continued from Part I
Unearthing the Underground
In 1989, Christian authors Bob and Gretchen Passantino teamed up with Jon Trott, one of the Cornerstone magazine writers who would expose Mike Warnke’s deceptions in 1991, to investigate the story told in Satan’s Underground. They had been alerted to possible problems with Lauren Stratford’s testimony by another Cornerstone researcher, Eric Pement. A colleague expressed doubts about Stratford’s credibility to Pement after he booked Lauren as a speaker at the Rockford Conference on Discernment and Evangelism. (2)
The Passantinos were extremely skeptical of Satanic ritual abuse stories, and realized that Christian writers played a role in fomenting the hysteria.
As with Warnke’s The Satan Seller, nearly everything in Satan’s Underground turned out to be at odds with the facts. First of all, “Lauren Stratford” was really Laurel Willson. Secondly, the chronology was wonky. Willson was born in 1941 (as I guessed, she grew up in Washington state), so if her timeline is accurate she ran away from her adoptive mother in 1956, met Victor in 1959, and left Victor’s cult when her father died in 1960.
Trott and the Passantinos learned that Laurel’s adoptive father, physician Frank Willson, left the family when Laurel was nine years old, not when she was four. He died in 1965. This means Laurel was twenty-four years old, not twenty, at the time of his death. And Laurel lived with both her adoptive mother and father at various times after the age of fifteen.
This timeline, which makes Laurel Willson a good deal older than Lauren was when she was supposedly a virtual hostage of Victor’s Satanic porn empire, undermines the impression given in Satan’s Underground that Lauren was a dewy innocent during her year as a Satanist. She would actually have been in her mid-twenties and out of college.
Lauren had gone to great lengths to prove to us she was never a Satanist by choice, that everything she did was done under duress. This would be easier to believe of a 19-year-old who had never lived away from home.
More surprising was the fact that Laurel had a sister, Willow. Though Lauren didn’t explicitly state she had no siblings, she strongly implied she was totally alone with her deranged mother after her father left the family. This was not the case. Laurel and Willow often visited their maternal grandfather, Anton Grabowski, in Tacoma. (4)
And what of Lauren’s adoptive mother? Was she really a demented, violent, raging harpy who allowed homeless drunks to rape four-year-old Laurel? Did she really invite child porn film crews to set up shop in her basement? Did she beat Laurel and abuse Frank so viciously he ended up in hospital on several occasions?
Rose Willson was a schoolteacher. In 1941, the year they began adoption proceedings for Laurel, she and Frank lived in the town of Buckley, Washington, not far from Tacoma. Willow was five years old.
The Willsons were older parents. Frank Willson, born around 1899, earned his medical degree from Loyola University in 1926.
According to Willow, the Willsons were devout members of the local Bible Presbyterian Church, and raised their daughters in a “very sheltered, strict Christian” environment. Both had volatile tempers and argued frequently, but Willow says their anger was not directed at her or Laurel.
Willow described Rose Willson as straightlaced. In her opinion, her mother would never have become involved with child pornography. (3)
At any rate, it would have been very difficult for a middle-class Tacoma woman to do in the early ’40s. It’s very unlikely Rose Willson herself had been a victim of child pornographers, having grown up in pre-WWI Tacoma.
Willow’s and Laurel’s upbringing was completely average for small-town kids in the ’40s. They made trips to the beach, played in local parks, and rode their bikes around the neighborhood. The Willsons fostered Laurel’s musical talent by paying for lessons in voice and various instruments. As a teen, Laurel was part of a singing trio and belonged to several school clubs. (3)
Recall that in Satan’s Underground, Laurel claimed she was deprived of toys, outings, and extracurricular activities throughout her childhood.
In short, Willow noticed nothing out of the ordinary in the Willson household. She was a Christian missionary in 1989, so she was probably not just covering up her family’s alleged Satanic porn activities. (2)
Other parts of Lauren’ story were at least partially true. Laurel did run away from home (around the age of sixteen), and was sent to live with Frank at his new home in San Bernardino, California. However, she didn’t stay there long. She returned voluntarily to her mother’s home in Tacoma. This fully contradicts Lauren’s claim that she escaped her mother’s nightmarish household and never looked back. (3)
Interestingly, there have been many rumours of Satanic cult activity in and around San Bernardino. It was at San Bernardino Valley College, Mike Warnke claimed, that he was recruited into the violent Satanic sect known as The Brotherhood.
