The Witches of Rathdrum

Happy Halloween! In honor of the spooky season, here is a chapter of Idaho’s history that combines the mysterious nature of the occult with the violent reality of murder. Some of you may remember the events that unfolded in Rathdrum from 1972 to 1975 when rumors of a devil-worshipping cult plagued the small Northern Idaho town and the disappearance of a young couple disrupted this peaceful community. For those of you learning of the following events for the first time, enjoy the story, but be mindful that the rumors of witchcraft are just that, rumors. However, the disappearances and murders of Ronald and Rita Marcussen did occur. Ultimately, this story demonstrates the fine line between truth, speculation, and memory.



Exchange Bank in Rathdrum, 1884- Rathdrum Historical Society

In 1881, Rathdrum was a bustling town with a population of 1,000, due to its railroad station that provided transportation for people heading to the mining district around Coeur d’Alene and the Silver Valley. It served as the first seat of Kootenai County until 1908 when Coeur d’Alene replaced it. From 1908 and into the following decades, Rathdrum remained a small town with a population of less than 800 by 1970. In America at the time, the nation still reeled from the crimes committed by the infamous cult leader, Charles Manson and his followers, the group responsible for several murders, including that of actress Sharon Tate. The Manson murders caused a “satanic scare” shockwave that spread throughout the country. While it is unclear whether the Manson Family influenced the rumors that surfaced in Rathdrum in the early 1970s regarding a local devil-worshipping cult, it is hard to imagine the citizens of Rathdrum remaining unaware of such a widely circulated event. Significantly, the original source of the rumors remains unclear to this day.

Many theories exist, however, that attempt to explain the origins of the rumors claiming a witch’s cult existed in Rathdrum. Some citizens insisted the rumors originated from citizens living in the nearby town of Post Falls. Others believed they came from people who felt negatively about the Tridentines residing in the Hidden Valley to the northwest of Rathdrum. Tridentines are members of the Roman Rite Mass of the Catholic Church, also known as the Tridentine Mass, Traditional Latin Mass, or Traditional Rite. Tridentine traditions and characteristics were very unfamiliar to the conservatives of Rathdrum, such as their requirement that females wear traditional blue nun’s habits. In an article published in the Idaho Statesman on November 5, 1982, a 22-year-old Tridentine woman stated, “I know the people did think we were worshipping the devil...we were very much opposed to that kind of thing and were, in fact, doing just the opposite”. For some, the rumors caused real terror and great concern for their own safety, that of their family and friends, as well as the existence of their town.


Catholic Church, Rathdrum, Idaho ca. 1909 - Courtesy HistoryofIdaho.com, The Mike Fritz Collection

The rumors included stories of terrifying rituals and activities carried out by cult members in the area surrounding Rathdrum. One of the rumors involved a “human chain” formed by dark, cloaked figures across highways Idaho 41 and U.S. 95. These figures linked themselves in a straight line, attempting to stop cars and capture their next victim. Some people claimed that after being hit by a vehicle the figures disappeared into thin air. There’s no evidence that the “human chain” ever existed, yet the story caused many citizens of Rathdrum to fear driving on the highway or at night during the height of the scare. In the article published in the Idaho Statesman on November 5, 1982, Kootenai County Sheriff, F. E. “Merf” Stalder, described his experience as a detective during the scare. He stated that at the height of the crisis, he remembered receiving reports of “skinned cats, bonfires out in the woods, fires in the road, people in the road, you name it”. In the same article, a 57-year-old woman from the nearby town of Athol shared how she had overheard a conversation at the Kootenai Memorial Hospital involving a police officer who told another woman he hadn’t found anything in the road where she claimed to have hit someone with her car. Following that conversation, the Athol woman said she overheard a man in a wheelchair claim he had been hit by a car while serving on the “human chain”.

Though tales of “human chains'' and satanic rituals instigated a scare among the citizens of Rathdrum, evidence supporting the claims was never presented. In an article in the Spokane Chronicle from February 22, 1974, County Sheriff Thor E. Fladwed stated, “we’ve never been able to establish by any basis that there is a Satan cult”. According to Fladwed, this was the first time rumors surfaced about a devil cult in Rathdrum. Aside from the odd rumors, two events lead Rathdrum’s citizens into believing the devil-worshipping cult existed. An article in The Spokesman-Review from October 31, 1997, mentions the first event, cattle mutilations that appeared on the Sylte Ranch in 1972. The second event was the disappearance of Ronald and Rita Marcussen in 1973.

