By Bob & Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott
Step right up! It’s Satan’s Underground!
A hundred thousand copies in print!
Featured on radio and TV, from “Geraldo” to the “700 Club”!
Stories of satanic rituals, snuff films, and human sacrifice!
Author Lauren Stratford survived to tell us all about it!
But we believe these child victims can be protected from further harm and exploitation only if those who work on their behalf do so with absolute integrity, honesty, and responsibility. Sensational stories may sell more books, generate more television appearances, and provide more visibility to one’s cause, and one may believe them because “they’re too bizarre not to be true,” but they should never be substituted for careful, accurate, and truthful reporting.
In the course of our research into the Satan’s Underground story, we talked with parents of children who had been ritually abused and who had reason to believe Lauren Stratford’s testimony was not true. We asked them why they were willing to tell us what they knew, when, after all, her story supported their children’s statements. One parent spoke for them all:
We’re so afraid that no one will believe our children. If this story were true, it would be invaluable. But we know it’s not, and the only testimony worse for our children than no testimony is a testimony that’s not true. If we can’t find the courage to speak out and tell what we know about Lauren Stratford’s story, then we’re sitting ducks for the people we know are guilty and who are just looking for a way to discredit our children.
The hard evidence we have uncovered and which we present here speaks for itself. The story of Satan’s Underground is not true. And the same exploited children it may have been designed to help have been cheated of the truth.
A synopsis of the story told in Satan’s Underground is very difficult to produce. The book is missing dates, places, outside events, and even the true names of the principal characters necessary for placing the story in an historical and geographical context. Stratford says, “In part this is for my own protection, but it also serves to remind you that what I’ve endured is not limited to one city or region. I have also changed names and descriptions of many key figures in order to protect the victims.”
According to Satan’s Underground, Stratford was born illegitimately and adopted at birth by a “professional” couple. Her adoptive father left when Lauren was four because of his wife’s explosive temper and physical abuse toward him. At six Lauren was raped in her basement by a day laborer. The rape was the mother’s idea of a “fair wage” for the laborer’s work. The rapes continued by various “smelly” men, and under her mother’s authority child pornography pictures and bestiality were added when she was eight. Throughout childhood, Lauren received the physical abuse her mother had previously heaped on her husband. Several times Lauren tried to tell adults what was happening, but neither her school counselor, pastor, youth group leader, nor a woman sent by the police believed her.
At fifteen, after a particularly brutal physical altercation with her mother, Lauren collected bus fare donations from her school friends and escaped to a city two hundred miles away. She ended up in juvenile hall and was picked up by her father, whom she had not seen in eleven years. She moved “across the country” with him rather than returning to live with her mother.
Lauren had only lived with her father for a short time when her mother called, insisting he allow “them” to come and get Lauren to continue the pornographic abuse. She then realized the multistate extent of the pornography ring her mother had inducted her into as a child.
By the time she turned twenty, Lauren had been living a “dual life” at home (with her father, at church, and in school) and at the pornographer’s studio (mostly on weekends). It was then she met the leader of the ring: Victor.
She learned that Victor’s empire included pornography, prostitution, drugs, sadomasochism, and child prostitution and pornography. Victor wanted her to be his “woman,” but she had to pass a test first. For several weekends in a row she had to properly pleasure his best customers, no matter what their perversions, demands, or tortures.
She passed the test. Victor had his assistant hold her while he used a razor blade on her forehead to initiate her as his “woman.” The sexual perversion didn’t end, she just responded to Victor’s whims instead of any and all customers’. She managed to continue her college studies despite the drugs and the torturous weekends with Victor. But Victor got bored. What was left to excite and thrill him?
Satanism. It was, he told Lauren, the ultimate path to power and sexual gratification. At first he forced her to attend satanic rituals where he and others sexually abused her. Then he demanded she participate in a child sacrifice ritual. She refused and underwent brainwashing and torture for an unspecified period of time. Finally Victor threatened he would ritually kill a baby each week that she continued to refuse. After holding out for four weeks, she was locked in a metal drum with the dead bodies of four babies who had been sacrified. She finally gave in and evidently participated in an infant sacrifice ritual on Halloween night. She says, “It was the last time I ever participated in a satanic ritual.”
A later chapter in the book tells that sometime during her late teens and early twenties she gave birth to three children. The first two were killed shortly after birth in snuff films and the third, a son she calls “Joey,” was sacrificed in her presence at a ritual.
When Lauren’s father unexpectedly died, she realized she had no real reason to stay in the area. Thus began her frantic flight from Victor and his conspiratorial enforcers. She moved to many cities over the next few years, but Victor’s men always found her and continued periodic threats to ensure her silence. Her emotional and physical health deteriorated as a consequence of the extreme abuse she had suffered. During one eight-year period she was hospitalized more than forty times.
Her “breakthrough,” enabling her to begin the “healing process,” began with some sensitive hospital therapists. She learned that she didn’t have to be a victim any longer. But she was far from well.
Then she saw Johanna Michaelsen on television. Somehow Lauren knew that her physical and spiritual healing would be accomplished through her. But it was another eighteen months before she and Johanna met.
