A father was accused of viciously raping his daughters, but he couldn't remember a thing. Nevertheless he confessed — and to a host of other bizarre crimes including killing babies and animals in satanic rituals.

But once in prison, he took back all his confessions and said he'd managed to convince himself into conjuring up memories that were completely false.

So what was the truth? Experts are divided to this day, but there's no doubt the Ingram case was one of the strangest ever brought to light in the "Satanic panic".

Reports of demonic abuse in homes and preschools across the USA became widespread in the 1980s and 90s, although similar cases were also reported in the UK, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

A lack of evidence resulted in most cases being thrown out, and those who were convicted were mostly found guilty of charges unrelated to satanic abuse.

The phenomenon is now widely regarded as a moral panic sparked by psychiatric trends, political turmoil and the influence of the Christian right.

One of the few investigations that resulted in a prison sentence was the mysterious case of Paul Ingram, a police officer living in Olympia, Washington in the late 1980s.

Paul and his wife Sandy were members of the local Pentecostal church and had five children, and were well-liked in the small community until their oldest daughter Ericka suddenly accused her father of extensive sexual abuse.

In a fit of weeping at a church camp, Ericka, then 22, claimed Paul had been raping her ever since she was a child.

She also accused her brothers Chad and Paul Ross of rape, and alleged she had been abused by her father's friends at their regular poker nights.

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Soon after Ericka made the accusations, her younger sister Julie claimed she too had been abused.

Paul was brought in for questioning and was interrogated by his own colleagues without a lawyer present, according to Lawrence Wright's 1994 non-fiction book Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory.

Here's where the story gets even stranger. While Paul had no memory of what his daughters alleged, he was perfectly willing to accept that if Ericka and Julie said the abuse had happened then he must be guilty.

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"I can't see myself doing this," he said, but added that "there must be a dark side of me that I don't know about."

He began "praying feverishly" and went into a kind of trance, eventually coming to the conclusion that he had "repressed" his horrific actions.

He confessed to having sexually abused Ericka from the time she was five, and to having impregnated Julie and taken her to have an abortion when she was 15.

Paul was taken into custody where he proceeded to "remember" more incidents of abuse, going on to implicate his wife as well as his close friends Jim Rabie and Ray Risch.

Encouraged by his pastor who was fascinated with demons, he began to "recover" more and more memories of increasingly violent cult rituals, none of which had been alleged by his daughters.

Sandy fled Olympia with her youngest son Mark, but after spending time with a pastor who believed in the controversial "recovered memory" theory, she too began to "remember" incidents including being tied to a table and raped by her husband's friends.

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Recovered memory therapy enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in the 1980s. Due to a societal shift in viewing child abuse as both common and deeply traumatising, therapists began encouraging their patients to "remember" being molested by their family members — and changes in US law meant charges could now be brought decades after the alleged abuse.

This style of therapy is now widely discredited, with a recent study proving how easy it is to implant false memories — just the suggestion of an event can prompt someone to create the memory, even if it's fake.

A religious man and law-abiding man, Paul believed his daughters must be telling the truth even though police were never able to find any evidence supporting their claims.

While both girls claimed to have been cut repeatedly during rituals, hospital staff could not locate any scarring or signs of injury on their bodies.

There was also no indication that either had ever been pregnant — Ericka claimed she had been given a late-term abortion and other cult members ate the foetus.

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The Ingram sisters had also drawn maps marking the locations where they claimed to have witnessed more than 30 ritual murders and burials, but excavations of the areas turned up nothing.

Baffled, the local sheriff's department hired renowned cult expert Dr Richard Ofshe to interview Ericka and Julie. Their contradictory and ever-changing answers convinced him they were lying and that Paul had been manipulated into make a false confession.

To test his theory, Dr Ofshe told Paul that Ericka claimed he had made her have sex with her brother — something neither sister had ever alleged.

When Paul said he couldn't remember the incident, he was told to go back to his cell and "pray about it" as he had done in order to "recover" other memories. The following day he returned with a three-page letter in which he confessed to the fictional event.

Dr Ofshe submitted a report warning police were about to convict an innocent man, and fought to have the report made available to Paul's defence attorneys against the sheriff's department's wishes.

But Paul's inexperienced lawyer allowed him to plead guilty, despite saying at the time: "I think in five years the Ingram family will wake up and realise none of this ever happened."

Paul was transferred to another facility and once isolated from his former colleagues and pastor he began to doubt whether what he had "remembered" was true, eventually coming to the conclusion he had been duped.

He tried to withdraw his guilty plea but was refused, and was sentenced to a staggering 20 years in prison. He was released in 2003 and had to register as a sex offender for life.

No charges were ever brought against anyone else accused by Ericka and Julie, and later sheriff Gary Edwards would admit there was never any evidence of Paul's guilt — only his dubious "confessions".

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