POLK COUNTY, FL (WFOR) — Two Florida men are now in jail for allegedly desecrating graves and stealing human remains, three of which belong to military veterans.
According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, a positive DNA hit from a smoked cigar left behind during the crimes, positively identified the first suspect as Brian Montalvo Tolentino, 43 of Davenport, Florida. He identified his accomplice, Juan Burgos-Lopez, 39, of Lake Wales, Florida, according to police.
The thefts took place on December 6, 2020, from four graves at the Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora.
When Polk County detectives served a search warrant at Burgos-Lopez’s home, they found a shed with a religious shrine, and seven skulls, four of which both suspects admitted to taking from graves in Mount Dora. Two other skulls were determined to be fake, and the investigation is ongoing as to the identity of the last skull.
Police County Sheriff Grady Judd says Burgos-Lopez and Tolentino, were using the body parts to create religious shrines, adding, “This is a black magic art that needs body parts in order to worship.”
The suspects told detectives they use the human remains in their religious practice – Palo Mayombe, which is considered Santeria’s “evil twin” – and they chose veterans’ graves due to the fact that their religion demands that the remains are from those who have “done something heroic.”
They told detectives that they drove to the cemetery on December 6, 2020, and used a crowbar to remove the lids of the tombs. 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 shed/shrine contained cauldrons filled with dirt and other items such as bones, sticks, feathers, rocks, turtle shells, and small animal skulls, along with the human skulls. During a search of Burgos-Lopez’s home, detectives also found other religious symbols and shrines.
Sheriff Judd says the two men admitted to targeting graves of military veterans and then used those human remains for religious practice.
“If that just doesn’t make your blood boil, I don’t know what does.” He says knowing skulls were stolen from Edgewood Cemetery in December of 2020, is disturbing. “A hero, a marine who was laid to rest in his military blues. A police officer, someone who has served and protected, they took his skull. And when asked about ‘why a hero’s grave?’, they said, ‘because the spirit is much stronger in a hero’,” said Sheriff Judd.
The deceased victims were identified as:
Henry Brittain, 1929 – 1983, a Private in the U.S. Army and Korean war veteran
Elbert Carr, 1896 – 1988, a Sergeant in the U.S. Army and World War I veteran
Calvin McNair, 1935 – 1992, a military police in the U.S. Marine Corps, buried in his dress blues; he was also a police officer for 11 years in Ansonia, CT.
Annie Faniel, 1935 – 1988, a good Samaritan and caretaker, according to her family.
According to investigators, Burgos-Lopez is part owner of two companies which sells herbs and essential oils, along with items used in Palo rituals.
Burgos-Lopez considers himself a Tata, or religious leader and produces YouTube videos discussing different rituals of the religion.
Sheriff Judd said in a press conference Friday that Burgos-Lopez openly talked about this religion online, such as one recorded a day before he took the skulls where he talks about how he helps those with worldly problems.
Another video posted by Burgos-Lopez two weeks prior to taking the skulls, he talks about how difficult it is to get body parts, that it is common in Cuba but that you can go to prison for doing it in the U.S., and that a ritual must be done prior to going into the cemetery. He also says something must be left behind. Candles and a sacrificed bird were found at the Mount Dora cemetery, and orange peels were left behind, in the graves.
Sheriff Judd remarked, “Juan said, on a YouTube video, that cemeteries were holy sites and a shopping center. Well, let’s call the county jail the check-out line.” He says breaking the law will not be tolerated in Polk County, no matter if it’s for religious purposes or not. “This is despicable. You can’t condemn this in tough enough words,” said Judd.
Sheriff Judd says Polk County is assisting Lake County Sheriff’s Office in the ongoing investigation to identify the last human remains, adding that the remains which have been identified will be placed back in the graves. Surviving family members of the disturbed graves have been notified.
Tolentino has a criminal history that includes previous arrests for cocaine possession, drug possession with intent to distribute, grand theft, and armed robbery of a bank in 2000, which he was released from probation in 2011. Both men were booked into the Polk County Jail on their Lake County warrants (4 counts each disturbing contents of a grave and abuse of a dead body) and have each been charged by PCSO with one count disturbing contents of a grave and Burgos-Lopez was additionally charged with buy/sell/traffic in dead bodies.
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