After their first meeting, Lauren moved in with Johanna. Johanna and her entire family, including her husband, sister Kim, and brother-in-law Hal Lindsey, ministered healing to Lauren. In a number of months a new Lauren and a new book emerged from a fierce spiritual battle. The victim is beginning to be left behind, the victorious counselor appears. The stage is set for the counselor’s handbook, I Know You’re Hurting. Such is the story of Satan’s Underground.
Lauren Stratford doesn’t exist, except as the pen name of Laurel Rose Willson, and Satan’s Underground is only one of the stories she’s told about her life.
Laurel Willson was born prematurely to Marrian E. Disbrow on August 18, 1941, in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. She was brought home after forty-four days in the hospital by her adoptive parents, physician Frank Cole Willson and schoolteacher Rose Gray Willson, to a little town called Buckley. The littlest Willson joined her big sister Willow Nell, who was five years older. Laurel’s adoption by the Willsons was finalized on February 17, 1942, before her first birthday.
In a signed statement Willow prepared for us, she described her parents:
My parents were devout Christians. They were both active members of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Tacoma. Both of them were fully committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. My sister and I were raised in a very sheltered, strict Christian home. There was no place in our home for anything remotely occult or pornographic. My mother continues as a dedicated Christian, for many years now a member of _________ Church . . .
One assumes from Satan’s Underground that its author is an only child. There is no mention of any sibling. The average reader would also assume that Stratford’s mother is probably dead, which would explain why Stratford neither confronted nor reconciled with her mother as part of her spiritual and emotional healing. Neither assumption is true.
The Willson home at 1624 “A” Street was not peaceful. Rose had an unpredictable temper, and Frank, with an explosive temper of his own, was often the brunt of her outbursts. His health was precarious, the result of a heart attack, and the stress on him was taxing. Willow was Laurel’s protector and comforter, and many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent in the park together, hiking or riding bikes. Willow remembers life for her and Laurel during this time was very unpredictable. They never knew if Mother would be in one of her rages or would take them to the beach for the day. But even the anger Willow remembers is nothing like what Satan’s Underground describes:
My mother did have a temper. And she did have problems. But she loved us. My mother was never involved with pornography. No, no. No, no, NO! Mother would be absolutely appalled. . . . She’s very straightlaced.
In actuality, Frank left the family in 1950, when Laurel was nine years old, not when she was four as Satan’s Underground describes. This was after the family had moved from Buckley to 805 North “C” in nearby Tacoma. Both Frank and Willow were living with Laurel and her mother during the time period that Laurel wrote in her book she was being repeatedly raped and used in child pornography and bestiality. “I was never part of a porno empire,” Willow explains wryly. “And let me tell you, I was a very inquisitive little kid, with my ear to the door. If there had been any sort of business going on like that, believe me, I would have known about it.”
Laurel was very musically gifted. Her adoptive parents plied her with music lessons, including voice, piano, clarinet, and flute. One of her singing competition judges wrote when Laurel was eight, “Outstanding accomplishment for length of study. This must be a very intelligent and musical girl.” Her report cards reflect almost straight A’s. Her attendance and grades precluded long absences from school such as would have seemed necessary from the extreme sexual abuse described in Satan’s Underground.
During Laurel’s high school years, she was active in school clubs and extracurricular activities. Returning from a singing engagement, Laurel and two friends were involved in an auto accident. Laurel had a minor ankle injury, and both members of the trio recall that she was extremely distraught in the car and in the hospital, continually calling for her father. She seemed bitterly disappointed that he didn’t come.
Laurel ran away shortly after the accident. She stayed within the city of Tacoma, at Raymond Juvenile Hall, until arrangements were made for her to stay with her father in California. Not liking San Bernardino schools, she returned to her mother, but soon moved in with her sister. By then, Willow was married with two young children and living in Seattle.
When Laurel was seventeen, she told a friend at King’s Garden High School that she had been sexually molested by her brother-in-law, Willow’s husband. She sounded at the time as though that were the only sexual abuse she had ever suffered. Her allegations were disproven and Willow contacted their dad and received permission for Laurel to get psychiatric counseling. Willow and her husband were told by the psychiatrist not to continue allowing Laurel to live with them: “She’s a danger to your children.”
Laurel graduated from King’s Garden and enrolled in what was then called Seattle-Pacific College in September of 1959. Marie Hollowell, the school’s dean of women who had been a special friend to Willow, also took an interest in “trying to draw Laurel out.” Laurel soon told a classmate that she had been molested sexually, perhaps by members of the college staff, and that her mother had driven her to “the bad side of town” to be a prostitute. In a meeting with Marie Hollowell, Willow, and a psychiatrist, Laurel admitted she had made the stories up to “impress” her new friend. Because of this controversy, the school recommended psychiatric care for Laurel. Soon after, she attempted suicide by cutting her wrists.
By September of 1960 Laurel was living in Southern California with her father, Frank. He was a physician for the Santa Fe Railroad and had a private practice in San Bernardino. When Laurel was nineteen, she wrote some of her old friends that her father was sexually abusing her.
Enrolled in the University of Redlands, Laurel majored in music. She directed the choir at First Assembly of God Church in Rialto, where she and her father were members. Though she gained acceptance through her musical talent and skill, her emotional troubles were not resolved. Her pastor, Eugene Boone, was called in numerous times because Laurel had cut her arms in apparent suicide attempts. This went on over the six years Reverend Boone knew her.
