The West Memphis Child Murders in Robin Hood Hills

An unsolved triple homicide in Arkansas gets some clarity with a fresh look at victimology and criminal profiling. 

This post examines the murders of three young boys in 1993. Three local teenagers were soon after arrested, tried, and convicted for the murders — under the premise of having killed the boys while conducting a satanic ritual. Those three men were later exonerated based on juror misconduct and newly-discovered DNA evidence. While the case is often dubbed “The West Memphis Three” in regards to the three young men wrongfully convicted, it might be more aptly named “The West Memphis Six” — as six young males lost their childhoods on that day in 1993. And, to date, the real perpetrator has not been named or held accountable for the murders of three young boys. Because The West Memphis Three accepted an Alford Plea the case is technically closed and no one else can be tried for the murders. It is possible someone could be tried for other, related crimes, however, such as obstruction of justice.

Timeline & Victims

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Christopher, Michael, & Stevie

 

Christopher Byers, 8: May 5, 1993

Michael Moore, 8: May 5, 1993

Steven “Stevie” Branch, 8: May 5, 1993

 

Victim & Homicide Narratives

Stevie, Michael, and Christopher, all aged 8, were reported missing by Christopher’s adoptive father, John Mark Byers, on May 5, 1993. The boys were close friends and were last seen by neighbors playing together around 6:30pm. The neighbors later reported that they saw Stevie’s stepfather, Terry Branch, calling the boys to come inside. Despite police being alerted on the evening of May 5th by Byers that the boys were missing, an official search for them did not begin until 8am the following day (family members and neighbors performed a cursory search on the evening of the 5th).

The boys had last been seen playing in Robin Hood Hills and the search focused primarily on this area. Around 1:45pm, a police officer discovered a boy’s black shoe floating in muddy creek water that fed into a primary drainage canal in the Robin Hood Hills area. Searchers zeroed in on this area and subsequently discovered the bodies of the three boys. The boys were found naked and had been hog-tied with the laces from their own shoes. Their clothing was found in the creek near their bodies. Some of the clothing had been jammed into the river bed with sticks and most of the clothing was turned inside-out. Two pairs of the boys’ underwear was never located.

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Detective Ridge, recovering the boys’ shoes

Autopsies showed that Christopher died of “multiple injuries” and the other two boys died of “multiple injuries with drowning.” Christopher had lacerations on several body parts and his penis and scrotum were mutilated. Trace amounts of sperm were found on a pair of the boys’ pants near the scene although none of the boys showed definitive signs of rape. There were later questions about how equipped the local police force and forensic pathologist were to handle a case of this magnitude and whether precious forensic evidence was overlooked, lost, or misinterpreted.

Crime Scene Considerations

  • Luminol testing was not admissible in court at the time of the trial. While there was little to no blood actually visible by the naked at the crime scene, Luminol lit up at the site the boys were found, indicating that they were killed near where their bodies were found and that it was a brutal assault. The creek water likely washed away most of the visible blood from the boys’ bodies and there was evidence someone had used sticks and brush to wash away some of the blood on the bank.
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Luminol at the crime scene
  • There was no actual “mutilation” of the bodies or harm consistent with satanic rituals. Rather, what appeared to investigators as sadistic mutilation and “skinning” was almost certainly actually caused by the snapping turtles that inhabit the stream -c695baf98e1b3c27 the boys were found in. Snapping turtles can be vicious creatures. As the name implies, they have sharp beaks that snap and bite at the flesh of their prey.  In the environments they occupy, snapping turtles are at the top of the food chain and are known to display aggression and a general lack of fear as a result. Their bite carries enough strength to sever a human finger.
  • Anyone living in the area would have been more than familiar with the behavior and disposition of snapping turtles. Locals would have known that snapping turtles occupied the creek the boys were found in. The fact that the boys were found without their clothes on may have been a purposeful attempt on the part of the perpetrator/s to better dispose of the evidence. While the water would have helped wash away blood, DNA, fibers, hairs and other evidence, the snapping turtles might have destroyed other evidence by actually consuming the bodies. It appears the snapping turtles began this dirty work but the boys were found before they could finish it.
  • Two of the boys were riding bikes. The third boy somehow joined them, but without a bike. Perhaps he rode on the handlebars of another boy’s bike or walked alongside them. I would be interested to know how they arrived at the location they were found. If the perpetrator/s transported them there, it would have been a great deal of effort to move the boys plus two bikes. If the perp/s moved them to the location they were found, this indicates the perp/s knew the boys and knew that hiding their bikes would hinder finding them.

