Human Sacrifice : ‘Fun’ Killers Now Paying Devil’s Dues

Times Staff Writer

The “action”--as student body president Jim Hardy now calls the bludgeoning death of Steven Newberry--began to unfold with a casual conversation among seven classmates one September afternoon. Jim and his best friends, Pete Roland and Ron Clements, were there, and the talk, as usual, was about killing. But this time, it wasn’t just the twisted fantasies of tough teen-agers fixated on drugs, acid rock and violence. This time, it would be self-fulfilling prophesy.

This time, Steve Newberry would die, and with him, the innocence of the Bible Belt town where his killers and a number of his classmates openly dabbled in satanism.

The kids were trying to think of someone to sacrifice. A 14-year-old girl named Angel jokingly nominated Steve, since Jim and his pals were always talking about how much they hated him.


No, Jim decided, they would keep Steve around for his drugs.

If Jim Hardy was the stoners’ hero, Steve Newberry was the scapegoat. Overweight and careless about his hygiene, Steve was what the kids called a wannabe. And what he wanted to be was a part of Jim Hardy’s crowd.

Steve had started school a year late because of hyperactivity and flunked the seventh grade. In his senior year, he was 19 years old.

‘So Eager to Be Liked’

The problem was that Steve just tried too hard. He once falsely boasted to classmates that his mother baked the wedding cake for Prince Charles and Lady Di. “He was so eager to be liked,” Marlys Newberry said of her son, “and so easy to take advantage of.”

Jim Hardy saw the same trait, and made profitable use of it. When he needed bicycle parts, Steve would give him the hardware his thrifty mother had bought on sale for a rainy day. When Steve got $200 worth of car stereo equipment as an early Christmas present last year, Jim wangled it out of him for $15.

“I had him in the palm of my hand,” Jim readily acknowledges. “It’s like anything I said, he would do. He practically worshiped me. He really did. He wanted to be exactly like Jim Hardy.”

Steve was working part time at a barbecue shack. On payday, Jim would often pick him up and drive to their favorite drug dealer, according to Steve’s 15-year-old sister, Cyndi. Steve would use whatever money was left over to treat Jim and Pete to dinner.

Marlys Newberry, twice divorced, with four teen-agers, was well aware that her eldest child, Steven, was smoking pot, but apparently didn’t realize that psychedelic drugs, barbiturates, cocaine and amphetamines were also being used by the stoner crowd Steve so ardently pursued. What really alarmed Marlys was the heavy metal music Steve listened to for hours on end. She would go through his tapes with him and throw away the “thrash,” telling her indignant son that it would put ideas in his mind.

When they argued, Steve would sometimes stalk out and spend the night with a friend. He always called the next morning to say he was all right and tell his mother he loved her.

It was in October of last year, a month after the idle discussion of sacrifice, that Jim Hardy remembers Ron Clements turning to him in psychology class one day and asking if he had ever really thought about killing a person.

“I said yeah, ‘cause, you know, we talked about it a lot. And he said, ‘Well, let’s kill Steve.’ ” Jim didn’t hesitate. They agreed to include Pete, and the three planned the murder for Halloween night.

Sketch Hinted of Plot

But as they were making their plans, Steve was growing uneasy and his mother suspicious. Steve had seen a disturbing drawing tucked into someone’s math book. Lance Owens, a member of Jim’s inner circle, was a talented artist who often sketched violent or medieval scenes influenced by heavy metal. The picture Steve saw showed a giant holding up a mutilated man who looked like Steve, right down to the gray Nike shirt he was wearing.

“I think you’d better just stay away from them,” Marlys warned. Steve had told her all about the Hardy crowd’s interest in satanism and Jim’s ultimate goal of killing someone, and she could see how Steve would be the perfect candidate. They knew he had taken off before. Why, the police wouldn’t even bother to investigate if Steve disappeared, because of his age.

“Jim’s my friend,” Steve protested. “He wouldn’t do that.”

Steve made plans to go out with the boys that Saturday. It was Halloween. Steve had gotten assurances that he was not the mutilated man in the sketch. Lance Owens would later deny the drawing ever existed.

Mother Foils Plan

But Marlys Newberry wasn’t reassured, and on the morning of Oct. 31, she woke up four children and ordered them to pack their bags to spend the weekend with their grandmother in neighboring Arkansas.

The killers were forced to make new plans.

In mid-November, they urged Steve to sneak out and get stoned with them. They cruised slowly up and down Blackcat Road three or four times, but Steve never emerged from his small white house.

