Alleged sadists and Satanists were sought for purportedly stealing, killing and dismembering cats and dogs in at least nine states as Halloween 1998 approached. The supposed crimes drew sensational media coverage, lent emphasis to humane society warnings against letting pets run at large, and rewards of up to $10,000 were posted in some cases for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers.
An accurate description of the suspects, however, in all but a handful of the animal deaths and disappearances, would have included either four legs and a tail, or wings, and none would have been werewolves or griffons.
Similar panics have developed each summer since I began tracking them in 1988, after about a decade of investigating similar false alarms. Reports of pets being mutilated and dismembered typically coincide with the emergence of young foxes and coyotes from their mothers’ dens and with the first hunting by newly fledged raptors. The panics gain momentum approaching Halloween, as public attention to witches, ghouls, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night rises toward a crescendo. The panics virtually stop each year after Halloween, however, distinctly unlike cases involving actual human sadism, which surge just before and after Christmas.
Trained to investigate human-inflicted cruelty, police detectives and humane officers typically have little background in predator behavior. Veterinarians tend to expect wrongly that injuries done by coyotes, the most frequent wild predator of pets, will resemble those done by domestic dogs.
Forensic evidence is thus misread by sincere people, acting in good faith, who incite witch-hunts at possible expense to professional credibility.
Marks of sadists
Human sadists tend to disable their victims by blinding them and/or by tying, breaking, or removing limbs. They then subject the victims to prolonged torture, often using fire or hot objects. They tend to focus on the face, especially the eyes, genitalia, and the anus. They often kill in a ritualistic manner, in which case the use of props such as candles or crosses may be evident. Often the remains are crucified. Dismemberments and disembowelings are characteristically bloody; the blood itself may be used to draw graffiti or symbols.
If witnesses hear the victim, they will typically hear more than just a single cry.
Body parts removed from victims may include the ears, tails, genitals of male animals, and feet or claws. Internal organs of small animals are rarely if ever removed. Larger animals may be field-butchered, in essentially the same manner that a hunter field-butchers a deer.
Knife wounds made by sadists are typically crude, especially when they hack into bone. Sadists tend to do repetitive, frenzied stabbing, rather than clean cutting. Sadists do occasionally skin animals, after the manner of trappers, but for the safety of the sadists, who also tend to be cowards they usually begin only after the animal is dead and incapable of clawing or biting. Trappers use several different skinning techniques. They have in common that the initial incision is made from either a paw or a bodily orifice, and continues as far as possible in an unbroken line, avoiding any cut across a marketable portion of the pelt. Even when the pelt is not to be sold, they tend to make the cuts of habit.
The ANIMALS 24-7 files on thousands of cruelty cases indicate none in which a human sadist has been convicted of a crime against animals that was distinctively different in modus operandi from either sadistic crimes commonly committed against people, or routine hunting, trapping, and butchering practices.
Predators, in contrast to human sadists, are astonishingly quick and efficient. Except in instances when predators take disabled but still living prey back to a den or nest to teach young how to kill their own food, predation victims tend to make little sound, if any, rarely even having time to know what hit them. Predators try to avoid wasting time and energy inflicting uncessary injuries. Their teeth and claws usually cut more cleanly than any knife. Predators don t leave much blood behind: that s food. If interrupted in mid-attack, they run or take flight with the parts they most want to eat. If able to eat at their leisure, they consume the richest organs, such as the heart, and leave what they don t want.
Coyotes and foxes typically attack small prey such as cats and rabbits from behind and to one side, with a scissors-like jaw snap to the backbone and midsection which frequently cuts the victim in half. If startled, they tend to flee with the larger back half and whatever internal organs come along, leaving the head and forepaws. These are among the cases most often misread by investigators, who mistake the discovery of the head as an indication of ritualistic crime.
Coyotes have an entirely different attack pattern against prey larger than themselves, such as sheep and deer. Against these animals, they go for the throat and belly. They then consume the viscera first.
Cats, both wild and domestic, tend to leave inedible organs in a neat pile. Cats also have the habit of depositing carcasses, or parts thereof, at the doorsteps of other cats or humans they are courting. When cats kill much smaller animals, such as mice, they consume the whole remains, but when they kill animals of almost their own size, such as rabbits, they may leave behind heads, ears, limbs, and even much of the fur.
Tomcats, especially interlopers in another tom s territory, often kill kittens. Instead of eating them, however, kitten-killing toms sometimes play with the carcasses as they would with a mouse, then abandon the remains in an obvious place, possibly as a sign to both the mother and the dominant tom.
Coyotes, foxes, and both wild and domestic felines often dispatch prey who survive a first strike with a quick skull-crunching bite to the head. ANIMALS 24-7 has resolved several panics over alleged sadists supposedly drilling mysterious parallel holes in the skulls of pets by suggesting that the investigators borrow some skulls of wild predators from a museum, to see how the mystery holes align with incisors.
