The pair wished to create a Pagan sanctuary.The 83-acre property, which was shut down in 2011, was known for its cave system. It contained an underground river, large chambers, and thriving bat population. That cave system, which had been attracting tourists since the 1940s, also caught the eye of Mr. Chiaramonti and Ms. Feria.
“We were searching for a place with caves to make into a sanctuary and found this one abandoned,” said Feria.
The couple said that they first tried to contact the owner of the property, the family of Delores Gaidowski, who died in 2014. Gaidowski’s family had put the site up for sale in September 2015, which is currently listed at the reduced price of $499,000.
However, Chiaramonti and Feria received no reply. They then contacted an attorney to find out if they could take the title to the property through adverse possession.
Adverse possession is a process in which a person who is not the owner of the property lives on, and makes material improvements to, the property for 16 years and is then granted title.
The attorney reportedly advised against using this tactic, but Chiaramonti and Feria say he did give them guidelines on the legal process.
They say that they arrived at the caves on May 7 and set up camp in what was the gift shop at the front of the caverns. “The property was a mess. There was trash everywhere and we worked to clean it up,” says Feria.
Chiaramonti agreed the land was being abused and wasn’t cared for.
On May 10 the Sheriff’s office received a call from the property’s caretaker that someone appeared to be staying in the gift shop. A deputy responded to the call and talked with Chiaramonti and Feria. After noting the lock on the gift shop door had been forced, the pair were arrested.Both Chiaramonti and Feria say they followed the guidelines for adverse possession and were looking to take care of the caves and surrounding property. Their dream was to create a Pagan sanctuary where all Pagans could feel welcome. They had renamed the property Silent Grove and posted a sign with the new name.
Feria, a disabled veteran, is still looking forward to raising the money to buy the property. Chiaramonti, formerly of New Orleans, said he feels an obligation from his now deceased mother to create a Pagan sanctuary.
The pair has competition for the property. The Mississippi Valley Conservatory (MVC), a non-profit environmental group, is also looking to purchase the caverns. The group says it wishes to protect the bat population, which is endangered by white mouth disease.
As of yet, the MVC needs to secure grant money for a possible purchase.
MVC has also accused the pair of sending them threatening letters. Feria denies that, saying they never sent a letter to MVC.
She did admit to sending a letter to the owner’s reality company, asking them no to no longer contact them. But, she added that the letter wasn’t threatening.
Chiaramonti and Feria’s next court appearance is June 5. Both are out on bond. The single charge they face, entering a locked building, is a class A misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 9 months in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.