Keith Morelli, Tampa Tribune, September 15, 2006
Tampa — A grieving widow who visited her husband’s grave expected to find fresh sod and flowers, not a ritualistic slaughter of animals next to the headstone.
But atop the two-week-old grave was a dead chicken, a set of goat hoofs and four dead puppies.
Worst of all, the puppies were headless.
“I was horrified,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she wanted to shield her family from the desecration.
Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies were called and filed a report.
“It appeared to be a part of a religious practice,” the responding deputy wrote in the report.
Mozella Mitchell, professor and chairwoman of the department of religious studies at the University of South Florida, teaches African and Caribbean religions. She said the incident sounds like a Caribbean or African religious rite.
“It does sound like it was very ritualistic,” she said, “like they were making a sacrifice of some sort. These kinds of artifacts, chickens and goats, are often used in rituals. They may be seeking communication with spirits and sacrifice the blood of animals to a particular deity.”
Mitchell said the blood sacrifices have their roots in Yoruba, an African religion that spread through the Caribbean over the past three centuries. Blood sacrifices are a way to reach the spirit world, she said.
The Bay area has a large contingent of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, she said. Many practice this type of faith, although most keep it secret.
“They are afraid of ostracism and persecution,” Mitchell said. “It’s difficult to tell how many practice, because they do it undercover.”
Santeria is a hybrid of religions, including Roman Catholicism and African Yoruba.Experts say it began in Cuba when African-born slaves, forced to worship as Catholics, blended that with their own beliefs.
Voodoo is a religion practiced mainly in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti, and is based on West African spiritual traditions that also incorporate elements of Catholicism.
In Florida, Santeria blossomed in 1980, when the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to the state’s southern shores. Many practiced Santeria, and it has grown with the influx of immigrants from Haiti and Jamaica.
The desecration is the second graveyard incident in the past few months. In July, the remains of a 6-year-old boy — buried 30 years ago — were stolen by grave robbers. The case has stumped police, who said the culprits probably were voodoo or Santeria practitioners, although religious experts doubted that.