For a while now, one recurring topic on my blog has been the ongoing revival of the Satanic Panic. This phenomenon was mainstream in America during the 1980s and 90s and is now being pushed back into vogue by contemporary conspiracy theorists.
I personally divide the Satanic Panic into two aspects. One is the “soft” Satanic Panic, which deals with pop-cultural concerns (notions that role-playing games or heavy metal music are turning children into Satanists, for example); the other is the “hard” Satanic Panic, which deals with allegations of ritual abuse. While it’s the “soft” variety that attracted me to writing about the subject — I’m a horror author, after all — this post will discuss the second variety. I’d like to stress that I’m in no way a qualified expert in this field; I’m simply a writer whose area of popular culture has led me to the topic.
The revived Satanic Panic has already amassed a mythology mixing older cases with newer elements. A good example is the case of a group known as the Finders, founded by a man named Marion Pettie: this is a story from 1987-93 that was given a new lease of life in October 2019, when the FBI released a 1993 document on the case.
According to many in the conspiracy theorist community, the Finders group was set up by the CIA and somehow became a cult that ritually abused children. The FBI document, so runs the argument, is unassailable proof of this. A blog called Operation Disclosure was one of the earliest to report, and its lurid coverage is typical of the conspirasphere’s “the-facts-are-settled, it’s-all-out-now” stance:
The “Finders” were a CIA Operation, often discribed as a 1960s-style commune, in reality they were a cult that conducted “brainwashing” and used children “in rituals.” The FBI has now unsealed a 324 page document that details this operation and the US Intel Communities role in ritual child sexual abuse.
But just how true are these claims? I decided to read the entire FBI document and make up my own mind. I found a lot of murkiness surrounding the group — but nothing to support the document’s reputation in the conspirasphere as smoking-gun evidence that the Satanic Panic was justified.
Analysing the Finders
I’ll start my overview with a potted history of the Finders (sourced from pages 38-45, 51-2, 54-60, 88-95 and 124-157 of the FBI document).
In 1987 authorities in Tallahassee, Florida received a complaint that six children seen playing in a park, accompanied by two men with a battered van nearby, showed signs of neglect. The men — who had been travelling with the children in the van — purported to be the children’s teachers but were reluctant to provide proof of their identities, and were arrested. The children (“recovered in fairly good condition except that they were very dirty”) informed the police that they were from the Washington DC area, and claimed that they were rewarded with food in exchange for completing lessons. The children appeared unfamiliar with indoor plumbing, and two wet themselves.
The Washington MPD collaborated with the FBI to identify the children and speak to all six of their mothers and two of their fathers. It turned out that these parents, along with the two men arrested, were members of the Finders group; the mothers stated that they were aware of the children being taken on a trip to Florida, and trusted the two men responsible. The members of the Finders who were interviewed described the group as a commune of intellectuals who have chosen to lead an alternate lifestyle, and denied that Satanic activity or child molestation took place.
Washington DC police searched two properties — a warehouse and a residence — in the city. The FBI joined in the search the following day, seizing documents including passports, electronic media and correspondence.
Meanwhile, the case also led to a search of a property in Virginia (the identifying details are redacted, but the document indicates that a prominent member of the Finders lived at the site). Police found evidence that the children apprehended in Florida had lived in the Virginia location, along with evidence that some sort of cult ritual had taken place there, but did not find evidence that the children had been sexually exploited.
The cult members who had been arrested were released after about ten days in a local jail, and the case was closed. In 1993, an agent quoted on page 45 of the document (whose name has been redacted) stated that “many allegations were made regarding sexual abuse in this case, but none were proven.” Page 175 has a more thorough summary:
As to whether the children had actually been abused or neglected at the time of arrest seems to hinge on whether the children being dirty, possibly hungry, and living under camping like conditions (per their situation) constitutes abuse or neglect. Probably the two men-caretakers [sic] could have provided a better atmosphere for the children and been more open during interviewing by police at the scene.
