Santeria and “Constitutional Issues”

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 6, 2011 — 12 Comments

Back in April I mentioned the case of Roberto Casillas-Corrales, a Santero living in Utah. A local narcotics strike force raided his home looking for illegal drugs. They didn’t find any, so instead they arrested him for possessing two human skulls.

“Roberto Casillas-Corrales, 53, is facing two counts of third-degree felony desecration of a human body for the two human skulls found on his property, according to a court official. Clearfield police and Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force officers served a search warrant at the man’s home as part of a drug investigation Sunday. No drugs were found. The man told police he used the skulls and animal parts for religious purposes. He said he practices Santeria, a Caribbean religious tradition.”

Now it should be noted that it isn’t illegal to own a human skull, even two human skulls. But when you go to all the trouble of doing a drug raid, and don’t find any drugs, it must be hard to come back empty-handed. Now it seems that prosecutors are walking back on those charges, citing some “further investigation” they need to do.

Prosecutors have dropped the case against a Santería clergyman accused of keeping two human skulls in a shed behind his Clearfield home, saying they want to further investigate the case’s constitutional issues. […] In documents filed last week in 2nd District Court, prosecutors asked Judge David Connors to dismiss the case because “due to the constitutional issues further investigation is needed.” “From the start there was a freedom of religion issue,” said Deputy Davis County Attorney Kathi Sjoberg. “Then there’s some question as to whether or not the process that he went through [in obtaining the skulls] was unlawful.”

Now, the judge dropped the charges without prejudice, so they could charge him again, but you’d think the prosecutor’s office could have found proof they were illegally obtained in three months. As for Casillas-Corrales, he claims he bought the skulls in/from Cuba for 3,500 dollars.

The case raises a lot of different questions. Do law enforcement have any solid evidence that Casillas-Corrales is involved with illegal drugs, or was this a bit of drug-war over-reach? If they were involved in a drug raid, and didn’t find drugs, why did they arrest him for possessing human skulls? Is this due to “occult experts” who like to emphasize ties between Afro-Caribbean religions and the drug trade? Local media reported that Casillas-Corrales was, by all accounts, “somebody who invites people in for celebrations and aids those in need,” so why didn’t anyone dig into the possibility that he was an innocent man practicing a religion that may seem strange and alien to those not exposed to it?

It may be that Roberto Casillas-Corrales is guilty of something. Drugs, improper handling of animals or human remains, or even an immigration issue (he’s not a U.S. citizen), but so far no charges stand against him. In the eyes of the law he’s an innocent man until proven otherwise. His life has been exposed in a way he most likely would not have chosen, and this will have deep ramifications to other practitioners of Santeria, Palo, and related faiths, who will now be even less likely to trust law enforcement (not to mention the press, or at least the mainstream press). I think my recent interview with Morgan Page Iyawo Odofemi fairly sums up the general state of things.

Practitioners of Lukumi, along with most other Afro-Diasporic Religions, have faced an incredible amount of persecution – including being murdered and having our religious altars desecrated. This ongoing oppression, combined with class issues, race issues, immigration status, and language barriers creates a climate where many elders (who are generally people of colour, lower-income, Spanish-speaking, etc.) do not feel comfortable speaking about the religion out of a very real fear of persecution. There are also some priests who are given taboos against being public about their religious beliefs. I don’t think that our lack of public spokespeople necessarily hurts practitioners. I think racism, classism, and xenophobia hurt practitioners. Secrecy is what helped our ancestors to survive and thrive. Ashe to those who want to take on the burden of being public, but I don’t think it’s something we necessarily “need.”

I think the press needs to take a cue from prosecutors and have a greater emphasis on the “constitutional issues” that arise in interactions with Afro-Diasporic Religions instead of going for the sensationalist stenography that seems to sometimes pass for journalism. These faiths are only growing in the United States, and the more we alienate them, the more secretive and hostile to outsiders they will become. If we want to ensure that justice and fairness happen, we can’t allow the tiny amount of outreach that’s happened in the last twenty years to be undone.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Anonymous

    If skulls can be illegal then what about all the teeth that the Tooth Fairy has been saving?

    • Slightly related to your post, I had to get my wisdom teeth pulled years ago and the dentist told me I could not keep them for legal reasons. And those were my own.

      • Bizarre. I have mine. Mose people I know kept them.

        • Anonymous

          It’s a regional/local thing. After I gave birth to my kids, I kept the placenta. I buried them in my back yard (the placentas not my kids). The hosipital only questioned me for my first kid. They made me contact my town official and he said that there wasn’t any ordinances against it but he wanted me to make sure that it was buried at least 3 feet deep (yeah right, too many rocks and hard clay soil). The hospital was great the second time (they remembered me 5 years later) and froze it for me and had it ready when I checked out.

          • Thriceraven

            That’s funny. I had a home birth (available in a regulated fashion through registered midwives up in the the Great White North). When you give birth at home, your *have* to deal with your own placenta, since the midwives aren’t allowed to transport it back to the hospital. We were told to either bury it at least 3 feet deep or (bizarrely) to put in the municipal compost.

      • Anonymous

        I was told the same thing. The dentist gave me some reply about having to dispose of them in a certain way under a law that covers ‘potential toxins.’

  • “I think racism, classism, and xenophobia hurt practitioners.”

    Precisely. The charge levied against Corrales essentially amounts to publicly calling him a grave-robber, without any immediate evidence that this is the case. But keeping skulls is different, so it must be bad, so there must be a bad reason why he has them… plus if the charge sticks it’ll keep us from getting sued over the bust of a raid we just ran… Perfect logic.

  • Bizarre. I kept mine. Most people I know have them. They are yours, and there are all sorts of issues that come up with your doctor’s refusal.

  • Mia

    This is what my tax dollars are going towards? Paying police officers to sit on their butts trying to come up with SOMETHING to pin on a guy who happens to have some skulls in his house while there’s girls being raped all over the place and their perpetrators getting away with it?

    Gee, talk about misplaced priorities. If they didn’t want to do the hard but necessary work of actually protecting people then why did they bother to become police officers? Even if he was a grave robber, THEY’RE ALREADY DEAD. The dead can wait, it’s the living that need tending to.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    ‘I think the press needs to take a cue from prosecutors and have a greater emphasis on the “constitutional issues” that arise in interactions with Afro-Diasporic Religions’

    The press is so poor at noticing *any* issues involving the religions that hold the allegiance of millions of Americans that there’s a website devoted to this ineptitude. Getting them to connect the dots on behalf of Afro-Diasporic religions…

  • Lpatsouris

    Yeah, there’s a reason why my grandmother and aunties practiced under cover of darkness and maintained secrecy…and this is a prime example. There is so much prejudice and misinformation out there, not to mention “law-enforcement” that looks for loopholes to curtail religious freedoms. Long distance *foribale* for Mr. Casillas-Corrales. Ashe!

  • Anonymous