Imagining Satan

How invented memories and a modern-day witch hunt landed one Spokane man in prison

The Local Planet/May 8, 2003
By Tom Grant

Notice has already gone out to a neighborhood on Spokane's South Hill because a level-three sex offender is returning to his family home. The fearful effect of that notice became apparent when a passerby yelled "molester" at a relative of the inmate who was working in the yard. TV crews have already been caught traipsing into the home's back yard, shooting video for the day later this month when the inmate is released.

The trouble is: this inmate is innocent.

Let me say that again.

This inmate is innocent. There has never been any credible evidence that he led a satanic cult that murdered 25 babies. There has never been any credible evidence that he abused his children. Paul Ingram is simply the victim of Washington State's most successful witch-hunt.

Paul Ingram grew up in Spokane, oldest of seven kids in a devout Catholic family. He attended Spokane Community College, where he met his wife, Sandy. They had six children and after 17 years in police work, Paul became one of the top three law-enforcement officers in the Thurston County Sheriff's Department, Chief Civil Deputy. He was chairman of the Thurston County Republican Party. He and his wife were active members of The Church of Living Waters, a fundamentalist Protestant congregation.

But in the summer of 1988, a religious divination occurred that would destroy the Ingram family. Lawrence Wright, who wrote about Ingram's case in The New Yorker Magazine and the book Remembering Satan, has related this story in print and before the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board.

Ericka Ingram, then 21 and still living with her parents, attended a church retreat. One of the speakers was Karla Franko, a former actress and stand-up comic turned charismatic Christian who believed she had been given the gifts of healing and spiritual discernment.

On the last day of the retreat, Ericka seemed down and Franko said that she prayed over the girl. "Almost immediately, she felt the Lord prompting her with information," Wright wrote in Remembering Satan. "'You have been abused as a child, sexually abused,' Franko announced. Ericka sat quietly weeping, unable to respond. Franko received another divine prompting, which told her, 'It's by her father, and it's been happening for years.'"

Ericka wept, but did not say a word. However, she and her younger sister, Julie, 18, moved out of the Ingram home shortly after returning from church camp. Six weeks later, Ericka told her mother she had been repeatedly molested by her father. The abuse had stopped 13 years earlier in 1975, Ericka said. She linked the abuse to poker parties at the family's old house attended by a number of Paul's friends in the Sheriff's Department.

Sandy immediately confronted her husband and Paul denied it. But Julie backed up her sister, saying Paul had molested her five years earlier. Sandy called Associate Pastor John Bratun, who had already heard about the allegations from counselors at the retreat. "Bratun told Sandy that the charges were probably true, because children didn't make up those kinds of things," according to Remembering Satan.

However, Ericka and Julie had a history of making unsubstantiated allegations, both of which arose out of church camp discussions. Ericka had accused a man of attempted rape in 1983, but police found that it was merely a married man who had given Ericka a ride and put his hand on her knee. Then in 1985, Julia claimed to have been sexually abused by a neighbor. The county prosecutor dropped charges because of inconsistencies in Julie's stories.

The Ingrams had a vacation scheduled the very week that Sandy and Paul learned of their daughters charges. Against Sandy's better judgment, she agreed to go ahead with the trip. They spent the next week on the Oregon coast, where Paul read his Bible and walked on the beach. On Monday after returning from vacation, Paul went to work at the sheriff's department, where he was arrested.

Sheriff's detectives had interviewed Ericka and Julia. Given that the complaint targeted one of the department's highest-ranking officers and was linked through the poker parties to many others in the department, it seems extraordinary that Thurston County deputies decided to investigate their own. And it also seems extraordinary that investigators saw nothing unusual in the constantly changing details of the girls' stories.

