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The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is based on a real murder case. Here's what actually happened.
In a small Connecticut town in 1981, a brutal killing brought about one of the most unprecedented criminal defense strategies to emerge in U.S. history. In Fairfield County, a young attorney representing an accused teenager told Connecticut's Superior Court that his client should not be held culpable for stabbing his landlord to death because the killing was a result of demonic possession.
**This article originally appeared on Oxygen.com.**
The sensational case of 19-year-old Arne Cheyenne Johnson, charged for the killing of 40-year-old Alan Bono, brought national media attention to Fairfield County in what quickly became known as "The Devil Made Me Do It" murder trial. The case again drew the nation's eyes to self-professed demonologists and paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The couple, who lived in nearby Monroe, was known for their investigation into the supposed Amityville haunting years prior on Long Island, as well as their attachment to a purported supernatural happening at a council house in the Enfield section of north London.
**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers ahead for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.**
The prelude to Johnson's legal case — along with the supposed mid-exorcism wrestling of a demon from his girlfriend's kid brother into himself — provides one prong of the plot of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the trilogy closer now in theaters and on HBO Max. Since the horror film largely skips over trial proceedings in favor of jump-scares and another fictional murder subplot, viewers may be left wondering what actually happened in Brookfield and with Johnson's unprecedented defense — and how much daylight exists between truth, the Warrens' version of the events, and what's portrayed on screen.
At a glance, the killing of Bono on Feb. 16, 1981, at a Brookfield dog kennel looked straightforward: an alcohol-fueled tussle led to a five-inch pocket knife being drawn, followed by a brutal stabbing that left the new-in-town 40-year-old kennel keeper dead. The Washington Post reported in 1981, as the trial loomed, that Johnson's lawyer said there were "four or five tremendous wounds" — including one extending from Bono's stomach to the base of the heart. His murder was the first in Brookfield history.
"It was not an unusual crime," then-Police Chief John Anderson told the Post. "Somebody got angry, an argument resulted. ... We couldn't have a simple uncomplicated murder, oh no. Instead, everyone in the whole world converges on Brookfield."
Johnson was found that day about two miles away, arrested, then held at the Bridgeport Correctional Center in lieu of $125,000 bail. He said he remembered nothing of what happened. At the kennel that day was his fiancée, Debbie Glatzel, along with her 9-year-old cousin, Mary, and Johnson's sister, Wanda. Debbie Glatzel told police that just before the stabbing, a drunk Bono — for whom she worked, grooming and tending to dogs — had grabbed Mary and wouldn't let go. Johnson had intervened — he began growling like an animal, she said, before drawing his knife and stabbing her boss repeatedly.
In the months before the stabbing, she said, her fiancé had started to show some odd behavior — falling into trances, growling, hallucinating — which he wouldn't remember afterward. This was all alarmingly similar to her youngest brother's recent behavior, which began in the summer of 1980 after he'd entered a rental property the couple had acquired.
At first, as the Post reported, 11-year-old David Glatzel claimed to have seen an old man with "coarse, ruddy skin" wearing a torn plaid shirt and blue jeans in the house; the old man told the boy to "beware" as he pushed him onto a waterbed that had been left in the house's master bedroom. No one else claimed to have seen this apparition, but David soon began to show odd behavior and physical markings — night terrors, unexplained scratches, bruises. After 12 days, his family decided to contact the Warrens for help.
The Warrens said they were very troubled by what they saw happening in Brookfield. David's supposed demonic possession was then investigated by the Catholic Church, according to Lorraine Warren, who said a total of six priests participated in three "lower exorcisms" performed on the boy; one allegedly took place at St. Joseph's Catholic Church with four priests in attendance, she said, and according to her, they agreed David was possessed.
"It wasn't just Ed and I. The cream of the Catholic Church was involved, and there was tremendous documentation," she told the News-Times in an article about the case published in 2007.
At one point, Warren claimed, the boy levitated. Members of his family told the Post that as the demon took over, David would lower his head, then slowly raise it up with his face contorted into a snarl. They would only see the whites of his eyes as he would laugh hideously. His mother, Judy Glatzel, and the Warrens claimed that in the house, plates levitated, rocking chairs flew through the air, and a toy dinosaur walked around, the Post reported.
