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The Weird Case of Demons on Trial

The Devil made me do it. This has long been the plea of those who have been caught doing something wicked that is uncharacteristic of their usual behavior. Most of the time, we take it only as a figure of speech to brush off an aberrant deviation from the norm. However, sometimes the meaning can become all too literal. In 1981, a brutal murder occurred in a tranquil town on the East Coast of the United States; a vicious crime that the perpetrator claimed was not carried out by his own hand, but rather that of demons that had taken him over. It was a defense that would carry over into an actual court of law to become the nation’s first case of a court defense seeking to blame a crime on demonic possession, and would trigger a media blitz of this spectacular tale of menacing supernatural evil on trial.

The whole strange tale begins in the quite, affluent, and peaceful neighborhood of Brookfield, Connecticut, where an unassuming family, the Glatzels, had arrived in order to clean and put in order a rental property they had recently acquired in this scenic town of 13,000. Shortly after they arrived, a series of bizarre events began to unfurl that would mark the beginning of the madness that was about to spiral out of control. One day, about a month after they had arrived, Mrs. Judy Glatzel reported that her youngest son, 11 year-old David, had suddenly and inexplicably fallen down rather forcefully onto the bed as if he had been shoved. When questioned about the occurrence later, David told his mother that he had in fact been pushed by what he described as an old man with “burnt-looking skin,” who had pointed a finger at him and growled the word “Beware” before throwing him onto the bed.

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It was a strange story to be sure, and at first the Glatzels wrote it off as the overactive imagination of a young boy, but David had always been a very honest boy, and his situation would get progressively worse. He began to wake up at all hours of the night sobbing uncontrollably, and when asked what had happened he would describe how he was being visited in the darkness by an old man with soulless black eyes, animalistic features, sharp, jagged teeth, pointed ears, and hooves. David claimed that the intimidating entity was continuously warning him that if they moved into the rental house they would be harmed. These visitations continued and before long were even occurring in the daytime, when David claimed the beast took on the appearance of an old man with a white beard dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. David said that sometimes the apparition would snarl in some foreign language or threaten to steal his soul. The spooky visitations also began to be accompanied by various unexplained phenomena throughout the house, such as inexplicable footsteps, slamming doors, and disembodied voices.

The weirdness would not end there. David began to exhibit strange wounds such as scratches, cuts, and bruises on his body for no discernible reason, and his night terrors gradually worsened to the point that he would wake up howling in terror practically every night. The mother even claimed to at one point have seen her son being choked by unseen hands, or flopping about on his bed like “a rag doll.” David had also put on a large amount of weight in a short period of time, allegedly becoming extremely fat and putting on 60 pounds in only a few months. In light of the strange, seemingly paranormal events that were unfolding around them, the alarmed Glatzels took notice and became convinced that this was not a simple case of their kid trying to get out of household chores or school. They enlisted the assistance of a local Catholic priest from St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Brookfield, for guidance. The priest performed a ritual cleansing of the house, but it seemed to have no effect, as the ominous phenomena continued.

The increasingly desperate Glatzel family pleaded with the church for help, and were referred to two demonologists and exorcists by the name of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens’ arrival seemed to mark an increase in bizarre events and aberrant behavior on the part of David. He began to have sudden seizures and fits or convulsions that required him to be restrained at times. He also would occasionally snarl, hiss, or spit at people, and it got to the point where one person was always awake as David slept, in case he should experience one of his bizarre tantrums or seizures. The boy was also known to suddenly begin quoting passages from the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost, or speaking in voices that were not his own. It was even reported that he would speak passages in Latin, a language with which he had no experience. Lorraine Warren, a self professed psychic, would later report that on at least one occasion she had seen a strange black mist congeal next to David. The boy also continued to repeatedly complain of being hit, shoved, or choked by unseen hands. After some time of these escalating bizarre events, the Warrens came to the conclusion that there was a malevolent presence in the house, and that David was most likely subject to multiple possessions.

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It was around this time that the Glatzel’s 26 year-old daughter, Deborah, implored her fiancée, Arne Cheyenne Johnson, to move in with them in order to make them feel safer. In light of what they saw as demonic possession, the Warrens went about conducting a series of exorcisms in an effort to rid the boy of whatever malignant entities were residing within him. Three exorcisms involving the help of no fewer than four Catholic priests were conducted, during which time David would growl, snarl, curse, spit, kick, and scratch like a madman, all to no ultimate effect. The Warrens also claimed that during the exorcisms David would cease breathing for long periods of time, do rapid series of sit-ups despite his obesity, contort his body into unnatural positions normally not possible, and even levitate. The normally quiet and peaceful boy was also said to start talking of murder and stabbings, which further alarmed both the family and the Warrens. Eventually, the exorcists learned that there were 43 demons supposedly residing within David when they asked him who was there during one of his episodes and the boy gave 43 different names.

