Santeria stalker

Miami New Times/August 18, 2011

Carlos Valdes had just finished a misa espiritual, a group communion with the orisha spirits, when rapid-fire pops sounded outside. The celebrated oriate, a high priest in the Santería religion, sprinted through his front door in West Kendall, just blocks east of the Everglades. Tires squealed, and then he turned to look at the beige adobe walls. Five small-caliber bullets had burrowed in.

Police soon tracked down the man who Valdes says was responsible: Kellyd Rodriguez, a 32-year-old Cuban-American with an oddly spelled name who had been charged with stalking before. Prosecutors contend Rodriguez has terrorized Valdes's family for four years. It began with anti-Santería rants on the phone, Valdes says, and escalated into death threats, rock-throwing, drive-by shootings, and even heart-stopping phone calls to his young daughters' schools.

Valdes's story, though, isn't just a horrifying glimpse at how one stranger's obsession can ruin a family. The oriate is also pushing prosecutors to charge Rodriguez with the first hate crime connected to Santería. The case is part of a larger conflict among the oft-misunderstood religion, the community, and legal authorities. It takes place almost two decades after a landmark Supreme Court case gave Santería the same federal protections as other faiths.

"I've had crucifixes thrown through my windows and a woman try to burn my church down," says Ernesto Pichardo, the Hialeah santero who took the benchmark case to Washington, D.C., in 1993. "So many people in Miami still don't realize that a santero in his home has the exact same legal rights as a Catholic priest in his church or a Jewish rabbi in his synagogue."

Arturo Hernandez, Rodriguez's lawyer, says Valdes is wrong. "That's preposterous that anyone would try to connect this case to his beliefs," he says.

Santería, which literally means "saint worship," was created by Afro-Cuban slaves who melded their West African Yoruba beliefs with the Catholic faith that Spanish colonialists forced on them. Followers merged orishas, or spirits, with Catholic saints and mixed in ancient rituals with African drums, chants, and animal sacrifices.

The religion has been practiced in Miami since at least the early '60s when the first Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's regime arrived, says Mercedes Sandoval, a Miami Dade College professor emeritus who studies Santería. For decades it was seen as a low-class faith among black Cubans and Puerto Ricans, but in the past two decades its popularity has spiked and moved more into the open. No exact counts have been done, but experts such as Sandoval say thousands of Miamians practice Santería — perhaps outnumbering Yoruba worshippers in Nigeria these days.

Valdes is one follower. Born in Havana in August 1965 to strict communist parents, he bonded early with his grandfather, an ardent santero. "When we'd leave his house, my parents would tell me: 'It's a very bad religion,'" Valdes says. "But I always had personal conversations with the orishas."

One day when he was 17 or 18, Valdes was toying with an eleke, a Santería necklace, at a bus stop when a woman nearby noticed. She was suffering from heartburn and begged him to help. "I told her I wasn't a babalao," a Santería priest, he says. "But she insisted. So we met, and the spirits told me how to help her."

Valdes became a full-time priest by the time he was 20, but he constantly clashed with his parents and with Castro's police. So in 1994, he prayed to the orishas and launched into the Florida Straits on a raft. He spent five days adrift and nine months at Guantánamo Bay. His asthma gave him a medical pass to Miami.

Valdes quickly established himself as one of only about two dozen oriates in Miami. He met his wife, Marisela, in 1997 when he initiated her into the religion. The couple had two girls, and Valdes began speaking about Santería on radio and TV.

That's when the trouble began. In January 2007, Valdes appeared on a Spanish-language radio program called Al Calor de la Noche on WQBA (1140 AM). The next night, Valdes received a call from a man who wanted to argue about animal sacrifices. He called again, and again. Sometimes Valdes's phone would ring 50 times a night, often with only heavy breathing or whispered threats.

