Red candles illuminated the path to a frightening scene in a Madison Avenue basement near Bridgeport's Columbus School. There, a freshly butchered chicken's blood dripped into a bowl. The skull of an alligator sat atop a human skull on a goat's head. There were animal horns, colorful beads and strange writings.
But that June 9 discovery by Bridgeport police's Tactical Narcotics Team was only the beginning.
On July 3, the children of a recently deceased Milford man arrived at his Mountain Grove Cemetery grave to plant flowers. What they found stunned them. Underneath a circular blanket of loose dirt were two human skulls. Stuffed inside were eight strips of blood-stained paper each containing a name.
Four days later Stamford police arrived at Woodland Cemetery, where the remains of a two-and-a-half year old girl dubbed "the Miracle Baby" (for surviving so long despite a brain deformity) were stolen. The remains were pulled from New Jersey's Passaic River, not far from a site where butchered chickens were found.
Coincidences? Maybe. Religious rituals? Probably.
Now Stamford Police Capt. Richard Conklin and Bridgeport Police Capt. James Viadero said detectives from both departments are consulting each other.
"We haven't established any connections yet," Conklin said. "But happenings here, in Bridgeport and in New Jersey certainly gives the feel something is going on."
Viadero said Bridgeport detectives "are making good progress"
on the Mountain Grove incident.
As for the Madison Avenue skull, Viadero said it's undergoing DNA testing to determine if it belongs to a headless body found on Seaview Avenue in 1996.
"It's highly uncommon to find three skulls in ritualistic settings in six weeks," said Viadero. "We don't believe the incidents are connected. "
Both departments contacted experts in ritualistic practices. They can't say for certain what religion or practice is involved. What Conklin has learned is this is an active period for rituals because of the phases of the moon with a new moon forming July 21.
"A lot of sects believe magic becomes more powerful around the time of a lunar eclipse and the new moon," said Amy Blackthorn, who has a Ph.D. in theology and lectures on various religions.
Conklin also believes Stamford's "Miracle Baby" was targeted for its supposedly "mystical powers" allowing it too live so long.
A number of experts, including practitioners, priests and professors, were contacted to discuss whether religious rituals were behind the three recent grisly incidents.
"If it was Voodoo," said Jerry Gandolfo, a historian at the New Orleans Historical Voodoo Museum of the Madison Avenue scene, "they would have cooked the butchered chicken into a gumbo and eaten it to absorb the power."
So strike Voodoo, a religion with its roots in West Africa and Haiti.
How about Hoodoo - its first cousin and a form of Americanized African folk magic?
While Voodoo is a religion based on placating ancestral spirits, Hoodoo is a form of magic using herbs, flowers and more to cast spells helping oneself, explained Blackthorn, a Delaware resident and wiccan high priestess. But the use of skulls quickly caused her to dismiss it.
So what is it? Santeria? Regla de Palo? Palo Cristiano? Palo Mayombe? Or any of the countless other African, Caribbean, Cuban or Creole religions? Perhaps even bits or pieces from several.
"They're all variations on one common theme -- Yoruba, a religion established in Nigeria," said Frank A. Salamone, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Iona College in Ithaca, N.Y. "Even Voodoo comes from a Yoruba word meaning hierarchy."
Both he and Blackthorn explained religions adapted as slaves were traded and picked up traditions and practices from others.
"I can tell you this," said Leslie G. Desmangles, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, about the incidents. "It is not Santeria."
He bases his decision on the absence of flowers and pictures of saints.
"It doesn't sound like Santeria at all," adds Margarite Fernandez Olmos, a Brooklyn College professor who co-authored "Creole Religions of the Caribbean." She suspects Regla de Palo (which also goes by many different names), a religion which works with spirits.
"While this is not the usual practice, some may search for skulls of persons they believe can help them in their quest," she said.
As for the Stamford incident, her research uncovered no religion that involves transporting a whole body to a river.
The use of human skulls in Bridgeport leads Blackthorn to believe these were Palo Cristiano rituals.
Human skulls, many coming from Third World countries, are available on the internet and through other sources.
"Grave robberies happen a lot down here," said Gandolfo, the New Orleans Voodoo historian.
Blackthorn said Palo Cristiano practitioners believe the spirit remains in the skull. During rituals, they seek its help by offering favorite foods, liquors (particularly rum) and cigars.
She said every item and every color found at a ritual site has a meaning. For instance the specific colors of beads determine the deity being consulted, which in turn could determine the religion being practiced.
The type of skulls are important. The alligator skull found in the drug raid symbolizes good luck, she said. Placing it near a human skull brings more power.
She suspects the practitioners were seeking luck to bring in new business as well as to keep away police and rival gangs.
As for the discovery at Mountain Grove cemetery, Blackthorn said the practitioner is looking to drive the eight named people away.
"They are asking for something to happen to these people, either bad or good, that will keep them away," she said.
A new grave was chosen because its dirt is believed to possess energy, Blackthorn said. The circle drawn in the dirt locks the energy in place. The blood on the paper is the tag of the person seeking the help.
A history of rituals
These are not the first ritualistic discoveries in the Bridgeport area.
Frankie Estrada, once Bridgeport's biggest, baddest and richest drug dealer, kept an altar adorned with pictures of saints, police officers and judges. The spirits protected him for as long as it took a federal judge to allow federal agents to wiretap his phones. Estrada is now doing 26 years in prison.
On March 14, 1986, Fairfield police consulted experts before determining that a body of a suffocated newborn baby found lying on blue-and-white cloths placed atop burlap at Lake Mohegan was being given a Santeria funeral.
The burlap, representing poverty, was pinned with crosses bearing the image of St. Lazarus, the patron saint of the poor. Scattered around the body were coins and pieces of fruit. Experts told police the baby's body was placed near water because African slaves were brought here by boat and near trees because trees symbolize life.
"This is a learning experience for us," said Viadero.
That's why Blackthorn said, "Every police department should have reference material. My choice would be 'A Cop's Guide to Occult Investigations: Understanding Satanism, Santeria, Wicca, and Other Alternative Religions' by Tony M. Kail. Police are too quick to attribute everything to Voodoo, Satanism or Santeria." Understanding the different religions Voodoo: Believers contend nature is controlled by spiritual forces that must be honored through offerings and animal sacrifice. Originally from West Africa, Voodoo is recognized as an official religion in Haiti and Benin. Santeria: Also originiating from West Africa, Santeria blends African beliefs with those of Roman Catholicism. Rites are led by a priest or priestess, and involve animal sacrifice. Practicioners believe in reincarnation. Hoodoo: Believers in this religion, an Americanized version of West African beliefs, practice magic using herbs, flowers and more to cast spells designed to help themselves. Sources: Columbia Encyclopedia, Amy Blackthorn