The exorcisms did not seem to be having any effect, and the evil presence within David garnered the nicknames “The Beast” and “The Master.” The family contacted Brookfield police in October of 1980 to report that they felt the situation was becoming dangerous and that the boy posed a potential threat, but at the time they were largely ignored. Debbie’s fiancée, Arne Johnson, was becoming exhausted by the whole ordeal, and started taunting the demons that were tormenting David. He is said to have shouted at them on several occasions and to have challenged and commanded them to enter him instead. Johnson was reported to have repeatedly said on numerous occasions “Come into me! Leave the little lad alone!” During one of these times he became terrified when he claimed to have seen the demons and even made eye contact with them as he looked into David’s eyes, something the Warrens has strictly warned him not to ever do. Not long after this, Johnson crashed his car into a tree, and while he was unharmed in the accident, he would later claim that the demons had taken control of him and caused him to crash.

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In November of 1980, Judy and Carl Glatzel took their son to a psychiatrist to see if there was anything that could be done to help the increasingly disturbed boy or if any answers for his condition could be gleaned from the scientific community. The psychiatrist informed the family that David was normal, exhibiting only a minor learning disability, certainly nothing to account for his escalating bizarre behavior. Nevertheless, they enrolled their son in a special school for disturbed children, hoping that this would somehow cure him after all else had failed.

In the meantime, Debbie and Johnson moved out of the house to live in an apartment near the Brookfield Pet Motel, where Debbie had gotten a job as a dog groomer. The manager and owner of the pet motel, as well as the landlord of the apartment, was Alan Bono, who would become friends with the couple. In the ensuing weeks, Debbie Glatzel became increasingly concerned, as Johnson started to display strange, uncharacteristic behavior. The normally polite and even tempered Johnson would become highly irritated at the smallest things, and would suddenly go into bizarre trances during which he would growl, snarl, or convulse, and which he claimed to have no memory of. During several of these episodes he would shout out in despair that he could see “The Beast” staring at him, after which he would once again claim he could not remember such a thing happening. These weird trances became more frequent, and his behavior more erratic, until Debbie started to fear that perhaps her fiancée had been possessed by the same demons that had been inhabiting her brother, despite the fact that none of Johnson’s co-workers reported anything out of the ordinary.

On February 16, 1981, tragedy struck. Johnson called in sick to his job as a tree surgeon and joined Debbie and Bono for a lunch party, during which they all reportedly drank heavily. After the party, they returned to the apartment to hang out, and at some point during the conversation, Johnson and Bono got into a heated argument. During the confrontation, Johnson allegedly went into one of his trances, after which he started growling like an animal and pulled out a folding 5-inch knife and proceeded to viciously and repeatedly stab Bono, who would die at a hospital from his wounds several hours later. Johnson, who had no previous criminal record of any kind and had fled the scene, was apprehended several miles from the scene of the crime and charged with first degree murder. He claimed at the time that he could not remember anything of the incident.

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The case was already exceptional, as it was the first murder ever recorded in the history of Brookfield, but things would take a turn for the bizarre rather quickly. A mere day after the murder, Lorraine Warren made the claim that Johnson had been possessed by demons when the murder was committed, and that David Glatzel had said he had seen the demons go from him into Johnson’s body. This was further given fuel when the family supported these claims, saying that the murder had been the “Devil’s work,” and that the beast had transferred to Johnson’s body during the exorcisms when he had taunted them to do so. These claims of demonic possession and murder in this quiet, sleepy town drove the media into a frenzy, and the story was covered extensively in various outlets.

Making the whole affair even more mysterious was that although the the Glatzels and Warrens talked about the exorcisms that had been conducted on David, the church itself went through great lengths to distance itself from these claims. The diocese officially stated that although a Father Virgulak and three other priests had indeed been involved in helping the boy through his affliction, it adamantly denied that any actual exorcisms had been performed. The spokesman for the diocese, Rev. Nicholas V. Grieco, explained that the bishop’s approval would have been required to carry out an exorcism and that no such approval had ever been sought. This sat squarely opposite from what the Glatzels and Warrens were saying, and they claimed that such approval in fact had been granted after two of the younger priests had approached the bishop personally. Making matters more complicated was that none of the priests who had allegedly been directly involved in the exorcisms were permitted to comment on the incident to reporters nor investigators, and all of them were mysteriously transferred to other parishes.

