The Guardian, April 12 1997
Lewes is the kind of old English town that tourists like on postcards, with a flag fluttering over a Norman castle and good old pubs in twisting streets of antique homes and churches. It is an island of colour and calm, protected from the rolling green waves of the Sussex Downs by a tall white cliff of battered chalk which strikes out southwards from its eastern flank like a gigantic breakwater.
It was from the summit of this soaring cliff, shortly after noon on Wednesday April 17 last year, that a young man tumbled 300 feet to his death.
When the police first came to the scene, they assumed that they were dealing with an accident. Lots of local people like to walk along the top of the cliff and some of them like to clamber over the farmer’s gate and walk near the edge where the view is best. Sometimes, they even sit on top of the cliff, dangling their legs over the side and watching the seagulls swirl over the red rooves of Lewes. The police looked through the dead man’s pockets, found that his name was Nic Gargani, that he was aged 26, that he lived in a flat on a housing estate near by, and, in search of next-of-kin, they decided to go to his home. That was when the mystery began.
As they opened the door of his sitting room, the police came upon an unexpected scene. In amongst the ordinary debris of a normal life – the rubber plant, the bean bags, the shelf full of books – they saw signs of a terrible fear. First, just inside the door, they found six pages of the Bible stuck in a neat row on the right-hand wall. Written in black felt-tip pen on the wall beside them, was a message: “I put these pages here to protect me from the black magic.” Lower down, they found another message: “Please, God, save me.” Looking across, they saw that the opposite wall was almost filled with a drawing of a crucifix with one more message scrawled beneath it: “I fear black magic.”
What had happened here? They found the beginning of an explanation in a letter, dated two days earlier, on April 15, and addressed ‘To whom it may concern’. It, too, had been taped to the wall, and it read: “I am leaving this note for someone to find in case any misfortune may happen to me. Things have been happening recently and I fear for my life. I have been targetted and cursed by a black magician, for what reason I have no clue. There are powerful forces working against me and I am not sure what will happen next. If something does happen to me, I want this to be known, that I am not insane and know that it is by some black magician who has cursed me and has personally confronted me. Furthermore, I am in danger.”
The letter was signed by Nic Gargani. As if to underline the gravity of his fear, he had also written a list of friends and relatives who were to be contacted in the event of his death. In search of some explanation, the police started to contact them and, that afternoon, they spoke to Louisa, a small and vivacious woman in her early 20s with a gypsy mass of tangled dark hair and a neat tatoo of a Celtic love-knot on her left shoulder. She turned out to be Gargani’s best friend.
She said she had known him for nearly two years, and although she knew that he had previously led a rather conventional, limited life, working as a clerk for Rentokil, the Nic Gargani that had become her friend was a gentle rebel who had renounced his former life and sold his car and grown his hair and started smoking a little dope and devoting himself to local causes – finding squats for homeless people, trying to found a cafe for the town’s youth, protesting against motor rallies on the Downs that he loved, digging an organic allotment for the community. When Michael Howard came to Lewes in the summer of ‘95, it had been Nic Gargani who spoiled his shirt with a well-aimed egg. Louisa and he had spent hours lying around, drinking, listening to music and talking about life.
Now, she told the police how three days earlier, on Sunday evening, Nic had come round to see her in a terrible state. They had gone for a walk together, and he had started to cry and to tell her the weirdest things. He thought that someone had cursed him. It had been going on for weeks, he said, but he hadn’t told anyone because he had been warned by someone who knew about the dark arts, that if you tell anyone about a curse, then you spread it to them. But now, sobbing with exhaustion and fear, his barriers gave way, and he told Louisa his story.
As they walked through the town, he described how he had started to receive strange phone calls and then threatening messages posted through his door. Some photographs had gone missing from his flat, and some hair, too – he had grown a dreadlock and then cut it off and left it in his room, but it had vanished. Things in his room had mysteriously moved. Then, a few days earlier, to his horror, he had found a voodoo doll, with what looked like his own hair wound around it. And that Sunday morning, he had woken up to find that something bizarre and cruel had been shoved through his letter box: it was a cow’s heart, impaled with nails. He felt haunted, hunted. He was desperate. By the time, he finished spilling out his story, he was crying so much that he could barely stand.
Louisa told the police how she and some friends had tried to protect Nic. One of them had slept round at his flat on the Monday night. They had tried to talk to him, to persuade him to go to the police, but he was too scared to talk. They wanted to see the threatening letters and the voodoo doll, but he said he had destroyed everything because he had been told that that might repel the curse. Then, on Wednesday morning, at about 11.30, he had walked past Louisa’s house, on the sloping road which leads up to the cliff on the edge of the town, and he had pushed an envelope into her letter box.
