A little cake to sweeten the verdict Santeria: Practitioners of this Caribbean religion leave talismans -- from coins to decapitated chickens -- at the Miami courthouse in hopes of influencing cases.

Sun Journal

September 20, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- No dead chickens today. No goat heads, eggs, pennies or mysterious, unidentifiable objects.

To ensure a carcass-free workplace, Luis Garcia and Rey Ramos, custodians at Miami's criminal courthouse, have completed their daily circuit around the sprawling building's exterior.

The dearth of dead fauna is a little surprising. A former commissioner, a Cuban-American, is about to be sentenced. His supporters might have surreptitiously left a cake to sweeten his verdict, or something a little less pleasant -- say a ritually sacrificed rooster to sway the gods, who in turn will sway the judges.

The custodians shrug.

Just another steamy day in the big tropical city that is home to an edgy mix of exiles, immigrants, retirees, Orthodox Jews, Euro-wealth and runway models.

"Last year we had a busy season," Ramos says. "All depends on the case."

Of course, it's early and anything can happen during the day. A call may come to vacuum up white Santeria powder covertly sprinkled on a judge's chair, or to capture a baby chick or snake smuggled through metal detectors and past armed police officers by a defendant's loved ones in hopes of influencing the verdict: They may want him out of jail, or they may want him to stay there.

Garcia, Ramos and other janitors, nicknamed the "Voodoo Squad," have collected an ample assortment of bizarre talismans and tokens that are said by Santeros -- practitioners of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria -- to hold magic powers.

With the continuing flow of immigrants and exiles from the Caribbean basin and Latin America to Miami, it has become common to encounter feathered remainders, loose change, tiny pouches filled with herbs, dead lizards with tied mouths (to muzzle a snitch), and other evidence of Santeria on courthouse grounds.

Santeria is a fusion of faiths, created by African slaves forced by their Cuban masters to practice Roman Catholicism.

The religion recognizes one spiritual supreme being and a pantheon of lower intermediary deities called orishas. Roman Catholic saints serve as symbolic stand-ins for their original gods, which must be nourished with blood to do one's bidding.

Ordinarily a secretive belief, Santeria received mainstream media attention in 1993 when the Supreme Court tossed out three City of Hialeah laws that outlawed animal sacrifices.

The case originated in 1987 when two brothers performed animal sacrifices to celebrate the opening of the Santeria Church of the Lukumi Bablu Aye in an abandoned Hialeah car lot.

Since then, Santeria has not been able to go back into hiding. It has entered Miami's public lore.

Magnetic voodoo dolls are found stuck to cars; ominous symbolic messages are affixed to doors. A Miami weekly recently explored evidence that a city employee serves as the city government's unofficial Santeria priestess and can be counted on to remove evil spirits from offices and perform other protective services for local politicians.

Across the continent, about 1 million people practice Santeria "with various degrees of involvement," says Rafael Martinez, a Santeria expert who has served as a consultant to the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office since 1979.

In the Miami region, practicing Santeros, primarily from Cuba, number 60,000 to 100,000, he estimates.

When the Miami Herald broke the courthouse sacrifice story in 1995, courthouse manager Elizabeth L. Timpson became a minor international celebrity. Within days, Timpson, a charismatic woman with cascades of red, curly hair, was fielding questions from "every deejay in the U.S." and reporters as far away as South Africa and Russia.

Timpson keeps a snapshot collection of Santeria offerings discovered outside and inside the courthouse. This little chicken, since removed to a chicken farm, was "so cute."

She has photos of some not-so-cute things as well, including a hideous mound of a mashed, yam-like tuber, with a face made of cowrie shells, and stuffed with hair, fish bones and corn.

The creepy thing was discovered in a stall of the ladies' restroom, packaged in a brown grocery bag.

At times, Timpson has asked Martinez to identify potentially harmful Santeria items, such as herbs that can be absorbed into the body if touched.

Martinez once brought his video camera to tape the autopsy of a Santeria doll. "There was nothing in it," Timpson says, except "hair and different things."

Inside the cranium of another doll discovered in an Orlando courtroom, Martinez found the name of a judge written nine times on a piece of paper wrapped around three quills.

"Many of the practices look bizarre and weird," Martinez acknowledges, "but they're not against the law." Placing a dead chicken on a doorstep, for example, does not necessarily denote a murderous threat; it may be a message to move out.

Although Santeria leavings are "very individualized," Martinez can tell by the color, location and contents of an offering what orisha a Santero is appealing to.

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