Crackpot “mind control researcher and deprogrammer” Fritz Springmeier (who got out of prison last year after serving seven years for his role in an armed robbery) states in his nonsensical article about the “McDonald bloodline” that San Bernardino is a “major headquarters for the Illuminati and Satanic Hubs”, with thousands of black magic practitioners residing in the area. Springmeier is a major purveyor of misinformation about the occult. He claims to have deprogrammed an Illuminati slave called Cisco Wheeler, and together they authored several books about Illuminati mind control. He vociferously defended “former Illuminati member” John Todd after Todd’s stories were shown to be fraudulent.
In addition to the nonsense of Warnke and Springmeier, Devil Canyon in San Bernardino has supposedly been the site of Satanic rituals involving animal mutilation. But these stories weren’t circulating when Laurel lived in the area. The rumours reportedly began in 1981, after the Kimberly Crest mansion in Redlands was used in the filming of the slasher flick Hell Night.
For a time, 17-year-old Laurel lived with Willow’s family in Seattle. This is when signs of severe emotional problems began to surface. She accused Willow’s husband of sexually molesting her, the first of many sex abuse allegations she would make. In 1959, shortly after enrolling at Seattle Pacific College (a Christian school now called Seattle Pacific University), Laurel told a classmate she had been forced into prostitution by her mother and molested by staff members. According to Willow, Laurel admitted to the dean that she had fabricated these stories to “impress” her friend. Shortly after this incident, she made her first suicide attempt by cutting her wrists. (3)
By the Satan’s Underground timeline, Lauren was in California, hopelessly addicted to pills and under the control of the pornographer Tony and his minions.
Laurel’s condition seemed to improve when she returned to San Bernardino and enrolled as a music major at the University of Redlands (then a Baptist school that required daily chapel attendance). She became the choir director at a First Assembly of God church. On the surface her life was back on track, but she told friends her father was molesting her, and made numerous suicide attempts over the next six years.
In 1962, she attached herself to an older Christian couple and moved in with them. Seeking sympathy and stability in the homes of others would become a lifelong pattern for Laurel. This eerily parallels the behaviour of “serial teenager” Treva Throneberry, who attached herself to Christian families and falsely accused several men of sexually abusing her. Treva, too, told horrific tales of Satanic ritual abuse.
Laurel lived with Norman and Billie Gordon for nearly a year, and required far more attention than their children. She told them her mother had died when she was very young, and her stepmother abused her physically and sexually. On one occasion she showed up at the Gordons’ home with a bruised forehead, claiming her stepmom had bashed her with a can of peaches. Under questioning, she admitted it was a lie.
She experienced periods of hysterical blindness that she later admitted were fake – which sheds some light on the episode of blindness recounted in Satan’s Underground (supposedly experienced on the day she ran away from home). She engaged in self-mutilation.
The Gordons washed their hands of Laurel after she lunged at Billie with a broken vase. (3)
Laurel returned to live with her father and attended another First Assembly of God church. She told a friend that two lesbians in the congregation had seduced her. It’s highly unlikely that even one lesbian would attend a Pentacostal church.
Despite her emotional turmoil, Laurel earned her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Redlands in 1964. Then she left home without telling anyone where she was going, and pretended to be a drug addict to gain entrance to an L.A. rehab program called Teen Challenge (she was twenty-three at the time).
After her father’s death in 1965, Laurel lived on her own and held down a job as a music teacher at Hemet Junior High School. In ’66 she married a younger man, a minister’s son, after three or four dates. The marriage was annulled two months later. (3)
None of these events are mentioned in Satan’s Underground.
In January 1968 Laurel left Hemet Junior High. She later told people she worked as a guard or a counselor at the California Institute for Women in Chino from 1969 to 1971, but there is no record of her employment there. If she did work at the Institute, it was her last job outside the home.
During this period, Laurel sang with a gospel trio called Delpha and the Witnesses. In ’71, she lived for a time with the family of group member Ken Sanders in Bakersfield, and she remained in Bakersfield for the rest of her life. She told Sanders and Delpha Nichols that her mother and several men had sexually abused her “in the name of Christ.” This abuse had been so brutal that she doubted she could bear children, she told them. She didn’t mention Satanism or Satanic ritual abuse at all until the ’80s, after the publication of Michelle Remembers.
