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What really happened to Ronald Hunkeler, who inspired ‘The Exorcist’




What really happened to Ronald Hunkeler, who inspired ‘The Exorcist’

Ronald Edwin Hunkeler was a NASA engineer who patented a special technology to make space shuttle panels resistant to extreme heat, helping the Apollo missions of the 1960s that put US astronauts on the moon in 1969.

But Hunkeler also had another claim to fame: He was the secret real-life inspiration for the demon-possessed kid in “The Exorcist.”

His identity has been kept under wraps since a series of exorcisms he underwent as a young teenager in Cottage City, Md., and St. Louis, Mo., in 1949.

For decades he was known only by the pseudonyms “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim.” His identity has been something of an open secret among the community of Jesuits who were close to the priests who participated in his exorcisms and a handful of academics and reporters who studied the phenomenon beginning in the mid-1970s.

But he lived in fear of more people finding out the truth.

According to a 29-year companion of Hunkeler, he was always on edge about his colleagues at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center finding out that he was the inspiration for “The Exorcist.” Hunkeler retired from NASA in 2001 after nearly 40 years with the space agency.

“On Halloween, we always left the house because he figured someone would come to his residence and know where he lived and never let him have peace,” the woman, who asked not to be named, told The Post. “He had a terrible life from worry, worry, worry.”

Ronald Hunkeler (inset) is said to have lived in this home in Cottage City, Md., when he was allegedly possessed by demons, leading to a series of exorcisms on the teenage boy.

But Hunkeler was recently revealed in an article in “The Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason,” a bimonthly journal based in upstate New York that applies scientific rigor to explain “extraordinary” events, especially in the paranormal.

Investigator and podcast host JD Sword writes that he confirmed Hunkeler’s identity last month when he started researching a story on “The Exorcist” for his podcast, “The Devil in the Details.”

“The Exorcist” — both the movie and the 1971 novel it’s based on — was written by William Peter Blatty, who first heard about the demon possession of a 14-year-old boy around 1949, while he was a senior at Georgetown University. Eugene Gallagher, one of his professors and a priest at the Jesuit college, told Blatty, a New York native, about the extraordinary story of the boy who was believed to be in the throes of demonic possession, but had been saved through a series of exorcisms.

Hunkeler was born in 1935 and grew up in a middle-class family in Cottage City, Md. He was 14 when he heard knocking and scratching sounds coming from his bedroom walls. Objects seemingly flew across the room, and his bed somehow moved on its own — what Sword, who is a member of the Church of Satan, calls “classic poltergeist phenomena.”

Initially, Hunkeler's mother thought the strange occurrences where related to the death of a spiritual aunt who taught him how to use a Ouija Board.
Hunkeler’s mother thought the strange occurrences were related to the death of an aunt who taught the boy how to use a Ouija board to communicate with spirits.
USA Today Network/Sipa USA

In March of 1949, the family’s minister, Rev. Luther Schulze, wrote to Duke University’s Parapsychology Lab about what was going on with Hunkeler, detailing how “chairs moved with him and one threw him out [of it]. His bed shook whenever he was in it.” The reverend also cited the family’s stories of tables overturning, their floors being “scarred from the sliding of heavy furniture” and, in one, how a “picture of Christ on the wall shook” when Hunkeler was nearby.

The boy’s mother feared it was related to their recently deceased Aunt Tillie, a spiritualist who had taught Hunkeler how to use a Ouija board to communicate with the spirit world, according to Sword’s podcast. Using records, Sword’s colleague Kenny Biddle found that Hunkeler had a paternal aunt named Mathilda Hendricks.

After Hunkeler underwent a series of medical and psychological tests, which failed to find anything abnormal, his family sought out religious leaders, beginning with a Protestant pastor.

Priests noted rhythmic scratching, walls shaking and items being thrown across the room when they prayed over Hunkeler — and many of the incidents were recreated for “The Exorcist” (above).

“The family was Lutheran and they went through all the stages you see in the film: They went to doctors, clinics and finally went back to their own pastor in the Lutheran church, who recommended they see a priest,” the movie’s director, William Friedkin, told Entertainment Weekly in 2012.

William Bowdern was among a small group of Jesuits who helped Hunkeler, conducting more than 20 exorcisms on the teen over three months. In “Case Study by Jesuit Priests,” which was intended as a guide for future exorcisms, Bowdern described the demonic possession of a boy from the Washington, DC, suburbs identified only as “R.”