Inside was a card in which he thanked her for listening to him on Sunday night. At the last moment, he had evidently torn it open and slipped in a note. It was written in a galloping scrawl. He said his life was in danger. He had seen something, some sort of vision, of a shrouded sceptre. He needed to see her. He’d be back to see her in a while. He had just gone walking to try to clear his head. Within half an hour, he was lying dead at the foot of the cliff.
How had he died? Was it just an accident? If so, it was an extraordinary co-incidence that a man should write two letters warning that his life was in danger, less than 48 hours before an accident struck. Was it suicide? Had his terror of this curse driven him too far? But if that was so, why had he bothered to send a note to Louisa, telling her he would be back in a little while? So was it murder? Had there been someone else up there on the cliffs? Had they pushed him, or goaded him over the edge? And would this be the same person who had laid this curse on him? And what did that mean? Was he imagining the whole thing? After all, there was no evidence apart from his own words. Or were there really Satanists in this peaceful little town? And even if there were people who claimed to be Satanists, what did that mean?
These were strange questions. As the weeks went by, some of the answers turned out to be even stranger. And, as the mystery unfolded, a certain fear became evident, not only in Nic’s life but also in the lives of his friends and, to some extent, of people in the town who had not known him but who found themselves touched by the strange events which surrounded his death. The fear became the key.
The police were not alone in trying to answer all these questions. Nic’s other friends, led by Louisa, wanted to understand. So, too, did his family. His father, Luigi, traveled from his new home in Holland and was so riven with despair when he saw the fearful messages on the walls of Nic’s flat that he tore down the pages of the Bible and threw them to the floor. Nic’s elder sister, Nadia, came from Yorkshire, heart-broken. Together, they resolved to find the truth.
It soon became clear that there had been other odd events in the town. Four months earlier, in the weeks before Christmas, someone had visited churches in Lewes and smashed the model nativity scenes, tearing the heads off the plaster figures. In the churchyard at South Malling, on the edge of Lewes, someone had deliberately smashed a couple of stone crosses. Several churches reported that vestments and chalices had been stolen. At St John’s, someone had torn pages from the altar Bible and ripped off the front of the pulpit. And then there were the cats.
Three times that spring, black and white cats had been found killed and maimed in Lewes churchyards. One was left with its throat cut beside a bunch of plastic flowers, at the vestry door of St Ann’s. Another was found burned and hanging from a tree at St John’s. The third was decapitated and maimed, at St Ann’s again.
In the weeks after Nic Gargani’s death, there were more incidents. A group of young people who were drinking in a Lewes pub one Friday night started talking about the weird things that had been happening in the town. Later, on their way home, they realised they were being followed. They saw a young man, pale with slick black hair, hiding in bushes by the side of the street and then walking behind them. As they went into their house, the young man ran across the street and started kicking at the door, shouting “What did you say about me?”
A few hours later, in the early hours of the morning, they heard noises outside and saw the same young man run away. Twenty minutes later, something was pushed through their letter box: it was a blue carrier bag. Inside it, was the warm body of a dead hedgehog, skewered with eight nails and carrying a message, written in runes, which turned out to read: “Hail, Satan. By this rune, beware all cursed. So be it.”
A tombstone in the shape of a cross was stolen. Two graves in South Malling church were disturbed: soil was removed and apparently used to fill a human effigy which lay scorched on the ground near-by in the church yard. Four headstones were smashed. The vicar of South Malling called for a day of prayer across Lewes to protect the churches. But who was responsible for all this?
Louisa had a pretty good idea. She, too, had been having strange experiences. They had begun on the Wednesday evening, immediately after Nic’s death. First there were phone calls. “Are you Louisa?…. Did you know Nic Gargani?… Then you know what happened to him today.” Click. There were several calls that evening, sometimes with the same taunting hint of a threat, sometimes just with strange noises, like a frantic chicken. Then, on the Thursday morning, someone knocked on her door and Louisa opened it to find a young man with a pale face and slick black hair standing on her doorstep.
Louisa had friends in the house, friends of Nic’s, and they were sitting together trying to make sense of his death. The young man insisted that he must talk to her alone, and so she led him upstairs, into her bedroom. There, he stared into her face with an unusual intensity and started to talk to her about Nic, saying that he was evil, that he must have been chased over the cliff by a demon – a demon which Nic himself had called up. He said he knew that Nic had talked to her, and now the curse would follow her, the demon would pursue her, she was going to die, and no-one was going to save her – no-one.