They tried again on Thanksgiving weekend. This time, Jim told Steve there were some stray dogs roaming the woods at the Farmers Chemical Plant, across the road from Jim’s place. Maybe they could catch some to kill.

Although he talked about Satan and listened to thrash, Steve had rarely been included in the animal tortures, and Jim was certain Steve’s heart wasn’t in it. He just wanted to fit in again.

Now, Steve eagerly accepted the invitation.

‘You’re Going to Kill Me’

“The thing is, Steve knew we were going to kill him before we ever brought him out there,” Jim is now convinced. “I guess maybe he overheard us talking about it. But I know that he knew . . . just the look in his eyes, like, ‘I know that you’re going to kill me but I’m not going to believe it.’

“That’s when he started writing these little stories.”

Steve, despite his failing grades and learning problems, was a promising writer, and he knew that violence, more than anything, guaranteed approval from Jim and the gang. The flurry of compositions Jim remembers seeing then all featured Steve killing someone.

“I think he was trying to let us know that he knew we were going to kill him, and maybe that would stop us.”

That holiday weekend marked the third try on Steven Newberry’s life in less than a month. On the afternoon of Nov. 29, Pete gave Steve and Lance a ride to Jim’s house. Ron was already there. Everyone got high and Jim went to get the baseball bats from Pete’s car.

Five Boys, Four Bats

“That day for sure he knew we were going to kill him,” Jim said. “There were four baseball bats and five of us. I threw one to Pete, one to Ron, one to Lance, and I could tell by his look that Steve was really wanting one. So I grabbed a little hatchet from my garage and told him, ‘Here, you carry this ball bat and I’ll carry this ax.’ He knew something was going on.

“You know, five people and four bats.”

A couple of years earlier, Jim had stumbled across an abandoned cistern on Farmer’s Chemical property. A small deer had slipped into the narrow abyss and Jim saw the carcass floating there. He made a mental note.

Now the boys hiked to the well. Pete had offered beforehand to strike the first blow because he was the strongest and would have the best chance against Steve, whose 5-foot-9 frame carried 210 pounds.

They all stood around the well, looking expectantly at each other. No dogs were in sight. Thirty minutes passed. Pete had lost his nerve.

Darkness fell and the boys walked back to Jim’s.

Brother Told of Well

Steve went home and told his 17-year-old brother, David, that he’d been to this well and Jim Hardy had mentioned that if he ever killed an animal or something, he would probably throw it in there. It was a good place to get rid of things. They called it the Well of Hell.

Steve wrote another story and showed it to his friends. The surrealistic piece concluded with Steve standing over a lonely well with “an evil smile looking back at me from the murky water. I then realized that it was a smirk of triumph.”

At school that week, the boys discussed their latest failure and rescheduled Steven Newberry’s murder for that Sunday. They made a pact to stay sober this time, they would get more out of it that way.

“Every time we failed, I don’t know what drove us, but we wanted that experience,” said Jim. “Me and Pete from killing animals, I think, and Ron just from talking about it. We just had to have that experience.

“I know it had to spring from Satan.”

Satanic Vandalism

On Wednesday, Pete and Lance broke into an empty house and vandalized it to the tune of $3,000. Lance painted a devil’s face on the wall. Pete scrawled “666”--the mark of the beast from the Book of Revelations--and other satanic symbols.

The case landed on the desk of Officer Tom Brown at the Carl Junction Police Department. He had seen satanic graffiti covering the walls of a boarded-up shopping mall in Joplin, and had heard plenty of rumors of occult activity in Jasper County. He thought it was time to take a closer look.

Brown went over to Carl Junction High School. Ray Dykens vowed that if any of his kids had been involved in satanic vandalism, they would get to the bottom of it. Jim Hardy, Ron Clements, Pete Roland and Lance Owens figured high on the principal’s list of possible suspects.

On Friday night, the stoners got rowdy at a party. Jim, drunk on whiskey, kept telling Ron what a good friend he was.

“I can’t wait till Sunday,” he said.

Weekend of the Killing

Jim got up early the next morning to go to school, though it was Saturday. The student council gave a senior citizens’ banquet during the holidays, and Jim had to help. He spent the day serving turkey dinners to retirees; he spent the evening with Pete, watching the sequel to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

Sunday dawned sunny and clear. It was Dec. 6.

The Newberrys went to church and came home for an early supper. Marlys had roasted a turkey. She went back to church that afternoon to rehearse her second-grade Sunday school class for the Christmas pageant.

