Hampstead, a leafy and quiet corner of North London boasting artisan coffee shops, a luscious grassy heath and a plethora of affluent families wearing matching Burberry coats. While some may know the residential area solely for its bursting intellectual, artistic, musical and literary affiliates, others may be privy to the neighbourhood’s darkest secret—a harrowing and terrifying conspiracy theory that centred around a Satan-worshipping paedophile ring.
Let’s first rewind back to the summer of 2014 when a young boy, 9, and girl, 7, walked into a police station and informed authorities that their father, Ricky Dearman, was the head of a prolific satanic paedophile ring—operating directly out of the children’s primary school and church.
Voice recordings from the event reveal the two children providing horrifically detailed accounts of sexual abuse, perpetrated by not only their father, but a number of their father’s friends and members of the community. They even provided a list of 175 names, containing home addresses and telephone numbers.
In one clip, the nine-year-old boy can be heard saying, “In my classroom, they’ve got this little door at the back to this tiny room. It’s stuffed with sweets, prizes, especially to pay the children to do sex to them.”
He then goes on to describe a number of the satanic rituals his father had forced him to participate in: “We’ve got our own church—we kill babies, we drain their blood, we eat them. Our dad, he forces us to do it, we’re not strong enough to cut the baby’s head off, he has us hold the knife and he puts his hand at the top of our hand and he helps us to cut the baby’s head off. He’s teaching us so that when we’re older, we can do it to our own children.”
Scotland Yard investigated the children’s claims, including searching the local church and primary school they were referring to—the supposed sites of these satanic rituals. Upon finding no evidence, the two kids were brought back in for questioning and began to recant their story, bringing the truth to light.
While these incredibly young children were definitely experiencing abuse, it was at the hands of a different monster altogether. It was revealed that their mother, Ella Draper, and her partner Abraham Christie had coerced the poor souls into making these false allegations using methods of emotional and physical abuse, including water-boarding and striking them with metal spoons.
Over the span of four years, Draper and a team of co-conspirators spun an intricate web of deceit that perforated online forums and swept through Hampstead’s once undisturbed mini oasis. Countless different parents within the community faced allegations of abuse, people were harassed and a ruthless conspiracy theory—puppeteered by a fairly small group of individuals—began to grow out of control. But more on that later.
It might surprise you to know that this shocking conspiracy theory has remained relatively dormant in the public eye since it unravelled just over eight years ago. This, however, is no longer the case. On 22 September 2022, Tortoise Media released the first episode of Hoaxed, a true-crime investigative podcast with one sole purpose—to explore one of the “most serious British conspiracy theories in decades.”
Speaking to The Guardian about the hoax, investigative reporter and brains behind Tortoise’s other hit podcast Sweet Bobby, Alexi Mostrous, explained: “This was a very human example of how something online had been allowed to grow out of control and have real-world effects. It’s interesting to see how the digital world has jumped ahead of our institutions and the protections they offer citizens.”
As we follow Mostrous through his investigation, we learn a number of crucial things, most notably that with such a complex case, the 15 second rewind button is a life-saver. We also learn a lot about the culture of conspiracy theorists and how they operate.
The Hampstead hoax played directly into people’s greatest fears: devil-worshipping, violence and sexual abuse perpetrated against children. Once the fuse had been lit, it was inevitable that the embers of fear would spread, and grow into a fire that would rage out of control—regardless of the validity of the theory.
Throughout the course of the series, Mostrous speaks to a number of individuals from both sides of the conspiracy—those encouraging the story and those trying to kill it. He takes listeners on a journey, introducing us to key players such as Sabine Mcneil, a 76-year-old conspiracy extremist who launched a PR campaign for Draper and orchestrated an online movement of hate towards alleged predators in the area.
We also meet a Canadian woman and former social worker named Karen, who, as episode three of the podcast suggests, can only be described as a conspiracy theory butt-kicking avenger.
Karen was undoubtedly the leader in the crusade for truth—actual truth. Amid the Hampstead hoax fiasco, she challenged deception and, as reported by Mostrous, was an integral player in debunking a number of myths surrounding the deception and feeding the police with important information about a number of the conspirators.
Furthermore, in 2018, Karen, along with a number of the parents named in Draper’s original list of alleged predators, helped to secure a criminal conviction against Mcneil for four counts of stalking and six counts of breaching a restraining order.
In order to learn more about the individuals who succumb to conspiracy theories such as the Hampstead hoax, SCREENSHOT recently spoke with Professor Karen Douglas from the University of Kent who specialises in the consequences of conspiracy theories. Douglas explained how “people are attracted to [them] because one (or more) important psychological needs are not currently being satisfied.”
She broke these needs down into three categories: “The first of these needs are epistemic, related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existential, which are related to the need to feel safe and to have some control over things that are happening, and social, which are related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups that we belong to. People might be drawn to conspiracy theories in an attempt to satisfy these needs.”
She continued, “For example, they are trying to make sense of a lot of (sometimes confusing) information, or they are trying to cope with difficult circumstances. In times of crisis and unrest, these needs are likely to be further frustrated, which is one explanation for why conspiracy theories might be more visible in recent years (e.g. COVID-19 pandemic, US election).”
As Professor Douglas illustrated with her analysis, belief in conspiracy theories almost always spills into the real world.
In the case of the Hampstead hoax, one netizen took his mounting online rage and channelled it into palpable physical harassment. US blogger Rupert Quaintance flew to Hampstead in 2015 and hinted to his followers that he was stood outside the primary school where supposed sexual assault had occurred, primed with a knife that he planned to use to “save the kids.”
Having listened to the podcast myself and heard many personal testimonies from a number of families who were frightful for their children’s safety during this time, I must emphasise the sheer gravity of the situation these individuals faced. Quaintance is merely one dark spot among a much larger frightening landscape.
Following the initial conspiracy theory, a number of parents in the Hampstead community were contacted by paedophiles asking to get in contact with their young children for sex. Families were sent death threats forcing many to vacate their homes so as to escape the perpetual fear that their young kids were in danger.
Tortoise Media is yet to release the final episode of Hoaxed, however, for those of you who may be interested to know how this tale unfolds, I would highly recommend listening to this podcast. If anything, so that you can understand the extent to which these secrets and lies affected so many people.
While many publications have applauded Mostrous and his team for their thorough investigation, some, such as the New Statesman, have stated that the podcast is verging on the salacious—accusing Tortoise Media of profiting off of the conspiracy theory that tormented so many families.
It may be my naivety or fascination with detective work, but I don’t believe this to be the case. Mostrous goes out of his way in each episode to shine light upon the victims of the Hampstead hoax—amplifying their stories rather than stifling them.
And yes, one could argue that the podcast aims to draw listeners in by playing into the most horrifying aspects of this story. However, I’d contend that every aspect of this tale is horrifying and sugar-coating the allegations and specific details of the case would only disregard or belittle the life-changing impact this conspiracy had on its victims.
The Hampstead hoax was in many ways the blueprint for a series of conspiracy theories that followed. We’ve seen first hand how these online communities can quite literally take up arms and fight for the ‘truth’ they believe in. You only have to look at groups such as QAnon and the events of 6 January 2021 to appreciate the real-life implications of these movements.
The veil between online and offline has quite literally been shredded—learning more about the psychology behind conspiracy theories should help prepare us for what’s to come, satanic worship and all.