By now, Louisa was shivering with fear. She knew it was crazy to talk about demons and curses, but there was something about this strange young man with his piercing black eyes which seemed really evil. And she had seen what had happened to Nic.
“What can I do?” she asked. “What can I do?”
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s already happened.”
And he walked away.
Louisa was so alarmed that she packed a bag and left Lewes. When she returned a few days later, the strange young man was there to haunt her, hanging around at the end of her street and following her as she went into town, sometimes banging on her door and demanding to talk to her about the curse. Once, in the street, he started demanding to know where Nic had been buried, and her fear turned to anger and she struck out at him. Her friends held her back, while the strange young man smirked into her face.
Later, he forced his way into her house, cornered her in her front room and demanded: “What’s your problem? Why are you being so hostile to me?”
Louisa started to shout at him. “Why the hell do you think? You came round here the day after Nic died and you told me I was going to die because he had told me about the curse. How would you feel? And he told you about the curse. So why aren’t you cursed?”
She told him she hated him, and he simply shrugged and asked her what she thought he had done. “I think you killed Nic.” She was shouting in his face now. “I think the demon that chased Nic over the cliff was something you made up in your head. You killed him. I know you did.”
He lunged forward, grabbed her by the collar of her shirt and shoved her back against the wall. “Don’t you ever say that again,” he hissed at her. “Or I will have you for slander. I will kill you – but not with my hands. And your God won’t save you. No God is going to save you.” Then he dropped her, made the sign of the cross upside down in the air in front of her, stared once more into her eyes and strode away into the street.
Within a week of Nic Gargani’s death, the police began to investigate the strange young man. They found he was only 16 years old, he was named Donald, the only child of a strict Catholic mother whose father had become violent and left the house years earlier. He lived with his mother in a council house on the edge of Lewes, not too far from Nic Gargani’s flat. He had a reputation as a loner, he had been expelled from secondary school, and those who knew him said he had been in trouble with the law once or twice for fighting and stealing. A year or so earlier he had drifted into a neo-Nazi group in Brighton and he was suspected of painting offensive graffiti outside the home of a Jewish family. But was he a Satanist? Was he a murderer?
Two detectives went to question him. He refused to talk to them, smiled at them as though they were idiots and bade them farewell with advice to drive carefully. “You wouldn’t want to have an accident, would you?” The police could hardly believe that a 16-year-old could treat them with such disdain. That afternoon, they went back to see him again but this time he played a different game, greeting them with courtesy and offers to help. He agreed to come with them to Lewes police station and it was while they were there that the phone rang with new information.
The parents of two 13-year-old boys were reporting that their sons had been confronted in the street earlier that afternoon by a young man with a pale face and slicked black hair. He had threatened the boys and forced one of them to kneel in front of him on the pavement and recite the Lord’s Prayer. When the boy had muffed the words, the young man had told him that that was a good thing and he would be able to join his group. Donald admitted to police that he had met the boys and he was charged with threatening behaviour.
Now the police could move. They took out a search warrant and went to his home. There were two questions. Was Donald really a Satanist or simply a bully who had found a useful tool for frightening people? And what did he know about Nic Garagani’s death? They found the answer to the first question in an old stone coal bunker in the back garden of Donald’s house.
The bunker had been converted into a Satanic shrine. The inside walls had been painted black. On the floor was the shape of a pentacle. On a table, were the chalices and vestments and candles which had been stolen from the churches, all now neatly laid out as if on an altar. In the centre, was a long, shining sword. At the back, was the crucifix headstone which had been stolen in the spring, standing on top of the altar. It was upside down. Inside the house, in Donald’s room, they found a small library of books about black magic.
The police tried to charge Donald with stealing from churches, but he replied that all of this stuff had been given to him by Nic Gargani, who had told him he had bought them in a second hand shop. The next day, however, the police were able to charge him with a completely different offence – inflicting Actual Bodily Harm on his mother who complained that her son had been furious with her for allowing the police to search his room and had taken a belt to her. Donald was charged and bailed on condition that he live in a hostel in Brighton, that he did not approach his mother and that he did not enter any church or building used for worship. But was he also a murderer?