Regarding the overall lifestyle of the group it is difficult to compile complete information. The group appears to be “one family” with all members having roles which include working, making decisions, and having other responsibilities. As to whether this lifestyle is appropriate and acceptable is a subjective matter. This investigator has learned of no group or individual actions that appear abusive or neglectful.
End of report.
So, according to this version of events, the Finders were merely a commune, consisting of people in a hippie-like subculture, who briefly got into trouble over failing to keep their children clean. But another document included in the FBI file paints a far harsher picture of the Finders…
The Washington MPD Casefile: Brainwashing, Buried Bodies, Arson and the CIA
Pages 63 to 66 of the FBI document include an April 1987 casefile from the DC Metropolitan Police Department. According to the document, the Washington MPD had been conducting its own research into the Finders after a woman (name redacted) contacted the intelligence division in December 1986 about the activities of the group — which, according to her, had a section active in Maryland. Speaking to two Maryland detectives, the woman “stated that a group of individuals were trying to introduce her into a cult”. In response, “she was advised [by police] that although this group was unusual, they were committing no criminal offenses and the police department would only be interested if this group was involved in criminal activities”. The following month (one month before the Florida arrests) the woman again called one of the detectives “and stated that some of the members were interested in exploring satanism”. The woman’s calls do not appear to have led to further investigations.
Then came the Florida arrests followed by the raids on the Washington properties (described earlier in this post) and according to the casefile, “large amounts of documents dealing with child rearing and shaping were recovered along with manuals for master plans and ‘dirty tricks’ for enemies of the Finders group”.
The MDP document goes on to discuss interviews with former members of the Finders, who revealed that “the organization began as an alternative life style in the 1960’s and many of them became disenchanted with the quasi-military order under the direct supervision of [redacted]”. In addition, “Many of the former members stated that they feared retribution from the Finders organization” and “In general all members of the Finders who had left the group felt that harm would come to them if they spoke out against [redacted] or his organization.” The document lists specific incidents, but the details have been removed from the public copy: “In the [redacted] case, [redacted] was burned down and remains an open arson. In the [redacted] case, members of the Finders attempted to infiltrate [redacted] in the United States.”
Then we come to the topic of alleged child abuse:
Detective [redacted] interviewed all of the family members who were willing to talk. Specifically, they all stated that [redacted] had brainwashed their children and prevented any contact with either their children or grandchildren. Members of the Finders, according to family members would stop any contact by sending letters describing explicit acts of involving current members, including photographs and drawings. In the [redacted] case members of the Finders attempted to take over the [redacted] family residence and force [redacted] put of her home.
Further lurid details emerge when document moves on to the search of the Virginia property, which is identified as a farm in Madison County:
“[Redacted] stated that this group appeared to be a survivalist organization with attempts to take over the city government in Culpepper Virginia. During Virginia States [sic] investigation information was revealed that bodies were buried on the farm at the Nethers, but excavation revealed nothing. However, cages were discovered on the premises that witnesses revealed were used to keep children during their visits to the farm.
Next, we have an alleged connection between the Finders and the CIA:
The F.B.I. had contact with the Finders since 1971 including a recent report dealing with C.I.A. involvement with at least one of the members of the Finders passing information overseas concerning activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. When it became apparent that no Federal Laws were violated the F.B.I. vacated the investigation.
Central Intelligence Agency Investigation:
Although the C.I.A. claims thier [sic] only involvement was that [redacted] was a former employee of the agency, They [sic] stated that they were monitoring this investigation from the beginning.
Then, on page 66, the Washington MPD writer theorises about this potential Finders/CIA connection:
It is the writers [sic] belief that the Finders organization is and has been utilized by the Central Intelligence Agency as a disinformation service spreading non essential, non-critical information to various organizations throughout the United States and overseas. This group to the most part is made up of over-educated non-achievers who lacked the inborn initiative to succeed on thier [sic] own.
