Two men have been accused of stealing the human remains of U.S. military veterans from a Florida cemetery for use in a skull-filled “ritual” associated with an Afro-Caribbean religious movement.
Detectives began looking for possible robbers in December after they found that four graves had been vandalized at Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora, the Orlando Sentinel reported in December. Three of the four graves belonged to veterans. Investigators sent cigars discovered at the scene for DNA testing, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office stated in a press release.
The DNA matched with that of Brian Montalvo Tolentino, 43, of nearby Davenport. Police in Lake County contacted the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, who obtained a warrant to take a mouth swab from Tolentino for a direct DNA comparison. When investigators questioned him, he allegedly confessed to going to the cemetery with his friend, 39-year-old Juan Burgos Lopez.
“Tolentino stated that Lopez used a crowbar to open the vaults and then removed the heads of the deceased,” police said in a press release. “He stated they removed four heads from the four graves and then returned to Lopez’s residence. He stated the heads were taken for religious practices.”
Investigators went to Lopez’s home on Wednesday, where they allegedly discovered “six skulls, a hand, partial arm, and multiple other large bones within what appeared to be some sort of religious shrine.”
Police said Lopez admitted that four of the skulls were from Edgewood Cemetery, while the other two were “obtained from other practitioners.” A fake skull was also found at the scene, as were a baby alligator head, goat heads, goat skulls, turtle shells, chicken bones, raccoon skulls, and religious artifacts, authorities said at a Friday press conference.
Lopez is part-owner of local businesses Bushikan Karate and Botanica Vititi, which sells essential oils and items used in Palo Mayombe rituals, according to a Polk County Sheriff’s Department press release.
The motive for the grave robbing and abuse of the corpses appears to be religious practices.
Lopez “considers himself a Tata, or religious leader, and produces YouTube videos discussing different rituals” of Palo Mayombe, police said. The religious movement, which has origins in Cuba, has been described as an apparent cult led by a former male model and a junior college cheerleader. Palo Mayombe has also been associated with other grave robbing cases in both Venezuela and other parts of the United States, including one at a Massachusetts cemetery in 2018.
“The suspects told detectives they use the human remains in their religious practice — Palo Mayombe, which is considered Santeria's ‘evil twin’ — and they chose veterans' graves due to the fact that their religion demands that the remains are from those who have ‘done something heroic,’” Polk County police said.
Pinpointing a comment he said Lopez made in one of his videos, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd noted that “he referred to cemeteries as holy sites and shopping centers.” That video has since been taken down from YouTube.
Judd also said that the men claimed that “spirits” led them to the cemetery — and to those four particular graves. The men admitted to conducting a ceremony that consisted of drinking Bacardi rum and smoking cigars at the cemetery before breaking open the graves, police said.
Tolentino has a criminal record that includes a previous arrest for cocaine possession, drug possession with intent to distribute, grand theft, and armed robbery of a bank.
Both men have been charged with four counts of disturbing contents of a grave and abuse of a dead body, as well as one count of disturbing contents of a grave. Lopez was additionally charged with buy/sell/traffic in dead bodies. As of Monday, it was unclear if either has obtained legal representation.
The four disturbed graves belonged to Army and Korean War veteran Henry Brittain, Army and World War I veteran Elbert Carr, Marine Corps member and police officer Calvin McNair, a good Samaritan and adult care-taker Annie Faniel.
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