The men were practicing Palo Mayombe, a religion that branches off of Santeria and was developed in Cuba among enslaved Central Africans, police said.
Two men are charged in Polk County, Florida, and accused of stealing the four sets of human remains in a cemetery as part of their religious practice.
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.
“They told detectives that they drove to the cemetery on December 6, 2020, and used a crowbar to remove the lids of the tombs,” the sheriff’s office said. “They removed the heads and other remains, and placed them in plastic bags, took them to Lake Wales, and placed them in the shrine.”
The sheriff’s office referred to videos from Burgos-Lopez’s YouTube page where he allegedly discussed the difficulty of obtaining remains in the United States as opposed to Cuba and discussed aspects of the religious rituals. Those videos were made private and NBC News was unable to view them.
Three of the four remains stolen belonged to veterans — Henry Brittain, who fought in Korean War and died in 1983; Elbert Carr, a World War I veteran who died in 1988; and Calvin McNair, a military police officer in the Marine Corps who died in 1992.
The fourth set of remains belong to Annie Faniel, who was described by her family as a caretaker and died in 1988.
Burgos-Lopez and Tolentino told investigators that they targeted veterans’ graves because their religion required remains from people who had “done something heroic,” according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
Polk County Jail records show both men were released on surety bonds Friday. NBC News was unable to find contact information for Tolentino through a public records search. An email to Burgos-Lopez was not immediately returned.
It’s unclear whether Tolentino or Burgos-Lopez has retained an attorney.
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