Therefore they fell in with a charismatic leader who gave them direction and self importance. To the most part this organization individually is harmless, However [sic] when directed and monitored by a controlling factor they are capable of destructive and illegal activities. As in any cult structure the main drive is for the group and individual values and ideaology [sic] is lost, Therefore [sic] when a member is asked to perform a task that hereto fore [sic] may have been objectionable, He or She performs this mission for the good of the group.
As to the abuse of the children; I do not think that child abuse was a planned tactic of this group, but as in any cross section of society, sick and demented subjects belong to a cult as well. I do believe that the shaping of the children is a planned experiment of this group as in the case of the Nazi’s [sic] they strove for a perfect society, thereby in thier [sic] own way tried to form a group of children and ultimately adults that did not suffer from the ill’s [sic] of normal society, but took only the benefits that afforded them perfection.
The summary concludes by theorising that the Finders are still active, despite the leaders’ claims to have disbanded the group. The MPD document then moves on to the topic of a woman called Isabelle who was allegedly involved with the CIA:
Det [redacted] spoke with S/A [redacted] reference any contact the members of the finders may have gad with the agency. s/a [redacted] was guarded but frank in his responses. He confirmed that [redacted] Isabelle, now deceased, was an employee of the agency from 1950 until 1971. when asked if our investigation was “treading on anyone’s toes out there”, [redacted] replied “Sort of”.. He acknowledged that they have had someone working on the case since it first broke on the news media. he also stated that the agency is aware that during the period 1969 – 1971 [redacted] traveled to Moscow, North Korea, and north Vietnam.
As a practical matter, what is not being said is as important as what S/A [redacted] has said. [Redacted] acknowledged that we are treading on their toes and that they have had someone working on the case since Feb 5 when it broke. They have not contacted any of the investigating agencies while they have been working on the case. They are also aware that [redacted] traveled to prohibited countries during a period of hostilities that could only have been arranged by them. Finally, he stated that [rest of sentence redacted] This could explain a lot about the groups [sic] funding, which we have been unable to document at this point.
The mysterious Isabelle turns up in pages 219-26 of the PDF, which discuss the Washington MPD’s material on the Finders and the CIA:
Detective [redacted] spoke with S/A (believed to be an abbreviation for special Agent) [redacted] Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) concerning any contact that members of the Finders may have had with the CIA. [Redacted] confirmed that [redacted] Isabelle (deceased at the time of the report), was a CIA employee from 1950 until 1971.
In pages 315-6 we find a memorandum sent to the director of the FBI, which appears to contain a CIA response to the allegations of involvement with the Finders, and yet more references to Isabelle:
Detective [redacted] also advised that a [redacted] a former member of the Finder’s, [sic] had been interviewed and believed that he was the target of retribution by the Finder’s. [Redacted] inferred that he had done work involving security protection for this Agency, NSA and other government agencies. Detective [redacted] was requested to refer this information to your Bureau.
Search of Agency indices revealed the following: a. [redacted] was never an employee of this Agency, nor was the organization Finder’s [sic] associated with the Agency. [Redacted] Isabelle was an Agency employee from 1952-1961 and voluntarily resigned. According to Detective [redacted] Isabelle Pettie is deceased.
So, Isabelle Pettie appears to have been the cause of suspicion that the CIA was involved with the Finders — but beyond this, any details on the alleged connection are scarce.
I should mention that Isabelle Pettie appears to have been the wife of Fidners founder Marion Pettie. While this connection is not made in the PDF file, and appears confined largely to conspiracy outlets, it’s backed up by this Vice article:
The CIA itself, of course, has maintained that this is a non-story, and says that there are only two connections between the organization and The Finders: Isabelle Pettie, Marion’s wife who died in 1984, was employed by the agency from 1952-1961; and in the 80s, the CIA used a company for its officers’ computer training that happened to employ members of The Finders.
