Amador Medina’s spirits were likely running wild.
The Hartford, CT man was arrested this week after five human skeletons—allegedly stolen from a Massachusetts cemetery—were found in his home. Medina claims he’s a Santeria priest and was using the skeletons in a healing ritual, but Santeria experts tell The Daily Beast such a ‘ritual’ would be way outside the mainstream for the religion.
Medina was charged with being a fugitive from justice in Connecticut, and faces five counts of unlawful disinterment of a body in Massachusetts. He was transferred to Worcester after he waived an extradition hearing.
Police arrived at Medina’s second-floor home after being tipped off about potential human remains. Medina quickly fessed up—and, according to a police report, showed cops a pair of skeletons sitting out on his enclosed balcony. Detectives say they ultimately uncovered five skeletons in his apartment, including those of three adults and two children, sitting amid other ritual objects.
The Hartford Courant reports that the remains were taken from the Houghton family mausoleum at Worcester’s Hope Cemetery. The last decedent was interred more than 70 years ago.
After the body bust, Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley told reporters that Santeria is rare in the area, but Leslie Desmangles, a religion professor at Trinity College in Hartford, told The Daily Beast that’s actually far from the case.
Santeria is “widespread” in the city, according to Desmangles, who cited a large Puerto Rican community, as well as Cubans and Jamaicans. Many of the Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans in the area came during the mid-20th century to work in the tobacco fields. The city is sprinkled with botanicas—religious goods stores—to meet their spiritual needs.
But Desmangles said that in his decades of anthropological fieldwork, he’d never seen a Santeria practitioner use human remains.
Foley, the police spokesman, told The Daily Beast that cops had no way of knowing whether it was Santeria—but that the “suspect had identification identifying himself as ‘Babalosha Priest.’”
“I Googled it… who knows,” Foley said.
Though Hartford police did not determine what the certification meant, experts told The Daily Beast that it refers to a level of initiation in Santeria.
Medina’s practice, however, might look more like Palo Monte, another Afro-Cuban religion practiced in parts of the Caribbean and the U.S., says University of Miami religious studies professor Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado.
“It’s a very nature-based religion,” she said. “Part of their practice is that they have cauldrons [of] branches, other remains of the earth, and also human remains.”
It’s a “way of connecting with the spiritual energy of the earth, and also of our ancestors,” she said. The name itself comes from the Spanish words for “branch” and “countryside.”
Gonzalez Maldonado said that Palo and Santeria are not mutually exclusive, and practitioners of one might also incorporate some practices of the other. And being a priest or priestess, while a juicy morsel for cops and media, typically simply means someone has been initiated into the faith. They’re qualified to be ritual leaders.
Because there’s no ultimate authority—no Pope, if you will—in Palo, an individual practitioner’s beliefs might differ widely from what’s found in a textbook on the matter. Still, University of Chicago anthropologist Stephan Palmié said it’s fairly uncommon to find complete skeletons at ritual sites.
“What you’d usually want is a skull and some bone fragments,” he said. “What is a bit anomalous of this story is that a Palero would want to know who the person was, whose spirits he was making a pact with.”
At the very least, Paleros in Cuba, where Palmié has conducted extensive research, would typically want to know a bit of the person’s biography, ethnic origins, line of work, and how they died. There’s no indication Medina was familiar with the Houghton family.
“All of this has some implications about the kind of work you can later do once you have ritually contacted the spirit whose bones you’re appropriating,” he said.
But Palmié also recalled a Miami medical examiner he encountered in the 1980s whose office was decked out with skulls of South Asian origin, obtained after they’d likely been used for Palo rituals. “They were most likely obtained legally through medical specimen companies,” he said.
In rituals, Palo practitioners give the skulls a new lease on life by combining them with elements that give them a “new body”—minerals, metal implements, mercury. Some might also add animal remains, like the head of a dog, so the resulting object can sniff out the practitioner’s enemies, or of a bat, so it can fly. The result is known as an nganga.
“It looks grisly, it sounds a little bit grisly, but the practice is oriented towards healing,” Palmié said.
It’s often used when the practitioner feels targeted by sorcery or another outside force because the intimate relationship with the departed can be more reliable than with Santeria’s fickle gods, he said. The practitioner and his created objected are, in a sense, mutually dependent: The practitioner keeps it alive, often even adding drops of his own blood into the mix.
But Santeros would be sure to keep their Palo practices away from their ngangas—the gods and the dead don’t mix. If people had a house, they’d keep the ngangas out back, according to Palmié. They are believed to be able to drive the uninitiated and children crazy, and need to be controlled by a practitioner.
“The problem is, the more of them you have, the more innocent people, spirits, whatever you wanna call it, you’re gonna have to deal with in your day-to-day life,” Palmié said. “And they can get somewhat unruly and out of control, and you really have to make sure that you dominate them all the time because they really can become rebellious.”
“Mr. Medina, if he had five of them… he must be running his life on a fairly regulated schedule to do right by them all,” he added.