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  • The boys were hog-tied in a strange manner. Normally, when a person is hog-tied, their wrist is tied to the opposing ankle (ex: right wrist bound to left ankle) behind the back. The boys were found with their wrists tied to the corresponding ankle (ex: right wrist bound to right ankle) behind their backs. If the boys were alive and conscious when hog-tied, the manner in which they were bound would have made it rather easy for them to bring the bindings around to their front and fight back or escape. This indicates that the bindings were put in place after the boys were already unconscious or deceased and that their purpose was not to control the boys but to make their disposal easier and/or to make them fit better in a confined space such as a truck or container.
  • John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of Christopher, gave a folding hunting knife to a documentary cameraman in 1993, shortly after the murders. Supposedly, the cameraman and another crew member discovered what appeared to be blood on the knife upon returning to NYC. The crew later turned the knife over to the West Memphis PD in 1994. Byers initially claimed he had never used the knife but, when
    kershaw_knife2
    The “Kershaw Knife” that Byers gave to the cameraman as “a Christmas gift.”

    confronted with the blood evidence on the knife, stated that he had once used it to skin a deer. When told that the blood type on the knife matched the same blood type as his own and that of Christopher, Byers claimed to not know how this might have happened, later theorizing that, perhaps, he cut his thumb at some point. Later testing of the blood proved inconclusive but questions abound: Why did Byers give the cameraman the knife in the first place? If your stepchild had just been murdered, would you brandish any kind of weapon and gift it to a documentary crew member? What does this say about Byers’ feelings towards Christopher and how he was metabolizing the information about Christopher’s murder?

 

  • Byers admitted to spanking Christopher with a belt just prior to his disappearance when confronted with forensic evidence that suggested a belt buckle imprint on Christopher’s corpse.
  • Teeth imprints were supposedly found on Stevie Branch’s forehead. John Mark Byers had his teeth removed after the conclusion of the first trial (for which the 3
    bitemarks
    Assumed teeth imprints on Branch’s forehead

    young men were wrongfully convicted) but prior to an imprint of his original teeth being made. Byers provided conflicting reasons for why he had his teeth removed.

  • DNA tested in 1997 was not found to a match with any of the 3 young men previously convicted for the murders. A hair was tested from the crime scene which was found to be “not inconsistent” with that of Terry Hobbs, Stevie’s step-father.
  • A knife that Stevie was known to “always” carry on his person was discovered by a family member in Terry Hobbs’ nightstand drawer. That same family member (the sister of Stevie’s mother) claimed she saw Terry wash clothes, bed linens, and curtains from Stevie’s room shortly after the murders.
  • A hair found on a tree stump at the crime scene was determined to be consistent with only 7% of the human population on earth. On the day the boys went missing, Terry Hobbs said he was hanging out with his friend, David Jacoby. While the hair did not match Hobbs, it did not exclude Jacoby. It is possible Hobbs picked up the hair on his person or effects and tracked it to the woods. Also of note, Hobbs’ primary alibi for the evening in question was Jacoby. Hobbs was originally excluded as a suspect based on this alibi.
  • A hair found knotted in one of the shoelaces used to bind the boys was a match to Hobbs. While this could have, theoretically, been transfer from the home, it is worth noting that the hair was knotted into the shoelace, not merely transferred. Hobbs is the only person, aside from Jacoby, whose DNA was found at the scene of the crime.

Offender Profile

  • Local, familiar with area geography and environment
  • Adult male, possibly 2 males
  • The perpetrator was someone close to the boys and known by them
  • Motive was to punish, humiliate, and degrade the victims
  • The offender had a history of violence against others, likely women, children, and animals
  • Impulse control problems, likely history of substance and/or alcohol abuse, likely history of domestic violence against his partner and/or her/their children
  • Something as simple as being talked back to or feeling disrespected might have set this offender off
  • The attack was not planned
  • The perpetrator/s spent considerable time attempting to conceal the boys’ bodies. He used a stick to jam one of the boys’ shirts into the sediment of the creek in an attempt to prevent discovery of the body. The perpetrator also took the time to  dispose of the bikes and to strip the boys nude in the hopes that the snapping turtles would dispose of the evidence.
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A pair of boys’ pants draped over a branch
  • This was not a criminally-sophisticated offender. While the offender/s did some things that certainly helped dispose of evidence (putting the boys in water) or made it appear this was a crime of sadism (hog-tying the boys), I believe the offender/s mostly got lucky in those respects. It was either rudimentary knowledge or happenstance. The boys were found because one of their shoes floated to the surface. This also indicated that the offender/s did not fully understand or appreciate how to secure evidence in a body of water. The fact that the boys were not weighted down with stones also indicates this.
  • Perpetrator was able to intimidate the boys, likely with just his presence. May have had a gun or other weapon but, given the age of the boys, it is entirely likely they complied with the perp out of fear, based on his previous behavior and threats and their position in relation to him.
  • The attack was not sexually-motivated. While one (or more) of the boys may have been sexually abused, as evidenced by semen found on a pair of pants at the scene, the attack was rage-motivated. The fact that the boys were found nude was either to  a) humiliate and degrade them, b) prevent them from fleeing and gain further compliance, c) assist in the creek water washing away forensic evidence, d) all of the above.
  • A study was conducted that looked at all child abduction homicides in the United States over a ten year period and found that “the age of the victim had a strong corrrelation with the relationship between the victim and the offender and the younger the victim, the more likely that it was someone known to them.” –Jim Clemente, Real Crime Profile
  • Each of the boys had a split family in which the biological parents of the child were separated or divorced and there was, in some cases, as step-parent present or the boys split their time between two or more households. The people in these households are the most likely suspects. Barring any of these people being viable suspects, a robust investigation would have involved looking at suspects in concentric circles moving outward from the boys’ immediate family members (neighbors, friends, friends’ parents, school employees, etc).
  • According to the NSPCC, in the U.K., a child dies every 10 days at the hands of a parent.

