NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. (UPI) -- A witches' ceremony came to an abrupt halt over the weekend

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NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. (UPI) -- A witches' ceremony came to an abrupt halt over the weekend when angry neighbors and members of the nature worshiping coven exchanged gunshots, authorities said. The witches said the attack Sunday was just the latest in a series of violent acts against their group and its island shrine near Moon Lake, northeast of New Port Richey. Five witches from the Coven Lothlorien told Pasco County deputies they had just finished a ritual seeking protection from threats when gunfire ripped through the trees surrounding their ceremonial grounds at about 11 p.m. No one was wounded and no arrests were made, the Pasco Sheriff's Office said. Witches, or wiccans, are nature worshipers who honor celestial cycles and the seasons, said Ron Parshley, president of National Association of Pantheists. Wiccans' ceremonies include torch-lit dancing, chanting and burning of incense, he said. "We heard the bullets ripping past and we all crouched down on the ground and started crawling back to my house on our hands and knees," said Kassie Cornwell, a witch and a registered nurse. The small island sits in the middle of a pond at the end of a lush pathway behind Cornwell's house. Only one other house stands within 200 yards of the pond, which backs up to a vast stretch of swamp. Members said Sunday's ritual was in response to threats they received the day before. Cornwell's house had been pelted with eggs, she said, and a note was left in her front yard Saturday. The note warned the group to stop their "Satan worshiping or be prepared for worse. Next time we won't stop at eggs." Another note said, "We are the ultimate enemy. We are out to kill!" Cornwell, 43, said she heard people cursing, calling them Satanists and other names during Sunday's attack. When the gunfire started, coven member Curtis Niles of Spring Hill grabbed a shotgun and fired several rounds in the air, Cornwell said. Neighbor Art Gray, 39, told a sheriff's deputy he heard shots coming from Cornwell's property and he fired back, also in the air, to warn the people away from his house. Several of Cornwell's neighbors said they believed the group practices Satanism and sacrifices animals. But Cornwell said the group doesn't allow animals near their worshiping area. She said the group's credo is to "do what you will, but harm none." Parshley said the group has "nothing to do with Satanism." The coven has worshiped at Cornwell's property since she bought her home a year ago. She said the worship area has been desecrated six or seven times. Mary Niles, another member, said the coven is named for the tree that the elves inhabited in "The Hobbit," J.R. Tolkien's novel about an imaginary dwarf-like people. Detective Jerry Puig, a religion specialist for the Pasco Sheriff's Office who has interviewed coven members, said there is a big difference between Satanism and the group's religion. "Wicca is all nature worship; worship of the sun, the wind, the moon," Puig said. "There is no blood and no devils involved." --------------- Copyright 1990 United Press International

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