Two men have been arrested after allegedly stealing remains of military veterans from a cemetery in Florida that they subsequently used for “religious practices,” authorities said.
On Dec. 6, 2020, four graves at the Edgewood Cemetery in Mount Dora, Florida, in Lake County were discovered to have been disturbed and, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, a crowbar had been used to remove the lids of the tombs.
Investigators collected items that were left behind – including cigar butts – and sent those items off for DNA testing, which authorities say they matched with Brian Montalvo Tolentino, 43, of Davenport, Florida.
“Lake [County] detectives then met with and interviewed Tolentino, during which he confessed to going to the cemetery with another individual, 39-year-old Juan Burgos-Lopez … and committing the crimes,” said Lake County Sheriff’s Office in a statement released on Jan. 7 after contacting the Polk County Sheriff’s Office whose detectives obtained a search warrant for the suspects. “Tolentino stated that Lopez used a crowbar to open the vaults and then removed the heads of the deceased. He stated they removed four heads from the four graves and then returned to Lopez’s residence. He stated the heads were taken for religious practices.”
According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the suspects told detectives that they were using the human remains in their religious practice called Palo Mayombe -- a religion that developed in during the slavery era in Cuba among enslaved African people and their descendants, according to Lonely Planet -- and that they robbed graves of veterans because they needed remains from those who have “done something heroic.”
Polk County authorities then obtained a search warrant for Lopez’s residence, “in an effort to locate and recover any of the human remains.”
“During the search, detectives located a total of six skulls, a hand, partial arm, and multiple other large bones within what appeared to be some sort of religious shrine,” the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “Lopez identified four skulls as being those obtained from the Edgewood Cemetery and stated the other two skulls were obtained from other practitioners. He also had an additional skull that he claimed was fake.”
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office said the victims included deceased veterans of the Korean War and World War I among others.
Tolentino and Burgos-Lopez were booked into the Polk County Jail on their Lake County warrants and charged with four counts of disturbing the contents of a grave and four counts of abuse of a dead human body and are currently being held on $40,000 bond.