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Death at a Masonic Lodge

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Death at a Masonic Lodge

Induction ceremony was to frighten, not harm, father of five.


March 10, 2004

The secret induction ceremony in the basement of the lodge on Monday night was only supposed to frighten William James, and build trust between the burly father of five and his fellow members of the Southside Masonic Temple by letting him think he was placing his life in their hands.

There were large rat traps, which James, 47, was made to place his nose beside. A six-foot replica guillotine. And a plank he would be forced down, as if walking off the side of a ship. Then, there were the guns. Wearing a white cap, white pants, but no shirt, in accordance with the ritual's traditions, James was seated along one side of the temple's large basement. Behind his head, tin cans were placed on a platform, Suffolk Homicide Det. Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick said. And, 20 feet away, Albert Eid, 76, a trustee of the Fellowcraft Club, the club James was hoping to join, stood with two guns in his front pants pockets.

In his right pocket, he carried a loaded .32-caliber handgun, which he had told James would be used to knock over the cans.

In his left, was a .22-caliber gun, similar in size and weight, but filled only with blanks. It was the gun he was intending to fire, Fitzpatrick said. The plan was to fire the blanks at the same moment a member standing behind James would knock over the cans with a stick.

But, in a tragic misstep, Eid reached into the wrong pocket and pulled out the loaded pistol, then fired a single bullet that struck James in the nose and killed him, Fitzpatrick said. "We believe that it was completely accidental," Fitzpatrick said. "Clearly it was a poor decision to have that weapon in that proximity."

James' death appears to be one of only two in the secret society's 250-year history in this country, the first since Ben Franklin's era. Eid, of 155 Jayne Ave. in Patchogue, was arrested and charged with second-degree manslaughter. The charge, defined as reckless taking of another life, is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Eid, a retired plumber, has been a licensed pistol holder since 1951 and owns five handguns, which were seized by police after the shooting. "I don't understand what happened," James' wife, Susan, said yesterday afternoon from her Medford home. "He left for the meeting and was in a fine mood. I'm doing terribly right now ... I know as much about it as you do," she said.

When her husband left home around 6:30 p.m. Monday, Susan James said, he did not mention the ritual to be conducted that night. Approximately 10 other members of the group were present during the ceremony, police said.

'Bonding experiences'

The club is composed of local Patchogue Masons, and is responsible for repair work and maintenance to the lodge, said Andrew Boracci, a former master of the Sag Harbor Mason's lodge. "It's an independent social group, independent of masons and independent of the lodge," Boracci said. First, dinner was served. Then, about 8:30 p.m., the ritual for James and a second inductee, who was not identified by police, began. Eid's attorney, Jim O'Rourke of Hauppauge, said his client had been a member of the group for years and had taken part in dozens of induction ceremonies. "They are supposed to be joyous, bonding experiences," he said.

O'Rourke said he did not know if those prior ceremonies involved the use of a loaded weapon.

The purpose of the ceremony was to startle James with loud noises, fill him with fear, but ultimately show him he could trust his "brothers" to protect him, Boracci said. Loud sounds, shoving and other techniques traditionally have been used in the society to give initiates the sense of having undergone a journey or transformation, according to Steven C. Bullock, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He said he had never heard of the use of a firearm. "There is that sort of attempt to scare, to heighten the emotion. When the blindfold is taken off, the entire lodge is supposed to clap," said Bullock, the author of "Revolutionary Brotherhood," a recent book on Freemasonry's role in forming the American democratic system. "But," he said, "I had no idea that something like this could happen." Ronald J. Steiner, a public relations official with the New York Grand Lodge, based in Manhattan, said the Patchogue ritual was an aberration. "What happened last night was not sanctioned by the lodge ... I've never seen anything like that. And I've never heard it either," he said.

Even after the shot was fired, some may not have realized it came from the loaded weapon, Fitzpatrick said. James slumped over on his chair, then fell onto the floor, but did not start bleeding immediately. He died within minutes, however, police said.

One of the members ran upstairs to use the phone, and spotted a police car passing by outside on Oak Street, Fitzpatrick said. The officer ran inside and rendered first aid. "It was clear from the outset that very little was going to be able to save the victim," Fitzpatrick said.

Two of those present during the ceremony declined to comment. One said only, "We lost a brother, I am upset." Donn Larson, an assistant civil engineer in the Town of Brookhaven Planning Department, has known James since he was hired in 1988 and considered him "a good friend." Over the years, James had attained the status of map drafter 3.

An 'easy-going guy'

At 6-foot-2 and about 260 pounds, with a full beard, pony tail, and Harley Davidson jacket, James might have looked rather menacing, Larson said, but in reality, "he was pretty much a teddy bear ... a very mellow, calm, easy-going guy." His father had been a Mason, Larson said, and James was drawn to the idea of providing charitable work for others without drawing attention to himself.

Eid provided investigators with a written and videotaped statement, and appeared "distraught" and "apologetic" throughout the night, police said. He was arraigned yesterday at First District Court, where he pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge and was released on $2,500 bail. Eid declined to comment about the shooting.

O'Rourke, Eid's attorney, said his client was torn up by the shooting. "We are hoping to convince the district attorney and authorities that this was a horrible mistake," O'Rourke said, "but not a crime." Jessica Fehrenbach, 26, who lives across the street from Eid, said he was always friendly. He interceded recently when two neighbors' dogs got into a fight, she said, and routinely kept an eye on other houses on the block when neighbors were away. In a written statement, Grand Master of Masons Carl J. Fitje, the highest ranking mason in the state of New York, said: "On behalf of all Masons in New York, I extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the family of the Brother who lost his life so tragically. "This was not a Masonic Lodge meeting and no formal and approved Masonic ceremonies were scheduled to take place this evening. Firearms play no role in Masonic Lodge meetings or Masonic events of any kind," according to the statement.

Staff writers Indrani Sen and Joseph Mallia contributed to this story.

Copyright (c) 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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