SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 30, 2007

Odd stories

Staff reports

News can be disturbing, heartwarming or sad, but some days it's just plain weird. Following are some of our favorite oddball stories of 2007, in no particular order.

Most bizarre crime

In maybe the most bizarre crime of the year, a self-proclaimed high priestess and her housemate were arrested in August after allegedly leaving the beheaded and mutilated remains of two raccoons in the doorways of two downtown psychic shops in Salem.

The arrests of Sharon Graham and Frederick Purtz highlighted growing tension within the city's witch and psychic community.

The bloody remains were left in front of Angelica of the Angels on Central Street and The Goddess' Treasure Chest on Essex Street. Both owners had taken public stands on the need to regulate fortunetellers and psychic fairs.

Days later, the city issued a health alert over concerns that the raccoons may have been rabid.

A few days after the arrests, one of the lead witnesses in the case returned home to find his apartment ransacked and a number of valuables, including his crystal ball, stolen. The witness, Richard Watson, said he believed it was retaliation for going to the police.

The case is still winding its way through the courts.

Best secret revealed

Beverly's biggest political scandal in years originated in a 3-inch-long computer device.

In June, Ward 3 City Councilor John Burke inadvertently left his flash drive in City Hall. Turns out the little piece of hardware contained a big bombshell | a letter that Burke had written, anonymously, to himself and his fellow councilors, accusing the Police Department of treating politically connected people with leniency and urging them to vote against police chief nominee Mark Ray.

The discovery of the letter led to two dramatic nights of hearings in packed council chambers as councilors, stung by the deception, demanded Burke's resignation. Burke refused -- then easily won re-election in November.

Ray was unanimously endorsed by the council as the new police chief | including by Burke, who said he changed his mind.

Cutest animal story

Beating the odds when it comes to rescuing wild animals, Melissa Dolan successfully hatched two mallard duck eggs that were left in a nest when their mother was killed by a hawk. Once they opened their eyes, however, the vulnerable ducklings imprinted her into their minds and assumed she was there to raise them.

Lacking the ability to lead them to water and teach them to fly, Dolan decided the responsible thing to do would be to let them go in a secluded pond and hope one of the other duck families living there would adopt them. But when she returned later that night, they were still in the same place and began chirping wildly at the sound of her voice. She scooped them up and found a veterinary clinic in Pepperell that placed them with other orphaned ducks, and they grew up forgetting about the kindness of humans.

In early fall, Dr. Michaela Krafve released them into the wild, and they began their journey south for the winter. Their chances of survival are very good, she said.

Most fortuitous rescue

Hamilton Patrolman Brian Shaw happened to be at the right place at the right time when he spotted a woman trying to climb her way out of the half-frozen pond at Patton Park in March.

Susan Gribbell of Wenham was walking two West Highland terriers in the park when the dogs fell through the ice in the pond. Gribbell went to save them but soon found herself in trouble as her winter coat, hat and boots weighed her down and the ice broke around her.

Shaw happened to be driving by the park at just that moment, saw the dogs running around "not acting normal" and decided to check it out. Gribbell was too weak to grab onto the rope he threw her, so he called for backup, slipped into a cold-water rescue suit and had the other officers pull them both to safety.

Gribbell had been trapped in the water for about 20 minutes. Had she stayed in much longer, she would have died, police said. Instead, she recovered from hypothermia at Beverly Hospital in about 30 minutes, and Shaw became the man of the hour.

Dirtiest deed (done dirt cheap)

Rock 'n' roll may not be noise pollution, but it was enough to land a Salem man in jail after police said they found him rocking out | naked | to an AC/DC song next to an open window in his apartment in August.

A nude Brian DeYoung of Washington Street was allegedly dancing around his apartment to the driving guitars of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long."

A concerned neighbor told police they could see him dancing through an open window.

He would have gotten away with just a warning, according to police, except for one problem | he was wanted on outstanding drug and motor vehicle charges.

With that, DeYoung was arrested, transported and booked without incident | after he put on some clothes.

