The life of Roger Davis, better known in these parts as Witch Vortex, ended at a Veterans Affairs hospital far from his beloved Dragon House in Savoy and apart from his family.
His death would spark a nearly year's legal battle over his legacy — and land — between his relatives and the beneficiary of his last will, his friend and neighbor Ross Toromino. Both sides claimed they wanted to see Davis' legacy protected, but in the meantime, his artwork began disappearing and his landmark house burned to the ground.
Just prior to his death, the VA hospital once again considered contacting his sister, E. Margret Harrer, but Toromino said he preferred to contact her rather than have the hospital do it.
Harrer, along with other relatives and friends, say they were notified only after his death, and were not consulted in the interrment of his remains in a Long Island veterans cemetery, contrary to his oft-stated wishes.
The Dragon House burned on Oct. 15, 2011. Right, one of Davis' goddesses is literally falling apart.
The skeletal remains of the dragon; left, a tightly boarded-up window as seen weeks before the fire.
"What was really sad was that Roger really didn't want to be buried," said longtime friend Helga McConnell, "He wanted to be cremated and spread on the land."
"He had told me that if the time came not to spend money on a funeral, he did not care how his body was laid to rest," maintained Toromino. "I discussed the matter with VA, and they said they could provide the [free] funeral as long as it was in a veteran's cemetery. The stipulation would be no calling hours, and it would be in the cemetery of their choosing."
In the VA hospital transcript of the conversation about Davis' burial, Toromino is quoted as saying, "Now I want to make sure that I am saying what I am supposed to say here because I don't want the VA or the government to come after me later and say, 'OK, we're going to take your land.' "
Expressing immediate concerns about the circumstances surrounding the final weeks of his life, including Davis' mental state at the time of signing over power of attorney and willing of property to Toromino, Harrer filed a petition for probate of the will and its executor within a month. The family engaged the legal services of Aaronson & Associates, who began requesting the aforementioned medical records.
An immediate family member says that in the months that followed, they became increasingly concerned that items were being removed from Davis' property, particularly sculptures and items of sentimental value they believed he had meant for friends and family members.
"We didn't care about the land. It was the house, his things, his legacy that we cared about," said Meg Harrer Brooks, Margret Harrer's daughter.
On Oct. 7, 2011, Aaronson & Associates filed a 13-page Affidavit of Objections on behalf of their clients. Katherine Bierwas, an attorney with the firm, confirmed that around that time they contacted Toromino's attorney with concerns that none of the contested property should be liquidated or removed prior to the resolution of the probate case.
"No one's the executor [pending a hearing on the objections]," said Bierwas, "No one should be touching the property."
A few days later, the Dragon House burned to the ground. Examination of the ruins suggested a fire that began inside the house, though the prevailing theory among officials at the time was that it was most likely started by trespassing teenagers. This view is echoed in casual inquiries at Savoy's general store, but some area residents insist that outside the earshot of outsiders, a quite different theory is often spoken.
"The timing is suspicious," said one, "it's just too big a coincidence."
Those who doubt the random-teenager theory point to the fact that the house was very thoroughly boarded up and locked, in such a way that gaining illicit entry would have been difficult and time consuming. This was confirmed visually during my visit to the house several weeks prior to the October fire.
Repeated and extensive attempts to communicate with Savoy police and fire department officials have been ignored.
Toromino maintains that the property has been the site of frequent vandalism ever since Davis first became hospitalized, and it was for this reason no trespassing signs were put out in the fall of 2010.
"Soon after the snow had melted, the vandalism and burglaries began," said the Savoy resident. "One by one the windows were smashed to gain entry. Being that the house is in a remote part of town, the local police and myself were concerned that the house would one day be burned down. I finally had the house boarded up to prevent anymore damage to the house, and the burglaries within. This however, did not stop the damage."
Davis' niece disputes that there were any signs of vandalism or break-ins at the house, but noticed a changed lock on the door soon after his passing.
"I checked on my uncle's home prior and after his death," said Brooks, "only to find Ross had taken many items out of the home and around the land, including all the wood my uncle had in the wood shed, which was extensive. He had boxes packed with many items in the house. The accusation of vandalism is nothing but a fabrication as far as we are concerned. Every time I was up there, no sign of anything like that was there."
Heather, a Pittsfield friend of the deceased who visited the house after his death, concurred with this assessment. "No signs of vandalizing or break in when I was up there ... just overgrowth of vines."
Friends remember the Savoy Witch as talented, kind and light-hearted.
Brooks said that since the fire, and the notification from their attorney a few days prior to it that the property should be left alone, Davis' tools have gone missing from a locked shed near the house.
Other changes include the removal of a 40 to 50-foot wooden bridge built by Davis with a large amount of quality lumber donated by a patron. The walkway has been dismantled within the past two months, as verified by this reporter, and the materials removed from the property.
Though a hearing on the probate case over Davis will is scheduled for June, family members say nothing can now make up for the way in which he died and was buried, or the blow to his legacy.
"It's just land now," said Brooks. "What we cared about — preserving the house and his artwork — that's gone now. Nothing can bring it back."
"All I ever wanted to do was to preserve Roger's legacy in any way I could, and I am saddened and troubled over the events of this past year," Toromino said in a statement. "I do not want the land, and have tried to get action started to sign the land over to the family, and end this dispute."
Despite the destruction of his house and pall over his death, many friends and loved ones will continue to remember Davis as they knew him — talented, colorful, kind, sometimes difficult, and ultimately, more light-hearted than the local legend of Witch Vortex might let on. Perhaps an anecdote shared by Cathy Grove, from just a year or two before his health began to fail, offers the best final spotlight in which to cast him.
"A car came up in the middle of the night," Cathy recalled, "He didn't mind that. He got up, and went outside, as he would. No one got out, so he walked up to it."
From the window, Roger could see a group of youths inside. "We heard there were ghosts up here," one of them chirped up.
Roger regarded them solemnly.
"I've lived here for 500 years, and I can assure you, there are no ghosts."
The car tore off, leaving the Witch of Savoy standing alone in the darkness at the path to his solitary Dragon House, chuckling softly to himself.
Directly following the publication of Part II of this inquiry, Mr. Toromino recused himself as executor of Roger Davis' will and relinquished claim to the former Dragon House property. His sister E. Margret Harrer is now the only heir to what remains of his estate, according to her attorney, Katherine Bierwas. Family members are considering additional civil actions regarding the disappearance of items and destruction of the house. Part One of the story can be found here, and Part Two here. These Mysterious Hills is a production of writer Joe Durwin and more mysterious goings on can be found here.
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