It was the spirits who led the two men to Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora, they told investigators, and then right to the graves of four African Americans. Three were military veterans, and the fourth spent her life taking care of people.
Then the men broke into the graves and stole the skulls of those buried there one December night, said Polk Sheriff Grady Judd. The two men used the remains to practice Palo Mayombe, an ancient African religion brought to Cuba by slaves.
It is practiced in secret using human and animal remains.
“They said it was their preference that they have the graves of heroes and that’s exactly what the spirits led them to,” Judd said Friday.
The two Polk County men were arrested Thursday. Juan Burgos-Lopez, 39, and Brian Montalvo Tolentino, 43, each face four counts of disturbing the contents of a grave and four counts of abuse of a dead human body in Lake County. Polk County also filed its own charges: Each face a count of disturbing the contents of a grave and Burgos Lopez faces a charge of trafficking in dead bodies.
The men used the remains to build a shrine in a shed behind Lopez’s Lake Wales home, authorities say. It incorporated seven skulls, five real ones and two plaster replicas. Four of those were the ones taken from Edgewood Cemetery, Judd said, while investigators are trying to determine where the fifth real skull came from.
Why did the men need the spirits of heroes?
”They said because the spirit of a hero is much stronger than the spirit of a normal person,” Judd said, “and also when you have the skull of a hero, the spirit is not only stronger but it can protect you from evil.”
The thefts were discovered Dec. 6, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, in an African American cemetery dating back to the early 1900s.
Burgos-Lopez is a Tata, or priest, and performed a ceremony to protect the men from spirits, Judd said, while Tolentino is accused of breaking into the vaults. They smoked cigars and spat out rum for the ceremony — and investigators say that’s what led them to the two men.
Tolentino has a criminal record that includes charges of bank robbery, possession of cocaine and grand theft. So when investigators obtained a DNA sample from a cigar, they said it matched his profile in a law enforcement database. Lake County deputies asked Polk deputies on Wednesday to obtain a search warrant to take a DNA sample from Tolentino to make a direct comparison.
It was Tolentino who told investigators what they had done, according to the Polk sheriff, then led them to Burgos-Lopez and the backyard shrine.
The families of the desecrated graves were told what happened. Here is who’s buried there:
- Henry Brittain, 1929-1983, an Army veteran who served in the Korean war.
- Elbert Carr, 1896-1988, an Army sergeant and World War I veteran.
- Calvin McNair, 1935-1992, a Marine who was buried in his dress blues and later served as a police officer in Ansonia, Conn.
- Annie Faniel, 1935-1988, who was a longtime caretaker and good Samaritan, according to her family.
“I cannot even tell you how traumatizing it is for the families,” Judd said. “We see grave robberies periodically and nothing is the same for the family after that.”
But in most cases, the remains are never recovered. In this case, the remains will be repatriated when the investigation is concluded.
Burgos-Lopez has no criminal history and once worked as a police officer in Puerto Rico. He also runs a karate dōjō and daycare center in Winter Haven, the sheriff said. Burgos-Lopez made YouTube videos about his religious practices and bragged about it on social media, according to the Polk sheriff, and complained that human remains are hard to come by in the U.S.
“He referred to cemeteries as holy sites and shopping centers,” Judd said.