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Two men allegedly steal American military veterans skulls for religious ritual

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Two men identified as Brian Montalvo Tolentino and Juan Burgos-Lopez have been arrested for allegedly stealing and selling the remains of military veterans from a Central Florida Cemetery, New York Times reported.

Tolentino, 43 and Burgos-Lopez, 39, were arrested in December ad charged with four counts of disturbing contents of a grave and abuse of a dead body, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

They defendants were also charged with buying, selling and trafficking in dead bodies.

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According to authorities, the men told investigators that they use human remains to practice Palo Mayombe, an African-Caribbean religion related to Santeria.

“This case is one of the strangest cases we’ve ever seen in Lake County,” 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.”

Herrell said that the investigation began after a passer-by noticed vandalism at the Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora, a city of about 14,000 residents near Orlando, and reported finding four disturbed graves.

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The police said that a crowbar had been used to remove the lids of the vaults and remove the heads of the deceased.

The remains that were disturbed belonged to three military veterans. They were identified as a private in the U.S. Army and Korean War veteran who died in 1983; a sergeant in the Army and World War I veteran who died in 1988; and a man who was in the U.S. Marine Corps and buried in 1992. Another grave that was disturbed belonged to a civilian described as “a good Samaritan and caretaker” who died in 1988, the police said.

Investigators also collected items including cigars at the scene which have been sent for DNA testing. One sample came back to match Tolentino, a resident of Davenport, Florida, the police said.

On Wednesday, detectives from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office reached out to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, whose detectives obtained a search warrant for mouth swabs from Mr. Tolentino for a DNA comparison.

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“Detectives then met with and interviewed Tolentino, during which he confessed to going to the cemetery with another individual,” the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. The second person was identified as Burgos-Lopez.

Tolentino told the detectives that they “removed four heads from the four graves” and then returned to Lopez’s residence, the statement said. He said that the heads were to be used in religious practices.

Polk County detectives served a search warrant Wednesday at Burgos-Lopez’s home in Lake Wales, Fla., where they found a shed with a religious shrine and seven skulls, “four of which both suspects admitted to taking from graves in Mount Dora,” according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

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“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.

In a video that Burgos-Lopez posted to YouTube, he talked about the challenges of finding body parts in the United States compared with Cuba for religious ceremonies, according to the police. By Monday, the video had been made private on YouTube.

Tolentino and Burgos-Lopez were taken to the Polk County Jail and held on bonds of about $40,000 each. Tolentino was released on Thursday and Burgos-Lopez was released on Friday, according to jail records.

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