The 13th Floor

Did DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Kill James Dallas Egbert III?

In the early 1980s, the United States went straight up goofy. Coming off of a gas shortage, still dealing with the Cold War, and a shrinking economy were all blamed on, essentially, one thing, Satan. Savings and Loan Scandal? Satan. Iran Contra? Satan. Bon Jovi? Satan. The Bon Jovi one is true, but the others were actually caused not by Satan, but by man himself. Still, we needed something to blame for why things sucked so much, and any good American knows you never blame yourself. So, we took to blaming Old Pitch and his fans.

These days, when people think of the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s, we tend to focus on the music aspect of it – Black Sabbath, Twisted Sister, and all those “evil” bands. What sometimes gets left out is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Unlike the music side, we can actually read the book about the true story that started the idea that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was a Satanic plot. It all started on August 15th, 1979 when James Dallas Egbert III vanished from his dorm…

James Dallas Egbert III, a kid whose name suggests he is a cartoon character, but I promise you he isn’t, was a straight up genius. When he was 12, Dallas was repairing computers for the Air Force – that’s the kind of genius we’re talking about here – Doogie Howser levels of child prodigy. At 16, Dallas left Dayton Ohio and headed to Lansing, Michigan to attend MSU.

Sadly, as you may have figured, Dallas wasn’t super popular. As smart as he was when it came to the sciences, Dallas was equally inept at social interaction. He had few friends at MSU, and even they weren’t really friends with him. Along with his social issues, Dallas suffered from depression and a serious set of shitty parents who constantly pressured him to work harder. Oh, and Dallas was gay, something he could not tell his parents.

Dallas found a few ways to try and deal with his social issues and depression, mainly drugs and DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Like I said, Dallas was a smart kid, so smart that he started to use the MSU chemistry labs to cook up some fresh out of the oven drugs for himself and his D&D pals. Often, the group would head into the steam tunnels of the college to, as the kids say, get wrecked and get some good LAPRing going.

On August 12th, Dallas called home to tell his mom some good news – he had gotten a 3.5 grade point average for the semester. His mom, being ever so loving, told her son that she was disappointed in him. He should have gotten a 4.0. Three days later, after having lunch with his friend Karen Coleman, Dallas left Case Hall and vanished. It was another five days before the school contacted Dallas’ parents, James and Anna Egbert to let them know about their missing child. A few days later, the Egberts hired William Dear, a private detective from Texas.

By the time William Dear arrived on the scene, the story of James Dallas Egbert III had hit the news. The missing child prodigy was becoming a big story, and as the story grew, the pressure to find the boy grew. Dear’s first move, as any good detective’s would be, was to check out Dallas’ dorm room. There, the police showed Dear a suicide note written by Dallas, though the handwriting didn’t match Dallas’. Dear focused on the seriously odd amount of pins stuck into a cork board. Dear was positive that the placement of the pins contained a hidden message. Dear came up with multiple theories on what the pin placement meant:

The most well known one – the one news shows reported on – was that the pins laid out a map of the steam tunnels of MSU. The placement of one area of pins resembled the “L” shape of the MSU power plant, if you looked at the power plant from a bird’s eye view. The other “best” theory was that the pins were in the shape of a gun, suggesting how Dallas committed suicide. The amount of pins, 38 of them, could even be the calibre of the gun. There was also an idea that the pins were a message in braille that said “And for it you braved.”

Dear also found evidence of Dallas’ drug use, and his secret sexual life. Now, Dear was a fan of the press – he loved getting on the news and loved to use the news to help get information for his cases, and he saw no reason to not do the same thing with the vanishing of James Dallas Egbert III. Still, Dear didn’t want the news to turn the story into Dallas’ drug and sex life, so he focused on the other thing that seemed to keep the interest of reporters – DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

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Soon enough, the press took to the story as a game of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS gone awry. The going theory was that Dallas and his pals were LARPing in the steam tunnels when things went a little too far, and Dallas was killed. Another popular idea, one that religious groups grabbed onto with an iron grip, was that Dallas was killed in a ritualistic sacrifice to Satan, as taught in the DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE. The ritual killing idea gather so much steam that TSR, the makers of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, printed a counter argument in their own magazine, THE DRAGON, in October of 79. Despite there being no instructions on how to ritualistically kill someone for the Devil in any edition of the DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE, this theory continued to gain steam.