Jim Hardy called early in the afternoon and asked if Steve wanted to get together later. Steve said sure.

Jim then went to Pete’s. Pete had promised his stepfather he would rake the yard while the family was off visiting relatives. Jim helped him burn the heap of dead leaves.

When a tiny black and white kitten wandered into the yard, Jim scooped it up. He was amazed. He was certain Satan had put it there for him. Turning to Pete, Jim grinned. “Bait for Newberry,” he said. They put the kitten into a net bag.

Invitation to Kill

Jim called Steve again and said they were going out to kill something, if Steve wanted to come along.

At the Newberry house, Jim went up to the door while Ron and Pete listened to heavy metal in the car. It was close to 5. Marlys Newberry had just gotten home. She could feel a cold coming on and had settled into her favorite rocking chair. She thought Jim was acting peculiar, just standing there shuffling his feet and not even saying hello to her as he usually did.

Finally, Jim went back to Steve’s room, and a few minutes later, Steve came out to ask his mother if he could go visit a classmate who had been in an accident. Marlys didn’t like the idea of Steven going out with those boys, and told him he knew perfectly well why. Steve tried again, and Marlys, too tired to argue, told him he was 19 and could make his own decisions.

He promised to be home early.

Steve crawled into the back of Pete’s maroon Datsun. Four baseball bats lay on the floor and Ron held up his for Steve to see. “Ultraviolence” was written on it--a term Steve recognized from “A Clockwork Orange.” Music boomed from the tape deck. A line from one of the songs would later haunt Pete, the one that went, “dying time is here.”

Victim Carried Victim

Jim let Steve hold the captive kitten, admonishing him to be nice to it.

Minutes later, Jim demanded the cat back. “He was being too rough with it. Petting it real hard, and that’s just not the way we ever did it with the animals we killed.”

They parked on the soft shoulder of the road and hiked the half-mile through the brush and bramble to the Well of Hell. Pete had brought a roll of twine, and they tied the bagged kitten from a tree, taking turns hitting it like a pinata. When it was dead, they took it down and tossed it aside.

Jim tells the rest of the story from the federal penitentiary:

Steve spoke first, saying he wished they had “something bigger to kill.” Ron snorted derisively. “What’re we going to do now, Jim?”

This time, Jim had volunteered to hit Steve first, but now he looked nervous. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. Pete suggested they smoke some dope. Jim had forgotten his pipe, and asked Steve if he had brought one along. Steve fished in his pocket.

In that instant, Jim heard the voice inside his head, the one that always told him to prove himself.

“Do it now!”

Jim felt the bat strike Steve’s face.

As they chased him down, Steve stumbled through the dark, asking his pursuers the same thing over and over. “Why me, you guys? Why me?” It took them a few minutes to catch up to him. Ron was laughing. “Because it’s fun, Steve,” he said.

“The way Clements said it,” Jim recalled, “it was real soothing, like you’d talk to a little kid. ‘Because it’s fun, Steve.’ I think that just freaked Steve out, because he kinda stopped and turned around, like, maybe they’re not going to kill me after all.”

Jim has even convinced himself that Steve toppled over backwards on purpose, “almost to see if we were really going to do it.”

Pete would later confess that they hit Steve about 70 times, fracturing his skull so severely that one of the bats broke and someone had to grab the one Steve had dropped to continue.

When the frenzy was over, Steve was still moaning. Jim Hardy took a bloody bat and nudged him in the shoulder.

“Sacrifice to Satan,” he said.

Sounds of Dying

The boys took turns dragging the body back to the well. Ron noticed Steve’s fingers scraping the dirt, as if escape were still possible. The sounds of death were getting on Ron’s nerves. “Shut up, Steve!” he barked, and kicked him in the face.

Back at the car, Ron, fearing Satan might possess him again, issued a cool disclaimer:

“Jim, I didn’t do this as a sacrifice to Satan,” he said. “I did it for my own personal gratification.”

Jim didn’t care. He was sure he had appeased the voice inside his head. This, he figured, was “the ultimate proof.”

Returning to the Hardy house, Ron rinsed blood from his face and hands in the bathroom sink. Pete and Jim didn’t notice any on themselves, nor did Jim’s parents. They scolded Jim for being late. They had saved him some spaghetti for dinner.

On Blackcat Road, Marlys Newberry finished watching TV with her other three children and remarked, before going to bed early, that she shouldn’t have let Steve go out.

