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'Devil in Ohio': inspired by what true events?

Television

‘Devil in Ohio’: inspired by what true events?

There are a couple possible candidates.

One of Netflix’s newest limited series, The Devil in Ohio, tells the mostly fictitious story of a young girl, Mae Dodd, on the run from a devil-worshiping cult in Amon County, Ohio, who’s taken in by psychiatrist Suzanne Mathis. No good deed goes unpunished, as Mathis tries to unravel the mysteries of the cult, “putting her own family-and life-in danger.”

The Devil in Ohio is based on the novel of the same name by author and series showrunner, Daria Polatin. While Polatin has gone on record that the cult is entirely fictional, saying, “We made it all up,” she’s also teased that the story itself is based on true events told to her by executive producer Rachel Miller: “When my producer Rachel Miller heard this true story, which took place in Ohio, she told it to me (…) The bones of the story are true and happened.”

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Devil in Ohio poster

Neither Polatin nor Miller have been willing to give any more details on this supposedly true story. In an interview for The Columbus Dispatch, Polatin “would not divulge any details about the actual event on which the series is based.” My requests to both Polatin and Miller through their social media accounts were not answered.

Nevertheless, looking at the content of The Devil in Ohio, there’s good reason to believe that several noteworthy cases are the most likely candidates.

First, Polatin confirmed that the story did take place in Ohio. There’s a well-publicized case from 2005 of an anonymous woman claiming to have been a survivor of Satanic ritual abuse, but her story really begins on April 5, 1980. At around 8 a.m., the body of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was discovered on the floor of Mercy Hospital in Toledo, partially disrobed and stabbed about 30 times. One of the stab wounds was in the shape of an upside-down cross, leading investigators to believe the murder was ritualistic in nature. At the time the chaplain for Mercy Hospital, Father Gerald Robinson, was questioned by police but let go.

For 23 years, the case remained unsolved. Then, in June 2003, a woman going by the pseudonym “Survivor Doe” appealed to a review board of the Toledo Catholic diocese requesting they pay “$50,000 in counseling costs” as a result of her having allegedly been ritualistically abused by Robinson and several other priests. Three other women later came forward with similar accusations. Robinson was eventually convicted for the murder of Sister Margaret Ann, but the investigations into allegations of Satanic ritual abuse ultimately went nowhere. Survivor Doe filed a lawsuit against Robinson on April 20, 2005, which was dismissed due to the statute of limitations having expired.

Five years after the murder of Sister Margaret Ann, the Satanic Panic once again engulfed Ohio when Lucas County Sheriff James Telb claimed anonymous informants, who he said were “reasonably reliable,” had reported that a cult of “about 200 people from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan” had been “killing five people each year in Satanic rituals” in the woods around Spencer Township, and had been doing so since 1969.

On June 20, Telb brought bulldozers to begin excavating the woods 15 miles west of Toledo. Telb said he was looking for the remains of “50 to 75 human victims,” after a three-month-long investigation. On the same day, Telb’s deputies raided the home of 59-year-old Leroy Freeman, who was reportedly the head of a devil-worshiping cult and had kidnapped his own granddaughter as a sacrifice. But instead of finding evidence of Freeman’s cult, the authorities “found a mother, Patricia Litton, and her five children, along with a Bible, a Raiders of the Lost Ark poster, two Ozzy Osbourne albums, two blank cassette tapes, and an animal bone, all of which were confiscated.” The Littons also had a pet goat, which The Toledo Blade said was “eyed suspiciously” by the deputies.

Telb never recovered any bodies. The Littons filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against him, and for his part, Telb walked back his previous assertions, stating “We’ve always said if our information is correct – if, if, if,” and conceding that the accusations may have all been “a big story, a big hoax.” As for Survivor Doe and the other women who claimed to have been abused by Robinson and others, according to Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss of The Toledo Blade, “While some of the stories were similar, none of the accusers could pinpoint precise times of their alleged abuse. While they described similar locations, they were unable to recall being in the same room.”

Additionally, three of the four women claimed they did not have vivid recollections of their abuse until adulthood — the memories of their childhood ritual abuse had apparently been repressed. While the subject of recovered or repressed memories is contentious, many researchers argue there’s no evidence that memories of trauma and abuse can be repressed and later recovered, and that the more likely explanation is, in at least some cases, what’s really happening is that false memories, just as vivid and believable as real ones, are being created.

'Devil in Ohio': inspired by what true events?

Until either Polatin or Miller break their silence on what the inspiration for The Devil in Ohio actually was, we can only guess. However, given the high-profile nature of the murder of Margaret Ann Pahl and the subsequent accusations of ritual abuse that tied back to it, I’d argue that Survivor Doe and the misadventures of Sherrif Telb are the most likely sources.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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