On the very first day of interviewing, the time of the assaults changed. Julie had told her mother that Paul's last assault on her was five years earlier, but after being informed about statutes of limitations, she told police the last assault was only three years in the past. Ericka had previously told her mother that the abuse ended in 1975, but now she told investigators that she caught a sexually transmitted disease from her father just one year ago in 1987 and that a doctor in California had treated her. No such medical evidence would ever emerge, but investigators were convinced they had a case.

The most powerful things that Thurston County Sheriff Gary Edwards would use to support his case against Ingram when the matter came before the Pardons Board in 1996 was Ingram's initial "confession." Edwards told the board, "I asked, 'Are these allegations true regarding your daughter?' He indicated that they were." Then, Edwards told the board, Ingram indicated that he'd also assaulted his son. "I just about fell out of my chair at that point, because I fully expected him to deny it, not indicate there were other victims."

But here's what the Sheriff's Department's own report shows that Paul Ingram, who had just spent a week praying about the matter, actually said to Sheriff Edwards: "I know if this did happen we need to take care of it. There may be a dark side of me that I don't know about."

The report also paraphrases Paul's response about other victims: "Paul said words to the effect that it is not only the daughters that will need help, but the boys will need treatment too if this is true, and that this is like a real nightmare."

Paul also told the Sheriff: "I can't see myself doing this." At that point the Sheriff asked him if his children were lying. "I taught the kids not to lie," Paul said.

This would prove to be one of the crucial internal conflicts for Paul. Paul did not believe his daughters were liars. But if they were telling the truth, then something devilish must have been hidden inside him. Following the initial interview with Sheriff Edwards, Paul Ingram entered a realm in which the pressure to confess was intense. He was placed in an isolated cell where the lights were on nearly all the time because he was under a suicide watch. His interrogators were his friends and coworkers, people he'd known and trusted for years. Yet for the next six months, he would have almost no contact with anyone who was critical of the charges, including his own attorney.

Dr. Sam Kassin, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, has researched some of the key elements of creating false confessions. Feigned sympathy or friendship, appeals to God or religion, and the presentation of false evidence can lead to problems with the credibility of confessions. Kassin writes about the case, "Ingram was detained, hypnotized, provided with graphic crime details, told by a police psychologist that sex offenders typically repress their offenses and urged by the minister of his church to confess."

Police interviewed Paul nearly two dozen times over six months. They came up with an idea called "experimental confession," telling Paul that if he confessed, he would begin to remember what really happened. Pastor John Bratun told Paul that he was possessed by evil spirits and did a sort of exorcism in the jail. Bratun also told Paul to pray and try to visualize what really happened, for God would not allow any thoughts other than those that were true to enter his memory.

The confessions began to flow. A pattern emerged in the very first interrogation, which lasted several hours. Paul would be told about the crimes of which he was accused. He would say he couldn't remember. Then he would pray. Detectives describe Paul going into a "trance-like thing" where he visualized what happened. And then he would begin to describe it, usually in third person.

"I would've removed her underpants or bottoms to the nightgown," he said after praying in that first interrogation.

"Now, do you mean 'would've' or did you?" the detective asked.

"I did," Paul said.

But Paul's visualizations never matched the accusations of his daughters. Police would return to interview the girls and new revelations would spill out of them. And throughout the interviews, Pastor Braton - who was also Thurston County Sheriff's Department chaplain - was contaminating the investigation with what he called a "crossover technique" in which he counseled the girls, then brought their accusations back to Paul, which led to new visualizations of horror. Still, the details failed to match.

Accusations were soon pointed at Paul's son, at his wife, and at nearly all the men who attended the poker parties at Paul's house. They supposedly took pictures of the sexual abuse (which were never found despite extensive searches). Those who attended the poker parties included two of the investigators, Chief of Detectives Tom Lynch and Undersheriff Neil McClanahan. Yet their response was not skepticism. They believed they'd identified a ring of pedophiles who molested girls between hands of five-card draw.

Two of the other men who attended those poker parties were arrested. Both had ties to law enforcement. Those men would spend six months in jail but never be prosecuted, in part because the accusations grew even more bizarre.