Nichols and her husband, Willie, were so touched by this damaged woman that they legally adopted Laurel when she was thirty years old. But she continued to seek support from others. To a church friend, she related stories of abuse that the woman later realized were drawn from the book Sybil. Clearly, Stratford was familiar with Multiple Personality Disorder long before she was diagnosed as having it, and was not above passing off others’ suffering as her own. (3)
By now, Laurel’s mental instability was obvious to everyone who knew her. It prevented her from working outside her home (she gave private piano lessons and drew mental disability payments), singing with a group (Delpha and the Witnesses split in ’74), or maintaining relationships. She put such tremendous demands on one close friend’s time that the woman began to feel alienated from her family, and attempted suicide. Laurel deliberately estranged herself from her mother and Willow in the late ’70s, telling them she had a new family. (3)
Enter Satanic Panic: Bakersfield and McMartin
It was California’s pedophile ring hysteria and daycare ritual abuse allegations that led Laurel on a circuitous route to Johanna Michaelsen and Hal Lindsey, the people who would make her story famous. Without her marginal involvement in two infamous cases, Lauren may never have met them at all and her bizarre stories would never have been believed.
Unfortunately, by sheer chance, Laurel happened to live in a city in which sex-abuse hysteria and Satanic panic would establish a firm grip in the mid-’80s. It all began in 1982, when 38-year-old Mary Ann Barbour learned that one of her husband’s granddaughters, 7-year-old Becky McCuan, may have been touched inappropriately by a family member. Barbour was furious that the alleged abuse hadn’t been reported to the authorities (though Becky had undergone therapy, and visits with the family member were supervised). She decided the McCuans were unfit to parent their two daughters or to continue running a daycare centre in their home. Questioning her stepdaughters closely, she “discovered” they were abused not just by one relative, but by a huge group of local pedophiles – including their own parents. The Barbours were granted custody of the two girls.
The investigation mushroomed into a literal witch hunt. For the next three years, children were aggressively interrogated until they “revealed” horrific abuse that included torture, murder, child pornography, and Satanic rituals. Many of these children later recanted their testimony, and 34 of the 36 convictions in the case were overturned on appeal, but the damage has been permanent for some families. Alvin and Debbi McCuan, for instance, weren’t released from prison until 1996, and remain estranged from their daughters to this day. (5)
Laurel contacted a foster parent involved in the Bakersfield case, Pat Thornton, to say she feared for her life because she had inside information about the perpetrators – Satanic cultists.
Laurel fell into her usual pattern with Thornton. She called her at all hours with emotional crises, demanding attention. She said she had been a “love slave” to a Satanist named Jonathan for many years. Jonathan belonged to a huge Satanic pedophile/pornography ring involved in the Bakersfield abuse. It was headed by man known as Elliot.
Laurel had been an unwilling cult member her entire life, as both of her parents had been members. She was sexually abused by both of them. Her youth had been spent in a farmhouse basement. She had lost more than one child to human sacrifice. The first, Joey, died when she was fifteen, and she said she still possessed an audio recording of his death. For two years, she had been confined to a Los Angeles warehouse along with other cult breeders.
Laurel was enrolled in high school and living with her mother and sister at age fifteen. According to Willow and others who knew her during that time, she was never pregnant.
Laurel told Thornton she began to resist the cult after her father died in 1983. She wanted to leave the cult and expose it, but Jonathan and Elliot continued to force her to attend late-night ceremonies that included ritualistic sexual abuse of preschoolers. This was ongoing in 1985, yet in her book Laurel would say she left Satanism over two decades earlier. (3)
If Laurel could meet privately with individuals involved in a high-profile child abuse investigation, what prevented her from leaving the cult? Surely, if Jonathan and Elliot allowed her enough freedom to associate with “the enemy” on numerous occasions without any interference, she had enough freedom to slip out of the area?
Laurel also claimed to have inside information about the McMartin preschool case; members of her cult were involved in that, too. She said she had a lesbian affair with one of the accused, Virginia McMartin. No evidence has ever emerged to indicate that the elderly Mrs. McMartin, who died at the age of eighty-eight in 1995, was a lesbian.