This ritualistic killing was so popular in the news that when James Dallas Egbert III showed up in New Orleans nearly a month later, many TV stations and papers didn’t report it. Dallas was alive, but not well. Information on what happened to Dallas during the month he was missing is sketchy – a story fogged by drugs and a kid who didn’t want to tell his tale.

Sure enough, Dallas was planning to kill himself. He plotted his death for nine months, during which, he decided to turn his suicide into a game. He wrote the suicide note with his left hand so it wouldn’t be in his own handwriting. The pins on the board were in fact a map of the steam tunnels – each pin marked a room in the tunnels, with one room unpinned. It was the unpinned room that Dallas planned to die in.

After his lunch with Karen, Dallas went into the basement of Case Hall with some weed, a few cartons of milk, and a lot of sleeping pills. From the basement, Dallas entered the steam tunnels and made his way to the unpinned room. Dallas smoked the weed, then drank the milk with the sleeping pills. Quickly, the 16 year old prodigy went to sleep.

Then Dallas woke up.

He has slept for over 24 hours. Confused, Dallas walked out of the steam tunnels and went to a friend’s house a mile away from the MSU campus. When he arrived, he told his friend about the suicide attempt and threatened to try again if his pal called the police. Dallas spent the next week at his friend’s house, contemplating what to do next. When the story about Dallas hit the news, the pal couldn’t take hiding the underaged boy any longer and sent him to another man’s house. At this house, Dallas was not in friendly territory. The man he was with kept Dallas drugged for a week before moving him to yet another home. At this third home, Dallas, as he told it, was used for sex. After two weeks of being kept drugged up and raped, Dallas was brought to a bus station and given a ticket to Chicago, as well as some money. He was told that, when he got to Chicago, he had to get on a train to New Orleans.

While on the train to New Orleans, Dallas sobered up. Unable to deal with what had happened to him over the last three weeks, and still dealing with the issues that drove him to try to commit suicide in the first place, Dallas decided to try again. When he reached New Orleans, Dallas rented  motel room and bought the items needed to make cyanide. Dallas mixed the cyanide into some root beer and drank it down.

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The next day Dallas was woken up by a knocking at the door. Having planned to be dead, Dallas only rented the room for a day, and check out time had come. Somehow, he survived this second attempt, but now Dallas was broke and stuck in a strange city. Dallas spent a few days wandering the streets of the Big Easy before he got a job working at an oil field. At this point, Dallas had no idea that he was a major news story. When he found out, he called friends in Michigan, who convinced him to call William Dear. Dear picked up Dallas in New Orleans and brought him home. When Dear asked Dallas why he wanted to die, the 16 year old prodigy said, “Life was no good to me, and this was the best and only solution.”

On the drive back to Ohio, William Dear and James Dallas Egbert III became friends. Dallas opened up to Dear, revealing that he was gay. Dear, who had already figured that out during his investigation, promised to keep the boy’s sexuality to himself.

I’d like to tell you about what James Dallas Egbert III is doing today, but sadly I can’t. On August 11th, 1980, at the age of 17, Dallas picked up a gun and shot himself in the head. He died five days later on August 16th, just a year after his first attempt to take his own life.

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A year after Dallas’ tragic end, the very bad movie MAZES AND MONSTERS, based on the book by Rona Jaffe, hit the eyes of the movie loving public. The book was loosely based on the “story” of James Dallas Egbert III, playing up the D&D aspect that was pushed by the press. Dear felt that the movie, and the many articles that had shown up over the previous three years, were painting a terrible and completely inaccurate picture of who Dallas was.

In 1984, Dear wrote THE DUNGEON MASTER, which told the story of James Dallas Egbert III and Dear’s own journey to find the boy. Today, Dear is often looked at as the man who turned D&D into a controversy, a game that brings people closer to evil, and while he does share some of the blame, it is clear that was never the plan. All he wanted to do was to find a brilliant, sad, lonely kid who was pushed too hard by too many people. A kid who felt the need to hide his true self from his family. A kid who couldn’t find a hint of light in the darkness of his life. Today, all too often, the true story of a boy, a person who was in so much pain the idea of not existing was the only answer he could find, is lost in the myth of dungeons, dragons, and Satanic rituals.