While still in college, during 1962, she met a Pentecostal evangelist couple, Norman and Billie Gordon. Billie described her relationship with Laurel this way:
I like to help people, that’s what I’m about. But Laurel was a hopeless case. . . . We met her after a service we testified at. A car pulled up in our driveway. I opened my door and invited her in, but she didn’t come in. I closed my door. I heard her voice, so I opened my door again. She said, “Please, come out and help me. I heard you testify tonight. Please come and talk because I’m not the kind of person you want in your house.”
Laurel ended up practically living with the Gordons for most of 1962. During that time the stress was so intense that Billie went from 140 to 100 pounds. Her children begged her to ask Laurel to leave because Laurel was consuming all of Billie’s time and attention. There was nothing left for anyone but Laurel.
Laurel told a series of stories to Billie and Norman Gordon. She told them that Frank Cole Willson was her natural father, and that her natural mother had died when she was very small. Her father had quickly remarried, and her stepmother had physically and sexually abused her ever since. The Gordons assumed that Laurel was living with her father and stepmother. (In reality, Frank and Laurel lived alone at 1580 North Vista in Rialto.)
Laurel also “became blind” while with them, and they prayed frequently for her healing. However, they began to suspect she wasn’t really blind. One day when they were driving past the University of Redlands, Laurel pointed out a landmark. Confronted, Laurel tried to say she’d felt a familiar bump in the road, but finally admitted she had faked her blindness to obtain sympathy and attention. Billie told us that one afternoon Laurel showed up with a huge red bump and bruises on her forehead. She asked Billie to protect her—her stepmother had hit her on the head with an unopened can of peaches. Again, confronted by an unbelieving Billie, she confessed that she had hit herself with the can to gain sympathy.
Laurel’s break with the Gordons was precipitated by an incident that took place in their home while Norman was out. Laurel, locking herself in the bathroom, broke a glass vase and proceeded to cut her face in three places. She then charged out of the room with the broken vase, straight for Billie’s neck. Billie’s grown son wrestled the glass away from her.
Shortly after this, Laurel returned home to her father. A woman who was a member of the Hemet First Assembly of God church befriended her and attempted to help Laurel, whom she considered troubled and emotionally depressed. (This woman is the first of three of Laurel’s closest acquaintances who asked to have their names withheld. We have labeled them “Friend One,” “Friend Two,” and “Friend Three.”) Friend One confirmed that Laurel cut her own arms several different times.
When Laurel was twenty-two (1963), she told Friend One that she had been seduced into a lesbian relationship with two church women. On June 7, 1964, she graduated from Redlands with a bachelor’s in music, with a special secondary education teaching credential in music. Soon after this, Laurel disappeared from home. Later she told Friend One that she had run away to Teen Challenge in Los Angeles and gone through their drug abuse program, then had become a drug counselor. Her friend angrily pointed out that Laurel’s drug use was a lie. According to Friend One, Laurel admitted she had never had a drug problem, but had made the story up for Teen Challenge.
Laurel was still living with her father when he died of a heart attack at home. Dr. Frank Cole Willson was pronounced dead at 8:45 a.m. on January 4, 1965. Willow and Rose, their mother, came from Washington for the services. Rose stayed on for a while, signing a probate paper with Laurel on February 5 and attending Sunday services at the same First Assembly of God in Rialto where Laurel was the choir director. Probate on Dr. Willson’s estate took almost two years and wasn’t finally settled until the end of 1967.
Laurel met Frank Austin at church while she was living for a time at 208 Valley View in Hemet. He was almost one and a half years younger than Laurel and was the son of a Pentecostal Holiness minister. They dated three or four times and then, Frank told us, she suggested marriage. “She seemed like a nice Christian girl and it seemed like a good thing to do, so we did.” They were married on March 11, 1966, with Friend Two and Frank’s father as witnesses.
At that point, what one wishes could have been the beginning of a happy story instead led to only more pain and failure. Within a week the troubled couple, their marriage still unconsummated, sought counsel from Friend One and her husband. Here we reluctantly include comments from Frank which are very private. We do so only because Satan’s Underground claims that Laurel had been raped and abused since childhood, had been involved in hard-core prostitution for at least five years, and had borne three children by this time. Frank told us the marriage was eventually consummated, and that Laurel “was a virgin until then.” Frank and Laurel agreed to an annulment, granted on May 17, 1966.
Laurel’s desperate need for attention was described by Friend Two:
I felt sorry for Laurel. . . . She called me one night at midnight. I went over and found her cutting her arm with a paring knife. She had made several cuts already. . . . She so desperately needed someone to say they loved her, in Christian love. Laurel didn’t have anybody, because she would turn them against her by wearing them down. She would go from one friend to the next, knowing they wouldn’t be her friends for long. That’s sad. . . . There were a lot of times I had to be with her when I wanted to be with my kids. I’ve apologized to my kids for that. I will never allow anybody, ever again, to suck me in the way she did.
Laurel turned twenty-five in August of 1966. She taught music at Hemet Junior High School for one and one-half years, from September 1966 through January 1968. Her picture in the school yearbook shows her smiling next to the choir. This was the only public school teaching recorded for her, although her renewed teaching credential is valid until 1991.
