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The case of the missing remains: a real witch hunt

Times Staff Writer

The maintenance worker began the day with a walk through Santa Ana Cemetery, past the pinwheel spinning above an elderly couple’s tombstone, into the brick and granite niches where a nameplate hung askew.

Bending his knees to take a closer look, he saw that the screws had been loosened, and the cremated remains of Deborah Sue Makaryk were gone.

He called police and filed a report that listed no leads and offered no evidence, except that Deborah Sue Makaryk was missing. Hours later on Nov. 3, along with a bundle of reports on stickups and muggings, the report was handed to Det. Jim Geist, a veteran of the Santa Ana Police Department’s robbery unit.

“When you get the reports, you triage them. You decide which ones you can do something with,” Geist said. “This is something that you read and even if you can’t do anything, you try.”

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Years ago, when he was a patrolman, Geist went to the cemetery from time to time to investigate neighbors’ reports of seances and strange rituals.

Entering the fenced-in cemetery at night without a flashlight, he said black-caped figures would run away when he drew close.

Once again the detective, who used to call believers in witchcraft “creeps,” was venturing into the world of the occult, trying this time to divine what someone would gain by stealing another’s remains.

Geist tapped “Orange County witchcraft” and “Orange County satanic worship” into the Yahoo search engine. He called phone numbers and sent e-mails to addresses he found on the websites.

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Most contacts never returned his calls, but one woman called back and matter-of-factly said a dire personal problem can sometimes drive a devotee of witchcraft to violate a resting place.

“She said if someone had legal problems, you may try to steal a lawyer. If you have family problems, you may try to steal a therapist,” Geist said.

Makaryk was 39 years old when she died in 1996, but neither Geist nor the cemetery had any other information about her. Why her, Geist wondered.

Nothing happened for weeks, but some of his suspicions were confirmed when her ashes were found under a tree at the county-run cemetery in Anaheim. They bore the numbered code assigned to Makaryk, and the ashes appeared to be almost fully present in a plastic bag inside a box, alongside a dark glove and a spoon.

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Cemetery workers told the detective that every few months they would find tokens of witchcraft and circles of spent candles. They would have to scrub the wax and scorch marks off the tombstones.

A technician at the crime lab found a fingerprint on the box that she traced to Maria Isabel Foster, a 42-year-old woman authorities considered a wandering ne’er-do-well with a string of arrests for check-writing scams.

Geist interviewed people who knew Foster, and he felt his suspicions were confirmed when they told her she lived with a human skeleton and spoke of an interest in witchcraft.

On Jan. 4, Geist learned Foster had been arrested that day on suspicion of another check-writing scam. During an interview in a small jailhouse room, the dark-eyed woman sat in an orange jumpsuit and appeared shy and distant.

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Geist said she didn’t want to talk about witchcraft, but “I told her I was into it and I wanted to understand. She wanted to be understood,” Geist said.

Reluctantly, she confessed to the theft of Makaryk’s remains, he said.

“She said she was trying to use the dead woman’s spirit to help solve someone else’s family problem,” Geist said. “It was perfectly normal to her. She wasn’t joking around. It was like you and me talking about sports. It wasn’t creepy, it was just strange and informative.”

But before Geist persuaded the district attorney to press charges, the check forgery case fell apart, and Foster was released.

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Geist is still searching for Foster. She did not appear for an arraignment last month on charges of grand theft, vandalizing a cemetery and disinterring remains.

“She’s not easy to find,” Geist said. “She doesn’t stand out. She rents rooms in the Anaheim area, and she is just an oddity in the background.”

Meanwhile, the county cemetery system has decided to change the screws in its niches to prevent thefts.

When the screws are changed, said Tim Deutsch, general manager of the Orange County Cemetery District, he sometimes worries that no remains will be found behind the nameplates.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com


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