BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — No school in the Bedford Unified School District is called the Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (that's Harry Potter's school). But as I visited the area and spent time with families here, I began to think that perhaps one should be.
According to Catholics in the area and investigative journalist Maury Terry, the area has long been a haven for occultists, from Satanists to Wiccans to druids.
The strange goings-on in Bedford and the surrounding affluent Manhattan suburbs came to light when several families, citing constitutional protections of freedom of religion, in 1996 brought a lawsuit against the school district for what they called an “occult” curriculum.
Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that forcing their children to engage in several school and class activities violated constitutional guarantees against the state establishing a religion.
Among others, the contested activities included the making of models of the Hindu god Ganesha, a school wide “Earth Day” ceremony where gifts were given to the earth, the making of “worry dolls” in class to ward off bad dreams, a yoga class taught by a Sikh priest, and the school sponsorship of a game called “Magic: The Gathering.” Though they won on all but the last two issues in a district court, the decision was overturned on appeal. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in July. This month, the high court declined to review the case, letting stand the lower court's rejection.
I flew from Los Angeles to New York with a fair degree of skepticism about suburban witchery. A first look at the quiet upscale towns of Bedford Hills and Mount Kisco reinforced my expectations.
The leaves are in full autumn colors in Bedford Hills now, making it look a little spooky. But when I visited in the summer, the empty Fox Lane High School looked like any other high school temporarily abandoned for the summer, and Fox Lane Middle School looked tame and welcoming. After a brief first visit upon arrival, I retreated to Manhattan, a half-hour drive away.
The view of the neighborhood from cyberspace was very different. There, I found a directory for witches on a Welsh Web site, and scrolled down to the address of a coven listed at a P.O. Box in Bedford Hills. The sleepy Westchester County neighborhoods I'd visited supplied the members of the Coven of the Cauldron of Cerr.
The next morning took me to the town of Pound Ridge, where I met Mary Ann Di Bari, one of the plaintiffs in the witch-class case. She is a retired attorney, and the grandmother and legal guardian of two children who have spent the last several years in the Bedford Unified School District.
For the next three hours, over lunch and coffee, she told me a story the likes of which I thought existed only in Halloween storybooks.
For Di Bari, the violations of the Establishment Clause listed in the lawsuit were just the beginning. The District Court judge had told the plaintiffs to proceed with only their best arguments, not the host of arguments that they had prepared. As a result the case centered around just a few of the families' concerns. For instance, complaints about “fortunetelling” and “tarot card reading” done in her granddaughter Krystal's class were not pursued — and the game Magic: the Gathering.
About two hours into our conversation Di Bari's cell phone rang with a call from Ceil Di Nozzi. She handed me the phone to hear Di Nozzi concur: Writing, reading and witchcraft are taught at the local elementary school. “Everything Mary Ann is telling you is true,” she said.
Others are spooked by Bedford too. Father James Le Bar, exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, is familiar with the case. Di Bari and other parents invited him to speak at a conference in the Bedford Hills area on the dangers of the occult.
He shared their concerns, particularly with the card game. He said the Magic game “seems to be a type of game ... to invite the evocation of evil spirits.”
Overall, said Father Le Bar, the cards are “dangerous, useless and not in keeping with Catholic tradition. .... They don't belong in any school.” (The makers of the game disagree. See story, this page.)
Certified School Psychologist Steven Kossor of Pennsylvania also sees the cards as dangerous. In an article which appeared in his publication, The Kossor Education Newsletter, shortly before the Bedford lawsuit was filed, Kossor wrote, “One of the most obscene things about the promotion of Magic: The Gathering by public school officials is that they endorse it as something good, educational, enlightened and sensible, while the conscientious parents who oppose it are ridiculed and slandered as narrow-minded, superstitious people who are pro-ignorance and anti-education.”
Another sticking point with Di Bari and the other families who filed suit is their claim that the children were indoctrinated in Hinduism.
“In Social Studies Class they were supposed to learn about countries,” Di Bari began. “They had one year in India — not the India that you learned about, with Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Calcutta. ... It wasn't Geography, it was Hinduism, and not only [were the children] told about it, they were made to experience it.”
One student forced to experience this was Nikki Di Bari, one of Mrs. Di Bari's granddaughters, who was told to make a statue of an elephant-headed Hindu god whom the teacher insisted on referring to as “the Lord Ganesha.”
Though Nikki refused to make a statue, which featured naked women on it, she ended up making one where Ganesha was depicted riding a rat. “I had to do the clay Ganesha,” Nikki Di Bari told me, “I didn't want to, but I had to.” As for the other children in the class, “they wanted to do it,” she said.
In addition to the statues of Ganesha, the students were also instructed to buy worry dolls in the school store to ward off bad dreams, and had a statue of Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god, suspended from the ceiling of their classroom, said Di Bari.
Yet another problem was that Earth Day, a celebration of conservation in most places, became a worship service at Fox Lane schools, according to Di Bari.
She says that she tried to “opt out” of the program on the morning of the Earth Day ceremony, but was told it was too late; “the ceremony has begun.”
The ceremony included drums, a large globe mounted on what Di Bari described as “a totem” and children processing in “concentric circles” and listening to what Edward White has described as: “a prayer to the earth.”
