'Occult Cop' Walks Beat on the Dark Side

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The coffin had been dug up and pried open, and a corpse, headless, sat against the tombstone. Arrayed around it: small gourd bowls, a severed rooster's head and a cow's tongue, nailed to a tree.

Time to call in Amy Godoy--the "Occult Cop."

Godoy, a Miami-Dade County detective, walks a beat on the dark side: It is her job to investigate crimes committed during rituals some would find bizarre, or at the very least exotic.

Imagine agents Mulder and Scully from TV's "The X-Files" rolled into one. Godoy is skeptical but open to the extraordinary.

"I don't care how you cut up the religious and spiritual aspects of your life. . . . What I am concerned is if you do break the law," Godoy said. "That's where I come in."

Police began stumbling onto occult practices more frequently after 150,000 Cubans migrated to South Florida in the 1980 Mariel boat lift. They brought with them their religion: Santeria and Palo Mayombe. Haitian voodoo was already here.

"When we arrested these people, we found many times items that we didn't understand," Godoy explained. Items like the Santeria deity, with seashells for eyes, that sits on Godoy's desk at police headquarters.

"You can see if you look really carefully that it was fed blood," a legacy of the animal sacrifice that is part of Santeria, she said.

Godoy, 37, became the department's specialist in ritualistic crimes in 1988. Born in Cuba, her family moved to Spain shortly after Fidel Castro took power. They migrated to the United States when she was 8.

Reared a Catholic, she initially knew little about occult practices. She took classes on Santeria and Palo Mayombe and learned from anthropologist Rafael Martinez.

Godoy learned, for instance, that a Santero will use cowrie shells, which resemble lips readying for a kiss. In readings, Santeros throw 16 shells. Depending on how they land, a complicated code results that speaks for the gods.

She learned the code to read from a Santeria "Book of Life." That knowledge helped her solve a 1996 murder; what Godoy called a "Santeria confession" led to the arrest of a murder suspect.

"I had to learn the language," Godoy said.

Godoy's fellow officers call her Mama Chango after Santeria's most powerful deity. Her specialty came to be appreciated during the 1980s when cocaine runners embraced the occult.

"There [are] a lot of drug lords who practice Santeria," Godoy said.

Most Santeros, Godoy says, do not engage in illegal practices.

Three years ago, Godoy went undercover for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the Miami home of Jose Torraguitart, she found numerous rare animals, some dead and others ready to be sacrificed in the name of Palo Mayombe.

"We confiscated . . . human skulls. He had a femur he could not account for," Godoy said.

"He had four baby owls in captivity and all kinds of birds frozen--blue jays and cardinals--and the worst part was a baby panther, which he had frozen in the refrigerator."

Torraguitart, a high priest, or palero, was taken into custody for violating the Migratory Bird and Endangered Species acts and is currently under house arrest. He was selling powder made from the animals for ceremonies.

In the world of Palo Mayombe, if, for example, a believer wants to be knowledgeable, the powder derived from the wise owl is used.

Palo Mayombe was blamed after Albert L. Pinder's body was dug up at Evergreen Cemetery last April.

Under the religion's tenets, a dead person must give permission for a palero to use his skull for magic. An elaborate ceremony is performed to ask the dead for the ultimate sacrifice.

Santeros believe they can perform rituals that result in their being possessed by the dead.

"It's eerie," said Godoy, who has witnessed such a ceremony. "It is like a movie or science fiction. It doesn't mean you believe it, but you say, 'Wow, there's a possibility.' "

The detective stops there, though. Godoy insists she does not believe in the supernatural.

"I haven't seen something that I would be truly impressed about," Godoy said. "If you are able to do that, then give me the six numbers of the Lotto. Then I'll say you are really communicating with the dead."

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