Archives For Massachusetts

A recent column by Francis Wilkinson in The Week Magazine puts an uncomfortable spotlight on Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts Attorney General who is a front-runner for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. It seems her role in the notorious  Fells Acres Day Care Case is causing some waves among Democrats with a long memory for abuses of power.

“Coakley did not prosecute the case, which was already under way when she joined the office as an assistant district attorney in 1986. But years later, after the day-care abuse hysteria had subsided and she had won the office’s top job, she worked to keep the convicted “ringleader,” Gerald Amirault, behind bars despite widespread doubts that a crime had been committed … the convictions won by the Middlesex DA in the Fells Acres case have not borne up well. By today’s standards, the prosecution of the Amirault family, who owned and operated the day-care center in Malden, Mass., looks like a master class in battling witchcraft.”

It looked like “battling witchcraft” because these “ritual abuse” (aka “Satanic abuse” or “organized abuse”) cases often hinged on rumours and false testimony of an imaginary network of underground Satanic sex and abuse-cults. Children were often prodded and coaxed into false testimony, much of which is recanted when those same children grow up, and many innocent men and women spent years, sometimes decades, of their lives behind bars. In the instance of the Fells Acres case, children were interviewed by nurse and SRA true-believer Susan J. Kelley, who elicited flatly implausible testimony about sex with bladed implements and “clowns” in “magic rooms” from children that a judge later called “improper” and “biased”.

“The evidence in this case is nothing short of overwhelming with improper interviewing techniques. The bias toward the Amiraults by investigators and interviewers from the beginning. Parental and other family influences. All of it leading to these tragic results.”

Despite the mounting evidence that this case was handled improperly, and that it was very likely the Amirault family were innocent of the charges brought against them, Coakley stubbornly refused to revisit the case. As D.A. she opposed parole for the family despite many lawyers thinking this was a “travesty” of justice, and she made strange conditions for the release of Cheryl Amirault LeFave.

“Coakley had previously allowed Gerald’s sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, to be released from prison on the curious condition that she not submit to television or film interviews. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz, who championed the Amiraults’ case in a series of articles and in a book, Coakley also requested that the Amiraults’ attorney, James Sultan, who was negotiating Cheryl’s release, stop representing Gerald, which would have further crippled Gerald’s appeals for freedom.”

These conditions, and this case, has made some Democrats uneasy about her candidacy, and seems to be causing her supporters to close ranks on the issue. As for Coakley, she defends her decisions regarding the case, saying she feels the Amirault family were indeed guilty.

“Based on my own extensive experience with child abuse investigations and cases, and my thorough review of all the evidence, including that which is often taken out of context and deemed “exculpatory,” I also believe the convictions were sound, and that he received a fair trial. It is for all of the above reasons that I, as Middlesex District Attorney, opposed his commutation, and I stand by that decision to this day.”

One wonders if this is a case of not wanting to admit to a mistake, access to some sort of mysterious insider knowledge that several lawyers, reporters, judges, and parole boards don’t have, or if Coakley is (like the judge that oversaw Gerald Amirault’s trial) an SRA true-believer. I sincerely hope it isn’t the latter, because if we see a revival of “Satanic Panic” in America, the last thing we need is a Senator willing to craft laws that will throw even more innocent people in jail based almost solely on improperly gathered testimony and hysteria.

Back in mid-October, I mentioned a controversy brewing in the small town of Chicopee, Massachusetts. There a local homeowner hung a “witch” (though some claim it was supposed to be an effigy of Hillary Clinton) by a full-size gallows noose, prompting a local Wiccan to claim it constituted a hate crime against her religion.

“But Lynch says it’s no laughing matter. She says it’s a hate crime* against her religion … She says it’s not only a hate crime against her religion, but offensive to the entire community. “It’s depicting death. I wouldn’t destroy a cross or bash a religion or race,so I don’t expect that to happen to me,” adds Lynch.”


The Halloween display in question.

Lynch organized a small protest outside the home sporting the witch. Emotions seemed to run high, causing police to be called to keep the peace.

“At one point the protest got a little heated, and Chicopee police were called to East street, but in the end both parties stayed on their own sides and continued to stand up for what they believe. “It is strong, strong dislike and hate for a person and a specific religion that is known all over the United States,” says protestor Melissa Mercier … “Witches have rights too, under freedom of religion,” adds Lynch.”

Then on Halloween night, someone decided to take matters into their own hands, and burned the faux-witch down.

“The witch hanging from a noose outside a home on East Street in Chicopee has been burned at the stake. Neighbors say when they went to bed last night, the witch was intact, but this morning, it was found burned on the ground. The halloween decoration stirred controversy when a group claiming witchcraft as their religion protested outside the home. But neighbors say whoever set fire to the witch went too far.”

So now the question is: who burned the witch? Lynch? A supporter of Lynch’s? Random hooligans? Some conspiratorial-minded folks have even suggested the homeowner did it himself. But whoever burned the witch, one thing is clear, thanks to this action the issue isn’t going to go away now.

“One neighbor says he wants to put up four more witches for next year’s Halloween season.”

It seems that any positive outcome from this situation has been lost. It will now become a show of solidarity in the neighborhood to hang witches, and what most likely started out as something not aimed at modern Pagans could very well evolve into the thing Lynch feared. Wiccan effigies on suburban lawns.

