‘Devil’ in Pazuzu Algarad case wasn’t Satan: Viceland miniseries criticizes Forsyth law enforcement
*Editor’s note: There was an extra “and” in the first sentence that was missed while editing. This article has been updated to correct this oversight.
Writer/director/producer Patricia Gillespie’s five-part documentary series The Devil You Know, which premiered Tuesday night on Viceland, is only nominally about the Clemmons serial killer Pazuzu Algarad, whose self-mythologizing claims of Satan-worshipping and cannibalism received more previous media coverage than his victims.
How law enforcement allegedly failed those victims is one theme of Gillespie’s series, which becomes a persuasive indictment of both the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and this country’s broken mental health care system. It addresses the social and economic gap between Clemmons, the suburb where the crimes occurred, and Winston-Salem, the city where they were investigated, and alleges a lack of concern for the victims on the part of the investigators.
The most powerful sequences in The Devil You Know depict Stacey Carter’s five-year quest to find out what happened to her former boyfriend Josh Wetzler, who disappeared in July of 2009.
On Oct. 5, 2014, Forsyth County Sheriff investigators discovered Wetzler’s skeletal remains buried behind a house at 2749 Knob Hill Dr. in Clemmons. The buried remains of Tommy Dean Welch were also found nearby. The house belonged to Cynthia James and was occupied by James, her son Pazuzu Algarad, and Algarad’s self-proclaimed wife, Amber Burch.
Algarad was born John Alexander Lawson in San Francisco in 1978. He legally changed his name in 2002, taking “Pazuzu” from the Assyrian king of demons mentioned in The Exorcist.
Burch later testified that Algarad killed Wetzler in July of 2009, with the body remaining in the house for several weeks until Burch helped bury it. In October 2009, Burch killed Welch, and Algarad helped her with that burial.
Algarad and Burch were arrested immediately following the Oct. 5, 2014, discovery of their victims. Each was charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of accessory after the fact. The next day, Krystal Matlock was arrested and charged with accessory after the fact.
On Oct. 28, 2015, Algarad was discovered dead in his cell at Raleigh’s central prison, to which he’d been transferred on a sealed safekeeping order. The cause of death was determined to be a self-inflicted wound on his arm.
(The urban legend that he opened an artery with his own filed-sharp teeth has never been officially verified.)
On March 9, 2017, Burch pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, armed robbery and accessory after the fact to murder. Per a plea arrangement, she received three consecutive sentences that totaled 30 years and eight months to 39 years and two months in prison.
On June 5, 2017, Matlock pleaded guilty to conspiracy to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder and was sentenced to three years and two months to four years and 10 months in prison.
By that time, Gillespie had been working on her documentary, envisioned initially as a 90-minute feature titled American Monster, for almost three years, having arrived in Winston-Salem to begin it in late 2014. In an hour-long phone conversation last Thursday, she told me it was never intended to focus on Algarad, and would not have done so even if he’d survived and consented to an interview.
“Something people may not be getting from the promos is that, over the course of the series, we deconstruct the sensationalism surrounding the case,” said Gillespie, referring to how articles about murder often obscure what she calls “the actionable fact of violence in this country” by ignoring both its causes and casualties.
Most press coverage of Algarad’s crimes focused more on the killer’s alleged beliefs than his victims and survivors.
The Winston-Salem Journal’s and the Greensboro News & Record’s headlines repeatedly used the phrase “avowed Satanist,” as if that was a more important aspect of the case than the victims or the time it took to discover their bodies.
On Aug. 3, 2009, Terena Billings told the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office that her father, Allen Billings, had helped bury a corpse in her neighbor Pazuzu Algarad’s backyard. On Feb. 9, 2010, Stacey Carter reported that a friend had told her that Josh Wetzler, Carter’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her child, was buried on that property. Algarad’s mother went to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office in November of 2011 and told a detective her son had killed someone. Over the next two years, the Forsyth Sheriff’s Office received multiple tips of the crime. Yet, even though both bodies remained where they’d originally been buried for five years, they were not discovered until October 2014.
National and international coverage largely ignored this, instead emphasizing Algarad’s self-proclaimed Satanism.
“It’s easy to blame Satan,” Gillespie said. “It’s hard to take a look at ourselves and say that we, as voting citizens of the United States of America, really need to examine this system. Every single one of these victims fell through giant cracks in the social safety net of this country.”
Gillespie neither believes in Satan nor that the man born with the name John Lawson became a murderer as a result of Satanic beliefs.
“He had very serious mental health issues that presented from a young age, and his family didn’t have the money necessary to take care of those problems. And then he was ostracized in a lot of communities. He certainly had his little group and his following of fellow misfits, poor people who also felt abandoned by society, which is why they were attracted to him. I think if you had interceded with that kid when he was 13 years old, he might have become a productive member of society, or at very least, not harmed as many people.”
Gillespie grew up in the working-class city of Yonkers, New York, where she encountered many of the issues that the people in her series face.
