Skull in woods puzzles officials

Investigators think the find is evidence of a religious ceremony, not a homicide.

Published February 22, 2007

RIDGE MANOR - The skull in the woods had a tag on it.

It had no teeth.

It was sitting near a mound of coins, colored stones, animal bones and feathers.

On Tuesday, just before sunset, two pinecone collectors from Minnesota stumbled upon the scene.

They called the Hernando Sheriff's Office, which decided that this patch of woods in the Withlacoochee State Forest - not far from State Road 50 - might be a ceremonial site.

The items were collected as part of an investigation.

"From time to time there's been ceremonial altars with animal bones involved, but none with a human skull," said sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Black.

On Wednesday, the skull had arrived in Leesburg at the office of Medical Examiner Steven Cogswell.

There is no indication that the skull was part of a homicide, authorities said, but forensic investigators will take measurements to try to determine the age, race and gender of the skull in hopes of identifying it.

"I've had Satanist and witchcraft cases before but this does not smack of any of that," said Cogswell, who pointed out that there were no markings etched on the skull. "This is more of a Santeria and Afro-Caribbean type of thing. I wouldn't say I'm sure about it, but I'm leaning that way."

Santeria is a syncretic religion that blends African and Christian symbols and can involve animal sacrifice.

Cogswell said he doesn't see many of these cases in Central Florida, but in South Florida - where there is significant Caribbean influence - they are much more common.

"Getting a skull and bones is not quite as easy as running down to the corner store," he said. "But it's not a whole lot more difficult if you live in Miami."

The medical examiner's anthropologist is at a conference this week and will take up the investigation when she returns.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.