In the shadow of Satan

Voodoo and other pagan goings-on haunt a small country town that appears to be going to the Devil
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The Independent Online
For more than a year, the people of Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, have feared that they could be living in the shadow of the occult.

Cats had been sacrificed on church steps, a hedgehog with runic death symbols nailed to its body was posted through a letterbox. And a young environmental activist fell from a 300ft cliff after leaving a message saying: "Please God. Somebody save me. Protect me from black magic."

Some locals believed that the medieval town, which has ancient pagan traditions, might have become the home for a Satanist sect similar to that led by Aleister Crowley, who died in Sussex 50 years ago.

But detectives who have investigated the series of sinister rituals said that they had stopped after the arrest of a single schoolboy.

This week, at Lewes magistrates' court, the youth, who has now turned 17, denied pushing a dead hedgehog through the letterbox of a local woman.

The court heard that eight nails had been used to attach a runic note to the animal. The letters were translated as: "Hail Satan. By this rune beware all cursed. So be it." The prosecution was forced to drop the case when a key witness could not identify the defendant.

Next month the youth will be sentenced on four other charges of which he has been convicted, including the theft of a gravestone, possession of a knife, actual bodily harm and the disorderly behaviour of forcing a younger boy to his knees to recite the Lord's Prayer in a graveyard.

Police who visited the youth's home found that he had converted the coal- shed of his mother's council house into a black-magic shrine. The walls were painted black, and a star and runic circle were marked out on the floor. A cross was hung upside down in the sign of the Devil.

At an earlier hearing at Lewes Youth Court, the boy admitted stealing a stone cross gravestone which was found in the shrine. Candlesticks, chalices and priests' robes were also retrieved.

The people of Lewes are more accustomed than most to pagan ceremony and strange goings on. Every November, 60,000 people converge on the medieval town to watch its ancient bonfire societies burn effigies on giant pyres. Unlike the bonfires, other recent rituals in Lewes will not be appearing in tourist guides.

They started just before Christmas 1995 when a vicar found that figures on the children's crib had been smashed. A dead cat on the vestry steps had its throat slit and, two days later, a beheaded cat was dumped in the same spot.

Soon after, at a nearby church, seven stone crosses were smashed and others were turned upside down. Around one grave a shallow trench had been dug and set on fire.

At about this time, Nick Gargani, a 26-year-old who was active in the local Green Party, struck up a friendship with the youth. The pair shared an interest in tarot cards. One Sunday last April, Mr Gargani visited his girlfriend Luisa Serrechia in a state of distress. He was crying and told her that someone was trying to kill him.

He said he had received a voodoo doll through the post and a cow's heart hammered through with nails. Three days later, Mr Gargani went for a walk along the cliffs that overlook Lewes and plunged 300 feet to his death.

When police visited his flat they found pages from the Bible plastered across the walls along with the scrawled cry for help. At an inquest into Mr Gargani's death, the coroner, Veronica Hamilton-Deeley, recorded an open verdict.

She said: "I certainly can't ignore a cry for help and the evidence suggests that he got caught up in this stuff. I can't explain his death." Although police say there is no evidence to link the teenager directly to Mr Gargani's death, friends of the dead man say he had come under his influence. Johnny Dennis, who knew Mr Gargani well, said: "It sounds like Nick was sufficiently disturbed [to kill himself]. But only because of this very close contact with this particular character."

The youth was arrested in July, placed on a 7pm curfew and banned from visiting places of worship. An earlier court hearing heard that he forced a 13-year-old boy to drop to his knees and recite the Lord's Prayer after stopping him while he was skateboarding near St Michael's churchyard.

As the younger boy faltered in his recital, the older youth listened and cracked his knuckles. He said: "I presume you are not religious. That's a good thing. You don't want to get into any of that."

Court officials erected a barrier in front of the youth so that young witnesses could give evidence without having to confront him.

Even police officers have felt chilled in his presence. One detective said: "He is probably the wierdest, spookiest person I have ever met in my life. He is very mature in a way that belies his age. I would seriously compare him to Damien in the Omen films. He scares people who are far, far older than he is. Mature, sensible, intelligent people are petrified of him."