* The hung witch in this instance isn’t a hate crime in any legal sense of the term. A “hate crime” is a very specific thing. It is the intentional use of threats, violence, or intimidation against someone because of their race, religion, orientation, or creed. So far there is not a shred of proof this man hung this witch in order to threaten or intimidate Pagans. He may be a rude insensitive jerk, but that isn’t against the law.

Hate Crime?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 14, 2007 — 7 Comments

Is displaying a gallows-hung witch in Massachusetts a religious hate crime? That is the accusation by Kelly Lynch towards a home-owner in Chicopee. According to Lynch, the display is a personal offense to religious Witchcraft and not an innocent Halloween display.


The Halloween display in question.

“To many, it’s an innocent Halloween decoration, but for Kelly Lynch it’s offensive. “We don’t harm anyone, we worship god, we are not evil, and we don’t cast spells, ” says Lynch. Lynch is a witch. She has been studying witchcraft since she was a child, and says it’s her way of life. “We are just like Christians, Muslims, we have our own religion, ” adds Lynch. That’s why when she saw the life-like witch hanging in someones front yard she went straight to the home owner’s door. “He told me to lighten up, it was a Halloween decoration, I know it’s his constitutional right, but I want it down. To make that your only decoration…it’s kind of odd, ” stresses Lynch.”

While building a full-size gallows to hang a fake witch in a State that hung 19 men and women on the charge of witchcraft is certainly in bad taste, I’m not sure it is a “hate crime” in the manner Lynch suggests in her interviews with the media.

“But Lynch says it’s no laughing matter. She says it’s a hate crime against her religion “Look at Louisiana, it’s the same thing, what if a black family burned crosses, or nooses it would be the same thing, ” says Lynch.”

I know that for many Wiccans the Salem witch trials have become a hugely symbolic and emotional touchstone, but comparing a Halloween display that was likely erected with no intended malice towards those who identify as Witches with the very real history of lynchings, racism, and discrimination faced by African Americans can only be described as naive at best.

One could fairly make the argument that the display is insensitive, garish, and offensive. You could organize your friends and protest if you like, but Chicopee isn’t Jena, and a hung fairy-tale witch isn’t the “same thing” as hanging a noose on a black teacher’s door or a burning cross on a black family’s lawn. To say it is diminishes the struggles of racial minorities in our country, and takes attention away from the real issues our religious communities do face.

The Berkshire Eagle has an excellent story concerning a long legal battle that pitted some urban transplants (collectively nicknamed the “dirty dozen”) in the small town of Middlefield, Massachusetts against local Wiccan-owned mail order business AzureGreen, the largest metaphysical supplier in the United States. Benning W. De La Mater reports on how what started out as questions over proper legal procedure concerning a community-approved business expansion for AzureGreen, became a years-long mudslinging battle to “preserve” Middlefield.

“How did it get this far? How is it that friends in this Hampshire County town of 500 no longer speak? Or that they worry about being run off the road? Or finding a shaving-cream Christian cross sprayed on their driveway? Cries of devil worshipping? An Egyptian pyramid in a cow pasture? A lawsuit? It’s the worst that happens when friendships, religion, business interests and perceived favoritism simmer in a cauldron of small-town politics.”

The trouble started when some former friends of AzureGreen owners Tamarin Laurel-Paine and Adair Laurel-Cafarella felt that Paine misused his influence as a member of the town’s Planning Board to obtain approval for a rezoning decision that would benefit their plans to expand onto a 50-acre plot. Though these issues were settled, and the town eventually voted overwhelmingly in favor of AzureGreen’s expansion, a small group of people unhappy with AzureGreen’s plans started litigation that would tie up the expansion for nearly four years and eventually reach the state Supreme Court.

“On June 28, 2005, Land Court judge Charles W. Trombly Jr. ruled in favor of Cafarella and Paine, stating in his decision, “There are no genuine issues of material facts,” and “the plaintiffs’ objection to the special-permit decision are vague and speculative.” The ruling went on to read that “neither the Carpenters nor O’Brien have shown that they … will suffer a private and specific harm.” … On June 27 of this year, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts upheld the Land Court decision, referring to O’Brien’s claims of property devaluation and sewage run-off as “mere conjecture.” And just 11 days ago, 65 months after the lawsuit was filed, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court threw out the last appeal, ending the hold on construction.”

While this all went on, the town became split over the issue, often with anti-Wiccan signs and statements being thrown around. In addition, many local residents felt that the lawsuit against AzureGreen was an anti-democratic act that pitted natives against urban transplants.

“Long-time residents say the conflict split the town in two. Walter Smith, 71, a former building inspector in Middlefield, said the group’s lawsuit was “an act against democracy. They walked in with a pocket full of money and we swallowed our pride. The arrogance of those 12 people! It still bothers me.” Former Selectman Gary Wheeler said The Dirty Dozen looked at town board members as a bunch of country bumpkins, unfit to handle serious business matters.”

Now that the legal problems are finally solved, AzureGreen is going ahead with its expansion, which includes a new warehouse (with a pyramid in front and solar power), a public kitchen for seniors, a day-care, and a 20-acre parcel that was donated to the Society of Elder Faiths (a Massachusetts Pagan organization) for religious use. But relations in the town are still tense, and it remains to be seen if the “dirty dozen” will try to seek new ways to punish the metaphysical mail-order company. Kudos to Benning W. De La Mater for a well-balanced account of this story.