Paul began visualizing people in robes kneeling around a fire. He confessed to cutting the bleeding heart out of a live cat. He even confessed to killing a prostitute in Seattle in 1983, implicating himself in the Green River killings. The Green River Task Force looked into it, but found nothing in Paul's statement that matched the facts.

Soon Ericka was also telling of people in robes around a fire. In her story, a large group led by a priestess gathered in the barn behind the Ingram house and sacrificed babies. Some of the detectives were actually beginning to get suspicious of Ericka's stories because they changed with every telling. But the case was about to become one of the most notorious cases of satanic ritual abuse ever investigated by police.

As Ericka would tell a national television audience several years later, when she appeared on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, she claimed her father belonged to a group of Satanists. Others in the group included judges, doctors and lawyers in the community. At one point in the show, she would claim that virtually all the investigators were in on it. The cult would gather in barns or empty churches and hold its rituals. They killed at least 25 babies, she said, including one they aborted from her.

"One time when I was 16 they gave me an abortion," Ericka told the TV audience. "I was five months pregnant, and the baby was still alive when they took it out. And they put it on top of me and they cut it up. And when it was dead, then people in the group ate parts of it." The audience groaned.

As part of the investigation in 1988-89, Ericka and her sister helped the police draw maps of where the bodies were buried. Investigators brought in a forensic archaeologist, Dr. Mark Papworth. He excavated the Ingram's back yard where the evidence had supposedly been concealed.

As an archaeologist, Papworth was trained to look for evidence of pits or holes that had been dug in the past. According to a 1996 interview with Papworth, any time someone digs a hole, evidence is created in the soil so that the boundaries of those pits or holes can be identified for thousands of years. "The fields around the Ingram houses had no pits. There were no holes. No one had ever dug a hole there," he said.

And he found nothing of interest. "I found one bone. I believe I identified it as an elk toe bone. And it was in not a pit form. It was in a slot, a long narrow troughlike depression in the sub-sod that looked very much like a dog had dug it out, put it in there and then scooped the dirt back in there," he said.

Papworth tried to explain to Undersheriff McClanahan that there was no evidence. "On this one occasion I said, 'Neil, there's no evidence. None at all. Zero.' And he said to me. 'If you were the devil would you leave any evidence?' and, I, my hair stood on end and I realized at that point there was no talking to him beyond that and I excused myself."

McClanahan had become so convinced of the satanic ritual abuse allegations that any absence evidence was itself proof of the devil's work - and thus proof of the crime. McClanahan would even lie about the evidence at a later time.

"We went out and excavated the home. We took an anthropologist with us," McClanahan told a TV audience on a cable access television show. "And we found many, many, many different holes. We found lots of holes. We found very few bones in the holes."

Apparently the elk toe bone found buried by a dog had multiplied. McClanahan held up these plural bones and imaginary holes as evidence to the audience. "You still can't dispute these holes. Why are there all these empty holes?" he asked.

In fact, nothing that Paul Ingram or his daughters said could be corroborated with any physical evidence. The girls said they'd been cut, tortured, even nailed to the floor. A doctor found no scars, except for an appendectomy scar on Ericka. No abortions could be documented. No bones could be found. No venereal diseases were treated. Ericka even told one doctor who examined her during the investigation that she was a virgin.

Investigators spent three-quarters of a million dollars investigating the Ingram case. They flew night helicopter patrols, hoping to spot the fires of a satanic cult meeting in progress. All they found were a few fraternity keggers.

A mythology grew to explain the lack of evidence. "McClanahan accounts for the absence of scars on the Ingram daughters by saying that it is not uncommon for survivors to believe there are scars, because they've been conditioned to believe things that are not true," wrote Wright in Remembering Satan. McClanahan explained the lack of bones buried at the Ingram home by postulating that "the ground was so acidic that the bones disintegrated."