Laurel appears to have been employed at the California Institute for Women in Chino, probably from 1969 to 1971. She says she was a correctional counselor on her alumni report. She gave the same information to Willow and others throughout the years. She told yet another friend that she had been a guard. However, we have been unable to confirm either job with the Prison Personnel Office or with the California Penal System Office of Past Employment.
During this time she was still active in various Assemblies of God churches and gained a small popularity as a Christian singer in different churches. She joined a singing group led by Delpha Nichols called “Delpha and the Witnesses.” The male singer, Ken Sanders, and his wife invited her to live with them in Bakersfield. She has lived in the Bakersfield area since 1971.
Delpha, Ken, and Laurel sang at many churches and toured on a limited basis. Ken remembers Laurel as a nice Christian woman with good values, but who was also emotionally troubled. Though “The Witnesses” stayed in church people’s homes while touring, Laurel insisted she needed a private hotel room. One time, Ken related, she became frantic when told they would be staying with nearby church people. Laurel attacked Delpha so violently “she nearly clawed Delpha’s dress off.” Laurel got a hotel room.
Ken stated that Laurel did talk about her mother sexually abusing her and offering her to various men, abuse which had church-related overtones:
One night, when Laurel was still living with us, I took out the Bible for our family devotions. She jumped up and ran off into her room and locked the door behind her. Later, she said it was because when they used to do these perversions to her, that’s how it would begin. “It was in the name of Jesus they did this stuff.”
Delpha and her husband Willie loved Laurel. They felt sorry for the girl nobody seemed to love, and though she was an adult of thirty or so, they legally adopted her and she called them her family. One of the many stories Laurel told Delpha was that her mother had abused her so horribly she was sterile and could never have children.
Laurel wrote many stories of her childhood and family in letters to Delpha. Delpha saved them until Laurel contacted her more recently and requested she burn them all. We asked Delpha why Laurel had wanted them burned. “She didn’t want anybody to see them, I guess…. She was telling me about her past.” Delpha continued, “There’s a lot of things I don’t understand. I’m mixed up about a lot of things about Laurel like that.”
By 1973, Laurel had written and copyrighted some Christian songs while with the group. “Delpha and the Witnesses” broke up in 1974. Ken calmly observed, “It was because of Laurel, of course.” Laurel and the Sanders continued to go to the same church in 1974, pastored by David Joiner. Laurel was living at 1405 White Lane in Bakersfield. Though she still sang some with Delpha, she also accompanied other Christian singers both at her own church and others. During this time she gave private piano lessons.
Ken Sanders and Pastor Joiner both recalled Laurel and another church member, Friend Three, leaving the church some time during 1975. (Ken didn’t see Laurel again until 1984, when he saw her at a special church service in honor of Delpha and Willie.) Laurel told a number of stories to Friend Three, who lived with her for a time. Among other things, Laurel told her that her scars were from her mother’s abuse. The friend explained to us what she now believes to be the stories’ real source:
Have you read the book Sybil? I didn’t read it until I started taking my psychology classes. I realized that most of the stories Laurel had told me about her mom’s abuse were taken literally from Sybil. You know, the torture with enemas, the piano, the whole bit. Even the part about the mom’s abuse with small sharp objects that rendered her incapable of ever having children…. Laurel took that directly out of the book.
Friend Three explained to us Laurel’s claim that the physical and sexual abuse continued until she went to live with her father, and then it all stopped. As the friend talked with us, she shared the destructive influence Laurel had on her own life:
At that time I was pretty vulnerable. There were problems in my church, my father had just been brain-damaged in a severe accident. My brother was going through a very traumatic time, and my husband and I were having trouble in our marriage. I had two small children, and I was extremely unhappy. For me, I’m very interested in music. She accompanied me when I sang. She was giving my daughter piano lessons, and we started being friends.
She was very happy, always laughing, always very up. And gradually . . . manipulation is what it is. Where I was the weakest, that’s where she worked her way in, and I was so involved. She tried to separate me from my mom and dad, and at one point actually told them I didn’t need them anymore, she’d take care of me. She began to manipulate things so I was really putting distance between myself and my husband, more and more and more. And then I felt trapped.
How could I extricate myself from this awful mess I’d gotten into? For me, it got so bad that my way out was, “I cannot deal with any of this anymore, I’m never going to get free.” The scariest part about it was that it seemed so normal, “I’ll just go to sleep and never wake up again.” I took every pill in the house. I had a bottle of sleeping pills, I had a bottle full of pain tablets, another of Valium, and I took them all.
My family discovered me in time. I had to spend some time in a mental hospital, but the Lord saw me through. I think she was scary fifteen years ago . . . and she still scares me. She does not, she really doesn’t know the truth. I suspected there were others she used like me. Thank you, Lord, because I did find out in time.