Computer Chips and Cover-Ups: The 1993 Revival
Still stranger material can be found in 210-3 of the document. This section discusses a subsequent affair over 1992 and 1993, when an individual (name redacted) spoke to authorities about the Finders, implicating the group in a conspiracy that includes not only child molestation and government involvement but also computer chips being implanted in children’s heads:
While not going into as much detail as is set forth in the letter, [redacted] did allude to U.S. CUSTOMS SERVICE not following through on investigation. He did mention allegations of computer chips being planted in children’s heads, an organization in Stuart, Florida involved in Satan worship and possibly child abuse, and the fact that individuals involved in such activities were at the highest levels of government. when pushed for any substantive evidence concerning these allegations, [redacted] could not provide any and alluded to the fact that no one could be trusted in this matter…
[Redacted] is now claiming a group called the “FINDERS”, which was part of the Washington, D.C. Intelligence community, had a splinter group which was involved in child sexual abuse.
These claims appear to have triggered the 1993 revival of interest in the Finders case from 1987.
Murkiness and Ambiguity
As is often the case with topics of conspiracy theory, the Finders affair is something of a Rorschach ink blot. Some might read the FBI document and go away with the impression that the Finders were merely a group of hippies who lived an unusual lifestyle, had trouble keeping their children clean during camping trips, and may at one point have included a person who found work in a government IT department. Others, on the other hand, might look at the case and infer that the Finders group was a CIA operation that somehow mutated into a cult of Satan-worshipping paedophiles. And there is, of course, an entire spectrum of possibilities between these two options.
Looking through the document we find a number of smaller ink blots — details about the Finders’ way of life that can be read as either eccentric or abusive depending on the observer.
On page 133 we learn that “the women had come downstairs at Christmastime with no clothes on” and that the children present “felt that this was very funny, and went along with the concept of it being a game”. Some might take this as evidence of an abusive environment — but, on the other hand, the existence of nudist communities is hardly a secret. Page 136 mentions “a letter which pornographically described suspect [redacted] genitals, and thanked [redacted] for having such a stud for a son”, which sounds suspicious at first — but bear in mind that the individual being described in the letter is one of the suspects (that is, an adult), not one of the children.
Page 171 discusses photographs of the Finders’ children alongside slaughtered goats and men wearing what appeared to be robes. This can be interpreted as indicating that some sort of ritual sacrifice took place, but the explanation provided by a group member — that the children were being shown a farmyard slaughter for educational purposes — is credible:
The pictures of the children with slaughtered goats was not a ritual sacrifice but rather an attempt at a “hands on” experience. One mother, who wasn’t sure that the ordeal was necessary or that she approved (she indicated that only the three men were present at the time) thought that the experience was well intentioned as an experience for the children to learn. She likened the slaughter to that of what is done in conventional biology classes. Several mothers indicated that the “robes” being worn by the men were actually the sheets the men war during the slaughter to protect their clothing. The slaughter of the two goats on the Virginia farm was at the end of the summer and the goats couldn’t be left there alive. The meat form the goats was taken back to Wash. D.C. to the group where they ate the meat. The children had the experience to see where meat comes from…an experience that most children don’t get while they are growing up.
Page 224 quotes a US Customs Service Special Agent who took part in the Washington raid as saying that “Cursory examination of the documents revealed detailed instructions for obtaining children for unspecified purposes. The instructions included the impregnation of female members of the community known as Finders, purchasing children, trading, and kidnapping”. The document makes very little of this hair-raising discovery, however, raising the question of how accurate the “cursory examination” was. Meanwhile, pages 252-258 discuss a certain person, name redacted, who claims to have seen incriminating documents — but nobody else was able to corroborate the existence of this evidence:
WMFO has interviewed MPD and FBI personnel involved in the “Finders” investigation and to date has been unable to locate anyone with knowledge of the documents [redacted] claims to have seen […] [Redacted] contended that he believed he did see the items, and stated that he would contact MPD concerning them. The WMFO case agent contacted the MPD detective assigned the case, who advised that none of the items mentioned by [redacted] existed in the items seized by MPD. The detective related that [redacted] was with him at the search sites, and it was not possible that such items were missed.
