Brian Montalvo Tolentino, 43, and Juan Burgos-Lopez, 39, face four counts each of disturbing contents of a grave and abuse of a dead body, according to a release Friday from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. DNA evidence led authorities to Tolentino after the bodies were removed from Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora last month.
The men told investigators they took the remains, three of which belonged to deceased veterans, as part of their religion. Tolentino and Burgos-Lopez were practicing Palo Mayombe, which branches off of Santeria and was developed in Cuba among enslaved Central Africans.
Investigators executed a search warrant at Burgos-Lopez’s home, where they found a religious shrine, and seven skulls in a shed. Four of the skills belonged to the remains taken from Mount Dora, the men told authorities. Two others were found to be fake, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s office.
“This case is one of the strangest cases we’ve ever seen in Lake County,” Lt. John Herrell of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said in an email on Monday. “Fortunately, this sort of thing doesn’t happen often here.”
“They chose veterans’ graves due to the fact that their religion demands that the remains are from those who have ‘done something heroic,’” the police said.
The investigators said that, also inside the shed, they found cauldrons filled with dirt, bones, sticks, feathers and other items. The findings recalled those of a case in 2002, in which a police search of a Newark home found a cauldron holding human skulls and other bones that investigators linked to grave robberies. Prosecutors filed charges against two men in that case, saying they were adherents of Palo Mayombe.
Per the community guidelines, no scriptures and/or proselytizing.