Theory

  • Theory #1: Two of the boys came upon the perpetrator, or perpetrators, sexually and/or physically assaulting the other boy. As witnesses, those two boys were disposed of along with the one who was being abused. The perp/s may have found the boys doing something they were not supposed to be doing and used this as a tool of manipulation to instill fear and gain their compliance. Perhaps the boys were in a location they were not supposed to be in, etc.
  • Theory #2: The boys happened upon the perpetrator/s engaging in an illegal or immoral act. The ditch the boys were found in is adjacent to a truck stop. Perhaps they witnessed a drug deal or illicit sex, possibly even a homosexual sex act, and were killed to keep them from talking, and out of sheer rage.
  • Theory #3: Terry Hobbs went looking for his stepson, Stevie, after he didn’t come home when called (as witnessed earlier by neighbors). He found the Stevie near the ditch and began beating him. The other two boys happened upon the scene….commence with Theory #1.
  • Given that there was a witness who saw Terry washing linens from Stevie’s room, I wonder if the original crime occurred in this room. Terry was the last person seen calling to the boys to come home. This alone makes him prime suspect #1. John Mark Byers’ behavior following the murders easily makes him prime suspect #2 based on circumstantial evidence. Perhaps an accomplice who helped dispose of the bodies once things got out of control for Hobbs.
  • I would like to know which two boys were riding the bikes and which was the third boy that later joined them. Does anyone have info on this?
  • Was one of the boys abused by Terry and/or John Mark Byers in Stevie’s room?
  • Byers had a history of drug and alcohol problems, fitting the proposed offender profile. He also was a known domestic batterer and, at one time, had a restraining order against him for physically assaulting a neighbor’s child. Given that this kind of behavior was in his history, I don’t believe it is a far stretch to think he would assault another person’s child again.
  • Terry Hobbs also had a history of drug abuse and domestic violence. He had a past incident of shooting his brother-in-law, supposedly in self-defense, and the brother-in-law eventually died from his injuries. Hobbs had been reported to authorities twice for abusing his daughter and once for sexually abusing his stepson. He also broke into a female neighbor’s home and watched her shower. This history of repeated sexual and physical violence indicates a person who would be extremely likely to again harm vulnerable individuals, including children.
  • There is an additional theory floating around on the internet that Hobbs went looking for the boys and found them playing near a manhole, as they liked to play TMNT. The theory supposes that the boys were actually killed in this location which explains why they were not first noticed during searches of Robin Hood Hills (because they were not there). The theory proposes that Hobbs went back to the manhole, where the boys’ bodies were submerged (which explains the two who drowned) and used their shoelaces to loosely bind the bodies to make it easier to lift them from the manhole drain and transport them to Robin Hood Hills. This theory also suggests that there was not sufficient evidence of a struggle at Robin Hood Hills and proposes that marks found on the boys’ bodies were consistent with rebar scraping and bruising them postmortem as they were being lifted from the sewer by Hobbs.
  • I have a few issues with this theory. 1) I do believe there was sufficient evidence of a struggle at Robin Hood Hills and that the searchers and LE also completely trampled the area and much of the evidence. 2) I find it difficult to believe that Hobbs would take the risk of transporting three bodies and three bikes from the sewer to the creek at any time, let alone while either an informal or larger-scale search was taking place. 3) WHY would Hobbs take this risk to move the bodies? Wouldn’t they have been just as sufficiently hidden in the sewer as they would have been in the creek? Why move the bodies to a creek bed that was within view of a truck stop? What would have been the motivation sufficient enough to warrant such extreme risk for the offender? 4) Why bring all of their clothes to the creek too? Given that the theory proposes the boys were hog-tied to make removing them from the creek easier, that would mean that they were already nude (otherwise, the perp would have needed to hog-tie, undress, then hog-tie again). So, why go through all the effort of collecting all their clothes — and bikes — from the sewer scene and transport them alone with the bodies to the creek? Why not dispose of them elsewhere? Burn them? Leave them? 5) The fact that the boys’ bodies were overlooked during the initial search does not surprise me. Everything was well-submerged until one of their shoes floated to the surface. 6) There were independent witnesses who saw the boys heading into the Robin Hood Hills area shortly before they went missing.
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