October 24-30, 2002
Love in the Park
What looked to park rangers like a satanic ceremony was actually a pagan wedding
By Matt Pulle
Original page at http://www.nashvillescene.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?story=Back_Issues:2002:October_24-30_2002:News:Love_in_the_Park

A nighttime pagan wedding stunned a group of Metro park rangers earlier this month, leading them to draw their guns, search the revelers and ultimately disband the ceremony. The bride sobbed and the guests bristled, but the rangers say they thought they had stumbled on a satanic cult.

"If the average citizen would have run into this on a Saturday night, they would have freaked out," says Sgt. George Mitchell, recalling an incident a few years earlier when a Satanist chased a ranger with a sword. "We handled the situation with tact and officer safety in mind."

During a routine patrol of Edwin Warner Park Oct. 5, ranger James Spray, 31, noticed the scent of heavy smoke. It was around 9:15 p.m. He got out to take a look and noticed a reflection of fire in the nearby woods. The ranger, who had been with the department for a little over a year, moved closer to the flames and noticed an arrangement of candles. He saw a knife on the picnic table and people wearing Gothic-like costumes. An alarmed Spray contacted his sergeant, who called for backup.

Meanwhile, adding to the movie imagery of the whole episode, the group in the woods began to chant. Then, the ranger heard footsteps in the woods, "coming toward me," he says. His sergeant warned him that sometimes satanic cults use "perimeter guards" to close in on intruders to their ceremonies. Spray retreated, but a few minutes later heard footsteps coming toward him once again.

Five other officers, including Mitchell, joined Spray, and together they confronted those carrying on the mysterious ritual. When they noticed the dagger and sword on a nearby picnic table, they drew their guns. They searched the men, many of whom were wearing long robes, but didn't find any weapons. The rangers thought, however, that the ring of candles was arranged in what appeared to be a pentagram, a common satanic symbol.

But the guests told the rangers that they were Wiccans, pagans who believe in the existence of many different gods from a variety of ancient religious traditions and who practice witchcraft. The groom later produced a park permit, which allowed them to conduct their ceremony in Edwin Warner Park. Without issuing any citations, the rangers confiscated the dagger and sword and told everybody to go home.

The wedding, while interrupted, had been completed and, the groom says, it was a legal marriage. That was of little consolation to the 23-year-old bride. Dressed in fairy wings and wearing a long white gown with flowers in her hair, she wept while the rangers tried to figure out what was going on.

"I tried to console her," Mitchell says. "I tried to apologize to her for ruining her wedding, but I didn't know it was a wedding."

In an e-mail to friends, which made its way to the Scene , wedding guest Tish Owens initially described the rangers as "driven by testosterone, adrenaline, fear and hatred." Owens wrote that the rangers harassed them for over an hour, making them stand with their hands above their heads for 30 minutes, even after knowing that they had no affiliation with a satanic cult.

"If you think you are safe from this level of storm trooper behavior you are wrong," wrote Owens, the proprietor of The Goddess and The Moon, an incense, candle and jewelry store in Berry Hill. Mitchell concedes that the rangers had the guests raise their hands, but he says it was only for five to seven minutes. Owens has since softened, now claiming that the incident stemmed from a "lack of understanding."

But the groom, a 20-year-old native Nashvillian who calls himself Raven, says that the rangers exercised unnecessary force. "One ranger kicked my legs apart and put my hands on the back of my head," says Raven, whose parents don't know that he's a pagan. "We weren't sure what was going on, but the whole time I was very much upset at how the whole thing was being treated."

But Mitchell insists that from all appearances, the Wiccan ceremony looked like a satanic ritual. About 15 years ago, he says, satanic cults met "fairly regularly" in Metro parks, and while sightings of their practices have ebbed over the years, rangers occasionally still hear reports about satanic cults. In other words, this satanic stuff isn't just urban legend.

"We thought we might have had a satanic ritual," says Mitchell, a soft-spoken, deliberate officer who has worked for the Metro Parks and Recreation Department for 15 years. "The information we had is that there were other people in the woods. In that scenario, you have to protect yourself and protect your back."

The Wiccans deny that there was anybody else in the woods that night, but the rangers had reason to fear the worst. Jackie Jones, a spokeswoman for the parks department, says that on rare occasions rangers stumble across mutilated animal carcasses, indicating that an animal sacrifice has occurred. Animal sacrifices are most commonly linked to satanic cults.

They are also linked to Wiccan and pagan faiths, though local pagans say that's unfounded. "We don't believe in Satan," says a woman who prefers to be identified by Shayla. "We don't hurt animals or children. All life to us is sacred. In fact, we tend to get emotional about people ripping down trees when building a house. We won't do anything about it to anyone of course, but we will say a prayer to our deities and the trees. We'll thank them for their gift of life and apologize for the ignorance of the masses."

Tish Owens, who sent the initial scathing e-mail, says she's pleased with the way park officials have reacted to the incident. Within a week of the wedding, park officials met with a few of the Wiccans. At that meeting, both groups explained their sides of the story.

"We expressed regret that the incident happened, but it was not an admission of any wrongdoing," Jones says. "The rangers acted the way they were supposed to act."

Owens says that from now on, there will be better communication between the park and the rangers so that they will know when a pagan wedding is happening.

The willingness of park officials to meet with the Wiccans has been a welcome surprise to the pagans, as evidenced by e-mails they have sent to the department. "I do understand that sometimes the trappings of the rites of passage of the Pagan faith are strange to outsiders," writes Lady Rowling Aisling, who identifies herself in an e-mail as a priestess, witch and past coordinator of Salt Lake City's first ever Pagan Pride Day. But Metro park officials, she writes, handled the aftermath of the situation "in an amicable and professional manner...."

"You have the thanks of the entire Wiccan community for doing the right thing," writes Rev. Patricia Telesco, of Buffalo, N.Y. "It's very comforting to know that there are officials who stop to think, listen and respond in such an open-minded and fair way."

Meanwhile, Wiccans want to stress that their faith, while seemingly out of place in this culture, poses no threat. "There is a source that runs the universe," Owens says. "Call it God, call it the Great Muffin, but it is a place where all knowledge and love comes from."