Lodge rite prank kills man in N.Y.

Ritual was meant to end with shooting of blanks

March 10, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PATCHOGUE, N.Y. - The initiation rituals at the Masonic lodge here had been bathed in secrecy over the years. The climax of Monday night's ceremony was to be a simple prank. A new member of the Fellow Craft Club, a select group within the lodge, would sit in a chair while an older member stood 20 feet away and fired a handgun loaded with blanks.

That ritual went terribly wrong inside Southside Masonic Lodge No. 493, in a basement littered with rat traps, tin cans, a 9-foot-tall guillotine and a setup designed to mimic walking a plank.

The shooter, a 76-year-old Mason, Albert Eid, was carrying two guns, a .22-caliber handgun with blanks in his left pocket and a .32-caliber gun with live rounds in his right pocket.

He reached into his right pants pocket, pulled out the wrong gun and shot William James, a 47-year-old fellow Mason, in the face, killing him, the authorities said.

Eid, a World War II veteran who had a license to carry his own pistol and often did, pleaded not guilty yesterday afternoon to a charge of manslaughter. He was wearing his blue Masonic jacket during his arraignment in Central Islip.

Suffolk County Police called the shooting an accident, the consequence of one man's confusion during a decades-old ritual.

The incident exposes this centuries-old secret society to a rare degree of public scrutiny.

Late Monday night, police carried evidence and ritual objects out of the Masons' one-story lodge in Patchogue.

All day yesterday, television trucks and curious neighbors examined the club's bricked-over windows and peered into the front door to glimpse a bulletin board announcing the order's recent charity efforts.

Masonic leaders statewide were quick to disavow the ritual and shooting, saying it was not Masonic custom to shoot guns at other members. Ron Steiner, a spokesman for the New York State Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, which oversees all Masonic lodges in the state, said the social club was not officially tied to the Masonic organization.

"This is so far beyond the concept of reality it's mind-boggling," Steiner said. "I've never heard of anything like this."

Mystery and suspicion are woven into the history of the Freemasons, who trace their roots to the stone workers' guilds that built medieval Gothic cathedrals.

The guilds evolved into secret clubs over the years with secret handshakes and rituals, and such symbols as an all-seeing eye, pyramid and compass.

Over the years, the Southside Masonic Lodge members developed their own initiation rituals for the social club in the lodge that set them apart from most other Masonic organizations, members said.

No members of the lodge could remember pistols being used in the rituals (they are not allowed inside Masonic clubhouses), but some described initiations that were part prank, part exercise in trust.

On Monday night, James and Eid were among 10 men who set to performing the club's initiation.

James, the first to be initiated, sat down in a chair, and two tin cans were placed on a shelf by his head.

The idea was for Eid to fire two blank rounds, and a man standing behind James would knock the cans down with a stick. And then it happened.

"This is a tragedy," said Eid's lawyer, James O'Rourke. "He is absolutely beyond grief-stricken. This is a mistake, not a criminal act."

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