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Motive for tomb theft mystifies detectives

One expert says signs don't point to an occult ritual or Santeria.

Published July 1, 2006

TAMPA - A day after police discovered that someone had broken open Stevie Russell Dale's tomb and stolen his remains, investigators searched for a motive.

Three theories: Santeria, voodoo or cult activity.

"We're just leaning that way because we have the absence of any other reason or logical explanation," said police spokesman Larry McKinnon.

Stevie was 6 years old when he died. He was killed when he was hit by a car on May 2, 1975. He was buried in an above-ground marble vault at Memorial Cemetery.

On Thursday, more than 30 years after his burial, police learned that someone had pulled a 600-pound slab of marble off his vault, opened a metal container inside and emptied his casket.

Police found nothing near the grave that would explain what happened, but it seems like too much effort for a prank, McKinnon said.

They've ruled out the idea that someone might have taken the bones to sell for medical purposes, and they also do not believe that the case is related to two other grave-robbing incidents that occurred in August.

So investigators have been exploring whether a religious ceremony or ritual was behind the mysterious crime. They found no telltale traces of a religious ceremony, such as animal carcasses, brightly colored ribbons or shells, McKinnon said.

"If we'd had that, it would have been pretty easy for us to conclude that, had we found a business card that said Acme School of Santeria, you know," McKinnon said.

Investigators planned to contact experts on the subject, hoping to find an explanation, he said.

Detective Amy Godoy is an expert on such matters. She specializes in ritualistic crimes for the Miami-Dade Police Department.

What does she think of their theory?

"It had nothing to do with an occult ritual or any other type of ritualistic crime if nothing was left behind - none," she said. "As far as I know, any practitioner or any cult would always have to leave something behind. It's part of what they do."

Whether it's a cult, voodoo or Santeria, there's always some sign of a ceremony left behind at a grave site, she said.

"They don't just rob a crypt and leave," she said. "There must be ritual or ceremonial items around the crypt. They never just take the body and go."

The bodies of chickens, goats or turtles are commonly left at such sites. Depending on the group and the purpose, there could be coconut shells or even a bottle of rum left as a sort of holy water, she said. Sometimes, a cow's tongue is pinned to a tree.

With black magic or voodoo, practitioners often take a skull, she said. The skull is thought to hold the intelligence of a person, the spirit.

A child's skull may be considered particularly powerful if the child was thought to be especially bright or to have magical powers, she said.

The ceremonial items help the practitioner seek permission from the spirit to use it.

A young child who died tragically, such as Stevie, would be thought to have a spirit that may be willing to help someone, she said.

"It could be they need a spirit that does not want to go," she said. "This is the thing: They think if you have a tragic death, you did not want to leave. A spirit like that would be very easy to persuade to come back and work for them."

People who practice Santeria ask for help from saints, not spirits, and do not rob graves for religious purposes, she said.

As investigators tried to piece together the mystery, a Plant City family offered a reward for information about the criminal.

When Sharon Johnson, 46, heard about the grave robbing, she and her husband decided to offer $1,000 for information leading to an arrest.

"We have a 6-year-old son, and no mother should have to go through this," she said. "We were just horrified that anybody would disturb a grave like that."

Anyone with information about the case can contact Detective Dennis Drabiniak at 813 231-6130 or (813) 276-3651.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or

[Last modified June 30, 2006, 23:27:50]

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