MOUNT DORA, Fla. – Two men are behind bars after what deputies say was a grave robbery for ritualistic purposes, targeting veterans’ burial sites “because the spirit is much stronger in a hero.”
The men, 43-year-old Brian Montalvo Tolentino and 39-year-old Juan Burgos Lopez, were arrested in Polk County after deputies said they broke into four separate graves and took body parts from each person inside.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office said the vandals attempted to access a fifth grave. The remains were stolen in early December from Edgewood Cemetery at 3333 Britt Road.
During a news conference on Friday, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said that detectives served a search warrant at Lopez’s home where they found a shed with a religious shrine and seven skulls.
“We serve lots of search warrants. But for the first time that I’m aware of. What we found was a Palo Mayombe shrine,” Judd said, of the ritualistic altar.
Before the men vandalized the grave sites, Judd said they drank Bacardi rum and spit it out on the ground. Then they would smoke a cigar and then exhale the smoke.
“The purpose of that was to protect them from the spirits,” Judd added.
Authorities said DNA on those cigars left at the crime scene led them to identify the two men as suspects.
Three of the four tombs raided belonged to members of the armed forces. Two were in the Army fighting in the Korean War and World War I while the other was a Marine, still wearing his uniform at the time of the raid.
“When asked about why a hero’s grave, He (Lopez) said because the spirit is much stronger in a hero than it is a normal person,” Judd said. “And also when you have the skull of a hero, the spirit is not only stronger but it can protect you from evil.”
The fourth person was not in the armed forces but was a caregiver, her family said.
When Lopez was questioned Judd said he referred to cemeteries as “holy sites and shopping centers.”
“He considers the cemeteries shopping centers. We didn’t say that. He did,” Judd said while pointing to Lopez’s mugshot. “He complained that in the United States, it’s difficult in getting human remains to practice his religion.”
Both men were booked into the Polk County Jail on their Lake County warrants. The charges include:
- 4 counts each disturbing contents of a grave and abuse of a dead body
- 1 count disturbing contents of a grave
Additionally, Burgos was charged with buying, selling and trafficking dead bodies.
“You can’t condemn this in tough enough words,” Judd explained. “Setting their religious views aside because I’m not going to attack anyone’s religion, their conduct here is reprehensible in the strongest terms.”
Watch Sheriff Grady Judd’s full news conference on the cemetery vandals below.