Through the latter part of the 1970s Laurel’s physical and emotional health deteriorated, incapacitating her from full-time work. She was able to live on the small amount state disability paid plus offering private music lessons. Laurel spent much of her time hospitalized. When Friend One from the Hemet Assembly of God church visited her in the hospital in the late 1970s, Laurel seemed helpless, physically and emotionally. She told her friend she had a “rare blood disease shared by only nine people in the world.”
|Read a brief summary of the various versions and contradictory stories Lauren has told her friends.|
In 1978, Willow and her family visited Laurel at 2401 Christmas Tree Lane in Bakersfield. Willow described the meeting as short and strained. Laurel was distant and explained she had been very ill and in and out of the hospital. She kept repeating that she had a new family now. “I got the feeling she was telling us she didn’t need me or Mother,” Willow recalled. This was the last time Willow saw or heard from her sister.
Laurel read Stormie, a book chronicling author Stormie Omartian’s abuse as a child, and contacted Omartian. Laurel and a close friend, Sherry DeLynn Williams, began a support group for battered women called Victims Against Sexual Abuse. The local Bakersfield press covered the group’s activities, and author Joyce Landorf Heatherly invited Laurel to be a guest on her radio program. Laurel talked about child and spouse abuse and related her own stories.
In 1985 the Bakersfield area was rocked by charges concerning a large ritualistic child abuse ring operating in Bakersfield. The story received national media attention. At that time, Laurel was giving private piano lessons to the child of one of the Bakersfield investigators, Sgt. Bob Fields. At one point she contacted Colleen Ryan, the District Attorney handling prosecution of the case. Ryan told us, “She called me a couple times . . . I don’t really remember what her link was, except she was somehow entwined with the two women [defendants] in the case.” Ryan’s office and the investigators found her testimony useless.
Laurel then met Pat Thornton, a foster mother caring for some of the children whose family members were implicated in the child abuse case. Laurel told Pat she had personal knowledge of what was going on and was afraid for her life. Pat told us:
For a short period of time, I was like Laurel’s mother. She would call me at all hours of the day or night, hysterical, and I had to drop everything I was doing to go to her or at least talk her through her hysteria on the phone. She almost consumed my life. It was very difficult for me, because I was trying to help the children I was caring for, too. It was like she was another one of the kids.
During this time Laurel first began mentioning satanism as part of her story. According to Laurel, she was still being harassed and threatened by satanists (this would have been in 1985 and 1986). In fact, she claimed they were still picking her up late at night and forcing her to watch their rituals, including ritual child abuse. She told Pat this as the basis for her inside knowledge of the Bakersfield cases. There was no Victor in Laurel’s stories to Pat. Instead there were two men, “Elliot,” who was the leader of this massive ritualistic abuse and pornography ring; and “Jonathan,” to whom she had been a “love slave” for many years.
Laurel told Pat that Jonathan had branded her forehead with a circular red hot brand so everyone would know she was his love slave. That’s why, Laurel said, she always wore bangs to cover her forehead—even though Pat couldn’t tell the scar from typical forehead wrinkles. One night, Laurel called Pat hysterically claiming that Jonathan had run her off the road in a murder attempt.
One of the most macabre stories Laurel told Pat was that she had a cassette tape of her son Joey’s death screams during the satanic ritual in which he was killed, and a black-and-white photograph of baby Joey that had been taken after his death. Laurel never showed Pat the picture or let her hear the tape, explaining they would upset Pat’s sensitive nature.
Concerning Laurel’s own history, Laurel claimed she had become pregnant for the first time when she was fourteen, and that the many scars on her arms were caused by the pornographers and satanists torturing her. Laurel said her father had died in 1983, and his death had freed her from the hold the ring had on her—but it took almost three years for her to realize it and finally try to break away.
Laurel said she also had personal knowledge of the McMartin Preschool ritual child abuse case in Manhattan Beach, California, near Los Angeles. She wondered if Pat knew anyone associated with that case. In the spring of 1986 Pat introduced Laurel to Judy Hanson, an investigator who was working with some of the parents in the McMartin case. Judy described her first meeting with Laurel:
She told me she was terminally ill and in very great pain. She had a wheelchair in the back of her car and she was using oxygen. Her apartment was immaculate. During our conversation, she told me the pain was too much for her to continue. She had me get a bottle filled with thick white liquid out of the refrigerator for her, which she then took large drinks from. She told me it was morphine for her pain. I didn’t notice any difference in her speech or actions after the medicine.
Laurel claimed she’d been abused as a child, and had been trapped in this ritual child abuse ring, both in Bakersfield and with the McMartin group in Los Angeles. She said she could give us names, places, dates, and events, but that she was afraid of physical harm or even death at the hands of the ring if they suspected she was talking.
Laurel gave Judy a manuscript containing her stories, and a tape of two Joyce Landorf Heatherly shows she appeared on. According to Judy, she arranged for Laurel to record her experiences and information in a video tape done by Bob Currie. Bob, one of the parents whose children were involved in the McMartin abuse case, had been looking for a credible adult witness or victim to give support to the children’s testimonies. The video was made in multiple sessions at a Bakersfield motel. Respecting Laurel’s concerns about her own safety, Bob never revealed more than her mouth and chin in the video.
After the taping was completed, Bob took the video home. But he never used it. Other McMartin parents who saw the video or who were present during the taping told us they agreed with Bob: “Laurel’s story wasn’t credible.” We asked parent Leslie Floberg why she distrusted Laurel’s story concerning the Manhattan Beach activities. She replied:
That’s just it. She seemed to be telling us exactly what we wanted to hear. Whatever we thought was happening, she said she had witnessed it. She described most things in very general terms. The only things she described in detail were incidents that had already been described in detail on a recently aired CNN television special about our case. Somebody who knew nothing about the case, but who had watched that television program, could have given us as credible a “testimony.”
