Through 2010, and into the beginning of 2011, I covered the case of Angela Sanford, a Wiccan who killed Joel Leyva in what some media described as a ritualistic sacrifice. While Sanford initially said the killing was in self-defense after Leyva tried to rape her, that story started to unravel when evidence surfaced that the violent encounter may have been premeditated. Ultimately, Sanford plead no contest to second-degree murder, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Now, the story is being dramatized for the show Fatal Encounters on the Investigation Discovery (ID) cable network, and local press are worried that ID may be stretching the truth to make good TV.
“A mysterious Albuquerque murder that may have been a sacrifice is about to be featured on a national TV show. But did the show stretch the truth in the murder of Joel Leyva? [...] Leyva and Angela Sanford met at the Downs Casino a few days before his murder. No one knows what the two talked about but the show tries to fill in the blanks. “It’s believed the conversation soon takes an unexpected turn when Angela tells Joel that she is a practicing Wiccan,” the shows announcer said.”
However, according to KASA reporter Alex Tomlin, sources say Leyva was never informed about Sanford’s religion, and that their arranged meeting was about sex, not a chaste and friendly hike as the program portrays it. Leyva, in the preview clip, is portrayed as something close to a Christian minister who loved the outdoors and doted on his children. The only interview shown is with Leyva’s brother, who reinforces that image. But all reports from the time center on sex, the only real question was if it was consensual or not. That Mr. Leyva may have allegedly wanted to hook up with Sanford doesn’t in any way excuse his murder, but I find it problematic that the show is already traveling down the road of whitewashing the narrative to make it more dramatic. It makes one wonder what other facts or standing assumptions from the investigation they will play fast-and-loose with.
The problem with the Angela Sanford case is that nobody really knows, except for Sanford herself, the truth of that day. Considering the mental state of Sanford, that she stabbed him repeatedly, was a rape survivor who had a phobia about men according to one ex-boyfriend, and listed Leyva as a “sacrifice” on her phone, even she may not know the truth of that time. Also concerning is how Sanford’s religion will be worked into the narrative. The Fatal Encounters site links to a an explanation of “white magic or Wicca” from one of their supernatural-themed programs that sounds like it was written in the 1970s.
“Christianity tolerated the old pagan ways for hundreds of years, and it was not seen as something evil, but just another type of faith. During the Middle Ages, the church began to turn against the pagan faith and the word “witch” became a derogatory term. If a child died, if an animal became ill or if crops failed, the local witch was blamed. Witches were accused of devil worship and black magic, and thousands of people, mostly women, were tried for witchcraft. Many confessed under torture and were hanged or burned at the stake.
The first Witchcraft Act was passed in England in 1542 and wasn’t repealed until 1951. Today Wicca is described as a neo-pagan religion, and white witches observe the old religion of the Earth Mother and Sky Father. They believe that the power of magic comes from focusing their attention and suggest that spirits can intervene with their consciousness. There is no central authority and witches, male and female, sometimes belong to a coven, but can worship alone.”
This does not fill me with confidence. Will they portray Sanford as a fallen or corrupted “white Witch,” and the murder as a ritualistic sacrifice? What experts on the religion did they interview? Will they explore the fact that some local Pagans doubted that Sanford was Wiccan at all? I suppose we’ll have to wait until April 30th when the program airs to find out.
Programs like these can create damaging narratives in search of a “thrilling” murder story, upping the contrasts and the drama for the viewer’s entertainment, until the true events are obscured even further. I hope that isn’t the case here, because the last thing our community needs is people thinking that “Wiccan sacrifices,” just like the ones recently dreamed up by Catholic columnist Christina Odone, are real, and not simply the sad result of an unbalanced mind.