Nic’s friends now believed that it was Donald who had driven Nic to his death. There was no doubt that the two had known each other: Nic’s former girlfriend said that two or three times she had seen Donald at Nic’s flat; Louisa remembered Nic talking about befriending a guy who had got involved with some Nazi group; Donald himself said he had bought the contents of his shrine from Nic. There was no doubt now that Donald was obsessed with Satanism. More than that, as Louisa knew from her own experience, Donald also knew all about the curse on Nic, which was supposed to have been such a secret. He had even seemed to know about Nic’s death, within 24 hours of its happening, long before it was reported in the local newspapers. They believed it must have been Donald who had engineered the signs of the curse and then posed as Nic’s friend, advising him that he must tell no-one for fear of spreading the evil and that he must fight the curse by destroying the evidence. Louisa recalled that Nic had lost the spare key for his flat. Had Donald taken it and used it to steal Nic’s hair and to move Nic’s possessions around his flat in mysterious fashion?
And yet, the police said, there was no evidence of Donald committing any crime against Nic. Certainly, there was no evidence that he had been up on the cliff when Nic fell. Louisa and Nic’s sister, Nadia, were not satisfied. With a little help from The Guardian, they carried on digging. What they found was not what they had expected.
The first clue came when they heard of several incidents which suggested that Nic was much closer to Donald than they had realised. Talking around the town, they came across several silly pranks when the two young men had teamed up against people who had caught Donald’s eye. Then, they turned to Nic’s possessions and, in particular, to the personal paperwork he had left behind in his flat. There was something very odd about his finances.
At the beginning of February, Nic had sold half the shares in Rentokil which he had taken out when he worked there. He had received just over £2,500. But there was no sign of that money in any of his accounts.In April, he had started selling his possessions – his television, his video, his sofa, his armchairs. In the week before his death, he had drawn £370 pounds in cash out of his account and arranged to borrow a further £2,000. The loan had been agreed, but the money was not transferred to his account until two days after his death. Neither Louisa nor any of his friends could explain why he would have wanted all this money. They could think of nothing on which he had spent it.
There was one other odd clue in his paperwork. His bank statements showed two payments, on March 27 and April 2, to something called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This sounded, at first, like a trendy restaurant, but it turned out to be a mail-order business, based in Leeds, which sold the paraphanalia of Satanism and books about the occult. At least twice, Nic had ordered material from them.
How did all this fit together? The next clues came from Rev Canon Dominic Walker, one of the Anglican church’s leading experts on the occult and, by chance a resident of Brighton, ten miles down the road. Walker is a psychologist by training, quite willing to understand reports of the occult in psychological as well as religious terms. He thought he knew Donald. Certainly, he remembered a year or so earlier that a social worker had brought him a 15-year-old boy who was obsessed with Satanism and quite determined to join a Satanic coven. But did such covens really exist?
Walker, who has recently become Bishop of Reading, had no doubt. He had dealt personally with people who had been drawn into covens and then found it impossible to escape. Sussex had a tradition of witchcraft, he said, both white and black. Alex Sanders, who described himself as the King of the Witches, had lived along the coast in Hastings, as had Aleister Crowley with his Ordo Templis Orientis.
Just like any cult, he said, they imposed their ideology with such force that their members more or less lost the ability to think independently. The Satanic groups, he said, were also quite happy to use bluntly criminal tactics. They would interfere with car brakes or use violence to keep their members in line. They also liked to use blackmail, he said. For example, they would secretly take pictures of initiation rites, in which nudity or drugs or sex were a feature, and then use them to extract large sums of cash from those who fell under their spell.
He recalled one particular case of a young professional man who had become embroiled, who had said nothing to anyone until his wife realised that they were almost bankrupt. He had counselled the man and tried to help him escape and found that he had given thousands of pounds to this coven. That particular man, he said, belonged to a rather nasty group. He didn’t know too much about them, he said. Just that they were based around Lewes. And they had a particular interest in cats, he believed. Satanic groups tended to make up their ritual as they went along, he said, but, as he understood it, they claimed to believe that they could kill a cat and take its power. It was not unusual for Sussex cats to go missing around the time of Satanic festivals.
It was then that a little incident from the past seemed possibly to be important. Nic had owned a black and white cat. Her name was Gemma and she was his constant companion. In March, Nic had mentioned to Louisa that Gemma had died. She remembered at the time that he had seemed secretive about it and rather indifferent, an odd reaction in a man who cared very much about all animals and, in particular, about Gemma. Nic had told her that she had become very ill and he had had to take her to the vet to have her put down. Now, Louisa and Nadia contacted Nic’s vet. No, the vet said, there was no record of Gemma being put down. They contacted other vets, every single other vet in Lewes. The answer was the same. Nic had been hiding something.
