Murder Case Spotlights Marketing of Violent Lyrics
They stalked her. They choked her. They stabbed her. And after she was dead, they raped her.
The 1995 murder of 15-year-old Elyse Pahler was inspired in part, one of her killers told police, by the heavy-metal music of Slayer--a popular band that specializes in misogynistic songs depicting torture and satanic sacrifice.
The teenage murderers confessed to the killing years ago and are serving long prison terms.
But for the victim’s family, the case is not closed. The Pahlers, in a lawsuit that goes to trial this week in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, are seeking to hold the band and its recording company at least partially responsible for the crime.
Unlike similar cases of alleged rock ‘n’ roll-inspired mayhem that have been tossed out of court on 1st Amendment grounds, this one takes a novel legal approach--one that focuses on the increasingly controversial practices of entertainment marketing.
The girl’s parents are suing Slayer and its Sony-financed American Recordings label for violating the California business and professions code, accusing them of unlawfully marketing and distributing “harmful” and “obscene” products to minors.
According to the suit, Slayer’s songs serve as an instruction manual for disturbed adolescent fans, introducing youngsters to a violent, X-rated world of devil worship, human sacrifice and necrophilia.
The marketing allegations echo recent findings by the Federal Trade Commission and the surgeon general’s office, which last week proclaimed a scientific link between exposure to graphic media violence and increased aggression in children.
That report followed an FTC study last fall that accused entertainment conglomerates of targeting children with violent music, movies and video games.
On Tuesday, lawyers for Pahler’s parents will square off against free-speech attorney Floyd Abrams and a top-notch legal team representing Sony, which will argue that Slayer’s music is protected under the 1st Amendment. Sony’s lawyers will remind the judge that other courts have consistently upheld artistic expression and thrown out product-liability suits blaming teen suicides on records by other heavy-metal acts such as Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne.
But the Pahlers are looking beyond issues of expression and instead are focusing on the cold realities of music as a business.
“This case isn’t about art. It’s about marketing,” said David Pahler, father of the murdered girl. “Slayer and others in the industry have developed sophisticated strategies to sell death metal music to adolescent boys. They don’t care whether the violent, misogynistic message in these lyrics causes children to do harmful things. They couldn’t care less what their fans did to our daughter. All they care about is money.”
Sony, American and Slayer declined to comment for this report.
But in a July 1998 interview with Guitar World magazine, Paul Bostaph, who plays drums for Slayer, dismissed the allegations raised in the lawsuit.
“They’re trying to blame the whole thing on us,” Bostaph said. “That’s such [nonsense]. If you’re gonna do something stupid like that, you should get in trouble for it.”
Bostaph then went on to critique the crime, suggesting that Pahler’s killers did not even accurately follow the necrophilia sacrifice rituals detailed in Slayer’s songs.
The decomposed body of Elyse Marie Pahler was discovered March 14, 1996--about eight months after she disappeared--in a eucalyptus grove just outside San Luis Obispo. Police found her half-naked corpse under a pentagram about half a mile from her parents’ home in nearby Nipomo.
Investigators were led to the crime scene by Royce Casey, a 16-year-old acquaintance of Pahler, who confessed to his participation in the unsolved murder to his preacher, and then to police. Casey told police that he and his two friends, 14-year-old Joseph Fiorella and 16-year-old Jacob Delashmutt, had plotted to kill Pahler for months before they took action July 22, 1995, according to criminal and civil court records.
The suit says Casey told police that he and the other teens idolized Slayer and had conspired to kill a virgin girl as a sacrifice to Satan, hoping it would bring fame to their own musical trio, Hatred. The boys lured Pahler to the eucalyptus grove to smoke some marijuana and then attacked her, according to the lawsuit.
The boys choked her with a belt and then took turns slashing and stabbing her more than a dozen times with a hunting knife, according to the suit. Pahler fell to the ground, praying and calling out for her mother, before the teens stomped her with their feet on the back of her neck, according to the lawsuit and other criminal court records.
The lawsuit says the boys returned to the crime scene afterward to have sexual intercourse with her corpse.
The parents’ suit cites violent lyrics from such Slayer songs as “Altar of Sacrifice,” “Tormentor,” “PostMortem,” “Kill Again,” “Serenity in Murder” and “Necrophiliac,” alleging that these and other compositions marketed by the band and their record company incited the “sacrificial murder” of their daughter.
Before pleading guilty to murdering Pahler, Fiorella told authorities that he and the other boys often stayed up several nights in a row taking drugs and listening repeatedly to Slayer.
“It gets inside your head,” Fiorella was quoted in a probation report. “It’s almost embarrassing that I was so influenced by the music. It started to influence the way I looked at things.”
The parents filed the lawsuit shortly after their daughter’s body was found. The civil litigation, however, was not allowed to proceed until every appeal in the criminal case had wound its way through the court system. Fiorella, Delashmutt and Casey avoided trial by pleading guilty to murder and were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Proceedings in the civil suit finally began late last year.
“We’re still numb. We’re still in a daze,” said Lisanne Pahler, mother of the murder victim. “We never even heard of death metal music until after our daughter was killed. I bet most parents have no idea what kind of lyrics are being marketed and sold to their kids. It’s disgusting and, we believe, illegal.”
Attorneys representing Slayer and Sony disagree. They recently filed a demurrer, challenging the Pahlers’ lawsuit and contending it should be thrown out on free-speech grounds. In an interview, Slayer attorney Barry Mallen said music is protected speech under the 1st Amendment and that liability in cases like this cannot be extended to the creators of intellectual property.
“The fact that [the Pahlers] have included this additional claim for violation of the business and professions code is not a basis to allow them to extend liability,” Mallen said. “The 1st Amendment still precludes this claim.”
In addition, record companies have long argued that they act responsibly by stamping albums containing violent and sexual lyrics with parental warning stickers.
But Allen Hutkin, the attorney representing the Pahlers, contends that the warning sticker functions as an insidious advertising device, alerting children to albums by groups like Slayer, who traffic in violent, X-rated content. Because music retailers are not required to check the age of their patrons, Hutkin said, they regularly sell explicit recordings to minors such as Casey, Fiorella and Delashmutt.
“The fact is our society does not allow kids to watch or even get near a snuff film,” Hutkin said. “Still, minors can go out and buy snuff music any time they want without their parents even knowing.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A verse of a Slayer song called ‘213" from the band’s “Divine Intervention” album.
Erotic sensations tingle my spine
A dead body lying next to mine
Smooth blue black lips
I start salivating as we kiss
Mine forever this sweet death
I cannot forget your soft breaths
Panting excitedly with my hands around
How I love
How I love to kill you
Sources: Court documents, Times research