The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Church of Satan wants you to stop calling these ‘devil worshiping’ alleged murderers Satanists

A look inside the home of a North Carolina couple accused of killing two men and burying them in the back yard. The couple regularly performed “satanic rituals” in their home, according to court documents. (Video: Forsyth County Sheriff Department)
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The North Carolina couple accused of killing two men and burying them in the back yard regularly performed “satanic rituals” in their home, according to court documents.

The couple’s house had Satanic sayings all over the walls, a friend told the Winston-Salem Journal.

One of the suspects, Pazuzu Algarad, even changed his name from John Lawson over a decade ago to incorporate the name of a demon from the novel and film “The Exorcist.”

The headline-grabbing allegations against Algarad and Amber Burch have prompted the Church of Satan to comment on the case. In short, the Satanist organization says that its members, unlike Algarad, do not worship the devil.

In a statement, the organization’s leader, Magus Peter Gilmore, said the Church of Satan “stands firm in opposition to criminal acts, whether or not they are perpetrated in the name of any deity.” People like Algarad, Gilmore said, are really “devil worshipers.” Calling them otherwise gives Satanists a bad name.

“Satanism is an atheist philosophy which does not condone sacrifices nor does it support murder,” the statement said. Referring to a photograph of Alagrad, Gilmore called the murder suspect a “theist,” and not a “Satanist.”

“Regardless of what fictional entity is being worshiped, many now grasp that extremist theism worldwide promotes acts of savage injustice,” he said.

Earlier this week, Forsyth County Housing and Community Development Director Daniel Kornelis released a disturbing video showing an inspection of Algarad’s residence, where officials found feces, animal carcasses and what appeared to be a “dried blood like substance … on walls,” according to the inspection report.

Swastikas and occult-associated symbols such as pentagrams covered the walls. The video is viewable here.

The house, owned by Algarad’s mother, Cynthia James, was declared unfit for human habitation.

The remains of the dead men, Joshua Fredrick Wetzler and Tommy Dean Welch, were found buried in a shallow grave in the back yard of the home. After the discovery of the remains, Krystal Matlock, 28, was also arrested, for allegedly helping the couple bury one of the victims in 2009.

The allegations against Burch and Algarad are shocking, and it’s easy to understand why any organization might want to separate itself from their alleged crimes — especially given the group’s history of contending with the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980’s and ’90’s, when several high-profile crimes were portrayed as rooted in “occult” or “satanic” beliefs.

Corrective statements like these are routine for the Church of Satan, which has an improving relationship with law enforcement. “I have been a consultant for law enforcement on local, state and federal levels for years,” Gilmore wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. However, he added, “many police departments have not trained their officers to evaluate such instances, and unless they contact experts, they could misinterpret the data.”

Gilmore also said that the Church of Satan’s “hate mail remains steady,” whether cases like Algarad’s are in the news or not. But the group doesn’t limit distancing statements like these to instances of criminal activity. There are several different groups out there using the term “Satanist” to refer to their beliefs, and they’re often at odds with each other. This has been going on for awhile.

There are people whom Gilmore would call “devil worshipers,” for whom a belief in the existence of actual demons and worship of Satan is a part of their practice. A tiny subset of that group include people like Algarad, alleged or convicted criminals who act in the name of a stated belief in Satan or demon worship.

The Church of Satan, Gilmore said, is a “rational, atheist philosophy” based on Anton LaVey’s “Satanic Bible” from 1969. The Church of Satan is generally quite protective of that claimed lineage and has a specific, somewhat rigorous membership application process. The group believes that it is the only “authentic” Satanist group in existence.

The organization’s leadership, according to Gilmore, believes that “the purpose of the Church of Satan is solely to communicate its philosophy to a worldwide audience with utmost clarity and precision.” Gilmore regularly uses the Church of Satan Web site to comment at length on instances of devil worship in the news, other “Satanist” groups and the qualities that the Church of Satan believes make a good Satanist — namely “pride, liberty and individualism.” Satanism, as defined by the Church of Satan, believes in Satan only as a symbolic, rather than as a supernatural, representation of these values.

Although some have compared the philosophy behind the Church of Satan to a sort of Ayn Rand-like Libertarianism (there are strong resonances between the two), the group avoids the association. Gilmore presents Satanism as a self-contained philosophy of its own, controlled and distributed exclusively through his organization, the one originally founded by LaVey. His essays and e-mails often contain bibliographies of links about the group’s philosophy, which Gilmore encourages readers to peruse in their entirety.

And then there’s the Satanic Temple, an entirely separate group led by Lucian Greaves that also refers to itself as a “Satanist” organization.

Like the Church of Satan, the Temple calls itself “atheistic.” But that group has a much simpler membership application process and is more politically active — something the Church of Satan has taken pains to condemn. In an email to the Daily Dot, Gilmore explained that he believes political activism should be personal in nature and not in the name of any “Satanist” movement or group.

The Satanic Temple is the group that wanted a devil statue outside the Oklahoma state capitol as a comment on public displays of religion. The group’s activism generally centers on issues pertaining to the separation of church and state, presenting itself as an “atheistic religion” that opposes public displays of religion — but it will fight for its right to participate in those displays to the fullest extent of the law.

“We agree that no religious monument should be on public ground. But if there is one, there needs to be more than one,” Greaves said to the Daily Dot. The group has also said it is concerned about holiday displays on public land and “women’s health issues.”

The Satanic Temple is not the same group behind the simultaneous “black mass” in Oklahoma earlier this year. That was the work of yet another “Satanist” group, the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu.

In Detroit, there’s also the Temples of Satan run by Rev. Tom Erik Raspotnik, who refers to himself as a “tea party Satanist.” He thinks the Church of Satan, the Satanic Temple and other local “Satanist” groups are too progressive and atheistic.