The Bedford Hills Witch Project
by Andrew Walther
Is something sinister going on in Bedford Hills, N.Y.? Lawsuits have been filed contending that school children are being taught occult practices. Register correspondent Andrew Walther visits this sleepy little town.
November 14, 2001 / 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.
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.
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.
´Magic: The Gathering´ Cards Spook the Experts
"They call it a card game; I call it an occultic activity, an initiation into satanic rules and regulations," explained Mary Ann Di Bari.
"The game was introduced in Pound Ridge Elementary School in 1994 around Halloween," Di Bari said.
Along with an invitation to come and play Magic from a teacher, each fourth grader, including Di Bari´s granddaughter, Krystal, found Magic Cards in their cubby holes where they keep their personal belongings. The first series of Magic Cards often depicted demons, vampires and monsters with commands to mathematically "sacrifice" creatures to gain power or to cast spells on opponents to slow them down.
Di Bari said the first permission slip for the game was "useless." She recalled that it read: "come and be smarter," and that it called Magic "a creative enrichment course in math." As a result of the controversy another permission slip was later sent out, she said.
Then her granddaughter began having nightmares, which Mary Ann discovered later were being triggered by the images on the cards.
"[Magic] is filled with the symbology of the demonic: the pentagram, the broken cross, the New Age occultism, Christ as a fat woman on a cross, Wiccan, witchcraft, Freemasonry," explained Di Bari. "[There was] symbology from almost every pagan system that ever was; that is why it is called ´The Gathering.´"
And the game did not stay simply a game. "It was spilling over into the actual living of life, and the mentality of the children," she explained, recalling that "children were swinging in the gymnasium from ropes ... saying: ´Satan enter me; I want you.´"
What do the game makers have to say for their product?
A look at their Web site and a call to company headquarters revealed that the company that manufactures it, called "Wizards", is now a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc., makers of, among other things, Mr. Potato Head. Said spokesman Todd Stewart, "All [´Magic´] is is a trading card game. … There is no violence depicted."
Reminded of images form half a dozen cards that did depict violence - including a rape being perpetrated by a monk and human sacrifice - Stewart said violent cards were "a minor part of the game."
He said that charges that there were Satanic elements in the cards were "absolutely untrue … It´s not Dungeons and Dragons; it´s not a role-playing game," he insisted, "it´s fantasy."
Comparing the game to chess, Stewart explained that it was a math-based game, with nearly 7 million adherents worldwide. Competitions are held around the world culminating in an international championship each year in various locations such as Sydney, Australia, and Toronto.
Among the proponents of Magic: The Gathering, Stewart listed "ministers, doctors and teachers," and added that "many Catholic organizations endorse it." He boasted that there is "a school in Seattle that allows the kids to play one hour a day," since the game helps students with math.
"Teachers say all the time that grades increase in math because students understand math from the game."
In fact, it was as a math enrichment course that Magic was originally billed in the schools of Bedford Central School District.
Despite Stewart´s assurances, many people, including Di Bari, remain unconvinced that Magic is good for children, or anyone else for that matter.
Father James Le Bar, exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, and a speaker at a conference which Di Bari and other parents held in the Bedford area, said: "Magic: The Gathering seems to be a type of game that seems to invite the evocation of evil spirits." Father Le Bar conceded that he didn´t know for sure, since as he put it, "I have never played with [the cards], and I don´t intend to."
He noted a difference between the card came and a game like checkers, noting that a fascination with checkers is unlikely to have negative consequences, whereas a fascination with Magic: The Gathering might.
And it´s not just the Catholics who see the danger.
The Rev. George Mather, a Lutheran minister from Sherman Oaks, Calif., and an author and lecturer in the area of cults and the occult, wrote to Ceil Di Nozzi in a letter provided to the Register that "unless one has a familiarity with occult symbolism ... the game might appear as another form of amusement and innocuous."
"The truth is it´s filled with the worst aspects of the occult," he wrote. "You might say it represents the darker side of evil, Satanism!"
- Andrew Walther