A couple of miles north of Childress, near a curving dirt road that intersects two cotton fields, there stands a drooping, wide-limbed horse apple tree with its largest branch broken nearly in half. It is the hanging tree, one of the most talked-about landmarks in town. Yet most residents know of it only by hearsay. “They’d prefer not to go out there, if you know what I mean,” says David McCoy, the district attorney. “Not that they’ll tell you the place is haunted. But there’s just, well, something about it …” and his voice trails off.
On a summer evening in 1988, a local teenager, Tate Rowland, was found hanging from the tree, his body slowly twisting counterclockwise. Though the county sheriff who investigated his death would later say that every family member he interviewed couldn’t imagine Tate wanting to take his own life, an eyewitness said he saw Tate hang himself, and the case was officially classified as suicide. The episode was regarded as one of those tragic, puzzling mysteries—the act of impulsive youth—until May 1991, when Tate’s elder sister was found dead, face down on a bed. And then, in quiet little Childress, a town of 5,800 in the southeast corner of the Panhandle, the panic hit like a clap of thunder.
Terrifying stories that had been quietly passed around Childress since Tate’s death began to emerge in public. Tate, it was said, had been murdered by a satanic cult—devil worshipers living right in the middle of town. According to the grapevine, ten, maybe twelve cult members—the editor of the Childress Index had heard it might be twenty—were at the hanging tree that night to sacrifice Tate; his sister, 27-year-old Terrie Trosper, was then killed because she had learned too much about the cult. Fear and suspicion spread faster than a prairie fire. Stone altars, mutilated animals, defaced tombstones, and black-robed cult members meeting in abandoned houses were sighted. More than one person reported seeing a young Childress man eat pages from a Bible and then foam at the mouth. Another rumor had the cult searching for a blond child to use as a human sacrifice.
Every town has at least one spooky ghost story, but the events in Childress seemed too peculiar to dismiss as fiction. There were too many unanswered questions about the deaths of Tate and Terrie, too many coincidences, too many bizarre satanic-related confessions from people who said they knew about the crimes. The sheriff reopened the old cases, and the district attorney convened a grand jury to investigate them. Bodies were exhumed from the Childress Cemetery. An expert on satanic cults arrived to give a seminar to the townspeople on how to spot a devil worshiper and later helped the sheriff sift through evidence. Certain citizens were subpoenaed to tell the grand jury what they knew about the cult and the murders; others freely called up the sheriff’s office and provided names and phone numbers of people they believed were cult members.
For those in town who had heard about the growing international satanic conspiracy—composed of secret local cults all bent on a mission of subversion—the news about Tate and Terrie served only to confirm their suspicions that the devil had come to Childress. Satan hunters had long insisted that deadly occult organizations were moving into the heartland of America, luring in new youthful recruits with sex and drugs, the lyrics of heavy metal music, and fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons. The threat, they said, could not be taken lightly. Indeed, most law enforcement agencies in the country were placing on their staffs a specialized “cult cop,” an officer trained to spot satanic villainy. The Texas Department of Public Safety was sending local police departments a handout listing thirty ways to determine if someone had been killed as a result of an occult ritual. Cult awareness agencies were springing up to remind the public that today’s candle-burning teenager might be tomorrow’s baby killer. Small towns, the experts said, were particularly susceptible to cults, which look for remote areas where their activities can be more easily concealed.
It was no surprise, then, that the Satan scare nearly overwhelmed little Childress. The investigation into the deaths of Tate Rowland and Terrie Trosper became the focus of the entire community. For a few townspeople, however, the cult stories posed a different threat entirely. To them, the threat was the power of gossip. They saw rational thinking overcome by fright and apprehension and, yes, by the pure pleasure that comes from swapping thirdhand information over a cup of coffee. When these people looked back on the events that had unfolded during the past year in Childress, they didn’t see the devil exposed. What they saw was a modern-day witch-hunt.
In 1988 Tate Rowland was seventeen years old, a popular, good-looking kid with a wild streak. Down at the sheriff’s office, he had a reputation as a hot-rodder and a drinker. In his blue Ford shortbed pickup truck with its high-dollar custom stereo system, installed over in Wichita Falls, Tate would roar up and down the Childress drag, a mile-long, stoplight-dotted stretch of U.S. 287 that cuts past such teen hangouts as the My-T-Burger fast-food restaurant, the 24-hour car wash, and the United Supermarket parking lot. Sometimes he would drive thirty miles south to Paducah to flirt with teenage girls whose daddies had oil money. “In Childress,” says Bobby Reynolds, one of Tate’s best friends, “there isn’t a whole lot for a teenager to do except ride around, chase girls, drink beer, get in a little trouble.”
Actually, Childress, a former railroad town, doesn’t have the typically torpid look of other small West Texas communities. It has a thriving hospital. A new state prison built at the edge of town has provided more than three hundred jobs. Though Childress’ reputation suffered a setback early last year when its rotund sheriff, Claude Lane, was caught selling marijuana, most residents prefer to focus on the town’s all-American qualities,