On August 25, 2007, someone walked into his yard and fired several shots. The harassing calls slowed until January 2010, when the caller was unequivocal about what he wanted: "Stop practicing Santería," he warned. "Or you and your family die."

The caller often knew what Valdes and his wife were wearing or where they'd been. Next a fake bomb was left in his mailbox. Valdes's "godchildren," his Santería followers, began receiving calls warning them to stay away. On February 23, 2010, his house was again a target for small-caliber bullets. A Miami-Dade Police detective soon traced a 786 number Valdes had flagged; it was registered to a fake business and, between January 1 and March 14, had called Valdes's house 363 times. But the cop couldn't immediately track down the owner.

On March 23, the stalker struck again. That morning, both of Valdes's children — Heidi, then in fifth grade at Dr. Manuel C. Barreiro Elementary, and Susana, a seventh-grader at Lamar Louise Curry Middle — were pulled from class by counselors. Heidi was given the news: Both of her parents had been killed in a car wreck. As she sobbed in a chair, a phone call came in. Marisela, alive and well, was checking in after Susana's principal had realized the call might be a fake.

Valdes was certain the stalker was behind it. But who was he?

On May 6, an anonymous tipster fingered Kellyd Rodriguez, a skeletal figure who was no stranger to cops. In 2004, he had been arrested and charged with four felony counts of aggravated stalking. Police said that between August 1 and February 7, he had called Jorge Rodriguez, owner of radio station La Poderosa (WWFE, 670 AM), more than 500 times. (He later pleaded guilty to one count, but a judge withheld adjudication.)

Police began tailing his car. On May 12, they spotted two phones on his dashboard. Rodriguez "nervously" admitted one matched the 786 number police had tracked to the Valdes calls, according to an arrest report. Prosecutors charged him with felony stalking, but thus far haven't been able to link him to the shootings or the calls to the schools. (Hernandez notes his client is charged only with the harassing phone calls, but he declined further comment.)

But Valdes contends the systematic harassment qualifies as a hate crime. Prosecutors are considering the request, State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith says, but so far don't believe the evidence supports it.

Other santeros are watching closely. Though Pichardo's '93 case established that animal sacrifices are legal as Santería rites, Valdes's clash with police and an ignorant community member is far from isolated.

In 2006, for instance, three worshippers in West Dade were arrested during a sacrifice; charges were eventually dropped. Months later, a Miami-Dade firefighter was booked when a neighbor called 911 about a goat sacrifice. He too was exonerated.

In January 2007, Valdes himself was detained during an animal sacrifice. That's why he originally went on the radio — to talk about the need to better educate police about the religion.

Seven month later, in August, Coral Gables Police swarmed a house on Casilla Street, disrupting a Santería service with their guns drawn. Worshippers were detained until officers realized no crime had been committed, but defiant Gables Mayor Don Slesnick vowed to stop all animal sacrifices in the City Beautiful and refused to apologize.

More recently, Jose Merced, a santero in Euless, Texas, filed a federal lawsuit when the town's cops descended on a ceremony with about ten worshippers and stopped a planned sacrifice of goats and chickens. In July 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, sided with Merced, citing the precedent of Pichardo's case.

Hate crime or not, if Rodriguez's goal was to stop Valdes from practicing Santería, he has failed.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Valdes, clad in white and draped with eleke beads, sits on a rug in a sunny room in West Kendall. Across from him sits Julio Cesar Garcia, a "godson" who has asked for help with getting a promotion at Miami International Airport.

For the ebbo be estera ceremony, Valdes chants and sings rapid-fire, like a Pentecostal preacher speaking in tongues, over the soft clink of seashells shuffled beneath his hand. He grabs a watermelon, cuts a hole in the center, and pours in a viscous mix of honey, spices, and blue dye. Garcia holds the fruit to his head, kisses it, and places it gently back on the rug. "This is my religion, and I have as much right to practice it in peace as anyone else," Valdes says after the ceremony. "I will fight for this as long and hard as I must."

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