His case has since been turned over to Boston police, where the warrants originated.

Most surreal government meeting

This was the year of the paranormal City Council.

Over several meetings that lasted hours, Salem city councilors clad in business suits shared the floor with self-proclaimed psychics and soothsayers dressed in black robes with pentacles dangling from their necks.

Together, the two groups developed a set of guidelines to license dozens of the city's psychics | a process that produced plenty of unusual moments, even by City Council standards.

At one point, the official witch of Salem even declared that the city's lack of regulations had created a psychic "free-for-all."

"Anyone who says they're psychic can come into the city," Laurie Cabot said at one meeting. "We don't even know where they come from. We don't know their qualifications."

That left many councilors scratching their heads, trying to find a way to weed out "real" psychics from fraudulent fortunetellers.

"What are the criteria?" asked a baffled Councilor-at-large Joan Lovely. "Is there schooling?"

Most unusual public expenses

Gov. Deval Patrick started the year by spending $10,000 on damask drapes for his Statehouse office.

A few months later, the Salem Retirement Board furnished its own office condo with nearly $5,000 worth of window blinds. The off-white Kirsch, textured-vinyl vertical blinds from Stacey's Home Decor of Danvers now hang in five rooms of the board's Central Street office.

On the other end of the spectrum, someone on the Essex County Retirement Board needed fast cash during a trip to Las Vegas for a conference. So the member tapped a nearby ATM, got the money | and expensed the $3 transaction fee to taxpayers.

Another member wanted reimbursement for a copy of the Chicago Tribune, bought during an out-of-state conference for a whopping 50 cents.

Best news leak

Peabody's Ed Nizwantowski wanted his coaching job back something bad.

So the former coach and current School Committee member tried to cut a secret deal to get reinstated.

E-mails circulated at a March 20 closed-door session of the School Committee -- and were then leaked to The Salem News -- revealed that Coach Niz had offered to drop his long-standing age discrimination suit in exchange for his return to the gridiron.

The e-mails generated a flurry of responses -- outrage over the leak and calls to track down the culprit with a lie detector.

Mayor Michael Bonfanti, the School Committee chairman, compared the newspaper's receipt of the documents to accepting stolen property. Then City Solicitor Daniel Kulak called on the Essex County District Attorney's Office and the state Ethics Commission to investigate.

In the end, neither the district attorney nor the Ethics Commission took up the case.

Nizwantowski, who had been elected to the School Committee in 2006, never responded to requests for comment. But his attorney, William Sheehan III, promptly filed a civil lawsuit in Salem Superior Court just days after the e-mails went public.

The School Committee later released their votes and minutes of the secret session. They had turned down Nizwantowski's proposal.

Dirtiest political trick

Larry Craig wasn't the only politician arrested this year after an unfortunate bathroom incident.

Ken Sawicki, a candidate for Salem City Council, spent two weeks of the campaign behind bars this fall for allegedly locking a man inside a portable toilet and knocking it over in an attempt to collect a $28 debt.

Police said Sawicki confronted the man over the missing money at Riley Plaza one morning in October. The man said he needed a moment to use the bathroom and stepped inside the portable toilet. Sawicki then allegedly locked the man inside with a padlock and began rocking it back and forth.

As a crowd began to gather, Sawicki allegedly tipped the whole thing over.

He was arrested and spent two weeks in jail, but his campaign went on as the 54-year-old resorted to tactics that seemed to resemble, well, bathroom humor.

Days before Election Day, Sawicki was seen on a Route 114 traffic island sitting on a toilet | a real one | that he had dragged across the street. At one point, he even held a fishing rod and dropped a hook into the toilet basin.

A sign on the back read what most had already concluded: "My campaign is in the toilet."

But Sawicki may have had the last laugh.

He finished dead last in a seven-way race, but actually beat candidate James Willis in a few precincts.

And 712 voters | 11 percent of voters | cast at least one of their votes for the alleged toilet-tipper.