The next morning, her daughter found Marlys outside. She said she was looking for Steve. She was sure she had heard him calling her. But she had checked his bed when she got up an hour ago and knew he hadn’t been home.

Voice Haunts Mother

“I thought maybe I had heard him calling from a distance. I thought maybe those boys didn’t kill him, that he was alive and suffering and trying to let me know.”

She called the school. Steve was absent, but Jim Hardy, Pete Roland and Ron Clements weren’t. Marlys called the sheriff.

At 8:45 a.m. Monday, a project engineer at Farmer’s Chemical came across a broken bat in the woods. He knew it hadn’t been there Friday. He nudged it with a stick. It was stained red and covered with ants. He left it there and walked on.

Cyndi Newberry was a sophomore at Carl Junction, and when she spotted Jim Hardy in the hall before first period, she asked where her brother was. “You mean he never came home?” Jim asked, adding that they had dropped Steve off at a convenience store Sunday evening.

Lance Owens had gone to Pete’s that morning for a ride to school, and Pete had told him all about the murder. In art class, Jim also told Lance, crowing, “We did it! We did it!” After art Ron asked Lance to be his new locker partner. Steve’s things were still inside.

Condition of Immunity

Although he knew the whole terrible story 16 hours before Steve’s body was found, Lance Owens never reported the murder and agreed to cooperate only after prosecutors offered him immunity from vandalism charges.

When the police came to campus to investigate a missing-persons report on Steven Newberry, the killers filed one by one into the principal’s office and repeated the convenience store alibi.

The boys assured each other that no one suspected the truth, but that would change before the final bell rang that Monday at Carl Junction High. Steve’s youngest sister, 14-year-old Christina, called her mother from school that afternoon with disturbing news. Three friends of hers had overheard Jim and Pete laughing in the hall. They were saying something about stabbing a fat person to death.

Marlys called the sheriff again.

“I know in my heart that those three boys have killed him,” she said.

Mother’s Premonition

At 4 that afternoon, an Army recruiter came to the Newberrys’ door. Marlys had completely forgotten that Steve had made an appointment. She told the uniformed stranger that she was sorry, but her son wasn’t home. Then she told him she thought Steven was dead. When the sympathetic soldier left 30 minutes later, Marlys got on the phone to call relatives and her minister and let them know Steven had been killed. It was four hours before the police would have a confession and seven hours before they would find the body.

Meanwhile, the killers had returned to Farmer’s Chemical with a jug of Clorox, which they poured over the bloodstains in a vain attempt to bleach the evidence from the ground. Peering into the well, they saw Steve’s coat. They wrapped it around a rock and sank it.

That evening, police called them in for further questioning. Jim was first. When Detective Mike Randolph tried to read Jim the Miranda warning, James Hardy interrupted and announced that their attorney was one of the assistant county prosecutors and Nancy Hardy was secretary to a state senator. The investigators weren’t impressed. The Hardys left with Jim to get a lawyer.

Pete didn’t show up, and Ron Clements was next. He was hyperventilating. When his mother urged him to tell the truth, Ron asked her to leave the room. Then he confessed.

Death Wasn’t News

It was after 10. Deputy Ray Youngblood called Steve’s family to say he was on his way over to Blackcat Road with some news. What he had to say wasn’t news at all to Marlys Newberry.

Ron took police to the well that night, but refused to implicate his accomplices until the next morning, when warrants were issued for Jim Hardy and Pete Roland.

Pete was arrested at school, but Jim had left campus after first period, telling kids in the band room that he had done something he would probably pay for for the rest of his life. He surrendered later that day.

Carl Junction, home to nearly 4,000 mostly God-fearing people, took the tragedy hard. Word that the slaying was somehow linked to satanism whipped through town like a spring storm.

The public library removed a book on black magic from its stacks. At the high school, one distraught teacher collapsed in the hall; another, concerned about Shakespeare’s witches, abruptly stopped teaching “Macbeth.” Teachers were shown a video on satanism and given information packets describing its symbols.

Aftermath at School

A handful of kids terrorized classmates, flashing the horned-hand sign in the halls and talking about hit lists that were never found. “I’m a member and you’re next,” they would hiss. Death threats were left in lockers and on car windshields. A girl told her family she had found her clothes slashed to ribbons in her gym locker. No one was really sure what was a joke and what wasn’t. They still aren’t.

Youthful informants, sometimes anonymous, called police in a steady stream to hint of covens and name possible members. Jim Hardy denies there was any organized group, but can count at least 15 classmates who had been dabbling in satanism.

