The beloved Dragon House, home of artist and eccentric Roger Davis, met a fiery demise 10 months after the self-proclaimed Witch of Savoy passed away.
Subsequent independent investigation revealed a whirlwind of rumors among residents in the small town of Savoy, and a complex legal battle that began playing out within weeks of Davis' death in early 2011.
The fire is believed to have broken out inside the vacant dwelling sometime overnight on Oct. 15, 2011. The blaze was "deemed suspicious" and under investigation as a possible arson, according to officials at the time. Repeated calls to both Savoy's police and fire officials for updates on this investigation have, to date, never been returned.
Some of those most familiar with the Dragon House say changes in the property began almost as soon as Davis became ill in the fall of 2010. In the months before his death, some of his works of sculpture had vanished from the property. The sign welcoming visitors was replaced with "Keep Out" posted around the perimeter, warning the curious that the property now had a "new owner" — Ross Toromino of nearby Loop Road.
An obituary filed a couple of days after Davis' death lists Toromino as a "long time friend." It lists only one relation by name, which is incorrectly given as Margret Harris (Roger's sister's name is actually Harrer). The obituary was written and submitted by Toromino, who was named executor and the primary recipient of property in a will signed by Davis in November 2010, less than two months prior to his death.
Top, a new sign at the end of Roger Davis' driveway. Above and right, elements of Davis' connection with nature. Below, the Savoy Witch in happier times.
According to Toromino, he first met Davis 45 years ago when they both worked at the former Old Stone Mill in Adams. They fell out of touch for a time, then renewed their friendship about 20 years ago.
"We would sit around his table at his home, drink tea, and talk of the mysteries of life," said Toromino, whose home is about a mile away from the Dragon House. "When he came to visit me, he would take a shortcut, through the woods and down snowmobile trails."
Davis' relatives describe a different picture of the relationship between Toromino and the man best known to the public as Witch Vortex. Documents obtained from Probate Court in Pittsfield show that the deceased's sister, E. Margret Harrer, has challenged the will and Toromino's legitimacy as its executor. In a signed statement, Harrer argues that Roger's "mental capacity was diminished at the time he signed the will" and that Toromino "was not truthful" with either Roger's family or the veterans hospital where he spent his final days.
"One of the results of this deception was that my family and I were never informed of my brother's critical condition the last week of his life," Harrer's statement continues. "This resulted in my brother dying alone with no family by his side. This and other deceptions and a lack of responsibility show that he is not qualified to be the executor."
In the Affidavit of Objections filed with the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court on Oct. 7, 2011, attorneys for Harrer alleged that "Toromino exerted undue influence over Roger to obtain access to Roger's finances prior to Roger's death" and that he "fraudulently prevented Roger's family from obtaining information as to Roger's condition and convinced hospital personnel that he, Toromino, was the only contact for Roger."
Toromino was but one of a number of individuals who were named in a will Davis created approximately a year earlier. According to the friend who typed it up, for which Davis paid with a check for $5, "he was in his right mind" at that time. It is not clear whether this earlier will was ever notarized, although copies were distributed to relatives, who believe the original was kept in a safe in the Dragon House.
Some friends and close relatives said that over the course of the year that followed, Davis' mental state deteriorated, possibly as a result of his failing health.
"Near the end of his life, someone stole something from him," longtime friend Cathy Grove said, "this really bothered him, because he had always opened up his home, he did what he did mainly for other people."
Grove said he began to seem more discouraged and depressed, which she believed was a symptom of his cancer. She said it was late in summer 2010 that Davis first brought up his friendship with Toromino to her, when he asked her for a ride to Loop Road.
Davis' oldest friend, Helga McConnell, presented a similar picture of his mental state at the time. McConnell had been close with Davis for decades, but the two had experienced a falling out in 2007. In June 2010, she picked up Davis hitchhiking and re-established their friendship, after which she began taking him shopping and to virtually all his appointments in Pittsfield, North Adams and Northampton throughout the next three months, according to medical records cited in the court affidavit.
"I realized right away he had a problem," McConnell explained. "He was confused. I'm not a doctor, but it was very obvious to me he had some form of dementia."
When asked about the friendship between Davis and Toromino, Helga responded, "I'm not so sure they were friends. I never heard him talk about going to see him, or visit."
On Sept. 30, 2010, McConnell took Davis to attend a meeting at Soldier On, and was told he needed to be examined by a veterans hospital before he could be placed. They went to the Veterans Affairs' medical center in Northampton, where Davis was evaluated and admitted. McConnell says she did not visit him for the first month, because in their phone conversations he kept asking her to pick him up, against medical advice.
