YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Satan Sleuths : Once Scoffed at by Peers, Police Experts in Occult Crime Now Are Frighteningly in Demand

May 25, 1989|DIANNE KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — At the time, police officer Sandi Gallant recalled, maybe even she didn't truly comprehend the dark lure of the occult.

The year was 1981. The case was eerie, weird in a grotesque, spooky kind of way. Even for San Francisco, where cops are not easily surprised by sensational crimes.

Black male, probably a street person, found murdered in Golden Gate Park.

The guy's head had been cut off. And it was missing.

Detectives found some strange clues. There was the headless chicken, for one. Part of the bird's body had been stuffed inside the dead man. Some kind of ritual seemed to have taken place.

An Expert of Sorts

Homicide didn't know what to make of it, so investigators called Gallant, who works intelligence. After her involvement in the aftermath of the Peoples Temple mass murder-suicide in Guyana, she'd become an expert of sorts in the realm of spiritual wackos.

She had begun studying up on cults, brainwashing, the sick powers of persuasion. From there came an exploration of "alternative" belief systems, witchcraft, Santeria and Satanism.

Gallant had been looking for explanations. Increasingly, it seemed, the occult was leaving its marks in crime.

So now this. What did Gallant think? Homicide wanted to know.

Gallant and her partner said it looked like Santeria , a religion involving animal sacrifice that slaves from the West African Yoruba tribe imported to the Caribbean.

Today, Gallant refines that a little. She says it was probably Palo Mayombe , a similar, albeit darker religion brought to the Caribbean by Bantu-speaking slaves from the Congo.

It was Palo Mayombe , too, that Mexican and U.S. investigators say was entwined with the gruesome deaths of at least five of the 15 people murdered in Matamoros earlier this year as part of a drug and religious cult.

But Gallant didn't know that much then. She was taking an educated guess, testing out a theory.

"We literally were laughed at by our homicide investigators, and our chief of detectives," Gallant recalled. "It was like, 'Give me a break. This stuff doesn't happen.' "

So Gallant went out on a limb, laying out a bizarre blueprint for murder not much different from the others she now routinely dispenses at seminars.

The difference is that now those who listen to her theories are far more likely to furrow their brows than crack a smile.

Today, Gallant is a leading expert among the small but growing number of police officers who have carved out a specialty in crimes connected with the occult--everything from the centuries-old practice of devil worship to a relative newcomer known as chaos magic, a combination of Satanic teachings with an emphasis on mutilations with steel objects.

But in 1981, such were the theories of radicals, if not psychotics.

In 42 days, Gallant told homicide, the dead man's head would be returned near the spot where his body was found.

In the meantime, for the first 21 days, the religion's practitioners would use parts of the man's brains, perhaps even his ears and his eyes, blending them in a caldron to make a ritual brew.

"At the end of those 21 days, if the priest deemed it appropriate, he would actually sleep in an area with this head and with this caldron for another 21-day period," Gallant said.

"Then on the 42nd day he discards the head . . . in close proximity to where he took it from. To him, that was a sacred way of returning the head."

And that, apparently, is exactly how it happened.

The head was returned on the 42nd day not far from where the body was found. But no one from the San Francisco Police Department was there to see, let alone arrest, whoever returned it.

"Our problem was, even though our homicide detectives didn't buy it, my partner and I weren't out there doing surveillance on the 42nd day either," Gallant said.

"I think looking back on it, we had a real difficult time, too, believing that something like this could happen. Even though it was our theory."

The baffling case of the beheaded transient remains unsolved. Today, though, Gallant takes her theories seriously, and so do law enforcement agencies across the country.

"I just got a call yesterday from a state on the East Coast and the investigator had gotten a call . . . about a father who went into his son's room and found a human head underneath the kid's bed," Gallant said in a recent interview. "It appears that it was dug up from a cemetery. But he found a human head. . . .

"That's really an extreme case, but I've had other cases where kids have gotten into real bizarre types of activity like multilating birds, animals, and really graphic drawings of dismembered bodies, and parents don't even recognize that this is a disturbed child. They think that this is normal for a 14- or 15-year-old kid to be doing these things. And it's not normal."

Los Angeles Times Articles