Santeria, intrigue surround alleged hit man murder case

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Mar. 9, 2003
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/
By Diana Marrero

Even after the divorce, he kept sending her flowers. Constantly, he’d call her and pass by her house at night.

Then he started leaving brujeria, black magic, at her door. On one day it was coconuts, on another an egg, the next a headless chicken with a burned note in a paper bag.

The last thing he sent her, police say, was a hit man with bullets in his gun.

Almost five years after the death of Dulce Diaz, the man who prosecutors say was hired to kill her for $6,000 will go on trial on a charge of first-degree murder.

When jurors begin hearing the case against alleged hit man Henry Cuesta this week, they will be allowed a glimpse inside a world of the occult, where an ex-husband’s obsession found an outlet in an out-of-work man desperate for cash. The deal, prosecutors say, was simple: Diaz’s ex-husband, Eusebio Hernandez, offered Cuesta cash for the life of his wife and her new boyfriend.

Cuesta’s decision to make a quick buck, prosecutors say, would leave one woman dead, a 16-year-old boy without a mother, and a man so badly injured that his face now sags on one side.

“She understood me 100 percent,” said Diaz’s son Isbett Mendez, who thinks of his mother every day. “She wasn’t like other mothers.”

People who knew the couple, along with police accounts and volumes of court records, paint a picture of a woman who tried to escape a bad marriage and the man who was unwilling to let her go.

Withhold comment

Neither the prosecutor nor Cuesta’s defense attorney would comment on the case. Steven Kassner, Hernandez’s defense attorney, said his client maintains his innocence.

“He’s got no criminal record,” said Kassner, who will defend Hernandez at his trial in a few months. “He’s a middle-aged man, for God’s sake. The police just want to put their own spin on it.”

Dulce Diaz had been married once before when she met Eusebio Hernandez at a Santeria party hosted by a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion, which combines African Yoruba beliefs with Roman Catholicism.

She was beautiful, blonde, statuesque. He was 16 years older than Diaz, who was in her early 30s. They hit it off, marrying in 1995.

But the religious beliefs that brought them together also broke them apart.

She was an espiritista who believed in the healing powers of orishas, the religion’s saints. He was a palero who sometimes used his religion, palo mayombe, to do harm, according to court records. Though the two branches of the religion share the same roots, their beliefs and practitioners are often at odds.

Before long, the marriage began to crumble.

After the couple divorced two years later, Hernandez was angry that she kept their home in southwest Miami-Dade County and complained that she owed him $25,000, prosecutors say in court filings. When she started dating again, prosecutors say, he grew increasingly jealous.

But before Hernandez enlisted the help of a hit man, police say, he tried to use his powers to hurt the couple.

“He would go there and say that he was going to kill her and that she was going to pay for it, that she had left him without a car, without a house,” Diaz’s former boyfriend Jorge Herrera, then 33, told investigators.

On many days, they would get home to find a dead dove or an octopus, packages filled with garbage, their names scribbled on burned-up notes. Sometimes, Hernandez left human bones, Herrera told police.

Diaz, a santera who dressed in head-to-toe white as part of her religion, would read Spanish playing cards for answers to the troubles in her clients’ lives. All sorts of people — some in limos or police cars — would come to her if they suspected their spouses were cheating, feared having cancer or couldn’t conceive a child.

Needed money

Secure in her faith, she wasn’t afraid of Hernandez’s brujeria.

“My mom had guts … she wasn’t afraid of nothing,” Mendez told police.

At 25, Cuesta had been in serious trouble with the law, but prosecutors say he quickly accepted Hernandez’s offer.

Cuesta said he needed the money for his son, according to a police report. Behind on child support payments, he feared he would lose visitation rights if he didn’t pay.

The morning of April 3, 1998, Hernandez gave Cuesta the keys to a car and a semi-automatic handgun, according to prosecutors. Hernandez also gave Cuesta some beads, a chain and two small wooden objects to steel his nerves.

With a pretext of getting a spiritual consultation, Cuesta showed up at Diaz’s door asking for Herrera. He had planned to shoot them then, Cuesta would later tell police, but got scared and left.

During that encounter, Herrera felt something was wrong. A babalawo, the highest-ranking priest in Santeria, he could hear the warnings coming from Orula, a saint who only speaks with babalawos.

He also saw ominous signs — a cadaver and a tiger — that forewarned danger.

“I am sure that that person, when he came to see me the first time, came to kill me,” Herrera would later tell police.

After Cuesta left, Herrera told Diaz he needed to run some errands. He warned her not to open the door for anyone else.

She was alone when Cuesta paid her a second visit later that day, saying he needed animal sacrifices done. He was there when Herrera returned. Suspicious, Herrera asked Cuesta who had sent him.

Police say Cuesta pointed a gun at Herrera’s head, fired, turned to Diaz, and pulled the trigger again.

Diaz died before the paramedics could help her. She was 35.

Shot in the head, Herrera spent days in critical condition and endured several operations to be able to speak again. Lodged near his right ear, the bullet made his face sag on one side.

Speaks in whispers

Even now, he can only speak in whispers. Herrera could not be reached for comment.

The next day, Cuesta took his girlfriend out gambling, spending that Saturday night playing bingo at the Miccosukee reservation. He bought a blue 1964 Chevy Impala for $2,000, blew $300 the next night on a family dinner and got a tattoo, court records show.

He had little left for child support.

From the start, Mendez told police he knew who had killed his mother — Hernandez. He told police about the brujeria, the threats and that Hernandez was his mother’s only enemy.

Police began to investigate him. They also spoke to Herrera, who described the man who had shot him. Detectives scoured phone records and talked to witnesses. Their leads led to Cuesta.

At first, Cuesta played it cool. But when detectives told him that Herrera had survived, he broke down crying and confessed, police said.

Then, according to the report, he snitched on Hernandez because he didn’t want to pay for the murder alone. Both men were charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. They have been behind bars since.

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences.Kassner, Hernandez’s attorney, said police have no evidence that his client paid to have Diaz killed and that Cuesta implicated his client to avoid the death penalty.

In the months following Diaz’s murder, her clients kept coming to the sleepy neighborhood in southwest Miami-Dade to see her for spiritual consultations.

They would find an empty house.

The Santeria offerings kept appearing too, perhaps this time in homage to a woman who had helped so many — a ripe plantain with a red ribbon, corn, a bowl of quimbombó or okra stew.

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