“Addiction and violence were things that touched my upbringing. When I was 19, my best friend’s big brother was murdered by a couple of local kids, and I was shocked by the community’s and media’s response, which was about how those were kids from the other side of the tracks, those kids drank, those kids did drugs, those kids had dads in jail, those kids were not our kids, instead of looking at the real issues leading to the actual horrific crime.”
“But I was really young and still in film school, and not ready to turn the camera on the kind of experience still percolating with me,” she added.
After graduating, she was a line producer on Whose Streets?, a documentary about the killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising, and a producer on Unrest, writer/director Jennifer Brea’s documentary about Brea’s struggle with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
Preparing to make her feature film debut as a producer, writer and director, Gillespie searched for a subject.
“I was looking for cases that felt like what I had experienced, and this one checked a lot of the boxes. It wasn’t because of the horrific nature of the crime, but all the forces around these people–the health care crisis, issues in modern policing, the opioid crisis, the war on drugs– all the factors contributing to getting them here for this horrific thing to happen. I can’t stop a serial killer by making a film, but I think I can ask people to examine our role in this process.”
Gillespie said that many true-crime documentaries “are so concerned with blood splatter and gun residue and the details and facts that the most potent emotional part of a crime, the shrapnel of violence that spreads off of one incident, is often overlooked. But I think it’s really important and compelling and relatable to anybody who has a family.”
She was struck by Chad Nance’s coverage of the Pazuzu case in the now-defunct Winston-based online news daily Camel City Dispatch, particularly his Oct. 16, 2014, article “John ‘Pazuzu’ Lawson … The Boogey Man Cometh.” She’d never met Nance before, but reading that and other articles by him, she was drawn to his approach, and when she called him, to the man himself.
“Chad is this great sort of op-ed journalist who speaks beautifully and wears his heart on his sleeve. He gave me a lot of necessary cultural context, and he has kids growing up in the community, so he has skin in the game.”
I asked her to describe how Nance went from source to participant and subject in the documentary.
“He was one of my first interviews, and then stuff started unfolding with his family and his children, and instead of taking this role of the omniscient narrator, he started to tangentially work his way into the story,” she said. “He gave me a crash course on the history of the greater Winston-Salem area, and the differences between the suburbs, and how industry leaving that city affected the population.”
Gillespie said the in-depth reporting of the Journal’s Michael Hewlett was “humane and heroic.”
“He’s an amazing journalist,” she said of Hewlett. “I know he had a really close relationship with Stacey Carter throughout this process and was helping her find out what really happened to Josh, and understand what was going on from a legal standpoint, and I benefitted from that, too.”
She also praised Hewlett “and his amazing attorney Amanda Martin” for getting sealed documents about the case released.
“That ensured that the information we’re putting out there is good information, and the criticism we’re offering is very well-documented,” she added.
The Devil You Know was shot over four years, evolving in the process from feature film to miniseries.
“Before Viceland came aboard, my associate producer at the time Kyle Porter, said, ‘you’ve really got to put yourself in this,’ and I was like, ‘no, no, no! I’m not of that world; I’m not a front of the camera person.’ But I had been working with Chad and was comfortable with him, and the guy just speaks beautifully, so he became the voice and face of the series.”
But she agreed that Stacey Carter is its heart.
“Stacey is such a wonderful, lovable person. And the work she’s now doing is important. She lives in Salisbury, and she took this experience where she’d gotten unbelievably screwed over, and she applied it and said, ‘let’s help the kids that are having behavioral problems now before it blows up.’ So, I really hope that people look for Stacey. She does equine therapy work with an organization called Heart Centered Horsemanship, and she has a number of other side projects to help the community. She really deserves all the support, because she’s just a fantastic example of getting the sourest lemon and making lemonade for the good of everyone. She is a real living hero.”
Having seen a screener of all five episodes of The Devil You Know, I believe it to be a powerful and humane work that, in its best sequences, transcends the true-crime format. Some of it may be hard to watch, although there are no grisly images of the murders that Algarad was involved in. The earliest is examined in the final episode, which includes a very moving scene I’ve agreed not to describe until the series is over.
(Note: There is graphic footage of Algarad associate Nate Alexander and his girlfriend using heroin.)
That happens early in the premiere episode, along with revolting and disconcertingly smug descriptions of the Algarad household by David “Crazy Dave” Adams (as well as a sincere but inaccurate second-hand description of the crimes by the more sympathetic Sylvia Lebeau). It’s in this first half of the premiere that the series seems as though it might be as lurid as its promos suggest. But if you stick with it, you will find it serious, intelligent, moving, and the work of a filmmaker with something important to say.
“I do want to say that I don’t think the phenomena that what happened with the police and the sheriff’s office in Forsyth County is a local issue,” Gillespie told me near the end of our conversation. “I think it’s happening all over America, where the working class are one of many communities that have legitimate grievances with modern policing. We should be looking at that and asking how we can create a better system that serves the many and not the few.”
Viceland is on Spectrum Cable channel 133. The first episode is now available for free on Viceland’s YouTube page. The channel is also available on DirecTV (271), Dish (121) and U-Verse (1257).
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.