But the strongest evidence that the entire Ingram saga was nothing more than a fantasy was delivered by one of the people called in to assist with the investigation, Dr. Richard Ofshe. He was a social scientist from the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on cults and mind-control. He shared in a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for reporting on the Synanon cult. And he was also very interested in the effect of coercive police investigations.

Police had a theory that Ingram couldn't remember raping his children repeatedly over 17 years because he repressed the memories as soon as the abuse occurred. Similarly, they thought that after Ingram took part in satanic rituals his memory and that of others would somehow be blacked out.

But after meeting Ingram, Ofshe suspected something else. Ingram was eager to try to help the investigators. When asked to recall ordinary events in his life, Ingram had normal recall. But when Ingram wanted to remember something about the sexually abusive or satanic allegations, he used a special technique. He would get an image and pray on it. He would imagine himself in a warm white fog. After a few minutes, more images would come. He felt certain the images were real memories because Pastor Bratun had told him that God would bring him only the truth.

Ofshe devised an experiment to test the validity of Paul's visions. He asked Paul if he recalled an event that Ofshe knew had not occurred, an event in which Paul supposedly made his children have sex with each other while he watched. The children in the Ingram family specifically denied that any such event had taken place. And Paul's initial reaction was that he did not recall such an event.

Ofshe assured Paul that his children remembered the event. He provided some details of the event, such as where it happened. Then he asked Paul to go back to his cell and pray on it.

When Paul emerged from his cell the next day, he handed Ofshe a three-page written confession detailing the imagined event. The confession looks like a screenplay, complete with dialogue. Ofshe tried to get Paul to admit that the confession was false, but he maintained that it was real.

That's when Ofshe's doubts about the case began, doubts that would eventually become a deep belief that Paul Ingram was railroaded by the justice system of Thurston County. In testimony before the Pardons Board, Ofshe pointed out that Ingram was the only person who went to prison even though the girls who accused him also maintained that some 30 doctors, lawyers and judges in the county were mass-murdering cult members.

Ofshe told the board that police, psychologists and religious figures has used "hypnotic trance-inducing techniques" to get Paul to visualize events - events that never happened. Ofshe believes Paul was "deluded" at the time he came up with these visions and decided to enter a guilty plea.

"The Ingram case is a blot on Washington State. It demonstrates the dangers that the citizens of the State of Washington live under when police agencies and prosecutorial agencies subordinate their mandate to seek justice in order to protect their own incompetence and their own mistakes. This is nothing less than a tragedy," Ofshe told the board.

Ofshe's support of Paul has earned the scorn of true believers in satanic cults and baby sacrifices in Western Washington. Because they can't argue with the evidence, they see a satanist behind every tree. Appearing on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, Ericka's attorney tried to discredit Ofshe by saying, "He's probably also a Satanist."

The detectives themselves seemed to lose faith in Paul's revelations about five months after beginning their interrogations. For weeks, investigators had pressured him to come up with the names of members of the cult. After praying and visualizing with Pastor Bratun, Paul began four days of disclosures in which he named ten present and former members of the Thurston County Sheriff's Department as cult members. As Remembering Satan noted, "He also named members of the canine unit, and described a scene in which the dogs had raped Sandy."

That outraged members of the department. The case was clearly falling apart. The allegations were crazy and there was no supporting evidence. The trials of Paul and two other people were set to begin in only a few weeks. But Paul was still willing and compliant in the hands of his former co-workers. His daughters wrote to him, asking him to plead guilty for their sake. They were supposedly suicidal. His wife urged him to plead guilty, fearing that she'd be charged and his youngest child would be removed from the home if Paul didn't play ball with the prosecutors.

So he did. Paul Ingram pleaded guilty to six counts of third degree rape. Ofshe called to ask him to withdraw his guilty plea before sentencing. But Ingram insisted on the plea, saying that he didn't want his daughters to be forced to testify. He told Ofshe that a trial might "emotionally damage them for the rest of their lives." Paul would eventually be sentenced to 20 years.