White is a lawyer with the Thomas More Center for Law and Justice in Michigan, a pro bono law office which takes cases that involve religious liberty, sanctity of life and traditional values. It is one of the law firms handling the case.
Salem Road featured dolmens, stone configurations reminiscent of Stonehenge which are viewed by Druids and other occultists as ‘doorways to the underworld.’
Bruce Dennis, Bedford Central's superintendent of schools, dismisses Di Bari and the other concerned parents as “people who relentlessly want to pursue [this],” and told me that his schools' curriculum “is mainstream.”
The district court disagreed. It ruled that the worry dolls, Ganesha-making, and certain tapes that were played in the classes and the Earth Day Ceremony did in fact violate the First Amendment rights of students. This finding was overturned on appeal because the court ruled that the plaintiffs no longer had standing: Some of the parents had moved out of the district: others had children who had graduated. Today, only Nikki Di Bari remains in the system, a senior at Fox Lane High School. Ultimately, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which, earlier this month, declined to hear it.
Around the Town
Before I left, Mrs. Di Bari offered to show me around the town, and the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, where she says she and others have found evidence of animal sacrifice and other occult rituals.
The town has trappings that would appear to be attractive to occultists. Many of the phone numbers in the area began with the prefix 666 — the “number of the beast” in the Book of Revelation. A main street in town is Salem Road, recalling the famous witch trials of Massachusetts.
Our first stop was a street sign. In fact, all of the street signs in Pound Ridge were the same, stylized human arms with the hands at the end pointing with the index and pinky fingers, a symbol which, according to Mrs. Di Bari and several published reports, is a sign of “the horned beast Satan.”
We next drove down Salem Road to a local nursery located across from Pound Ridge Elementary School. It featured dolmens, stone configurations that were reminiscent of Stonehenge and which Di Bari explained are viewed by Druids and other occultists as “doorways to the underworld.”
But she saved the best — or worst — for last.
We drove several miles to the area of North Salem, and into the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, a wildlife refuge.
Five minutes on a dirt road took us to a picnic area covered with graffiti, which included what appeared to be a drawing of an African death mask with names written below it.
The words “GOAT BOY” were carved into the rafters, and Di Bari explained that that was the name of a local group of young witches.
Nailed into one of the posts was an odd device, which looked like something out of the movie The Blair Witch Project. I have read a bit about hexes and figured that it was some sort of curse. It seems that it was, for when I pointed it out to Di Bari she chuckled and noted that the witches “call these things blessings.”
In front of the picnic area was a meadow where Di Bari said the members of the occult “gather every Thursday night to call down the moon.”
No one whom Di Bari named as members of the occult would talk to me for this story.
When I called the nursery to inquire about the dolmens, the woman who took the call after hearing my question relayed it to someone else: “He wants to know about the Stonehenge stuff,” she whispered. A hushed voice replied: “Take his name and number and tell him we'll have someone call him back.” No one ever called.
But after I left Bedford, several witches in Westchester County did respond to an e-mail I sent.
Three sent rather lengthy replies. One teen witch and former Catholic, Christine Gorman, who goes by the name LyrStar, explained that the summary of the Wiccan law, called the Rede, states: “harm none, do as you will.” She wrote: “If no one is hurt by the ceremonies being conducted (i.e. no sacrifices, nor curses), then it is all right to do the spell/ceremony.”
As for the problems in the school district, LyrStar wrote: “I also doubt that any real Wiccans are taking over schools anywhere — we tend to be to be a fairly peaceful bunch.”
She defended positive presentations of witches, however. “[W]hen one is bombarded with images of the witch as green, wart-faced, and generally evil from birth, it is hard to shake that image,” she wrote.
Not everyone shares this benign view. Maury Terry, an investigative journalist and the author of the book, The Ultimate Evil: The Truth About the Cult Murders: Son of Sam and Beyond, details an extensive network of Satanism and occult activity in Westchester County, complete with animal sacrifice.
He makes a compelling case that such activity has long been a part of Westchester County, and that David Berkowitz, the notorious killer of nearly a quarter century ago, was simply part of this broad network. He writes: “The fact remains that while some groups claim to celebrate nature, many others pay homage to Satan. That is their tradition and they honor it.”
Nevertheless, Mary Ann Di Bari is not leaving Pound Ridge any time soon, despite having had curses chanted at her over the phone “from as far away as Chicago” (she has caller ID) and despite being disliked by the school board and accused by neighbors of “hurting property values” with the publicity she has generated.
Despite the court setbacks, the media attention has caused things to get a bit better, according to Di Bari. Students today, unlike those of the past, no longer have to make Ganesha figures, and there is no longer an “Earth Day” ritual.
But some problems persist.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, students aren't allowed to sing any patriotic songs that mention God, and can't wear anything patriotic — even flags are taboo.
Di Bari says that as long as her grandchildren wish to continue, she will stay with them and fight. “If we run away what are we saying to Our Lord who is victorious on the cross?” asks Di Bari: “What are we saying to St. Michael and the archangels ... who defeated this beast? That [the devil] has power? That he is God?”
Andrew Walther is based in Los Angeles.