''It was a small town and a big murder. They needed to know why it happened,'' says Joseph Fiorella matter-of-factly. He is seated at a round Formica table in the cafeteria at California State Prison at Corcoran, a maximum-security facility where he is serving 26 years to life for his part in the gruesome murder of 15-year-old Elyse Pahler -- a crime that not only shook his small coastal hometown of San Luis Obispo but also sent shock waves that reach all the way to the entertainment industry.
The tragedy began on a warm July evening in 1995, when Fiorella, then 15, and two of his friends, Jacob Delashmutt, 15, and Royce Casey, 16, phoned Elyse Pahler, the eldest of four children of David Pahler, a contractor, and his wife, Lisanne, a part-time tennis instructor. As the three later told authorities, they lured the pretty blond (whom Delashmutt had met in a drug counseling program) out of her home with the promise of marijuana, then took her to a remote wooded spot on a mesa overlooking the Pacific. As Pahler sat chatting with the boys, Delashmutt walked up behind her, took off his belt, and pulled it tight around her neck. While Pahler struggled, Casey grabbed her hands and Fiorella stabbed her repeatedly in the neck with a large fixed-blade hunting knife. When she fell to the ground, both Delashmutt and Casey stabbed her in the back. To stop her moaning, Casey stomped on the back of her neck. Pahler never made another sound.
Eight months later, in March 1996, Casey stepped forward to confess to the murder -- and helped authorities locate Pahler's body. Fiorella and Delashmutt admitted their roles soon after. Then, in an unrecorded confession, Casey went on to claim that Elyse's murder was a satanic sacrifice of a virgin, inspired by ''death metal'' band Slayer, whose song ''Altar of Sacrifice'' includes the lyric ''High priest awaiting dagger in hand/Spilling the pure virgin blood.'' That was motive enough for local prosecutor Dodie Harman -- and the media, which billed the crime as the latest caused by a violence-obsessed music industry (ABC's ''Nightline'' weighed in with a report as late as last spring). But since the boys pleaded guilty to avoid a trial, Casey's explanation was never publicly scrutinized.
Now, with a pending lawsuit and one of the murderers speaking exclusively to Entertainment Weekly for the first time, that may change. In early September, lawyers are due in California State Superior Court on a civil case for unspecified damages filed by David and Lisanne Pahler against Slayer and their label at the time, Columbia Records, as well as the parents of their daughter's killers. (The Caseys' attorney had no comment; Fiorella's and Delashmutt's parents have defaulted on the case, meaning that although they have mounted no defense, they eventually could be held liable.)