Pat Thornton didn’t believe Laurel really had inside information. Nonetheless, she arranged for her to meet with a private investigator working for some of the McMartin parents, Judy Hanson. Laurel appeared for the meeting in a wheelchair, carting an oxygen tank. She told Hanson she was terminally ill. Again, this speaks against the notion that Satanists were forcing her to attend rituals. Would Jonathan and his fellow cultists really haul Laurel’s wheelchair and medical equipment to and from remote sites just so she could be witness to their abuse of children? Even if this was happening, couldn’t she seek shelter in a hospice (or impose herself on strangers, as she so frequently did)?
McMartin parent Bob Currie video-recorded Laurel’s testimony and shared it with several other McMartin parents. They all agreed her story was not credible, and could end up damaging their case. All of the details she offered were either unverifiable or had already been made public in media reports. The district attorney, Colleen Ryan, reached the same conclusion.
It was Currie who provided Johanna Michaelsen’s contact information to Laurel, at Laurel’s request. (3)
As mentioned in my thumbnail sketch of Johanna Michaelsen, Michaelsen was aware of the contents of Laurel’s McMartin-related testimony before Satan’s Underground was published. She admitted to the Cornerstone writers that she didn’t know if it was true or not. (3)
This is a damning admission, because the McMartin testimony flatly contradicts Laurel’s later testimony, having a completely different timeline and very different details. In this earlier account, Satanism had always been part of Laurel’s life and she was still active in it during the mid-’80s. Why would Michaelsen overlook these inconsistencies and uncritically accept Laurel’s later stories? Why would her brother-in-law lie about having documentation? Why would Harvest House publish such a disturbing memoir without securing any evidence that it was, in fact, a memoir? According to Cornerstone, the publisher received nothing more than character references from people who hadn’t know Laurel very long. No one from Harvest House contacted Laurel’s family to confirm even the most basic information. (3)
If Laurel really possessed all the evidence she claimed to have, and if her stories were accurate, prosecutions probably would have resulted. “Victor” or “Jonathan” could have been tracked down. Rose Willson, who was still alive, would surely have been investigated for possible involvement in a child pornography ring. Laurel could have led police to the other women who were forced to be breeders for the cult. Law enforcement would have been keenly interested in everything she had to say.
Laurel tried to persuade her supporters that this was, indeed, the case. She told them she had given the specifics of her case to Justice Department official John Rabun, and that Rabun was one of her advisors on Satan’s Underground. As it turned out, Rabun worked not for the government, but for the National Center for Missing Exploited Children. He told the Cornerstone researchers he had spoken to Laurel Willson only once, over the phone. Just like the Bakersfield investigators and the McMartin parents, he didn’t find her story believable. (3)
This episode demonstrates that Laurel Willson was not merely delusional, but on at least some occasions engaged in deliberate deception in order to make her fictional stories seem credible.
There are also indications that Laurel attempted to erase the contradictory stories she had told. After her book was released, she legally changed her named to Lauren Stratford. She asked Bob Currie to give her the videotapes of her McMartin testimony. She stopped communicating with Pat Thornton. (3)
The name change, the physical distance and estrangement from her family, and her cutting of ties with certain people helped ensure no one would uncover her true background. But the Cornerstone article documented Laurel’s real life so thoroughly that Harvest House yanked her book from publication (it was subsequently reprinted by another publisher).
Her speaking engagements dwindled in the early ’90s, forcing her into bankruptcy in 1994. (3)
Eyewitness accounts of Satanic evildoing were no longer novel or shocking; Lauren had a lot of competition. Also, skeptics of the whole phenomenon were beginning to be heard in the media. The 1992 BBC Panorama program on which Lauren appeared, In the Name of Satan, had a distinctly critical tone, to her annoyance. This same program, which is not to be confused with the cheesy video documentary of the same name by evangelist Bob Larson, also documented the mental abuse Pastor Doug Riggs was inflicting on his parishioners. The tide had turned.
When Satanic panic finally subsided in the U.S., Lauren Stratford altered her name and background once again. This time, she became a Holocaust survivor.
1. Satan’s Underground by Lauren Stratford (Harvest House, 1988)
2. “Lauren Stratford Update” by Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine vol. 18, issue 91. 1990.
3. “Satan’s Sideshow” by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine. 1989.
4. “Lauren Stratford: From Satanic Ritual Abuse to Holocaust Survivor” by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine
5. Dateline NBC report by Keith Morrison. Broadcast October 22, 2004.