Dykens thought the police were overzealous, looking for “a cultist behind every locker.” But a couple of investigators, like Tom Brown, remain convinced that there is more to the Newberry slaying than meets the eye. They point to a handful of similar cases that have cropped up around the country in recent years, ones involving teen-age killers with a fatal attraction to satanic rock and the occult.

So far, there is no solid evidence of any coven or larger conspiracy behind the Newberry slaying. Even now, the skeptical suspect that the killers concocted the whole satanic business just to build insanity defenses and avoid the death penalty.

Bizarre Things Remembered

But dozens of adults around Jasper County began telling authorities about bizarre occurrences they hadn’t considered reporting until now: naked people chanting in the woods, dog heads hanging from cave entrances, kids in robes killing animals in an old schoolhouse, a slaughtered rabbit on a front porch with “Die” written in blood, piles of skinned dogs with their hearts cut out, satanic graffiti everywhere.

The hysteria spilled from Carl Junction to neighboring communities. A Joplin High School girl who knew the defendants wrote a note about the murder to a friend at Carl Junction High that same week: “Just think if we helped them. That would be great. I tell you, I am about to kill some people I hate. . . . I am not kidding at all. I think it’s really cool what they did and I wish I had a part in it. Satan loves you.”

A close friend of Jim Hardy’s summed up the feelings of many stoners who, like him, had enjoyed the morbid fantasies and animal tortures. He still does. Unable to fully comprehend or control these urges, he is terrified.

“Whatever it is inside of him that made him do that,” he says, “we all have inside us.”

By Detective Mike Randolph’s count, a dozen or more students had heard the killers make references to human sacrifice before Steve died, and some had even heard Steve Newberry’s name mentioned.

Ray Dykens said: “It was right under a lot of people’s noses, evidently, and nobody noticed it, or if they did, nobody took it seriously.”

The principal has lain awake countless nights with tears in his eyes, wondering what went wrong and if he might have seen it had he just looked harder.

“Lord forgive me if that’s true,” he says now, “because none of us saw it. Somewhere we missed something.”

By summer, the drama was over. Jim Hardy had accepted the prosecutor’s deal and would plead guilty in exchange for life without parole. Clements and Roland turned the offer down, deciding to risk the death penalty by standing trial. Their insanity pleas were brushed aside by juries that handed down verdicts of life without parole. All three boys turned 18 in prison.

And now their families play their own lonely version of the “what if” game that doomed their children.

Mothers’ Regrets

Ron Clements’ mother is too depressed to return to work, or even go out much. She is gaunt, as if the emptiness inside is devouring her.

Penny Baert, Pete Roland’s mother, wishes Pete’s childhood had been easier, his generation less jaded. She condemns the ugly music, the horror movies, the easy drugs. “There’s nothing left for a kid to do to rebel but the horrible, because it’s all acceptable,” she says.

Nancy Hardy attended the separate trials of Pete Roland and Ron Clements, resenting how they portrayed her own son as a Charles Manson-like leader who had charmed them into committing murder. She clings to the hope that the Hardys’ political connections may someday win a governor’s pardon for Jim.

Jim himself is looking wan. People used to say you could see the evil in his eyes, but now they look flat and opaque, like blue chalk.

From his cell he wrote Pete a letter recently, and admitted that Satan had tricked them.

“I don’t even know why we killed Steve,” he says now. “It was like any other animal we killed.”

Jim never did feel the surge of power he thought Satan had promised him in exchange for the ultimate proof. Not long ago, the voice came back, the one that told him to do it now.

Hears Satan’s Whisper

Softly he repeats the words he insists Satan whispered inside his troubled young mind:

“Just open the door once and I promise I’ll never let you go.”

Marlys Newberry never heard her son’s voice after that Monday morning when she distinctly heard him whimper, “Mom.” She made a photo collage of his life--Steve at 2 in a cowboy hat, Steve off to kindergarten, Steve kissing his grandmother. In the center is his senior picture.

“You’re ready for the big moments, like the trials,” she says, “but not the little, unexpected ones.”

She remembers going to Sears not long after Steven died. She wanted to buy detergent. With a houseful of teen-agers, she always got the giant, 48-pound box.

“I could scarcely pick up that box of detergent. And by the time I got to the car, tears were running down my face, because Steven had always carried it for me. ‘Mom, it’s too heavy for you, let me.’ I had never lifted that box before, myself.

“I didn’t know how heavy it really was.”