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Get Thee Outta Town, They Cried; Did Satan Scram?

Mayor believes she did the right thing in 2001. But some residents say she misses the point.

March 14, 2004|Todd Lewan | Associated Press Writer

INGLIS, Fla. — It truly was an ambitious undertaking. But Carolyn Risher, mayor of this coastal hamlet of shrimp fishermen and God-fearing folk, believed that the hour had come to cleanse her town of the giver of evil: Satan himself.

His grip on the community, she'd noticed, had become disturbingly apparent: A father had molested a child; teenagers were dressing in black and powdering their faces white; pot and crystal-meth use was on the uptick.

So she sat at her kitchen table on Halloween night in 2001 and drafted a proclamation. The words flowed from her pen, she recalled later, almost as if God was guiding her hand.

"Be it known from this day forward," she began, "that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis.... In the past, Satan has caused division, animosity, hate, confusion, ungodly acts on our youth, and discord among our friends and loved ones. NO LONGER!"

And finally:

"We exercise our authority over the devil in Jesus' name. By that authority, and through His Blessed Name, we command all satanic and demonic forces to cease their activities and depart the town of Inglis."

The mayor printed her proclamation on official stationery. She stamped it with a gold seal. She signed it and, along with Sally McCranie, the town clerk, made copies and stuffed them into four, hollowed-out wooden posts on which were painted "repent," "request," "resist."

Then, together with a local pastor, a town commissioner and the chief of police, the mayor went to each of Inglis' four entrances and, in the name of the town's 1,421 residents, fixed those messages of banishment into the ground.

"My main goal was to wake Inglis up," Risher, 62, told a visitor recently. "If the proclamation could get people to wake up and realize that they needed God, then it would be a success -- then Inglis would be saved."

Would it, though? Would banning the Prince of Darkness from the town's three square miles deliver Inglis from drugs, thieves and drunk drivers? Would it ease the fears of a small, isolated community -- frustrated by joblessness and uneasy about war overseas and terrorism at home -- and attract an angel of light?

*

To an outsider cruising in fifth gear along the flat, asphalt ribbon that is U.S. 19, the towns along Florida's Gulf Coast do not look like Satan's stomping grounds. They look as sedate as they always have, places where the globes of streetlights are almost hidden by live oaks and palms, where herons jut from the marshes and shallow brown creeks cut through the Florida scrub.

Inglis -- 75 miles north of Tampa, bounded by timberland to the north and east, an intracoastal waterway to the south and the Gulf to the west -- is no different. There's not a lot going on here economically: a towing business or two, a couple of real estate agencies, a few fruit stands, some bait-and-tackle shops, a couple of no-tell motels, and a handful of pawnshops, pubs and grills.

If you'd been able to get a degree in engineering or nuclear physics, you might have landed a good-paying job at the nuclear plant a few miles south. If you hadn't, you'd probably be a struggling shrimp fisherman. Shrimping has fallen on hard times since big buyers began importing cheap shrimp from Asia -- "outsourcing of fishermen," as the locals put it.

It's a town with a '50s feel, perhaps because of the big, bent sign on Highway 40 West reminding people that Elvis Presley came to Inglis to film "Follow That Dream," perhaps because many of the homes and businesses on the main drag went up then too.

Or perhaps it's because of folks like Risher, who is known to drive a wrecker for her husband's towing business when she's not busy with city business.

On her office wall, along with a print of "The Last Supper," is a map of the United States, chocked with multicolored pins. Each locates a newspaper, TV or radio station that sent a correspondent to Inglis to write about her anti-Satan campaign. "We got the world's attention," Risher said.

No fewer than 217 news organizations from as far away as Australia descended on Inglis in the months after the mayor's act, as did members of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose Florida chief described the proclamation as "the most extreme intrusion into religion by a public official that I have ever seen in my 27 years as a director of the ACLU."

Soon, Risher was fielding calls from Dan Rather, Gov. Jeb Bush, "Saturday Night Live" and the New York Times, and squinting under the lighting of CNN, NBC and BBC cameras.

"It was like wildfire," the mayor recalled. "You couldn't put it out."

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" sent a correspondent from New York, dressed him in a red devil's costume, and had him stand in front of the Lil' Champ's convenience store and slip passersby $20 bills to chase him out of town for the camera.

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