PATCHOGUE, N.Y. — A man was killed during a Masonic initiation ceremony when another member fired a gun loaded with real bullets instead of the expected blanks and shot him in the face, police said Tuesday.
A 76-year-old man alleged to have fired the shot was charged with manslaughter.
William James, 47, was shot while participating in an induction Monday night at the Southside Masonic Lodge, Suffolk County police said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Detective Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick said the ritual that went “tragically wrong” involves making a loud noise to frighten the new member.
“The ceremony was designed to create a state of anxiety,” he said.
The lieutenant said the Masons sat James in a chair and placed cans on a small platform around his head.
The alleged shooter, Albert Eid, was standing approximately 20 feet away holding a gun, Fitzpatrick said at a news conference. When the gun was fired, a man who had been holding a stick out of sight was supposed to knock the cans off the platform to make the inductee think they had been struck by bullets, he said.
Eid had two guns — one with blanks and one with real bullets — and apparently pulled the wrong one out of his pocket and fired, shooting James in the face, the lieutenant said.
“We believe it was completely accidental,” Fitzpatrick said. Eid was quite “stunned and distraught” at James’ death, he said.
Eid, of Patchogue, had had a permit since 1951 for the .32-caliber handgun used in the shooting but it was not clear why he took it to the ceremony, police said. He pleaded innocent to a manslaughter charge and bail was set at $2,500. His next court date was scheduled for April 27.
Eid’s lawyer did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Carl Fitje, grand master of the New York State Freemasons, issued a statement Tuesday denying that guns play a role in any officially sanctioned lodge ceremonies.
“We don’t use pistols,” Steve Mayo, who described himself as a senior deacon of the lodge, told reporters Tuesday. “This is not a Masonic ceremony where we bring pistols.”
However, Fitzpatrick said members told police the rite involving a gun goes back at least 70 years.
Mayo said the Monday night ceremony was an initiation into the Fellow Craft, which is the second degree within the multilevel Masonic system.
Mayo said James, of Medford, had been a member of the lodge for a few months while Eid had been a member for many years.
“This is very upsetting, very upsetting that one of our brothers was accidentally killed,” he said.
James worked for the planning department of the Long Island town of Brookhaven, spokesman Dave Kennedy said.