First it seemed funny: They joked about being turned into frogs. Then it turned serious: They talked about psychic vampires (people who drain others of energy) and magical energy forces.
On Wednesday, about 30 Bucks and Montgomery County police officers left their gritty street routine and journeyed into an esoteric realm.
For two hours, the officers put aside their skepticism and asked Michael Slaughter, a self-described witch, to teach them about witchcraft and occult philosophies.
Slaughter, 24, said he was a member of Wicca, the religion of witches.
Wicca is an Old English word meaning "wise one," he said. The word witch is derived from wicca.
"We view nature as a form of divinity," similar to the way American Indians do, Slaughter told the officers.
One of 12 members of a coven in Delaware, Slaughter traveled from Dover with occult expert Edward Maxwell, a sergeant with the New Castle County Police, to help teach a two-day class on Satanism at the Bucks County Police Training Center in Doylestown.
Maxwell, who has received awards from his department for investigating and prosecuting occult-related crimes, addresses law enforcement agencies in many Northeastern states. Although he is not a witch, Maxwell said he frequently attended their rituals and had studied the occult.
He said 45 to 50 covens were in the Philadelphia area. No one knows exactly how many Wicca members there are, he said, because of the religion's rules of secrecy, which date to the medieval days of witch-burning.
Maxwell instructs officers how to determine whether a crime is occult-inspired. He told the group to look for skulls, robes, animal parts or vandalized Christian artifacts around the crime scene.
The number of occult-related crimes is vastly exaggerated, Maxwell said. Most, he said, are simply the work of "clever criminals" who use Satan as an excuse for their outrages.
"They tell a jury things like 'I'm a Satanic high priest, and therefore I'm allowed to rape an 11-year-old girl.' Or they say, 'I worship the devil; therefore, I must be insane' " to support an insanity plea.
Intelligent, white, upper-middle-class teenage boys who consider themselves loners are most apt to join satanic cults, Maxwell said. Such boys often feel alienated and "do not feel, after 52 Sundays a year of church, like they've touched God" or found the "power" they seek, he said.
"They have just a little bit of dangerous knowledge. They pick up bits and pieces of things they read in the library and create their own stuff and add their own spice of life."
A hair stylist by profession, Slaughter is about 5-foot-9 and stocky with a Vandyke beard. Except for the pentagram ring, necklace and crystal bracelet, he looks like any other man in his 20s.
True believers of Wicca, Slaughter said, use the energies in magic rituals only for good. The Wicca version of the Golden Rule, he told the officers, is: "Do as thou wilt, but harm none."
"There is no such thing as white or black magic," he said. "Magic is the ability to move energy around. The energy I heal with is the same energy that a Satanist uses to kill with. . . . Instead of healing, I could take a wound and make it worse, but I wouldn't."
Witches, he said, believe in reincarnation and think people can choose the time and place of their reincarnation.
"You might want to be born in the African jungle or downtown Chicago or in some cow town in Iowa," Slaughter said. It all depends on what one's "life essence is trying to learn."
He said witches, like the rest of society, struggled with such ethical questions as whether abortion is right or wrong.
"I personally am pro-choice, but I have a pagan friend that is pro-life," he said. "I'm not sure why. Maybe she tried to be reincarnated recently and was aborted, so she feels trauma when it comes to that topic." CAPTION:
PHOTO (2), 1. Michael Slaughter, a member of the Wicca religion, lectures to officers in Doylestown. (Special to The Inquirer / HINDA SCHUMAN), 2. His necklace combines pentagram, symbol for Mercury.