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A treasure hunter, an L.A. park and the curse of the severed hand

A treasure hunter, an L.A. park and the curse of the severed hand
Illustration by Wes Bausmith (Los Angeles Times)

Recently I took up metal detecting as a hobby. While Los Angeles is, of course, the greatest place to live in the world, our city parks are too new to offer much excitement for "dirt fishers." The East Coast, with its deep-rooted (though not-so-deeply-buried) history, is more fertile.

So I was pleasantly surprised on Sunday, Aug. 2, when I found a dismembered, decomposing human hand in Harold A. Henry Park.

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It was an hour from sunset when I arrived. Quickly I located a target with my metal detector, dug down about three inches and discovered a layer of aluminum foil. Directly below that, a large piece of blue plastic — a bucket!

Hoping so hard that it was buried treasure, I lifted the lid, and my dreams of found fortune were swiftly snuffed out as a foul, rotting odor filled the air. Sitting in a pool of congealed reddish-brown liquid were five bloated digits, posed as if grasping a ball-topped cane.

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Shaken, I called 911. The dispatcher said officers would arrive shortly, and moments later a police chopper appeared overhead, ominously circling the park — an airborne Lassie, rotors emphatically barking, "Hey! Ground-cops! Timmy's down here!"

Then two young officers approached — by land, not air — wearing latex gloves and asked to see the … thing. One thought it looked like a hand. The other agreed and poked it with a pen. The waterlogged surface squished with the pressure, as wet, rotten skin probably tends to do.

Resisting further temptation to tamper with evidence, the three of us discussed metal detecting and impulse purchases (like metal detectors) until two more officers showed up. One of the new arrivals commented that, from a certain angle, the hand protruding out of the ground looked like "Evil Dead," and poked it with his nightstick.

That was the second time someone had poked it. I guess there are few urges more human than wanting to poke something that's presumed dead. Even if it's a severed hand, eliminating any cause for presumption.

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I was showing a cop the various features of my Garrett AT Pro metal detector when two more officers arrived. One of them asked, "Where's the hand?" His tone (giddy) suggested this wasn't the type of thing he got to see every day.

Another pair of officers appeared, bringing the total to eight; some squatting, others hunched over, looking down into a bucket in a shallow hole under a tree in a small and otherwise normal-looking park. Two sergeants arrived, and we all observed yet another officer poke the thing with a nightstick while one of the first responders debriefed his superiors. The sergeant said a detective was on the way.

By the time the no-BS detective drove up in his unmarked Crown Victoria, there were 10 uniforms on the scene. No-BS promptly instructed an officer to reach into the bucket and extract the thing. What he pulled out was — to our collective and noticeable disappointment but also kind of relief because let's face it a severed hand is pretty gross — a bundle of finger-length cigars strapped to two narrow stone figurines.

At last it felt safe to take a closer look inside the bucket. The congealed liquid was a mixture of some sort of fruit puree and, judging from the horrible smell, raw eggs. According to the sergeant, the not-a-hand was most likely a "Santeria thing." He guessed it was a fertility offering or maybe a curse. And he said I could keep it.

I admittedly don't know anything about Santeria, except that the lead singer of Sublime didn't practice it, and it evidently calls for magical recipes that go like this:

Bind 2 stone figurines and some cigars, place in bucket;

Mix 1/2 quart mashed-up fruit with raw eggs;

Drizzle egg-and-fruit sauce on statue-and-tobacco bundle;

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Dig hole;

Place bucket in ground in public park by a tree;

Cover lid in tinfoil and inhume;

Wait.

Curse or not, this whole project had required a lot of weirdly particular planning, and who am I to mess with someone else's traditions? So I covered the hole with dirt and drove home. But had I already intervened too much?

Guilt-ridden, I hastily Googled "i just accidentally found a santeria ritual buried in the ground am i going to be ok?," clicked on AboutSanteria.com, and sent its webmaster an email.

Cynthia (Eñi Acho Iya "The Yellow Dress of my Mother") Duncan, a PhD in contemporary Latin American literature and culture, and "initiated priestess of Santería," contacted me the next day to tell me the LAPD had gotten it all wrong.

"People often mistakenly think anything like what you found must be [Santeria]," she explained, "when in fact it is not. In our religion, there is no ritual like what you describe. [That] is some kind of 'brujeria,' witchcraft, an 'obra' or spell that someone is trying to do ... to make money."

The initiated priestess then requested, "If there's any way to get this information to the police, I would be grateful because it's problematic when people mistakenly attribute things to our religion that are just downright weird."

So, LAPD, a couple things:

Sorry for the false alarm and thank you for sending so many of L.A.'s finest;

Cynthia Duncan wants you to know that the bundle of smelly cigars covered in rotten eggs and fruit was most definitely not Santería. Rather, it was the work of an opportunistic witch or warlock (maybe a wizard?) looking to make a quick buck peddling weird spells.

Dave Newberg is a television writer/producer and works at Titmouse Inc. He lives in Larchmont with his wife and is an amateur metal detectorist.

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