We asked Pat Thornton, who was present during the taping, why she didn’t believe Laurel’s video:
She didn’t give concrete, specific, testable details that hadn’t already been reported in the news. It was almost like she felt safe in repeating what we already knew from other sources, but she didn’t want to say something new we could test. I got the feeling that she didn’t really have any firsthand knowledge.
The stories Laurel told on the video for the McMartin parents are very different from the stories in Satan’s Underground. In the video she said that both of her parents, mother and father, were involved in pornography and satanism. She told how, when she was a child, even after her father left home, the three of them would meet at the satanic abuse rituals. She said that she lived in the basement of a farmhouse with farm animals (the same animals she was forced to pose with for the pornographic pictures). Laurel explained her many scars by saying that her mother forced her to pleasure her sexually, and that if she did not do so quickly enough, her mother would take razor blades and slice her arms and legs to punish her. Laurel also explained that she had spent two years of her life in a warehouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles with other “baby breeders,” where she had two children killed in ritualistic snuff films.
All six parents who witnessed the video and/or its filming attested to us that she said she had participated in an ongoing lesbian relationship with Virginia McMartin, then the star defendant in the McMartin preschool case. They also agree that she claimed to have been present while ritual abuse of children went on.
According to Bob Currie, he provided the access Laurel wanted to Johanna Michaelsen, Christian author of The Beautiful Side of Evil. (Michaelsen had talked briefly with a few of the McMartin parents.) After Laurel became close to Johanna, she asked for her video back from Bob. Bob hand-delivered the original video to Johanna. Laurel then broke off all communication with Judy Hanson, Pat Thornton, Bob Currie, and the other McMartin parents involved. Only a few months later, Laurel’s story of Satan’s Underground was published by Harvest House with Johanna Michaelsen’s strong encouragement.
Johanna Michaelsen admitted to us that she had viewed the video, including the segment concerning Virginia McMartin. She first explained to us that the legal ramifications of the McMartin story were too complex to deal with, but when we asked point-blank if she believed the lesbianism story, she replied, “I don’t know.” We asked if it seemed odd to be unsure if Laurel’s McMartin story was true, yet believe totally in and help publish another equally fantastic tale from the same source. Johanna did not answer the question.
Parent Leslie Floberg concluded our conversation in an angry outburst. “Put this in your magazine: I feel raped by the so-called Christians who’ve promoted Lauren Stratford as a victim just like our children.”
Our inclination has always been to give Laurel the benefit of the doubt, to presume her story true until proven otherwise. If Laurel’s story were true, many people would be wholly ignorant of the torment she had lived through. There would also be details which could never be verified on paper or other documentation. Yet at the same time, there would be a number of mundane details that couldn’t escape outside notice. As we proceeded, we used this basic principle: if a person proves trustworthy in the “normal” details of their lives, which can be confirmed in normal ways, it is easier to trust them when they make claims about events which cannot be verified.
There were two considerations: First, what evidence exists or would exist if Laurel’s story is true? In other words, can her story be verified? Second, are there any evidences or facts which contradict or cast doubt on her story? Can her story be falsified?
One more thing must be said. We believe that when extreme or extraordinary claims are presented as objective truth, the burden of proof lies upon the claimant to give evidence for what he or she affirms. This should especially hold true for Christian authors and publishers. In our opinion, Satan’s Underground manifestly falls into such a category.
From the beginning, we were led to believe that substantial validation for Laurel’s testimony exists. Laurel’s book contains a moving portrayal of how safe she felt when Hal Lindsey publicly warned satanists to stay away from her because he had the goods on anyone who might retaliate. (Johanna Michaelsen, however, told us that Hal was “bluffing” when he said this.) Laurel claimed she had passed the untold facts (e.g., Victor’s name, etc.) along to people like Johanna Michaelsen and Ken Wooden. Harvest House told us they possessed documentation more than sufficient to prove her story.
However, the most stunning element of the true Laurel Willson story is that no one even checked out the main details. When we contacted Laurel’s mother, sister, brother-in-law, cousin, church friends—in fact, anyone who would have known Laurel during the book’s most crucial years—we were shocked to discover that, in nearly every case, we were the first people to have contacted them!
We had a lengthy conversation with Laurel, asking for any documentation of her story. She told us that many parties, including Johanna Michaelsen and others “from the U.S. Justice Department on down,” had advised her not to give us anything. She then warned us that further research on our part would be futile. “The trail’s been cold for over twenty-five years,” she said. “You can’t hope to find confirmation now.”
In our conversation, Laurel said John Rabun was one of her advisers and implied he was from the Justice Department. Johanna Michaelsen and Lyn Laboriel (a kind woman who believes Laurel’s story) also used Rabun’s name as a defense for Laurel’s story. So we called him. Rabun actually represents the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a respected organization which is not an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, nor any federal office. Rabun also disavows being on any advisory board, much less Lauren Stratford’s.
