'Shrines' held stolen Worcester bones in Conn. suspect's home

Telegram & Gazette, Massachusetts/December 19, 2015

By Samantha Allen

Hartford -- In the Connecticut home of Amador Medina, where human remains missing from a Worcester cemetery were allegedly discovered earlier this month, police say they found other unusual items.

Deputy Police Chief Brian J. Foley said investigators also found a pig's head, a large dead snake, live turtles in a bowl and a distinctive pot which was photographed as evidence. The bones of five humans from Worcester were scattered around the apartment in what police described as shrines.

Deputy Chief Foley said Mr. Medina, 32, of Hartford, told police he was a Santeria priest and used the bones for "healing ceremonies."

Experts say the religion of Santeria doesn't use human bones. They instead identified another similar religion in which the use of human remains would be central - Palo, a faith which like Santeria, is tied to the enslavement of Africans from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Mr. Medina was charged with facilitating the removal of human remains from Hope Cemetery, which Worcester police say likely occurred over the summer and fall in an orchestrated theft. Mr. Medina told investigators he hired someone else to disinter bodies from the Houghton family mausoleum, though more charges have not come forward. His case is scheduled for Jan. 5 in Worcester Central District Court.

Todd Ramon Ochoa, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Palo practice can entail the use of a pot, or cauldron, to develop "mystically powerful" substances formed from skeletal remains and organic matter including earth, animal remains and sticks. The concoction is used as a healing solution by practitioners.

Palo focuses on harnessing the power from spirits of the dead to benefit a practitioner, Mr. Ochoa explained. Santeria, which means the way of the saints, emphasizes paying respect to deities, according to Miguel A. De La Torre, a professor of social ethics and Latino and Latina studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Mr. Ochoa noted though, it is possible for a person to be both a Santeria priest and a Palo priest simultaneously.

Mr. Ochoa, a cultural anthropologist whose work has focused on the Palo practices in Cuba, said the Palo religion developed from enslaved Bakongo people of Africa transported to Cuba in the 1700s through the mid- to late 1800s. He described it as a religion created by the slaves for survival. Paleros, he said, practiced aspects of their religion as a means of coping with their predicament. Some rituals and ceremonies were meant to harm their enemies by calling on the spirits for assistance, he said.

"This is a religion that is almost always going to find itself in a very tight spot, in a Christian-dominant society," Mr. Ochoa said, "because a piece of its logic comes from slavery, and it is to fight Christian (or) Catholic oppressors. This piece of it is less evident today, but it helps explain the aggressive stance of Palo."

Mr. Ochoa added he can't imagine how a Palero practices in modern-day America, given the restrictions.

"(It) must be very difficult and precarious," he said. "Accessing skeletal remains is very important to the religion and restrictions in the U.S. put those who practice it in legal jeopardy."

A Palero typically also asks the spirits at a grave site for "consent" before disinterring their remains, to ensure the spirit will enter into a partnership with the practitioner, Mr. Ochoa added. That "lengthy" consent ceremony could lead to the discovery of an individual illegally removing remains from, for example, a cemetery.

Eric Colon, a practicing Palero and orisha priest, said people in his religion would never steal human remains. Mr. Colon blogs about the religion for The American Society for the Preservation of Palo Mayombe, a branch of the Palo religion.

A native New Yorker who now lives in Lancaster, Calif., Mr. Colon said news of Mr. Medina's alleged actions has shocked the small U.S. Palo community.

“What happens with Paleros who are law-abiding citizens, we go to legal places where you can buy actual human remains, legally,” said Mr. Colon, a cook for the California Department of Corrections. “... Stealing bones is reprehensible, because we’re not taught in the religion to do that.”

He said in developing countries, it is a more common practice for followers to disinter human remains. But in the United States, practitioners seek out businesses and collectors to purchase bones legally and ethically.

In 2009, the New York Times reported a surge in grave robbing in Venezuela, purportedly by Paleros.

In Newark, New Jersey, in 2002, the Times reported a father and son were charged with stealing bones from a cemetery after authorities found them in a cauldron in their home. The paper said the bones were taken for the practice of Palo.

More recently, the Huffington Post reported in 2012 on the theft of remains from Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami. The cemetery manager stated the incident was carried out by Santeros, though an expert quoted in the article said the incident seemed to have stronger ties to Palo. Investigators also found a dead chicken at the disturbed site.

Mr. Colon said Palo is often portrayed as a satanic-like religion, but he said it is more about ancestral worship than anything else. If the religion Mr. Medina was supposed to be practicing was Palo, Mr. Colon added, Mr. Medina "kind of usurped it (and) made it his own.”

Deputy Chief Foley said earlier this month Hartford police will hold onto the disinterred Worcester remains for the time being. The case has been developing as the Worcester Police Department reports a second mausoleum may have been broken into at Hope Cemetery in recent months as well, with more human remains taken.

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