A lot of the murkiness about the case arises from the uncertain origins of the Finders, the group apparently being a curious mixture of counterculture commune and business enterprise. Page 92 describes the Finders as “an alternate lifestyle group… that evolved into a data gathering group”. Page 286 asserts that the group was previously known as the Woman’s Networking Service, the Information Bank and the Finders Transnational Ragged Mountain Research Center, all of which sound more like businesses than cults.
It is not even clear that the group was calling itself the Finders at the time of the controversy. Page 164 contains a note that “it seems that the ‘Finders’ aspect of the group is the business related part of the group” while “the social aspects of the group has no name” and “the mothers indicated that they haven’t used or heard the name ‘Finders’ for a good time”; the document indicates that the authorities came across the name “Finders” on old business cards found in the van of the men who were arrested. The same page states that the group was apparently involved with a proposed retirement settlement in Kentucky called New Hope, which merely confuses matters further.
Reportedly, the group was taking the children to Mexico to set up a school for gifted pupils (this is mentioned on page 285, for one) but page 167 indicates that this was some sort of cover story, and that the children’s mothers disapproved:
None of the mothers seem to know that a message told the men to use that story if stopped by the authorities. The mothers seem to agree that it was poor for the men to have made that statement.
On page 286 we learn that “MPD investigation revealed that the ‘Finders’ had at one time attempted to infiltrate General Scientific Corporation, Rockville, Maryland”, but the details of this tantalising case are redacted.
Most of this is Not New
While the uploading of the document to the FBI website in 2019 made the Finders a hot topic in the online conspiracy theorist community, the truth is that the main details of the case as reported in the text have already been matters of public record: the Florida arrests, concern over possible child abuse, searches on Finders property and allegations of CIA involvement were all reported in the media in 1987: see this Washington Post article, for example. Indeed, pages 248-251 of the PDF file actually include a few clippings of relevant articles:
After the PDF file went live in 2019, the official website of the Tallahassee Democrat — a publication which had covered the affair in 1987 — ran a retrospective on the case: FBI releases ‘Finders’ files after 3 decades; Declassified investigation linked to Tallahassee child abuse case.
This article mentions the involvement of an individual named Skip Clements in developing the Finders conspiracy theory:
Federal agents concluded there was no evidence of criminal activity, and dropped the case against the Finders.
It would have been swept into the annals of FBI case history, except for a Stuart, Florida, resident named Skip Clements, who had been researching the Finders for years. He claimed the U.S. Customs Service called off the investigation at the behest of the CIA, which he said was using the commune as a front to train agents.
He even convinced at least two members of Congress to look into it, and it sparked a Justice Department investigation. Both congressmen have since died.
The report also includes interesting details about the Finders themselves:
While the Tallahassee Police suggested the group could be tied to devil worshipers, the mothers who came to Tallahassee to claim their kids said that was nonsense. The mothers hired attorney Paula Walborsky to help them get their kids back from the state.
“They didn’t show up in saffron robes smeared in goat blood,” she told the Democrat in a Feb. 15, 1987 article. “They came in tweed and pearls.” “They’re about as counterculture as the Miccosukee Land Co-Op,” she said, referencing what the Democrat described as “a local rural Yuppie community of cedar-and-glass homes.”
Wrapping up the report is an official CIA denial:
The CIA has denied there was ever a cover-up, saying the charges were preposterous.
“This story is a non-story,” CIA spokesman Dave Christian told the Democrat in December 1993. “I think of it as a nothing-burger.”
The PDF published on the FBI website does offer a more detailed look at the case than these media reports, granted, but the main thrust remains the same: allegations of ritual child abuse were made, but not substantiated; allegations of CIA involvement were made, but not substantiated; and conspiracy theorists have tried to connect the disparate dots.
I intend to follow this post with an analysis of how the case was presented by twenty-first-century conspiracy theorists, who tried to tie Finders case to the long-debunked allegations surrounding McMartin Preschool.