The great Hazelwood Witchcraft Trial had begun and Cindi Stehr was sitting at the defense table looking so prim and matronly and generally unwitchy that I didn't know what to think.
She was charged with general peace disturbance, but the actual allegation was this: "Defendant continuously conducts loud outdoor bonfires and ceremonies relating to the practice of witchcraft that disturbs the neighbors."
The "loud" and the "disturbs" were at issue, but not much else. There are bonfires. But Stehr has a permit from the St. Louis County Department of Health that authorizes her to have fires in her yard. The permit makes mention of "religious ceremonies."
The religion is Wicca. Stehr is a witch.
She has fires in her back yard two or three times a month. The full moon, the new moon, the occasional solstice, that sort of thing. The fires are small, and the ceremonies are low-key, according to Stehr, which rhymes with Blair. What a lark, I thought. The Stehr Witch Project.
You see, I was taking the whole thing as a joke, until the first witness prepared to testify against Stehr. He tried to talk, but couldn't. He had, he whispered, come down with laryngitis.
Good grief. A witch's powers at work.
Let me back up a bit. Stehr lives in unincorporated north St. Louis County. She was interested in unorthodox religions as a teen-ager -- all right, she was a witch -- but then she got married, had two daughters and put witchcraft aside. But then the kids grew up, and Stehr got divorced. She turned back to witchcraft, which is these days called Wicca. It is often described as an earth-based religion. Its practitioners, who believe they can summon spirits, worship a god and a goddess.
At any rate, Stehr moved into her North County home a couple of years ago. Then some people moved in next door to her, and pretty soon there was trouble. Perhaps her bonfires disturbed them. Perhaps they were bothered by the fact that a witch lived next door. One way or another, they were soon complaining to the police.
The issue came to a head late one night last October. The neighbors called the police at 2:30 in the morning. That call resulted in Stehr being charged with peace disturbance. The matter went to court Monday night at the county government's municipal court north division in Hazelwood.
The first witness was the next-door neighbor with the mysterious laryngitis. He whispered that he was startled out of a sound sleep on the night in question. There were cars in the driveway, cars in the street. There was a raucous crowd in the back yard.
Was all this going on when the police arrived? defense attorney Sara McAvoy asked in cross-examination. Yes, he said.
His wife, who still had her voice, was next. She tracked her husband's testimony pretty well. Cars in the driveway, cars in the street, a crowd in the yard. The wife added that when the officer arrived and tried to talk to Stehr, the witch hopped in her car, revved the motor and turned the radio on full blast.
The final witness for the prosecution was the county officer who had responded to the call. She testified that there weren't a lot of cars. Maybe four in the driveway. None in the street. If there was a raucous crowd in the yard, she didn't see them. And what about Stehr getting in her car? The officer looked puzzled. She said she didn't remember Stehr getting into a car. And what of Stehr's demeanor? Polite, said the officer.
Either somebody was making stuff up, or the witch had cast a spell.
After the officer finished testifying, the judge acquitted Stehr. I spoke with her in the hallway. She said her ceremonies are never big parties. She said she was a solitary, and not a member of a coven. Then she smiled, and disappeared into the night.
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