Speaking with People in 1981, Ed Warren said that he and his wife knew, after these exorcisms, that "43 demons" were inside David — they'd "demanded names, and David gave us 43," he told the magazine.
However, Father Nicholas Grieco of the diocese of Bridgeport told People at the time that while the situation with David and the Gratzels was investigated by the church, no exorcism was ever performed. The family would not submit David to necessary psychological tests beforehand, he said.
Johnson's murder trial began on Oct. 28, 1981, at Connecticut's Superior Court in Danbury. His attorney, 33-year-old Martin Minnella, told the Post ahead of the trial that he believed Bono's stab wounds were far too deep to have been done by human hands. He also told the paper that the potential for a demonic possession defense was introduced by the Warrens.
"I didn't come up with this," Minnella said. "This is what was presented to me. I went to see Ed and Lorraine and I decided to take the case after talking to them. They told me that when you're possessed, you have no control over your actions. That stuck in my mind."
Minnella told People that he traveled to England ahead of the trial seeking precedent by consulting with lawyers who had handled two alleged demonic possession cases there; those two did not go to trial, however. He also had planned to bring exorcism specialists from Europe into the courtroom to testify, he said, and spoke of subpoenas for the local priests who refused to testify. He also mentioned to the Post ahead of the trial that top movie studios were interested in the case; Lorraine Warren confirmed this with the Post reporter.
"Will we have a book written about this?" she rhetorically asked. "Yes, we will. Will we lecture about it? Yes, we will. ... Our agents at the William Morris Agency are [talking to film producers]."
Ahead of the trial, Minnella also said that as part of his defense, he planned to bring religion directly into the courtroom.
"The courts have dealt with the existence of God, and now they'll be asked to deal with the existence of the demonic spirit," he said.
Judge Robert Callahan, who presided over the jury trial, was swift to reject the demonic possession defense. Allowing such testimony in the court would be "irrelative and unscientific," he said.
"The court will take judicial notice that the profession, the business or hobby ... of locating demons has not risen to that level of viability where it would be of assistance to the jury in deciding the case," Callahan said.
Instead, Minnella implied self-defense at the trial, which lasted about three weeks. Jurors never heard a word about demonic possession or Johnson's mid-exorcism demand that the entity inhabiting David take him instead.
On Nov. 24, after the jury deliberated for 15 hours over three days, Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison; a model inmate, he was released five years later.
Johnson and Debbie Glatzel, who married in 1984 while he was imprisoned, maintained that their account of what happened in Brookfield — with David, the circumstances of Bono's murder, and Johnson's demonic possession — was all true. Upon his release from prison, Johnson showed no signs of possession, according to the Warrens, who spoke with the Associated Press in 1986; Ed Warren told the AP that ″possession doesn't last 24 hours a day. It comes quickly and leaves quickly."
Lorraine Warren, who died in 2019, maintained it was all real, too. She had recounted her version of the events for the 1983 book The Devil In Connecticut, by Gerald Brittle. After its publication, she reportedly sent $2,000 in profits from the book to the Glatzel family.
However, in 2007, Debbie's other brother, Carl Glatzel, claimed in a legal filing that most of the incidents described in that book are "complete lies," and that his family was manipulated and exploited by the Warrens. The paranormal investigators were opportunists who had turned his little brother's undiagnosed schizophrenia — which he said caused David to experience hallucinations and delusions from 1979 through 1982 — into a media frenzy that fueled their fame and profits but led him to lose relationships and business opportunities, he claimed.
Lorraine Warren, who was then newly widowed, said in 2007 that such accusations — that she and her husband would go so far as to manipulate a family for profit — were "upsetting."
"You can't imagine something that you've done, that nobody could poke holes in ... and have something come out by somebody who knows nothing about what they are doing," she said.
Back in 1981, as the murder trial of his big sister's trusted fiancé was approaching, David Glatzel was just entering the sixth grade. The reporter for People described him as "clouded and grim" at the time, and reported that at that point in his childhood his attacks and fits were less frequent. At times, he still had to sleep with a light on.
"David was a good kid, he never bothered nobody," Carl Glatzel said in 2007. "He lived a living hell because of all the negative attention."