West Memphis Three: Who is the real killer behind the brutal deaths of three 8-year-old boys in 1993?
Close to three decades later, investigators are still stumped by the brutal murders of three young West Memphis, Arkansas, boys that had left the country reeling.
In 1994, in what was widely believed to be a miscarriage of justice, three teens, 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, were convicted in connection to the deaths of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch the previous year.
Echols was subsequently sentenced to death, Misskelley was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The bodies of all three boys, all eight-years-old, had been found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills, a stretch of forested land in the city that was popular among the children on May 6, 1993.
All three had been stripped naked and hogtied with their shoelaces -- their right ankles had been tied to their right wrists behind their backs, and their left ankles had been tied to their left wrists behind their backs as well.
Both Michael and Steve had bruises across their bodies, while Christopher had bruises as well as lacerations to various parts of his body, and mutilation to his scrotum and penis.
The gruesome nature of their murders led investigators to theorize there was a satanic element to it -- something that wasn't too farfetched in the Bible Belt considering 'Satanic Panic' was still making the rounds back then -- and zero in on Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin, mischief-makers with an unruly reputation that preceded them.
While there was a startling lack of physical evidence, a combination of a coerced confession and the prosecution painting them out to be pantomime villains via their haircuts and brooding dressing styles to a conservative jury doomed them.
They never stopped insisting on their innocence, however, and in 2001, a law passed allowing inmates to request a DNA test not only gave them a chance at freedom but also shone light on another possible suspect: one of the victims' stepfathers.
After a motion for the tests to exonerate Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin was approved in 2004, examiners found a human hair on the shoe of Michael that did not belong to any of the defendants.
Two private investigators looking into the case on their behalf eventually turned their sights on Terry Hobbs, Steve's stepfather, because his story did not add up -- he had claimed that he had begun searching for the boys at 6 pm on the day they had disappeared when in reality, they had only been reported missing at 9 pm.
Their suspicions were seemingly confirmed when the DNA from a cigarette they lifted from his home was a match with the hair they found on Michael's shoe. However, it was ruled that since the boys all played together often at one another's homes, it was within reason that Hobbs' hair could have gotten on any of their shoes.
The evidence was still enough to get the prosecution to offer the West Memphis Three an Alford Plea, which allowed them to proclaim their innocence while admitting the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them, and which allowed them to walk free.
But if neither Hobbs nor any of the three killed the boys, then who did? A clue lay in a seemingly unrelated, but conspicuous phone call made to the authorities the night of the boys' disappearance.
At around 8:42 pm that fateful evening, workers in a Bojangles restaurant located a mile from the crime scene had reported seeing a male who had seemed "mentally disoriented" inside the restaurant's ladies' room.
They reported that the man had been bleeding profusely and had brushed against the restroom walls. Officer Regina Meeks responded to the call and took the restaurant manager's report through the eatery's drive-through window but did not go in to inspect the scene herself.
The day after Christopher's, Michael's, and Steve's bodies were found, Bojangles' manager Marty King suspected there was a connection between their deaths and the bloody man in the bathroom and reported the incident to the police again.
He then gave detectives a pair of sunglasses he thought the man had left behind, while blood samples from the walls and tiles were also taken from the scene. Unfortunately, police detective Bryn Ridge testified during the West Memphis Three's trial that he had lost the blood scrapings.
Another possible suspect that police never thoroughly investigated was another teenager, Chris Morgan. Morgan had come to the attention of the authorities after they found that he abruptly departed West Memphis for Oceanside, California, just four days after the bodies were discovered.
Morgan had a lengthy history of alcohol and drug abuse and was presumed to be familiar with all three boys as he used to drive an ice cream truck in their neighborhood, and in a polygraph exam, detectives in California determined he was showing deception when he denied involvement in the murders.
The most startling revelation came during questioning when he claimed he had blackouts and memory lapses and suggested in a statement he later recanted that he "might have" killed the victims. The police sent their findings, as well as blood and urine samples to their counterparts in West Memphis, but there is no indication he was ever investigated as a suspect.
Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin are all free men but have not been exonerated for the murders, which means that, as per their criminal records, they are still murderers and will continue to remain so until the real perpetrator is brought to justice.
The story of Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin, as well as the gruesome murders and trial that followed, was chronicled in a three-hour special, 'The West Memphis Three: An ID Murder Mystery,' that premiered on Investigation Discovery on Sunday, April 5 at 9/8 c.