Human bones in Pasadena backyard may be tied to Santeria
The human skull and other bones discovered in the backyard of a Pasadena home last week may have been purchased on the Internet, possibly for late-night rituals at a makeshift altar.
Police discovered the bones, including those of animals, at around 1 p.m. last Saturday while searching for a reported trespasser in the backyards of homes in the 800 block of North Oakland Avenue, an area adjacent to Madison Elementary School and the Historic First Lutheran Church of Pasadena.
Pasadena police Lt. Tracey Ibarra said a woman at the home where the discovery occurred told detectives that the occupants had purchased the human bones on the Internet for use in the practice of Santeria, a ritualistic faith of the Caribbean.
Occupants of the home declined to speak with reporters and several adults and young children fled the home in two vehicles on Monday night after the arrival of television news crews, the Pasadena Sun reported.
But neighbors described hearing drum music and smelling smoke and burning incense coming from the home's backyard at night on a nearly weekly basis for years, often around midnight.
One woman said she had called authorities several times over the past seven years to complain about noise and suspected abuse of animals after finding a severed chicken head with needles stuck into it on her patio.
"One time I was so upset because they had so many dogs over there and then no animals. They had over 10 dogs ... [plus] a goat, roosters, chickens — I even heard a peacock over there," the woman said.
She and other residents spoke on condition of anonymity, some saying they feared retribution from two women who appeared to be in charge of the home.
Four neighbors also reported that visitors to the home would fill the street with parked cars on some nights when they heard music and smelled smoke.
"It would get really foggy outside. It was a weird smell. It smelled funky," a young woman said.
Pasadena Humane Society spokeswoman Ricky Whitman said the agency has responded to the home several times in recent years regarding calls about loose dogs but no allegations of animal cruelty.
Police found dead chickens at the house, as well as live pigeons that were turned over to the Pasadena Humane Society, Ibarra said.
Police had previously visited the home to address noise complaints and domestic disputes, she added.
The human remains found at the home were turned over to the Los Angeles County coroner for testing that will include a check for matches to federal DNA database records, Ibarra said.
Coroner's office Capt. John Kades said a medical examiner and forensic anthropologist are expected to study the bones this week.
Possessing human bones is not in itself illegal, Ibarra said.
But police are consulting with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office about whether the animal bones and altar warrant a criminal animal-cruelty investigation or legal exemptions for religious ceremonies would apply, Ibarra said.
Courts have ruled that religious freedoms allow Santeria practitioners to include animal sacrifice in their rituals, said Juan Martinez, director of Hispanic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
But Martinez also said ceremonial use of human bones is more typical of Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk religion often associated with drug traffickers and others involved in risky, illegal activity.
Use of human bones "seems strange, but Santeria is a folk religion, so there are some people who use human bones as part of their rituals and may see themselves within Santeria," Martinez said.
Authorities frequently find evidence of animal sacrifice rituals in the Angeles National Forest, said Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Deborah Herman.A box containing a headless goat and two dead chickens was dropped at the Crescenta Valley station on Jan. 7, but deputies have been unable to identify its origins, Herman said.
Evidence of animal sacrifice in the forest has included dead goats and chickens, animal bones with burn marks, altars made of rocks and tree branches and religious statues.
"So much of that stuff that happens up in the canyons we know nothing about," said Herman. "We've seen statues of the Catholic Mary, sometimes painted black ... and sometimes the face is of a skull. It's creepy."
Santa Muerte includes Catholic iconography, including depictions of Mary as a skeleton, "but its patron saint is Holy Death," Martinez said.
He described Santa Muerte as sort of "an evil-twin mirror of Roman Catholicism" practiced by people who relate to indigenous customs and Catholic traditions but have been involved in or exposed to activities outside mainstream church doctrine.
— Joe Piasecki, Times Community News'
Photo: Approximate location of where remains were found is shown in black. Credit: Los Angeles Times Mapping L.A.