While 14 witnesses watched, Bowdern wrote in his diary on March 10, 1949, Hunkeler appeared in a trance as his mattress shook and there was a “scratching which beat out a rhythm as of marching soldiers. Second class relic of St. Margaret Mary was thrown on the floor. The safety pin was opened but no human hand had touched the relic. R. started up in fright when the relic was thrown down.”

The St. Louis house once home to “Roland Doe.”
Hunkeler stayed in this St. Louis, Mo., home while being treated for his alleged demonic possession.
Getty Images

It was decided that Hunkeler should be taken to St. Louis — where, coincidentally, his Aunt Tillie had lived — to be treated for demonic possession.

“It seems that whatever force was writing the words was in favor of making the trip to St. Louis,” wrote Bowdern, according to a copy of his diary on the Catholic Web site “On one evening the word ‘Louis’ was written on the boy’s ribs in deep red [scratches]. Next, when there was some question of the time of departure, the word ‘Saturday’ was written plainly on the boy’s hip. As to the length of time the mother and boy should stay in St. Louis, another message was printed on the boy’s chest, ‘3 1/2 weeks.’ The printing always appeared without any motion on the part of the boy’s hands. The mother was keeping him under close supervision.”

Upon visiting Hunkeler, priest William Bowdern wrote: “Second class relic of St. Margaret Mary was thrown on the floor. The safety pin was opened but no human hand had touched the relic. R. started up in fright when the relic was thrown down.”

On March 21, 1949, Hunkeler entered the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis — where his violent convulsions broke a priest’s nose.

By mid-April, according to Sword’s podcast, Hunkeler claimed to be free of the devil after having visions of St. Michael holding a flaming sword.

“In what is perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history, a 14-year-old . . . boy has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil, Catholic sources reported yesterday,” wrote Bill Brinkley in an August 1949 article in the Washington Post. The story — which was read by writer Blatty while he was a student at Georgetown — goes on to document how the boy “broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing and voicing of Latin phrases,” a language he did not know, when the Jesuit priests ordered that the devil be cast out of his body.

Although other investigators have known for years that Hunkeler was the real-life inspiration for “The Exorcist,” they did not reveal his identity while he was still alive.

On March 21, 1949, Hunkeler entered the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis — where his violent convulsions broke a priest's nose.
On March 21, 1949, Hunkeler entered the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. — where his violent convulsions broke a priest’s nose.

Hunkeler’s female companion confirmed to The Post that he died last year, a month shy of his 86th birthday, after suffering a stroke at his home in Marriottsville, Md., a suburb northwest of Baltimore. He was cremated, she said.

Blatty’s book “The Exorcist” sold more than 13 million copies in the US alone, and the film earned him an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in 1974. It was the first horror movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Universal Studios recently announced that it is planning a rebooted trilogy of the film, with Ellen Burstyn reprising her original role as the mother of the possessed teen, beginning in 2023.

“The Exorcist” was the first horror movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

But the man who inspired it had a sad end to his life: Hunkeler’s three children — two daughters and a son — had long been estranged from their father and did not attend the funeral, the companion said.

Sword said he reached out to author Mark Opsasnick, who was among the first to research the story in his 2016 book, “The Real Story Behind the Exorcist: A Study of the Haunted Boy and Other True-Life Horror Legends from Around the Nation’s Capital.”

Opsasnick was among the first to question the supernatural occurrences around Hunkeler and concluded that he was probably just a spoiled kid vying for attention.

Hunkeler's companion claims he dismissed any claims of possession and said the whole thing was concocted.
It’s unknown if Hunkeler ever saw the film version of “The Exorcist” (above).

In 2018’s “Diabolical Possession and the Case Behind the Exorcist: An Overview of Scientific Research with Interviews with Witnesses and Experts,” writer Sergio Rueda reported how a Hunkeler family friend explained the clan’s dynamics: The father tended to spoil Hunkeler and the mother was stricter. She was also, according to an interview with Rev. Schulze, very superstitious. The minister admitted he initially wondered if Hunkeler may have manipulated her beliefs, turning to trickery to get her to take him out of school for a while.

According to Hunkeler’s companion, the man himself never believed that he was the victim of satanic possession and he shunned religion.

“He said he wasn’t possessed, it was all concocted,” said the companion. “He said, ‘I was just a bad boy.’”

Still, there was one last thing she couldn’t explain. Shortly before Hunkeler died last year, a Catholic priest appeared at his home to perform last rites, she recalled, adding that she did not call the priest.

“I have no idea how the Father knew to come,” she said, “but he got Ron to heaven. Ron’s in heaven and he’s with God now.”


Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death




Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence




Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers




Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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