Was A Teen Satanic Cult Really Behind The 1984 Murder Of Gary Lauwers?

The year is 1984. Society is riddled with roller skates, neon-colored spandex in peppy aerobics videos, and the hairstyles of cartoon characters who've stuck fingers in electric sockets. Plus, some actor from the 1930s is President of the United States and really loves free-market economics. On the whole, everyone is accumulating cultural Member Berries that will make them feel all twee when watching "Stranger Things" 35-plus years down the line. And speaking of "Stranger Things:" If you see '80s kids sitting around a table pretending to be wizards fighting giant floating eyeballs, they're not playing Dungeons & Dragons. They're planning their next human sacrifice while conjuring literal hellish forces to cloak the earth in 30,000 years of darkness or something.

Sound ridiculous? To those who lived through the 1980's Satanic Panic it might sound more exasperating than anything else, like when certain individuals were freaking out over the "witchcraft" in the original love-and-friendship-themed "Harry Potter" kids' book. But, all it takes is one person, or one incident, to push the zeitgeist over the edge. This is especially the case if said incident involves grief, savagery, and the need to assess blame. And so it was when police discovered the decomposed body of 17-year-old runaway Gary Lauwers in the woods near the suburb of Northport, Long Island. As Rolling Stone describes, teenager Richard Kasso was responsible. Add to his mania some chatter of "Satan," plus a whole lot of drugs, and the flames of the Satanic Panic found perfect fuel.

The savage murder of Gary Lauwers

The scene of Gary Lauwers' 1984 murder was certainly grisly enough to conjure images of ritual sacrifice. Or at least, it would have begged investigators to come to such a conclusion rather than believe a mere human could have been responsible. At the time The New York Times drafted a scene of equal parts legitimate horror and spooky stereotypes, saying that Lauwers (pictured) had been "stabbed repeatedly and had his eyes gouged out in a four-hour ritual in the light of a campfire." Rolling Stone goes several steps further to vividly, almost lovingly, describe a rotten body drained of blood, buzzing flies, and a heap of sunken bones.

The murder of Gary Lauwers happened four years after the 1980-published book "Michelle Remembers" kicked off the Satanic Panic in earnest, as The New York Times outlines. "Michelle Remembers" painted a story that would become prototypical — one of suppressed memories of childhood abuse via black magic basement rituals. Though the story was later discredited, according to the Institute for Psychological Therapies, it snagged the imagination of a public who wanted to offload the problem of child abuse onto a mystical, supernatural source. Four years of such chatter was more than long enough for teenage murderer Richard "Ricky" Kasso to fall under its spell, same as the adults around him. And so it was, as The Washington Post cites, those investigating the Lauwers murder invoked as a cause everything from AC/DC T-shirts and pentagrams to a secret cult of teenagers named "The Knights of the Black Circle." 

A disturbed, drug-addicted teenager

"Do too many drugs, you'll be dead soon," a friend of Gary Lauwers' killer Ricky Kasso once told him, per Rolling Stone. "Yeah, that's exactly what I want," Kasso replied, echoing the time he'd told his mother that death would be "the ultimate high." Kasso (pictured) would travel from Long Island to the Bronx, buy multiple bags of angel dust, get high, and chant, "Satan, Satan, Satan." He'd hang out in cemeteries doing much the same, and added acid and mescaline to the mix, all three of which are hallucinogenic psychedelics. Mark Fisher, who had known Kasso since the sixth grade, said, "When [Kasso] was on acid, he'd go back into the dark woods, up in Aztakea, and he would talk to the devil. He said the devil came in the form of a tree, which sprouted out of the ground and glowed." Hence Kasso's nickname: the "acid king."

In short, despite all pretensions to occultism, Kasso was simply a disturbed, disaffected teenager with some particular preoccupations and authority-defying tendencies. In May, two months before he was apprehended in July for Gary Lauwers' murder, his parents tried to get him committed to Long Island Jewish Hospital after trying to put him through rehab at South Oaks Hospital. Both attempts failed. One month earlier in April he'd been arrested for digging up graves. Lauwers, it turns out, stood there watching. Ultimately, Kasso proved uncontrollable and "antisocial," as doctors decreed. But he wasn't "presently psychotic," so they let him go.

A fraudulent, non-existent cult

Articles by various newspapers including The Washington Post at the time of Ricky Kasso's arrest speak of "Satanic cults" as the foregone cause of Gary Lauwers' murder. The Knights of the Black Circle, which Ricky Kasso supposedly started, "left their marks" on a playground and its surroundings in the form of "upside-down crucifixes in blue spray paint, a sign of the anti-Christ; a two-foot-wide pentagram, an inverted star symbolizing the Devil; and the name of their favorite rock stars." The article even goes so far as to fall back to the old mainstay of pointing fingers at things like '70s metal icon Ozzy Osbourne and his infamous biting the head off a bat on-stage incident.

The presence of such conclusions in mainstream outlet articles like The Washington Post and The New York Times shows how deeply the Satanic Panic had seeped, no matter how absurd such conclusions might seem to modern 20/20 hindsight. The Washington Post even states that Suffolk County police already decided, at the time of the article's writing, that Kasso and more than 20 other teenagers weren't merely some kids going overboard on drugs in the woods, but were part of a "loose satanic cult." And, the story went, Kasso's friend James Troiano was present at Lauwers' ritual killing. As Rolling Stone reports, it indeed seems like Troiano was present during the murder, but that's where the very non-supernatural truth ends. 

The aftermath of the killings

As The New York Times wrote in 1984, "the suspects" — i.e., Ricky Kasso and his friend James Troiano (pictured) — willingly confessed to the crime of killing Gary Lauwers. "The victim's clothing was burned as the cult members chanted," police reported, and Lauwers "was forced to say, 'I love Satan'" as he was being killed. For his part, Kasso demonstrated not the slightest bit of "undue stress" as he was processed and assigned a cell. Rolling Stone reports that while Troiano was given a "special observation cell," Kasso was not. Alone, Kasso apparently did as other inmates beckoned him to do when they chanted, "Hang up, hang up." Kasso was found dead that very night, 12:30 a.m. on July 7, with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. There was no note, although perhaps Kasso didn't need one. He's got the "ultimate high" he'd always wanted, and that was that.

Afterward, Troiano was put on suicide watch. He'd had a record of seven arrests prior to his and Kasso's murder confession, but as Rolling Stone says, he himself was brought up on second-degree murder charges, aka manslaughter without prior intention to kill. The University of Virginia law archive says that Troiano went to trial the following April, in 1985. His attorney said that he wasn't responsible for his actions because of his own drug use, and the jury acquitted him of all charges. No evidence of any cult was ever found.