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Satanic rituals, sexual abuse and beheadings: Introducing the Hampstead hoax conspiracy theory

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.

The summer of 2014

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.

Hoaxed

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.

The psychology behind conspiracy theorists

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.

Real world consequences

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.

True crime podcast ‘Serial’ subject Adnan Syed released after 23 years in prison. What now?

A Baltimore judge has officially rescinded Adnan Syed’s murder conviction after his legal team presented a new year-long review to the court which detected two new potential suspects and detailed a string of uncovered evidence.

According to the BBC, Syed, 41, has been released into home detention after almost 23 years behind bars. The Baltimore-based man was arrested in 1999, when he was just 19 years old, and in 2000 was sentenced to life in prison—accused of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee after her body was found buried in the woods.

In 2014, this highly publicised case became the prime subject for season one of the true crime podcast Serial. Sarah Koenig, an American journalist, hosted the 12-part series which included 15 months of investigations, interviews and research into the murder and following conviction of Syed. Koenig also posted an episode on 20 September 2022 which detailed the most recent update, Syed’s release from prison.

While Syed has not officially been found innocent, this landmark decision heeds worldwide attention and acts as a crucial move towards reopening the investigation into Lee’s death. Despite all of the prosecution’s previous appeals having been denied, Judge Melissa Phinn decreed that she was vacating his conviction “in the interest of fairness and justice,” adding that the state had failed to share integral evidence that could have helped Syed’s defence at trial.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, which has studied the case over the past year alongside Syed’s latest defence attorney, stated that he definitely “deserves a new trial.”

Some background information

For those of you who may not have heard of Syed until today, or indeed the true crime podcast Serial, let us walk you through some important background information.

In February 1999, Syed was a senior in high school in Baltimore, Maryland. One day after school, Syed’s ex-girlfriend and former classmate, Hae Min Lee, was strangled and buried in a wooded forest.

Six weeks after her disappearance, Syed would be charged and convicted of her death, receiving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Since his arrest, Syed has continually maintained his innocence.

The Telegraph recently stated that during the original trial in 1999, Syed was painted as the scorned lover. The prosecution argued that he had felt humiliated by Lee and, after having been rejected, acted out in violence.

In November 2019, The New York Times reported that Syed’s most recent appeal to the Supreme Court had been denied.

However, this most recent update of his release into home detention sparks hope for Syed’s family who have been longing for a fair trial that evaluates the new evidence that has come to light since the young man’s arrest in 1999.

‘Serial’

In 2014, Serial, a true crime podcast, chose to focus its first season on this highly publicised case, specifically with the angle of whether or not Syed received a fair trial based on the evidence presented in court. Since its launch, the podcast has been downloaded approximately 300 million times—and during the year of its debut, won a Peabody award.

One of the most shocking takeaways from Serial included a potentially life-saving element that was left out of the criminal trial. Koenig dove right into the crux of the matter during episode one—a missing alibi.

Asia McClain is a former classmate of Syed who, according to Syed himself, wrote him a letter just after his arrest claiming that she specifically remembers seeing him at the public library promptly after school on the day Lee was found murdered. Yet, despite this valid and corroborated alibi, McClain was never once called to witness at the trial. Even worse, she was never once contacted by the defence attorneys—thereby stripping away one of Syed’s most valuable assets.

Another one of the most important aspects of the trial that Koenig explored is the “coded language” prosecutors used during Syed’s trial. Refinery29 summarised this by stating that the prosecution indicated Syed’s faith was what drove him to kill Lee. They spoke of other instances in which jilted Pakistani men killed their wives or girlfriends, ignoring the fact that Syed was born and raised in Baltimore.”

Koenig’s style and thorough investigation gave this case a national audience, leading many to question whether or not it inadvertently helped to maintain momentum for a revisited trial, with netizens everywhere donning their sleuth attire and hunting for the true criminal. Others have also suggested that Serial directly influenced a catalogue of true crime podcasts that have since premiered on a range of streaming platforms.

All that being said, Syed has previously stated his own distrust and worries about the podcast. In episode eleven, Koenig recalls a letter she received from Syed from prison. She stated, “He wanted me to evaluate his case based on the evidence alone, not on personality.”

She went on to read a segment of the letter: “I didn’t want to do anything that could even remotely seem like I was trying to befriend you or curry favour with you. I didn’t want anyone to ever be able to accuse me of trying to ingratiate myself with you or manipulate you.”

The Lee family

For others—most significantly, the Lee family—the podcast has been a sore reminder of the young girl’s death.

In 2016, after Syed was initially granted a new trial, the family spoke to news reporters and stated that Serial “reopened wounds few can imagine.” Lee’s brother went on to say: “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life—a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

Looking to the future

So, what happens next? Syed’s legal team have uncovered key pieces of evidence that previous prosecutors may have failed to disclose in violation of their legal duty. They have also identified two other potential suspects who have a history of violence towards women.

In terms of legal proceedings, as reported by All Things Considered on NPR, “Prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether or not they want to drop the charges against him or try him again for murder. And that just may hinge on how much evidence they have now in a case that’s more than 20 years old.”

Whether or not the upcoming trial goes ahead, or indeed if Syed is found innocent, we’re sure Serial will provide all of the most significant and up-to-date moments along the journey to discovering the entire truth behind Lee’s death.