A voodoo priest whose ritual candles sparked a deadly fire in Brooklyn last month is just one of a cadre of supposed mystics who prey on women for money and sex.
The women - most of them African or Haitian - sought good fortune, fertility, love, employment and sometimes revenge. Others, like the woman involved in the Feb. 19 blaze in Flatbush, were looking to get legal immigration status.
Men in shops along Nostrand Ave. identified by residents as voodoo priests all declined to be interviewed by the Daily News. But clergy, police and residents - in hushed tones - say the voodoo priests have been active for decades.
Most are found by word-of-mouth referrals. Some still believe in their power.
"It is very discreet," said Father Jean-Miguel Auguste, who heads the St. Jerome Catholic Church about a block from the E. 29th St. fire. "No one really talks about it."
Auguste, who came to the parish in 2004, said he's counseled hundreds of women who were taken advantage of by the smooth-talking con artists. He comforts the women by reciting the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel over their heads.
"In this community we have people who are desperate," said Auguste, 51, a Haitian immigrant. "When you are desperate, you will believe anything."
That includes tall tales about the power of sex.
"They tell the women that they have to penetrate them in order to pass off the spirit," Auguste explained. "They don't use condoms. Women are getting sick."
A police source who works with the Haitian community said cops are aware of the so-called voodoo priests and the women who consult them. The women rarely contact police.
They "call us when they are threatened with spirits," the source said. "But there is nothing we can do."
The police source recalled talking to a frantic woman who may have seen a voodoo priest. She claimed she was being watched by evil spirits. She pointed out nails in her walls, saying the nails were eyes. The investigation ended there.
Last month, a Brooklyn woman - unemployed and in desperate need of a job - paid Nelson (Pepe) Pierre $300 to perform a ceremony he promised would change her luck.
Instead of a boost in good fortune, the single mom was duped into having sex with the 66-year-old. She escaped serious injury after flames from ritual candles ignited bed sheets and clothing strewn about the floor.
Sources said the voodoo priest had poured rum around the base of the bed and near the doorjamb, which may have intensified the flames. Compounding the problem even further, Pierre used water from a bathroom sink to try to put out the blaze instead of calling 911.
Pierre and another man opened a door and a window, creating a blowtorch effect that eventually engulfed the upper floors of the six-story building.
The thirtysomething woman was supposed to file immigration papers three days after the fire that killed a retired teacher and left dozens homeless. Now she lives in fear - warned by Pierre that he would send evil spirits after her if she breathed a word about the ceremony.
"She's embarrassed," a family insider told The Daily News. "She's ashamed. She is scared to go out."
Law enforcement sources described the woman as naive and borderline developmentally disabled. She came to Pierre based on a recommendation from another woman who had gone to the self-proclaimed voodoo priest.
Fire marshals interviewed the woman and Pierre. No one has been charged.
Most neighbors described Pierre as a charming handyman who walked with a limp. But at least one called him out for what they called repeated mistreatment of women.
"Pepe is a lowlife," said Ama Boafo, 47, who lived down the hall from Pierre. "Women were always going in and out of his place."
Boafo was forced to live at the Sleep Inn in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with her husband and two children because of the fire.
"One person changed the lives of so many," she said.
With Alison Gendar and Jonathan Lemire.