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The Exorcist Murderer – Searching For the Truth About Paul Bateson, the Actual Murderer in The Exorcist
In late 1972, Dr. Barton Lane was performing an angiogram at the Tisch Hospital (then called University Hospital) in the New York University radiology lab in Manhattan, when he got an unexpected visitor. In the days before HIPAA the doors were wide open for pretty much anyone to observe doctors at work, and this particular visitor was scouting a location and potential extras for a movie.
At that time, an angiogram, a diagnostic test that takes x-ray pictures of blood vessels, was performed with a needle stuck into the patient’s artery. When the needle would hit the artery, a jet of blood would shoot out. When the visitor, director William Friedkin, saw the impressive spray of blood, he knew he wanted this exact procedure to be in his horror film—an adaptation of the book, The Exorcist.
The making of The Exorcist—known as one of the greatest horror movies of all time—has long been considered cursed. During production, a series of tragedies befell the cast and crew. Nine people connected to the film died during or shortly after the production, including actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, Linda Blair’s grandfather, a security guard on set, and a special effects expert. Actress Ellen Burstyn suffered a permanent spinal injury while getting thrown from the bouncing bed (her real scream is heard in the film). The set for the MacNeil home burned down, mysteriously leaving Regan’s bedroom untouched. In fact, the production had been surrounded by so much misfortune, a Jesuit priest, Thomas M. King, was brought in to bless the set.
These stories are fairly well-known, and are passed around to add to the lore of an already scary yet beloved film. But there’s another story connected to The Exorcist that has remained largely overlooked. It’s the story of the radiology technician in the film, Paul Bateson, who is often referred to among true crime and horror fans—and even Friedkin himself—as a serial killer. I spent months digging into archived articles, court documents, and speaking with the NYPD and those involved with the film trying to find the truth about Bateson and the crimes he did and did not commit. What I found was a very different story.
After Friedkin witnessed the angiogram in 1972, he told the doctor who performed the procedure, Dr. Lane, that he wanted to recreate exactly what he had just seen for his movie. And he wanted everyone in the room to be in the film. This included Dr. Lane, a nurse named Nancy, and Paul Bateson, a well-liked and talented radiology technician.
In early 1973, Friedkin and his crew returned to NYU and blocked off an entire section of the radiology department for two weekends in a row to shoot the scene. This was early in the production, before they’d filmed the opening sequence or the iconic head-spinning scene, which they were still trying to figure out, Lane remembers.
In the film, when 12-year-old Regan (played by Linda Blair) starts displaying abnormal behavior, her mother Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn) takes her for a brain examination. Regan is wheeled into a blue operating room, where Bateson assists in conducting an angiogram. He has some lines in the scene, telling young Regan what he’d actually told a number of patients throughout his career.
As they’re preparing the child for the procedure in the film, Bateson moves her onto the angiographic table and tells her: “Regan can you sit up and scoot over here… a little more. Good.”
The nurse straps Regan down, and Bateson pushes a button that slowly puts her into position. “Regan, I’m just gonna move you down on the table, okay? Just for a short time,” he says. Then, Bateson walks around to her front, lowers the top of her gown and begins to attach wires to her shoulders. “Very sticky,” he jokes in a calming bedside manner.
The scene is considered one of the most disturbing of the movie, because of it’s hyper-realistic precision. Even today, Lane and other doctors at NYU credit the angiogram scene as one of the most life-like depictions of a medical procedure in film. In real life, however, this scene had a much more disturbing legacy than simply scaring audiences.
On September 14, 1977—five years after the release of The Exorcist—the body of Addison Verrill, a film reporter for Variety, was found in his Greenwich Village apartment. Initially, police suspected it was the result of a robbery gone bad. But, as the Village Voice’s Arthur Bell reported, “the TV, tape recorder, typewriter—stuff that a small-time crook could easily dispose of—had not been taken… It was not a break-in crime. Verrill had brought his assailant home or allowed him into the apartment.”
At this time in the mid ’70s, Greenwich Village was experiencing a string of murders of gay men. A number of bodies of unidentified victims had been discovered, dismembered and placed in bags that were tossed into the Hudson River. These murders were rarely reported on. “Every year, there are approximately four ‘sexually oriented’ murders of gay men in the Greenwich Village area,” Bell wrote. “Seldom do the papers report the crimes.”
