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Idaho Gothic : Other American Towns Have Been Haunted by Rumors of Rampant Satanism and Human Sacrifice. But Rupert, Idaho, Is Different. Rupert, Idaho, Has the Body of Baby X.

May 17, 1992|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel is a Times national correspondent. "Shades of Gray," a collection of his articles, was published by Bantam Books in March. and

AT FIRST, THOSE FEW WHO PASSED BY were not even certain what they were seeing. A trapper, checking his lines in the remote sand dunes just south of the Minidoka County Landfill, not far from the rural southeast Idaho hamlet of Rupert, thought he glimpsed a burned monkey when he peered inside the round metal cylinder. Days later, a group of teen-agers out four-wheeling dismissed it as junk--a washing machine tub--blown over from the landfill. Hours after that, Robert Boesiger and his young son, who live a mile from the landfill, detoured around the metal drum on their way to pull those teen-agers' truck out of the mud.

That was at 9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17, 1989. Minutes later, Boesiger's own pickup became stuck, so he and his son started walking home, past rises of wet, soft sand and clumps of rabbit bones and the rim of a dark, empty reservoir.

The boy reached the metal drum first. Boesiger, coming up from behind, aimed his flashlight. He could make out only the outlines, for his light was dim. But not all that dim. He waited until his son went to bed before calling the sheriff's office.

Sheriff Ray Jarvis needed the autopsy report to tell him exactly what he had. It was an infant girl about 3 weeks old, the pathologist advised. An infant girl who'd been dead for no more than five days. An infant girl who'd been dismembered, disemboweled, possibly skinned, and burned. Both hands were missing. So was the right arm, at the shoulder. The abdominal organs had been cut out, leaving only the lungs and a portion of the upper heart chamber. The body had been placed in the metal drum on its back, clothed, before being torched with gasoline.

Jarvis was not unaware of what he might have here. The dismemberment, the metal drum, the burned body--they were all telling. At early press conferences, he and Minidoka County Prosecuting Attorney Charles Creason Jr. allowed that they "couldn't rule out" satanic ritualism.

Nor could they rule it in, though. It could have been an unwanted birth, they reasoned. The autopsy showed clear signs of pneumonia in the lungs. The coroner, calling the infant "Baby X," had listed "indeterminate" for cause of death. Possibly the baby died a natural death and the family, panicking, tried to get rid of it quickly. Couldn't predators have gnawed at the body? Any way you looked at it, the whole thing just didn't make sense. If it was a satanic ritual, why not call attention, draw a pentagram, make a statement? On the other hand, if it was a scared couple getting rid of a dead infant, why leave it by a dirt road regularly used by four-wheelers?

We'll solve this case, Jarvis told himself. With such a close-knit community, someone knows. Someone will come forward.

Matters haven't played out quite that way, however. Instead of a solution, over the past 2 1/2 years this remote wedge of southeast Idaho known as the Mini-Cassia area has endured repeated waves of agitated rumors, waves that grow rather than abate with time. In letters, petitions, telephone calls and an emotional candlelight vigil staged one chilly Friday night last November, anxious citizens have been demanding action against the satanists who, they are convinced, riddle their community. What to Jarvis is an "unexplained death" is to others unmistakable evidence of evil run rampant. At its core, this troubled discord pits those who see affirmation of their world view in Baby X against those who see merely an enigma.

It is a type of situation unfolding with growing frequency across the country. Over the past five years, some 50 communities have become convinced that they are in the grip of organized satanists who abuse and sacrifice humans during ritual ceremonies. "Epidemics of concern," some say; "rumor panics" others call them. Most occur in rural areas with largely white populations and a good many fundamentalist churches, particularly during times of stress. Most find some support from therapists and some attention from daytime talk shows. Most are fueled by vividly persuasive testimony from people claiming to be survivors or eyewitnesses to rituals. Yet all are flatly debunked by the great majority of national academic experts who study these events. Where is the evidence, these skeptics ask. Where are the bodies?

If what's happening around Rupert is in most ways a textbook example of this phenomenon, it is in one critical way also a vexatious exception. We do have proof, people here are able to say, right off our town square. For two years after its discovery, Baby X's body lay unburied and unnamed, stored as potential evidence at Hansen's Mortuary on the corner of 6th and G streets. To many, Baby X's presence at Hansen's has been a disturbingly unavoidable taunt, but to some, it also has been a welcome answer to all the doubters.

"The difference here," the Rev. Stephen Oglevie points out with undisguised relish, "is we have a body."

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