'West Memphis Three' case: John Byers, suspect and stepfather of one of the slain boys, dies in car crash

Many pointed that Byers was not just complicit in the boys' murder but also tied to the death of his 2nd wife, 3 years after her son's killing

                            'West Memphis Three' case: John Byers, suspect and stepfather of one of the slain boys, dies in car crash
The 'West Memphis Three' were exonerated following the advent of improved DNA technology (West Memphis Police Department)

John Mark Byers, who was suspected in the deaths of three West Memphis children in 1993, died in a car crash earlier this week, officials in Tennessee revealed on Friday, June 19. He was 62.

The Shelby County Sheriff's Office announced on Twitter that Byers had been killed in an accident on Chambers Road and Shakerag Road in the Millington area on Thursday evening and then died after he was transported to a local hospital.

Byers had been a step-father to Christopher Byers, who along with his two eight-year-old friends Michael Moore and Steve Branch, had been killed in West Memphis on May 5, 1993, and whose murders remain unsolved to this day, almost three decades later.

The bodies of the three boys had been found in Robin Hood Hills, a stretch of forested land in the city that was popular with children and where Christopher, Michael and Steve were last seen together. All three had been stripped naked and shackled with their shoelaces – their right ankles had been tied to their right wrists behind their backs, with their left ankles to their left wrists behind their backs as well.  

Their clothing was found in the same creek, and some of it had been twisted around sticks that had been fixed into the muddy ditch bed. Two of the boys' underwear, however, was missing. And while both Michael and Steve had bruises across their body, Christopher had suffered the most gruesome injuries and had lacerations to various parts of his body, and mutilation to his scrotum and penis.

The gruesome nature of their deaths led both police and the community to theorize that there had been a satanic element involved – something that wasn't too farfetched in the "Bible Belt, where Satanic Panic" was at its peak. The inherent belief in that line of thought eventually led to the arrest of 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, three out-of-sorts teens who became popularly known as "The West Memphis Three."

(L-R) Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin attend the 49th annual New York Film Festival presentation of "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on October 10, 2011, in New York City (Getty Images)


What came after the arrest is quite well-documented. All three were convicted, not based on evidence but by a "twisted portrayal of their character", given sentences varying from death to life in prison, and then eventually exonerated following the advent of improved DNA technology.

But their innocence did leave investigators back at square one. Who, then, was responsible for the brutal murders and mutilations of three young children? Was there a serial killer still on the loose in Arkansas? Over the nine years since their release, there have been dozens of theories that pointed to other suspects who could have been behind the deaths of Christopher, Michael, and Steve. One such suspect was none other than Byers.

There was circumstantial evidence to suggest Byers knew more than he let on. The first of that evidence emerged during the filming of HBO's 1996 documentary on the case: 'Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.'

While the documentary opened the public's eyes to the miscarriage of justice that had transpired to get Echols, Miskelley Jr., and Baldwin convicted for a crime they did not commit, it also threw doubt on Byers, a suspicious character who seemed to have a penchant for theatrics.

During the filming, Byers had given cameraman Doug Cooper a hunting knife which makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky handed over to the police after discovering what appeared to be blood on it. While the stepfather initially denied it had ever been used, he later changed his story and said he had used it just once, to cut deer meat.

When he was informed that the blood matched both his and Chris' blood type, he claimed he had no idea how the blood might have gotten on the knife before suggesting he might have left it out accidentally. To prove his innocence, he agreed and passed a polygraph test during the filming of 'Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,' only for the documentary to throw doubts on the results by revealing he was under the influence of several psychoactive prescription medications that could have affected the test results.

Echols has supported the theory that Byers could have been involved in the childrens' deaths (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)


Byers had a long history of run-ins with the law and been accused of multiple violent crimes. In 1973, his parents had called the police to report that he was threatening them with a butcher knife. A few years later, he was facing charges relating to the use of terroristic threats, grand theft, and drug use.

One of the charges of making terroristic threats was connected to a domestic dispute between him and his first wife, Sandra Byers, who accused him of threatening her life and assaulting her with an electronic stunning device. While the charges were expunged from his record, documents detailing them were found at the Crittenden County Court by journalist Mara Leveritt. 

He was also charged in 1990 for stealing $65,000 in jewelry from a store where he previously worked, and in 1992 for "conspiring to sell cocaine and with carrying a dangerous weapon."

His behavior as it became apparent Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin would be cleared of the murders, was questioned as well. Having once been adamant on the West Memphis Three's guilt, he accepted their innocence and, instead, pointed the finger at Terry Hobbs, Steve's stepfather.

Hobbs, who had previously been under the police scanner for the murders because of inconsistencies in his story, had later been cleared of any wrongdoing but found himself being verbally abused by Byers in front of cameras outside a courtroom. He was called a 'baby killer.'

Many pointed to the irony in that insult, since Byers himself was considered by many to be complicit in not just the boys' murder, and the death of his second wife as well, who had passed away three years after her son's killing. His prior history of domestic violence didn't reflect well either.

The case for his guilt was put forward by Echols himself in Peter Jackson's 'West of Memphis.' "I can't understand why exactly people are glossing over the obvious when it comes to Byers and the death of Melissa Byers and all the things that Byers has said and done since this trial," he said. "I think maybe for the general public it's not quite as scary to believe that blood-thirsty Satanists were out murdering children as it is to believe that parents are actually murdering their own children."

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