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Things would get even more bizarre still. When Johnson’s trial came, his defense attorney, Martin Minnella, decided to use the alleged demonic possession as an actual legal defense for his client. It would be the first time in United States history in which the defense sought to prove innocence by arguing demonic possession and therefore a lack of personal responsibility. Media attention to the case reached a fever pitch, and the trial came to be known as the “Demon Murder Trial” and the “Devil Made Me Do It Trial.” Attorney Minella for his part extensively researched the feasibility of such an argument and found that such a defense was not unprecedented in the world. Minella put forth two cases from England in which the defense of possession had been allowed; one in which an arsonist was acquitted on grounds of demonic possession and another in which a rapist had received a suspended sentence for the same reason. The lawyer even made arrangements to have exorcists from Europe flown in for the trial. In addition, he was prepared to subpoena the priests that had allegedly performed the exorcisms on David Glatzel if they didn’t cooperate. Minella vowed:

I’m going to show the guy isn’t insane and that it’s not a delusion. The courts have dealt with the existence of God, and now they’ll be asked to deal with the existence of the demonic spirit.

The trial commenced on October 28, 1981, at Connecticut’s Superior Court in Danbury. As expected, Minella entered a plea of innocence on the grounds that his client had been possessed by demons that had passed into him from David and as such had not been in control of himself, therefore releasing him from the responsibility of any wrongdoing. During the proceedings, alleged taped evidence of the priests confirming approval for an exorcism was presented, as well as lurid photographs depicting scenes such as Johnson kneeling over David on the floor with a crucifix pressed to his forehead, and another in which Johnson is holding the boy down as the crucifix lies broken on the floor next to him. Despite this, presiding judge Robert Callahan was not convinced, and he disallowed this argument, stating that none of it could be objectively or scientifically verified through the available evidence. As a result, all of the testimony related to the demon possession defense was thrown out, the jury not permitted to consider it as a viable reason for the murder, and Minella was forced to change his tactic, changing his stance to that of self defense. After 3 days of deliberations, the jury came to the conclusion that Johnson was guilty of first-degree manslaughter, and he was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison, of which he would ultimately serve only 5.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson at his trial

Arne Cheyenne Johnson at his trial

In the aftermath of the trial, media interest in the case waned, but the story was not over yet. In 1983, Lorraine Warren helped Gerald Brittle write a book about the incident titled The Devil in Connecticut, which many saw as a cheap attempt to make a profit off of the Gratzel family’s suffering, but Warren insisted that proceeds from the book would be donated to the family. The book was re-released in 2006, by which time David Glatzel, now an adult, and his brother Carl Glatzel Jr. sued the publisher on the grounds that they claimed it gave the family emotional distress, violated their privacy, and contained a good amount of libel. Carl further said that the Warrens had lied about the events that had taken place and that the exorcism story was a hoax; a tall tale they had weaved to take advantage of and make profit off of David’s mental illness. Carl also complained that the book had made him out to be the villain of the story because he had never subscribed to the supernatural explanations for what had transpired.

For their part, the Warrens have stuck to their version of events. Lorraine Warren has repeatedly insisted that the supernatural phenomena that occurred were real and that all of the priests involved had agreed that the boy had been possessed by demons. Additionally, Debbie Glatzel and Arne Cheyenne Johnson himself have to this day continued to assert that the Warrens’ version of the events is true, further saying that the Glatzel family is suing purely for monetary gain. The priests involved with the supposed exorcisms have never come forward to officially support either side of the story, and continue to remain silent on the matter.

So what do we make of this story? Did the Devil in fact really make Johnson do it? Considering the myriad versions of the events and the conflicting claims of all involved, it is difficult to say. However, is there the potential that some dark force can compel a rational person to commit evil deeds that they would never imagine committing otherwise, and if so should they be held accountable for it? Or is this all just some wicked element of the human soul which occasionally bubbles and froths forth from some murky recess of our psyche to drive us to these atrocities, and in the end it is only us to blame for failing to be the gatekeeper that keeps the beast from getting out? Law has always had to deal with the fine line between sanity and insanity, accountability and absolution. Is there perhaps another line on which we teeter; the line between the deeds of our own mind and those of something “other”? It is unlikely that the defense tried during the Arne Cheyenne Johnson Trial will ever be admissible in court, but it can perhaps cause us to reflect upon the nature of an evil that potentially resides within every one of us, supernatural or not.