Weird crime is "occult cop's' specialty

Published Jan. 18, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Police officers called to an old neighborhood cemetery found something straight out of a horror movie: a dug-up coffin, pried open, with a headless corpse sitting up against the tombstone.

Around the grave desecration were small gourd bowls, a severed rooster's head and a cow's tongue nailed to a tree.

Officers wondered what it all meant. Who could have committed such an unspeakable act?

That's when Miami-Dade County Detective Amy Godoy stepped in.

They call Godoy the "occult cop." Imagine FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, from TV's The X-Files, rolled into one: skeptical but open to the reality of religious practices that many delegate to nightmares.

"I don't care how you cut up the religious and spiritual aspects of your life. . . . What I am concerned about is if you do break the law," Godoy said. "That's where I come in."

A 14-year veteran, Godoy has solved murders with her expertise and arrested a high priest of Cuban palo mayombe who captured and slaughtered endangered animals.

On Godoy's desk at police headquarters sits a deity with seashells for eyes from Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion that calls for animal sacrifice.

"You can see if you look really carefully that it was fed blood," the energetic 37-year-old said.

Police began encountering occult practices more frequently after 150,000 Cubans migrated to South Florida in the 1980 Mariel boat lift. They brought the religions of Santeria and palo mayombe with them. Haitian voodoo was already here.

"When we arrested these people we found many times items that we didn't understand," Godoy recalled. "The department really needed to get educated on this type of religion because it was something that we faced frequently."

Godoy became the department's specialist in ritualistic crimes in 1988. She was born in Cuba. Her family moved to Spain shortly after Fidel Castro took power and eventually came to the United States, when she was 8.

Raised a Catholic, Godoy said she initially knew little about occult practices. She took classes on Santeria and palo mayombe and learned a lot from anthropologist Dr. Rafael Martinez.

"These are very different religions, and there needs to be respect for and an understanding," Martinez said. "This has required a lot of extra effort on Amy's part. Sometimes, police don't see a need for this, and she has learned on her own time."

Godoy learned, for instance, that a Santero will use cowrie shells, which resemble lips readying for a kiss. In readings, Santeros throw 16 shells. Some land face up, some land down. A complicated code results that speaks for the gods.

The detective learned the code in order to read from a Santeria "book of life." That knowledge helped her break open a 1996 murder case when such a reading _ Godoy called it a "Santeria confession" _ led to the arrest of a murder suspect.

"I had to learn the language," Godoy said. "The thing is, they don't know I understand this stuff."

Godoy's fellow officers call her Mama Chango after Santeria's most powerful deity. Her specialty became much appreciated during the 1980s, when cocaine runners embraced the occult.

"There are a lot of drug lords who practice Santeria," Godoy said. "Some Santeros will actually take large amounts of money from these criminals in order to protect them from the police."

Most Santeros, Godoy insists, follow the law and do not engage in illegal practices.

Once Godoy infiltrated a house of saints attended by drug smugglers who eventually landed in jail. The high priest of that ceremony, Conrado Garcia, ended up skipping bail and is currently a fugitive.

In another case three years ago, Godoy went undercover for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She discovered at the home of Jose Torraguitart numerous rare animals dead or ready to be sacrificed in the name of palo mayombe.

"We confiscated from this guy human skulls. He had a femur (leg bone) he could not account for," Godoy said. "He had four baby owls in captivity and all kinds of birds frozen _ blue jays and cardinals _ and the worst part was a baby panther, which he had frozen in the refrigerator."

Torraguitart, a high priest or palero, was taken into custody for violating the Migratory Bird and Endangered Species acts and is currently under house arrest. He was selling powder made from the animals for ceremonies.

A follower of palo mayombe believes that knowledge can be acquired from powder derived from a wise owl, or strength and quickness can be gained from panther powder.

Palo mayombe was also behind the grisly find at Evergreen Cemetery last April.

"Grave desecration is big-time criminal activity, not to mention immoral," Godoy said. "It was a group of people. You can tell by the ceremony, the tongue was nailed to the tree. They sacrificed animals and left them there. All this was so they could ask permission to take the head."

Under the religion's tenets, the dead person must give permission for a palero to use his skull for magic. An elaborate ceremony is performed to ask the dead for the ultimate sacrifice.

Once the head is procured, it goes into a caldron with other materials, such as knives, guns and animal bones, and the palero asks the spirit to do a deed for the living. It could be intercession in a romantic triangle or something more sinister, like making a curse work.

In Santeria, some practitioners are said to be able to be possessed by the dead.

"It's eerie," said Godoy, who has witnessed such a ceremony. "It is like a movie or science fiction. It doesn't mean you believe it, but you say, "Wow, there's a possibility.' "

But Godoy insists she does not believe in the supernatural.

"I haven't seen something that I would be truly impressed about," Godoy said. "If you are able to do that, then give me the six numbers of the Lotto. Then I'll say you are really communicating with the dead."