On the evening of February 8th, 1980, 20-year-old sex worker Karen Marsden was sobbing in a police car. The officers who’d picked her up wanted her to take them to the sites of satanic rituals she’d claimed to have attended in the woods near Fall River, Massachusetts, but she was panicked and incoherent. She claimed that her pimp, whom she referred to as Satan, would kill her if he found out she’d been talking to police. She asked them to drop her at St. Mary’s church so she could talk to a priest. The officers left her at the rectory door. Two months later, part of her skull and other remains were found in the forest outside town. Most of her body was never recovered.
Marsden’s death was one of three so-called satanic cult killings that occurred in late 1979 and early 1980 in Fall River, a historic mill city notorious for the axe-murders of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother. Two locals were convicted in Marsden’s killing: Carl Drew, the pimp Marsden said was Satan, and Robin Murphy, a 17-year-old who law enforcement said was a fearsome pimp in her own right, and a competitor of Drew’s.
Murphy was also the star prosecution witness against Drew at the murder trial. She turned State’s evidence in exchange for a lesser second-degree murder charge, describing in graphic detail Drew forcing her to participate in sacrificing Marsden to the devil. Both remain in prison today, despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to the crime, a timeline that doesn’t add up, and multiple witnesses later admitting their testimonies had been false. Murphy recanted her own testimony against Drew at a parole hearing, saying she’d been coerced by the District Attorney to lie on the stand.
Now, Fall River, a new four-part docuseries executive produced by Blumhouse Television that premiered this month on Epix and streaming on Amazon Prime, re-examines this chapter of the city’s history, as well as the possibility that two people have been imprisoned for decades for a crime neither one committed.
Using archival news reports, reenactments, and interviews, director James Buddy Day places the brutal murders of Doreen Levesque, Barbara Raposa, and Karen Marsden in the context of the rise of the Satanic Panic. Following the 1980 publication of the since-discredited book Michelle Remembers by a woman who claimed to have recovered childhood memories of being abused in satanic rituals, parents and law enforcement nationwide became convinced children were being abused in the woods by devil-worshippers. In the churchgoing city of Fall River, the threat of Satanism found an easy foothold. “They just grabbed onto the idea that Satanism had to be a motivator for these murders without any evidence,” Day says. “And then that colored the rest of the case.”