Two months after entering his plea, when the pressure of the investigation had been lifted and he'd been moved to a different jail, Paul finally came to a different conclusion. He was praying when he felt a feeling of peace settle over him and his mind cleared. Now he could see that the visualizations had not been real memories. But it was too late to withdraw the guilty plea.

Thurston County Sheriff's Department quickly washed its hands of the case. Two days after Paul pleaded guilty, charges were dropped against the other two men arrested in connection with the cult. That prevented the facts of the case from ever being weighed by a jury.

Paul Ingram went to prison in Delaware, a faraway place where a former police officer wouldn't be in danger from other inmates. He was a model prisoner. Books, articles and movies were made about his false imprisonment.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a memory expert now with the University of California at Irvine, pointed out to the Pardons Board that one study shows that 90 percent of people could be induced to make a false confession if someone else claimed to have seen them do it. And Loftus sees the Ingram case as a travesty of justice. "In this mid-sized modern American city, a law abiding citizen was persuaded by honest civil servants to confess to crimes he had never committed," she said.

Yet courts would never consider the facts of the case. Courts have been extremely reluctant to let anyone withdraw a guilty plea. Ingram's plea was left standing. When the Pardons Board voted 4-1 against granting him a pardon, there was little Paul could do but quietly ride out his sentence.

Paul's greatest supporter during all these years has been Dan Brailey, a small business owner in Spokane with an abiding interest in justice. He began to look into the case in 1994. "Initially, I was convinced that Paul was guilty," he said. "The more and more I read, the more shocked I was."

He became convinced that an innocent man had been imprisoned. "I don't have any doubt in my mind." He raised money to fight for Paul's freedom, and along the way helped others who had been wrongly accused get out of prison.

Brailey became close friends with Paul's parents in Spokane. One of his hopes was that they would see Paul come home. But both died before that day, Paul's mother passing away in January of this year.

The rest of Paul's family has dispersed. Some changed their names because of the publicity. Now Paul's alone. People have offered him jobs in Maine, Colorado and Oregon. But because Paul is a sex offender, other states are unwilling to take him.

That left Paul Ingram with one option, moving to his family home in Spokane. But in the years that have passed, new laws have been passed, laws that punish sex offenders unlike bank robbers or burglars or even murderers. Sex offenders are rated from 1 (least likely to re-offend) to 3 (most likely to re-offend).

In a strange twist, the innocent who have been convicted are highly likely to be listed as level 3 sex offenders. In assigning ratings, authorities do consider whether an inmate has successfully completed treatment for sex abuse. But for an inmate to successfully complete treatment, he must admit his crime. Paul and others who are innocent are unable to do that.

Some will choose to believe that Paul Ingram is guilty and a danger to society. But to believe that requires believing that Satan was stalking Olympia in the 1970s and '80s. It requires believing that Paul Ingram had magical powers. It requires believing that dozens of other prominent Thurston County citizens participated in rape and mass murder, of which there is no evidence. It requires believing either that the others in the cult suddenly quit their evil ways, without prosecution, or as Ericka Ingram has suggested, that deputies in Thurston County have protected the cult from being exposed.

But there are people who will act without reflection, people who may not know that the FBI itself has debunked this myth of a cult of satanic ritual abuse. When one of Paul's nephews was working in the yard of the Ingram home recently, a neighbor began yelling "child molester" at the young man.

"Paul has an attitude: I'm not guilty. I didn't do anything wrong. But what Paul doesn't realize is that he's now going to be held accountable by our culture," Brailey said. He worries that people will act without considering Paul's story. "Don't confuse me with the facts' is people's attitude on this issue."

So Brailey is making a plea: "My hope is the Spokane community takes some time and looks at this case and gives him his life back. Just leave him alone. He's a good man. I respect him deeply. Let him take his broken life back."

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