"He seemed confused, paranoid, asking me to call the police," said McConnell. When she did come visit him, she found he had already been moved to the West Haven, Conn., hospital, where he would die a few weeks later.
In Northampton, Davis' mental state seemed to worsen quickly, and hospital notes over the next few weeks repeatedly refer to "confusion" "wandering thoughts" and trouble with focusing and memory. The hospital had been administering a variety of psychoactive medications to him, including antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers since early October.
On Nov. 10, Davis wrote a letter to his sister in which he presented a dismal view of his current health, mentioning the possibility of suicide. Hospital staff notes from that day depict him as having "difficulty focusing" and a "disturbed thought process"
Also on Nov. 10, according to the affidavit from Harrer's lawyers, Toromino phoned a social worker at the Northampton hospital to say Davis wanted him to assist with planning for his assets.
A week later, Davis signed documents declaring Toromino his medical proxy, opted for "Do Not Resuscitate" status, and issued a second, binding last will and testament with Toromino as its executor and sole beneficiary.
"He told me that he was very concerned," said Toromino, "because the will he had previously written, a year or so prior, was not legal, and upon trying to get it notarized, was refused."
"I was asked to appear at the Northampton hospital because Roger had requested that I be assigned as his POA and as the representative of his health proxy," he continued. "These are the only documents that I was present for. Roger, his doctors, and the lawyer wrote up the will, I was not present and not aware of what was mentioned until I received a copy in the mail. The Northampton doctors and the lawyer confirmed with me that Roger was of sound mind."
The following day, Davis' attending physicians officially diagnosed him with depression and unspecified cognitive disorder. The day after that, on Nov. 19, Davis was transferred to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven.
Following the granting of power of attorney to Toromino and his transfer to Connecticut, McConnell said she was no longer privy to information about Davis' condition.
In the probate suit, relatives allege they were also largely kept in the dark about Davis' diminishing condition, which occurred at a time while they were preoccupied with another medical crisis involving the near death of a child in the family.
Medical records from VACHS obtained by a court order outline some of the final events of his life. Davis' weight was already low upon admission, when Dr. Robert Homer indicated "though per records he and his POA [Toromino] have been refusing PEG tube, he did express interest in having this placed to me."
Three days after his transfer, Dr. Sally Romana, a psychiatrist at the West Haven hospital described Davis as "disoriented and paranoid on examination. He repeatedly tries to sell his house and land to this examiner ... Mental status waxes and wanes throughout the examination."
Though surgery to remove his cancer was considered successful, low body weight and mental confusion continued to complicate his recovery.
According to discharge summaries, the West Haven hospital was aware that Davis had a sister, but "per patient's friend (Toromino), patient estranged from sister."
Harrer says that to the contrary, she and her brother continued to send letters and spoke on the phone during this time, exchanging Christmas gifts just weeks before his death.
"It was my understanding from Roger that there were very few people he wanted to visit, or for me to report to," said Toromino. "He wanted to be left alone .... As far as family, he had said they had become estranged from the time he discovered the Vortex Witch within him, and did not want me to be in contact with them."
"My uncle would never has said he was estranged from the family, because he was not," according to Davis' niece, Megan Harrer Brooks. "We have always kept in contact and had him at our home during many holidays. He had remained in contact with my brother, my daughter, my mother and I through out years and was very close to my daughter and I particularly. In the hospital notes, it states my uncle told the hospital they may tell his sister anything regarding his health condition and that he has nothing to hide."
On Dec. 15, according to discharge summaries, "Patient's friend states that patient previously stated that he was not interested in resuscitation, life support, or chemo." On that date, the social worker filled out a new Advanced Directive that made Toromino his official health-care decision maker.
"I do not wish to die," Davis told Dr. Susan Lewis, on Dec. 25. He repeated this sentiment to Dr. Jonathan Levin on Jan. 3.
On Jan. 10, Davis was found unresponsive. A code 5 was called, at which time the hospital contacted Toromino to inform him. According to their records, they were told "he did not want this," and his status was updated to DNR/DNI. Medical intervention ceased.
Davis died of cardiopulmonary arrest at 11:50 the next morning and contrary to his oft-stated wishes, he was buried in a Long Island veterans cemetery.
Meanwhile, the legal battle began to boil, Davis' home would be left smoldering from a suspicious blaze and his art began to mysteriously disappear — all of which tight-lipped police and fire officials have yet to speak a word about.
Part One can be found here and Part Three, here. These Mysterious Hills is a production of writer Joe Durwin and more mysterious goings on can be found here.
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