Trash bags filled with decapitated goats, chickens and pheasants were found in North Hillsborough on Saturday, and experts say the animals probably were victims of a ritual slaughter related to Halloween. Three women riding horses on a dirt road Saturday evening discovered the seven bags and their gruesome contents in woods north of Twelve Oaks Boulevard and Heatherfield Drive.
The women told Cynthia Reams, who lives nearby, and she called the Sheriff's Office.
The bags contained four goats and numerous chickens and pheasants. All had been freshly decapitated, according to the sheriff's report.
"It was really terrible," Reams said. "It scared me to death."
Ritual sacrifice of animals is commonly used in the practice of Santeria, an African-Caribbean religion that literally means "saint worship." Animal sacrifice is used to ask for divine intercession in personal matters.
"It's about trying to achieve personal power or do harm to an enemy by sacrificing an animal," said Hillsborough Animal Services investigator Gary McMullen.
Goats and chickens probably are the animals most commonly used in Santeria sacrifices, said William Heim, a University of South Florida professor considered an authority on occultism.
The intentional torture of an animal that results in death is a third-degree felony in Florida, but ritualistic animal sacrifice cases often are hard to prosecute, McMullen said.
"It's very hard to catch these things in the act," he said. "You find the evidence of the crime, but not the act itself."
Experts say that these decapitations aren't necessarily the work of any organized group or religion.
"There's a lot of self-made people who read something or see it and try to do it themselves," said Sheriff's Detective Gladys Alarcon, who investigates occult and cult crimes. "It could be many things. It could be satanic worshiping."
"And I'm sure there are kids who do this kind of thing just on a lark," McMullen said.
Law enforcement officials say such incidents tend to occur around Halloween.
"I'm sure as we get closer to Halloween we'll have more things happen," Alarcon said.