“I have never seen any objective documentation for Lauren’s story,” he stated, and “I do not consider her story credible.” He told us Laurel had called him in September, asking his advice on whether she should provide us with documentation. Rabun asked her what kind of documentation she would provide. She said the problem was that “she didn’t have names, dates, places, etc.” Rabun’s reply was, “Well, you can’t very well give it to them, then, can you?”
Since we had already (twice) attempted to confront Laurel with our questions, we felt our only remaining Christian duty was to Harvest House, Laurel’s publisher. Upon contacting them, we explained that the evidence we had collected was virtually overwhelming, and asked them as responsible publishers to carry the burden of proof. “Please show us the evidence which led you to publish Satan’s Underground.”
For instance, we asked them if it was possible to produce an eyewitness to any of Laurel’s pregnancies. If we accept that Laurel had three children by brutal rape, whose births were unrecorded and who had been secretly killed, she still had a “public” life which included attending high school and college, church attendance, and playing concert piano. Since her pregnancy would have been “showing” during her high school and college years, there should have been an abundance of witnesses. After all, one should first have proof that a child existed before asking others to believe that the child was murdered. Eileen Mason, editor-in-chief at Harvest House, informed us that Laurel “could not produce such a witness.”
It strains one’s credulity to think that no one would notice a teenager who was pregnant three times, yet never ended up with a baby. Remember, this all supposedly took place in the late 1950s or early 1960s, while she was singing with Pentecostal church groups, attending Christian schools, and living with family members other than her mother. In reality, at least ten people who knew her quite well during that time are emphatic: Laurel was never pregnant during her teens or early twenties.
Harvest House explained what they felt constituted proof of her testimony. They had a three-part test: (1) several staff members talked with Laurel at different times and got the same stories from her, and all of the staff members were impressed with her sincerity; (2) they talked with “experts” who confirmed that such things have happened to others; and (3) they gathered character references for her from her supporters.
These tests can establish consistency and plausibility, but they are not tests to establish the validity of actual historical events. Over the past ten years, we have heard stories from several “victim impersonators” that paralleled those of real drug dealers and cult members, but this similarity was not proof that the victim impersonator’s particular story was true.
On the other hand, we know that Laurel’s book conflicts with known history, and over the past twenty years, she has not only given contradictory stories, but those who knew her testify that she has been disturbed and manipulative. If genuine evidence for the major facets of Laurel’s testimony exists anywhere, we are still willing to examine it. In light of the inability of those supporting Laurel’s story to provide such evidence, the overwhelming weight of our evidence must stand.
As believers, our concepts of ethics and truth should be higher, not lower, than those of the secular press. When a publisher issues a testimony which he knows is likely to be sensationalistic, we believe he is obligated to ask what constitutes verification of that testimony. Certain claims and assertions require greater verification than others. This is not to lay all the blame at the doors of Harvest House. Other Christian publishers have recently released equally sensationalistic “survivor stories.”
Though publishers have the responsibility to test a story before offering it to the public, we as readers are also accountable. If we exercised the gift of discernment more often, publishers would be persuaded to offer books that can stand the test. As individual Christian readers, we cannot investigate every questionable testimony. However, we should encourage the publishers whose books we buy to do that job for us. It is not wrong to question a story which initially seems fantastic and offers no corroboration or documentation.
This article is not a condemnation of Laurel Willson. Though we don’t know, and may never know, the true causes of her problems, Laurel evidently has been emotionally disturbed for most of her life. Emotionally disturbed people should receive compassion and empathy from their friends and other Christians, and constructive, biblical therapy from Christians whose special gifts are counseling. Laurel Willson needs her Christian friends to comfort her in her distress, to love her enough to commit themselves to helping her resolve her problems according to biblical principles. The story of Satan’s Underground is not true, but Laurel’s emotional distress is real. Our prayer is that she gets the help she needs.
However, when Laurel Willson wrote Satan’s Underground and Johanna Michaelsen and Harvest House Publishers promoted it, the story stepped from the world of therapy to the world of testimony. Satan’s Underground has become the basis, the foundation, for Lauren Stratford’s authority as an expert on ritualistic abuse and as a counselor of other victims. Because the story is not true, her foundation is illusory, and her expertise and counseling qualifications are nonexistent.
That is why this investigation had to be conducted, and this article had to be written. As Laurel’s old friend who nearly ended her own life told us, “I don’t want to see her counseling anyone. If she counsels other people as she did me, there are going to be a lot of people in real trouble.”