Ronald Marcussen, 22, and his wife Rita, 20, went missing on Monday, November 19, 1973. They were last seen that night leaving a dental clinic in Hayden Lake where Rita worked as a dental assistant. The following Friday night, authorities found Marcussen’s vehicle empty with shattered windows on Highway 53, about four miles from Rathdrum. The sheriff’s office conducted searches throughout the wilderness surrounding Rathdrum, but the only evidence discovered in the month following the Marcussens’ disappearance was Rita’s purse, found by a farmer on the banks of Pend Oreille River on December 18th.

Rumors about the Marcussens falling into the clutches of the local devil-worshipping cult circulated in the winter months following their disappearance. According to the Spokane Chronicle article from February 22, 1974, stories described how “the couple was killed in some bizarre manner...and the later discovery of the Marcussens’ bodies is being kept secret by ‘the authorities’ for reasons unknown”. Other stories told of the couple’s bodies being drained of blood in a satanic ritual that took place in some area outside of Rathdrum, Coeur d’Alene, or Spokane. The circulating rumors traumatized the Marcussens’ friends and family, especially Ronald’s mother, Mrs. Velma Marcussen, who took to local television in January to quell the rumors.

After months of searching for Ronald and Rita, in May 1974 a farmer found bits of clothing, hair, and pieces of bone scattered in a field. Authorities identified the remains as Rita’s. Approximately 5 months later, on October 5th, bear hunters found a skull; dental records identified it as Rita’s. In November of 1973, George E. Stroisch from Post Falls, a suspect in the Marcussen disappearance, pleaded innocent to grand larceny for stealing the Marcussens’ car. Shortly after, Stroisch was sentenced to concurrent two and three-year terms in federal prison for two counts of violation of federal gun laws. On May 31, 1974, the same month that Rita’s remains were discovered, the grand larceny charge against Stroisch was dismissed. Without evidence to support the murder of Ronald, authorities were unable to charge Stroisch with the murder of Rita due to the possibility that her husband was responsible and still alive somewhere.



Rita and Ronald Marcussen in the Spokane Chronicle, Feb. 22, 1974.

After 22 years, investigators finally solved the Marcussen mystery. On October 25, 1995, a man found Ronald Marcussen’s skull southeast of Athol. Forensic dentist Gerry Jones identified the skull as Ronald’s and determined he had been killed by two gunshots to the head. Based on the evidence, investigators felt confident Stroisch murdered both Rita and Ronald. An article in the Idaho Statesman from November 23, 1995, mentions that a jailhouse witness testified Stroisch bragged about shooting Ron and strangling his wife while in prison. Stroisch died the summer before Ronald’s skull was found on August 20, 1994.

The mystery of the Marcussens’ disappearance took more than two decades to solve, however, the rumors connecting the couple’s disappearance to a devil-worshipping cult subsided after a few months. While there is evidence to support murder in Rathdrum during the 1970s, facts supporting the existence of a satanic cult that terrorized the town have yet to be found. In an article previously mentioned from The Spokesman-Review, October 31, 1997, a North Idaho College student mentioned a supposed prison interview with Charles Manson where he stated he wanted to move to the town “because it had the largest concentration of witches in the country”. However unlikely this situation may be, if Manson truly felt this way when interviewed, it demonstrates the magnitude of the Rathdrum rumors.

From its origins as a bustling railroad transfer station in 1881, to a disrupted town experiencing the weight of satanic cult rumors and a double murder in 1973, Rathdrum exemplifies the multifaceted history of Idaho’s small towns that are often influenced by folklore, places where violent crimes stand out more because they generally lack the levels of violence experienced in larger towns and cities. Yet, it remains clear that human beings in general often use exaggerated rumors to help make sense of the very real tragedies that threaten them.

Bibliography

“Idaho couple’s 1973 disappearance solved.” Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), Nov., 23, 1995.

“Denials Fail to Quell Devil Sect Tales.” Spokane Chronicle (Spokane, WA), Feb. 22, 1974.

“Rathdrum overcomes rumors of devil worship.” Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), Nov. 5, 1982.

Titone, Julie. “Rathdrum Witches Make Prairie Scary.” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), Oct. 31, 1997.

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