Re-reading the letter which Nic had left on his wall, they found another clue. “Some black magician … has personally confronted me,” he had written. Who was that? Not Donald. At the time he wrote the letter, Nic regarded Donald as his friend, the person to whom he turned for help in fighting the curse. If he had been ‘personally confronted’ by his tormentor, it had to mean that there was someone else who was involved. Had Nic somehow come across the Lewes group to which Rev Walker referred? And how had he encountered them? As a victim? Or did the truth run deeper than that?
Unknown to Louisa and Nadia, the final clue had been uncovered by a farmer just to the north of Lewes a few weeks after Nic’s death. Going into an old barn, he had been surprised to find an odd collection of burned candles, a photograph, and a very strange letter. Realising that they might be important, the farmer had taken them to the police. The photograph was the mugshot of a young man with shoulder-length brown hair. The letter was written in blood. Its author was renouncing God and giving his soul to Satan. The letter was signed in the name of Nicholas Gargani. It was his face in the photograph.
Louisa and Nadia were reluctant to believe the picture that was now formed by these clues. Possibly this letter was a forgery. Possibly this photograph had been stolen from Nic’s flat. Possibly Nic had taken Gemma to a vet in Brighton. Possibly he had been using the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to buy things that might protect him from Satanism and not that would help him to practice it. But it was now equally possible that Nic had become involved with some Satanic group, of which his new friend Donald was already a member.
The two women still could not say how Nic had died. An inquest had been held and had recognised the mystery of the incident by returning an open verdict. The police had looked for evidence of murder and of suicide but had concluded finally that Nic’s death must have been an accident. Louisa and Nadia found that hard to accept and they feared the police had been too quick to reject Nic’s fears as irrelevant fantasy. They believed it had to be suicide or murder and it had to be linked to Nic’s involvement with the Satanists. There was one final, frustrating little clue.
Rev Walker said that the full moon was often the focus of Satanic events. The disappearance or maiming of cats often occurred around these times. The incident with the dead hedgehog had happened on the night of the May full moon. And Nic had died on April 17. That night there would have been a full moon. Perhaps he had known that that night he would be asked to do something which he could not face. Or perhaps he had already refused, and the long fall from the cliff was his punishment.
If they had found nothing else, the two women had at least established that Nic Gargani was no fantasist. For all that it sounded like a tabloid legend, the fact was that there were people in this calm and civilised community who were Satanists. The truth about Donald was that he was a sick adolescent, abandoned by a bullying father who was said to have had his own interest in the dark arts, scornful of a passive mother who was devoted to Catholicism. Here was a boy who was haunted by his own personal fears and who had learned to inject fear into those around him, flirting with neo-Nazis, using violence against his mother, turning his Satanism on anyone who crossed his path.
In reality, Donald was a deeply unimpressive character – a nervous, pudgy lad with flat feet and a sagging stomach. He had a growth of pubescent fluff on his chin and a crop of well-picked spots on his cheeks. In reality, he had no power, no link to the Devil or any one other kind of supernatural force. His curses were empty malice. And yet, in the imagination of those he dealt with, his threat seemed serious.
Even if it was true – as the police continued to believe – that Nic Gargani had died by accident, there was no doubting the state of fear in which he had lived his last week. And he was not the only one who succumbed. In the weeks after his death, Nic’s friends had felt the same. Louisa had left Lewes for a while to escape the fear. Some of the professional people who dealt with Donald admitted that they, too, had felt it. A local journalist who saw Donald in court admitted frankly: “This kid scares the life out of me. He is not Micky Mouse. He is the closest to evil that I have ever come.” These dark arts touched on some core of unreason in people’s minds, something as old as the rolling hills around the edge of the town. Satan might be an illusion, but the fear was real.
Donald is now awaiting sentence by Lewes magistrates. He has admitted carrying an offensive weapon, stealing a stone cross from South Malling Church, and inflicting Actual Bodily Harm on his mother. Despite pleading Not Guilty, he has also been convicted of using threatening behaviour against the 13-year-old boy whom he forced to kneel and pray. A further case of threatening behaviour in relation to the incident with the dead hedgehog was withdrawn after the Crown Prosecution Service said they had insufficient evidence to show that Donald was responsible.
* ‘Donald’ is a false name. The law on juvenile offenders requires that his real identity should be concealed.