1. Lauren Stratford, Satan’s Underground (Eugene, Oreg.: Harvest House Publishers, 1988). [return]
2. Bob Currie, in conversation with us. Note: we interviewed dozens of persons in the course of research for this article. In most cases, we talked with people several times, and double-checked our quotes. To avoid confusion, we do not list the exact dates of the conversations in this article. The reader is safe to assume that the conversations took place between 7 September and 10 November 1989. [return]
3. Stratford, Satan’s Underground, 17. [return]
4. Satan’s Underground is one of the most sexually and violently graphic contemporary Christian books we know. Those descriptions are not necessary in this synopsis. [return]
5. Including being drugged almost continually. [return]
6. Lauren says she was never a satanist because she had become a Christian as a young child and was only at the rituals because she was forced to be. [return]
7. Stratford, Satan’s Undergound, 114. [return]
8. And managed to finish her college education. [return]
9. According to Pierce County adoption records, on file. Marriage records show that Marrian Disbrow married Carl H—- one month later. [return]
10. According to her Pierce County birth certificate, on file. [return]
11. According to hospital records, on file. [return]
12. Some non-crucial details have been omitted to protect certain persons’ privacy. [return]
13. Statement dated 9 September 1989, on file. [return]
14. Willow, in conversation with us. [return]
15. Years resident in Calif., listed on his death certificate, on file. Frank and Rose never divorced, and Frank left a substantial portion of his estate to Rose as his wife. [return]
16. Willow, in conversation with us. [return]
17. Washington State Music Teachers Association Auditions, Spring 1949, on file. [return]
18. Copies of her grade school, junior high, and high school report cards are on file. [return]
19. Her father had moved to Calif. six years earlier. [return]
20. Willow and Willow’s husband, in conversation with us. [return]
21. Documentation on file. [return]
22. Enrollment confirmed by Seattle-Pacific. [return]
23. Willow and Marie Hollowell, in conversation with us. [return]
24. Willow and Billie Gordon, in conversation with us. [return]
25. Laurel’s mother, Rose, in conversation with us. [return]
26. Enrollment confirmed by Redlands. [return]
27. Reverend Boone, formerly of First AG Church, Rialto, in conversation with us. [return]
28. Billie Gordon, in conversation with us. [return]
29. She told the same story to “Friend Two.” [return]
30. Billie Gordon, in conversation with us. [return]
31. “Friend One,” in conversation with us. [return]
32. Record confirmed by University of Redlands Registrar and Alumni Office, on file. Satan’s Underground says that Laurel graduated after her father’s death, and with a major that prepared her for counseling-related jobs. [return]
33. “Friend One,” in conversation with us. [return]
34. San Bernardino County death certificate and probate records, both on file. [return]
35. Confirmed by the Riverside County marriage certificate record, on file. [return]
36. Information supplied by Frank Austin, “Friend One,” and “Friend Two.” [return]
37. “Friend One,” in conversation with us. [return]
38. Confirmed by the Hemet School District Personnel Office. [return]
39. Picture on file. [return]
40. Confirmed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. [return]
41. Confirmed by “Friend One,” “Friend Two,” and the Archers, a couple involved at the Hemet AG Church. [return]
42. Ken Sanders, Willie and Delpha Nichols, in conversation with us. [return]
43. Ken Sanders, in conversation with us. [return]
44. Delpha Nichols, in conversation with us. [return]
45. “You’ve Done So Much For Me Lord” and “Beholding His Beauty,” copyright 1972; “He Owes Me Nothing,” copyright 1973. On file. [return]
46. Information supplied by Ken Sanders, Reverend David Joiner, and “Friend Three.” According to her church membership card, Laurel had previously been a member of Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Mira Loma, Calif., near San Bernardino. [return]
47. Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil (New York: Warner Communications Company, 1973). [return]
48. “Friend One,” in conversation with us. [return]
49. Stormie Omartian, Stormie (Eugene, Oreg.: Harvest House Publishers, 1984). [return]
50. Information supplied by a tape of Joyce Landorf Heatherly Programs, and from additional comments Laurel taped at home concerning statements she had made during the program which were not aired. [return]
51. Confirmed by Bakersfield Sheriff’s Dept. Lt. Brad Darling and Sgt. Fields, in conversation with us. [return]
52. Bakersfield District Attorney Colleen Ryan, in conversation with us. [return]
53. Information supplied by Brad Darling and Colleen Ryan. [return]
54. Pat didn’t get out of bed. [return]
55. Pat Thornton, in conversation with us. [return]
56. Judy Hanson, in conversation with us. [return]
57. Our conversation with Bob covered a lengthy meeting in person as well as by telephone. [return]
58. Information from video corroborated by a number of McMartin parents and (partially) Johanna Michaelsen, in conversation with us. [return]
59. Information supplied from two and one-half hour phone conversation involving Randolf and Johanna Michaelsen, Jon Trott, and Bob Passantino, on 20 October 1989. [return]
60. On his television program, as quoted in Satan’s Underground, 166. [return]
61. Johanna Michaelsen, in conversation with us, 20 October 1989. [return]
62. Laurel Willson, in conversation with us, 22 September 1989. [return]
63. Eileen Mason, in conversation with us. She told the skeptical John Stewart of KKLA (30 March 1988), “We have plenty of evidence in many places.” [return]
64. Apparently no one considered the fact that, if Laurel is not telling the truth, her mother and family become the abused. [return]
65. Laurel Willson, in conversation with us, 22 September 1989. [return]
66. Chuckling, John Rabun concluded, “I would have liked to see that documentation myself!” [return]
67. Eileen Mason, in conversation with us. [return]
68. One such impersonator was “escaping the Moonies.” She lived with us, and her story was so good it took us a month to discover she was not 16 years old, but nearly 25, and had never been a Moonie. Later, she appeared on Oprah Winfrey as a victim of Multiple Personality Disorder. More recently, we ran across her while she was trying to convince a church group that she was an adult survivor from a satanic cult! [return]
69. The therapist doesn’t initially have to know whether or not the story is true, only that the person is hurting and needs help. [return]
70. “Friend Three,” in conversation with us. [return]