Suit seeks value for sacred items
A Lutz man lost religious items when evicted. He thinks their worth runs deeper than the law allows.
By BILL COATS
Published June 19, 2006
LUTZ - The Oba cast small oblong seashells on the mat, studied them and began telling Miguel Garcia about warnings from his Santeria saints. The deity Eleggua, in particular, was signaling that somebody would steal and vandalize Garcia's possessions.
Eleggua didn't mention Garcia's landlord and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
But five months later, Garcia lost everything he owned in an eviction at the hands of a sheriff's deputy and workers at Lake Carlton Arms Apartments, Garcia alleges in a lawsuit. Garcia arrived to move out of his apartment, only to learn all the contents had been dumped beside Ramblewood Road.
They had been looted in a vacant field there, Garcia said. All that remained were a piece of his entertainment center, a box of his clothes mixed with spoiling food, a cast-iron spiritual pot, a box of blessed river rocks and a Santeria head statue the size of a softball.
The statue represented Eleggua, still watching out for Garcia. Beneath the statue in the weeds, Garcia found a pink copy of his eviction notice, he said. It confirmed that his deadline for moving out was the following morning.
Garcia, who had been evicted for late rent payments, sued Lake Carlton Arms in September. He added the Sheriff's Office last month, after a mandatory six months in which governmental agencies can settle such complaints outside the courts.
The attorney for the apartment complex and a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office each said they had no comment on the case.
Based on Florida's eviction laws, Circuit Judge Sam Pendino already has ruled twice that Garcia can claim no more than the replacement value of his closet full of Santeria items.
Garcia and his attorney, Randall Reder of Carrollwood, say that excludes as much as $30,000 Garcia spent over 30 years on ceremonies as he progressed through Santeria, acquiring sacred bowls, statues and other religious objects.
"They only want to pay for what the rock costs at a rock yard, and what a bowl would cost," Garcia complained. "They don't want to pay for the ceremonies."
Reder believes Florida case law is ripe for a new precedent that would recognize religious and sentimental values of items lost in a wrongful eviction.
"The appeal is what this case is all about," Reder said.
Rooted in west Africa, Santeria came to the Americas with African slaves. It acquired influences of Catholicism, forced on many of the slaves by their owners. Garcia, 40, grew up in Santeria thanks to his grandmother, a Cuban immigrant.
In the eviction, Garcia and his 15-year-old son Mikey each lost several tinajas, elaborately decorated pots representing Santerian deities. They lost osuns, small chrome vessels, which allow a believer to pursue a proper mental state. And they lost a batch of furnishings, bought less than a year earlier, after Hurricane Jeanne had blown a tree onto their mobile home in Citrus Park.
Now living in Carrollwood's Logan Gate, Garcia is trying to change careers from truck driver to massage therapist. He completed courses in massage and studied to take the state licensing exam. But his books and massage table disappeared during the eviction, Garcia said. So he is borrowing books to renew his studies.
The sheriff's deputy who approved Garcia's eviction, meanwhile, received a "coaching form" after confusing the date.
Deputy Dagoberto Rodriguez "was counseled on the importance of documenting the correct dates on his paperwork and making sure all his paperwork is in order," his supervisor wrote on the form. "He was also instructed to utilize a calendar when posting and setting dates for evictions to minimize future errors of this type.
"Double checking his dates before responding to an eviction to ensure proper vacating time has been granted was also discussed."