Any common predator, but especially coyotes and raptors, may be involved in alleged skinned alive cases. The usual victims are dogs who perhaps because parts of their bodies were hidden in tall grass are mistaken for smaller prey. The predator holds on with teeth and/or claws while the wounded victim runs. The result is a set of sharp, typically straight cuts which investigators often describe as filets. I once saw a cat pounce and nearly skin a rabbit in such a case, and unable to intervene in time to prevent the incident, euthanized the victim. The attack occurred and ended within probably less than 30 seconds.
Raptors tend to be involved in cases where viscera are draped over cars, porches, trees, signs, and mailboxes: they take flight with their prey, or with a roadkill they find, and parts fall out. They return to retrieve what they lose only if it seems safe to do so.
Birds, especially crows, account for many cases in which eyes, lips, anuses, and female genitals are removed from fallen livestock. Sometimes the animals have been killed and partially butchered by rustlers. Others are victims of coyotes or eagles. The combined effects of predation and scavenging produce mutilations which may be attributed to Satanists or visitors from outer space, but except where rustlers are involved, there is rarely anything more sinister going on than natural predators making a living in their normal way.
––Merritt Clifton, November 1998
Rocky Mountains “Witch hunts & wildlife” panic is resolved
SALT LAKE CITY, DENVER––A 13-month two-state panic over alleged cat mutilations by purported sadists officially ended on August 1, 2003, when police chief Ricky Bennett of Aurora, Colorado, told news media that, “There are definite signs and markings that all were caused by predators.”
Twenty-nine of the 46 cats who were supposedly mutilated in Colorado were found in Aurora, but the panic actually began after the remains of a dozen cats with similar injuries were found in the same Salt Lake City neighborhood from which Elizabeth Smart, 14, was kidnapped on June 5, 2002.
Smart was recovered alive on March 12, 2003. David Brian Mitchell, 49, and his wife, Wanda E. Barzee, 57, are charged with kidnapping Smart from her Salt Lake City bedroom, raping her, holding her prisoner until their capture, and attempting to kidnap Smart s 18-year-old cousin.
Mitchell’s stepson Mark Thompson, who helped bring Mitchell to justice, told Newsweek that Mitchell had a history of cruelty to animals. “He shot our dog in front of us. He killed our bunny and made us eat it,” Mitchell recalled.
But Mitchell was not named as a suspect in the Smart kidnapping until shortly before his arrest, and none of the 58 cats whose deaths were investigated in Salt Lake City and Denver actually bore injuries resembling those typically inflicted by humans.
Summarized Denver Post staff writer Sheba R. Wheeler after Chief Bennett’s press conference, held in his capacity as lead investigator of the Colorado cases, “Puncture wounds, torn skin, and a lack of visible bleeding found in 10 cats necropsied last week were caused by attacks from foxes, coyotes, and some domesticated dogs. Several also were killed by owls.”
Salt Lake County Animal Services chief Temma Martin cited foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and owls in a similar announcement four days earlier––375 days after ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton told Martin and Salt Lake City newspaper reporters that the descriptions of the wounds indicated that “The predator could be a young coyote, a bobcat, a raccoon.
Several cats found dead near a cemetery,” Clifton said, “were more likely to have been killed by foxes or badgers, and some cats might have been victims of hawks, owls, and eagles.”
Forwarding forensic descriptions from the November 1998 article “Witch hunts & wildlife,” Clifton noted that similar panics develop each summer in urban habitats that attract wildlife. The panics typically coincide with the emergence of young foxes and coyotes from their mothers dens and with the first hunting by newly fledged raptors. The panics gain momentum approaching Halloween, as public attention to witches, ghouls, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night rises toward a crescendo, then virtually stop each year after Halloween, distinctly unlike cases involving actual human sadism, Satanism, and the practice of Santeria sacrifice, which surge just before and after Christmas.
Trained to investigate human-inflicted cruelty, Clifton explained, police detectives and humane officers typically have little background in predator behavior. Veterinarians tend to expect wrongly that injuries done by coyotes, the most frequent wild predator of pets, will resemble those done by domestic dogs. Forensic evidence is thus misread by sincere people, acting in good faith, who incite witch-hunts at possible cost to professional credibility.
Clifton provided similar information to Denver and Aurora humane society directors, feral cat colony caretakers, and news media after becoming aware of the Colorado investigation through local news coverage published on Halloween 2002.
“Of course you were right,” Temma Martin e-mailed on July 30, 2003. “I’m sorry our investigation didn t give us this evidence sooner, but we have been leaning in this direction for a while now. No one in our area is an expert in analyzing this kind of case, so we were slow in gathering conclusive evidence. I do hugely appreciate your information, though,” Martin continued, “and have mentioned the predator theory in every interview I have done with the media since last summer. They just didn’t choose to focus on that angle. Unfortunately, it was not until we changed our lead investigator that we got fully on the right track.”
The case was cracked, Martin said, by Lieutenant Troy Wood. In June 2003 Wood found a fox den just about where Clifton predicted one might be found on July 22, 2002.
“Hair and feces from the den were sent to a lab in Michigan for analysis. The results showed cat hair in the feces around the den and identified the hair on the ground as that of a fox. Lab tests revealed fox hair beneath the claw of a dead cat found on the Willowbrook Golf course in late June,” wrote Michael N. Westley of The Salt Lake Tribune.
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