On September 22, eight days after Verrill’s murder, Bell got a call from an unidentified person claiming to have killed Verrill. As Bell recounted in an October 3 Village Voice cover story:
The unnamed caller told Bell that he and Verrill met at Badlands, a gay bar on Christopher Street. Together, the two did a cocktail of drugs, including pot, cocaine, and amyl nitrate until about 3 a.m. when they left to continue partying at another bar called the Mine Shaft.
At 5 a.m., the caller said they taxied to Verrill’s 17th-floor studio where they drank, had sex, and did more drugs until 7:30 a.m. Then, he told Bell:
During the conversation, the caller had let slip a number of key details. At one point he said: “I’d like to atone but I don’t want to give myself up. I wouldn’t be able to practice again. I’d lose my license.” When Bell got off the phone he contacted the NYPD, and detectives confirmed that the caller had known details that only the murderer would, including that he stole Verrill’s MasterCard and that an unidentified white substance on the floor had been Crisco.
It was the first evidence in the Addison Verrill murder.
Bell was given NYPD protection that night and instructed to wait for another call. At 11:30 p.m. his phone rang; it was a man claiming to know who killed Verrill: the second caller said the killer was Paul Bateson. Immediately, officers went to Bateson’s East 12th Street apartment, where they found him drunk on the couch, according to court documents. He said he knew why they had come, and gestured toward a copy of the Village Voice that lay on the floor. Police noticed the headline to Bell’s first story about Verrill.
Bateson grew agitated as police tried taking him into custody, and was eventually brought back to headquarters where police gave him coffee, cigarettes, and something to eat. There, Bateson gave a statement similar to what he had told Bell.
During the preliminary trial hearings, Bateson claimed that his confession had been given while he was drunk and before police had read him his rights. He also said he was not the person who made the call to Bell, and was simply regurgitating to police what he’d seen in the paper. But a judge decided the police upheld Bateson’s constitutional rights throughout the arrest and allowed the confession—along with Bell’s article—to be used in court.
The prosecution would also attempt to connect Bateson to the unsolved murders of six men, who were dismembered, between 1975 and 1977, also in Greenwich Village. The New York County Clerk was unable to locate the full transcript of the trial, so it’s not clear how the prosecution planned to make those other charges stick.
Bateson maintained his innocence, in Verrill’s death and the others, throughout the trial. He even remained confident he’d be found innocent.
However, during the sentencing in April 1979, prosecutor William Hoyt argued that Bateson had bragged to a friend, Richard Ryan, that he’d killed other men. “He told Mr. Ryan that killing is easy, that getting rid of the bodies is the hard part. He said that he cut up his victims and put the parts in plastic garbage bags to dispose of them,” Hoyt said.
“I would also point out to the Court that the police have evidence, though there is not direct proof, connecting them to this defendant that there were six bodies, torsos of which were found floating in the Hudson River wrapped up in plastic garbage bags,” Hoyt continued, while arguing for his sentencing. “In all six cases … examiners have said that the person who cut up those bodies was a person who was either a butcher or a person with medical knowledge because of the way the cuts were done.”
Speaking on his own behalf to the judge, Bateson said: “I still contend that I am not guilty of the crimes and I am not the person described by Mr. Hoyt at all. I feel a great loss for Mr. Verrill and I am not at all the type of person as he has described me.”
The judge decided that the six other murders were “too ephemeral to have any connection to this case.” Ultimately, Bateson was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison.
After submitting an open records request, I spoke with an NYPD detective who told me they had not yet been able to find any documents indicating that police investigated Bateson’s involvement with the six other murders. As far as I know, those six murders remain unsolved. The NYPD has told me that finding any record of an unidentified body from sometime between 1975 and 1977 will take months, if it’s even possible.
It wasn’t until the sentencing in 1979 that Bateson’s former colleagues at NYU found out about the murders.
“He was the chief neuro-radiology technologist. He was the most experienced and he was the best. He taught me an awful lot and I considered him a good friend,” Lane remembers of Bateson. “When you do radiology, even though there’s the radiologist whose kind of the doctor, you also have a very important support team and I couldn’t have done it without Paul. He was really excellent. I didn’t realize until many years later that he had killed a man. I thought it was bizarre. I just had no idea.”
Bateson’s former colleagues describe him as a talented and smart man with a good bedside manner.
“People were shocked,” remembers Dr. Ajax George, who was involved in the filming of The Exorcist angiogram scene and is still with the NYU radiology department. “There was no inkling in his behavior that would raise any suspicion. He was very good with patients and he was extremely smart … he was an asset to the department.”
