arne began to hiss and growl.
Debbie tried to get Wanda and Mary out of harm’s way, but Bono grabbed Mary and refused to let go. Arne then pulled out a knife, stabbed Bono in the stomach and cut upwards to his chest. Arne stabbed Bono a few more times before fleeing the scene.
It was Arne’s lawyer, Martin Minnella who came up with the idea of pleading not guilty by virtue of possession. Minnella had found two cases in England where demonic possession was used as a plea, though neither of those cases ever went to trial. The judge was thoroughly unimpressed with this supposed precedent and refused to accept the plea. Minnella then shifted to plan B, self defense. It was the jury’s term to be unimpressed and they found Arne Johnson guilty of first-degree manslaughter, giving him a 10-20 year sentence, though he only served five.
The trial was a sensation in 1981, leading to a made for TV movie called THE DEMON MURDER CASE starring Kevin Bacon, Andy Griffith, and Cloris Leechman. It appears to be on YouTube in its entirety, have at. It also spawned a book, THE DEVIL IN CONNECTICUT, which was reprinted in 2006. The earth had cooled significantly in the interim 25 years and the family sued the publisher and the author, Gerald Brittle, saying that it violated their right to privacy, was libelous, and that it intentionally caused emotional distress to the family. David claimed that the possession story was a hoax created by the Warrens so that they could exploit David’s mental illness. Lorraine Warren and Gerald Brittle both deny David’s claims. The lawsuit was settled out of court in February 16, 2012, 31 years to the day of the death of Alan Bono.
Hemy Neuman, who was found guilty but mentally ill of the 2010 murder of Russell “Rusty” Sneiderman outside a Dunwoody daycare center. But the conviction was overturned in 2016. The higher court ruled that while the evidence “was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Neuman was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted,” it must reverse Neuman’s conviction because the trial judge erred by allowing in as evidence the notes and records of two mental health experts who examined Neuman before trial. “we conclude that the trial court erred in disclosing to the State Dr. Rand Dorney’s and Dr. Thomas’ notes and records concerning Neuman. This evidence was not harmless, and therefore, we must reverse Neuman’s conviction,” wrote Justice Carol Hunstein. Neuman was retried and found guilty again and sentenced to life in prison without parole.