After weeks of sorting through archives, public records, and phone conversations with the NYPD and the New York County Clerk, Bateson’s involvement with film history—and his crime in general—began to expand.
In the late ’70s, the news of Bateson’s conviction reached William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, who read about it. Aside from one interview in 2012, as far as I have been able to tell, Friedkin rarely discussed Bateson by name. I first reached out to the director’s publicist in mid-September, and after a month of back-and-forth, Friedkin eventually declined to be interviewed. However, shortly after I requested comment about Bateson, Friedkin brought up the story in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter podcast, “It Happened in Hollywood,” released on Oct. 1.
He was a really nice young guy. I remember he wore a leather studded bracelet and he had an earring, which in 1972 was not common in the workplace… Then about four or five years later after the film I see the front page of the New York Post and the Daily News and he’s accused of five or six murders. And they were murders in the S&M bars on the west side of Manhattan. His lawyer’s name was in the story. And I called his lawyer and told him who I was and asked him ‘Could I visit with Paul?’ His lawyer said okay. He was at Rikers Island… I went through about eight layers of bureaucracy and I get into his cell where there’s a guy outside, and I’m sitting with him in the cell. He was very cheerful … He said, ‘I remember killing this one guy … I cut him up and I put his body parts in a plastic bag and threw it in the East River.’ Well, this is how they got him. At the bottom of the bag, in very small print that you can’t even read, it said, ‘PROPERTY OF NYU MEDICAL CENTER NEUROPSYCHIATRIC CENTER.’ He said, “That’s the only one I remember but they want me to confess to another five or six.” And I said, ‘what are you going to do?’ He said, ‘Well I’m thinking it over, because if I confess to six or seven of these they’ll lower the sentence.’
This conversation with Bateson, Friedkin says, helped inspire his next film, Cruising, which is based off the 1970 Gerald Walker novel of the same name, starring Al Pacino as a police officer going undercover in New York City to solve the slayings of gay men in the ‘70s. (The film, for what it’s worth, sparked massive protests in New York City from those who thought Friedkin’s portrayal of the gay community would be offensive. Bell wrote in the Village Voice that it promised to be “the most oppressive, ugly bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on screen.” It was eventually released to mixed reviews.)
Nothing I’ve found in archives or reports about this murder, or the court case, mentions finding NYU body bags that connected the police to Paul Bateson. Verrill’s body was found in his apartment, not dismembered in the Hudson River. I also couldn’t find any information about a deal that Bateson struck with the NYPD. A court found no evidence connecting Bateson to the string of murders in the West Village.
That brings us back to Friedkin. Was all of this information that Bateson told Friedkin true and never before reported? Or has the director mythologized the origins of his film?
With Friedkin declining interviews, I also attempted to find Bateson, who was released on bail on August 25, 2003, according to public records from the New York Department of Corrections. There are no records listed of Bateson’s death, and his last known address was in Freeport, New York. I called the number listed with his information, but it was disconnected. I sent messages to a few of his email addresses listed and one bounced back, the others got no response.
I set out to find something simple: What is the story—the real story—of the murderer in The Exorcist? Results from a simple Google search connect Bateson to a string of murders in the ’70s. This isn’t true. What I found is that lore can turn into fact very quickly—that we invent details, or come up with theories to fill in gaps. And that some facts are just lost for good.
Bateson did, however, talk to the Voice’s Arthur Bell once again in 1977. Since this conversation took place before Bateson’s trial, he’s wisely quiet about Verrill’s murder—”I may have talked too much,” he says—but Bell’s report does provide some insight about his appearance in The Exorcist.
“It was sort of belated revenge on my father, since he would punish me by not allowing me to go to Saturday matinees when I was young. He made me stay home and listen to opera on the radio,” Bateson told Bell.
He also told Bell he wouldn’t be found guilty. “Probably a long jury trial,” Bateson said in the interview. “A lot of people will be hurt—parents, friends. I’ll be judged not guilty. Then, I’ll tear up my roots and settle somewhere else. And try to grow new roots.”
Bell’s story ends with a disturbing interaction between him and Bateson.
For years, Bateson has been described—incorrectly—as the serial killer in The Exorcist. The story, it turns out, is not that simple. As far as we know, the killer of those six men in Greenwich Village has never been caught.
Maybe the killer will call me.