NEWARK, N.J. – A 61-year-old woman accused of being a high priestess in the Palo Mayombe religious is charged with directing followers to steal human remains from Newark cemeteries for use in the sect‘s rituals.
Miriam Mirabal’s trial began Wednesday in Superior Court in Newark. The Cuban immigrant is charged in a seven-count indictment with burglary, theft and conspiracy stemming from grave desecrations at the Mount Pleasant and Holy Sepulchre cemeteries.
Dean Maglione, an assistant Essex County prosecutor, told the jury Mirabal’s followers stole the bodies of Richard Jenkinson and his wife, Emily, from Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Dec. 17, 2001, and the remains of Joseph Rovi from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on Jan. 23, 2002.
He said one of the followers, Ramon Gonzalez, will testify that he stole the remains with others and then turned them over to Mirabal, who in turn supplied them to another reputed Palo priest for use in ceremonies in the basement of a religious items store. Newark police raided the store and seized the remains in August 2002.
Maglione said another witness will be Gonzalez’ former girlfriend, Ruth Santiago, who he said saw him give the remains from Holy Sepulchre to Mirabal and was so repulsed that she told people about it and word made it to an FBI agent.
Mirabal’s attorney, Frank Guzman, said his client was never found with human remains and never placed by any witness at the scene of the thefts. He said she is being accused solely on the word of unreliable witnesses, two of whom are testifying to get leniency for their own crimes.
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“What does this have to do with Miriam Mirabal?” he said. “They never found anything with Miriam Mirabal.”
Palo Mayombe is a derivative of a West African religion that enslaved Africans brought to Cuba in the 19th century and was transported to the United States in the last few decades, according to experts. The faith’s practitioners conduct ceremonies around iron caldrons containing skulls and other human bones.
Police allege Mirabal acted both as a Palo priestess and an illicit entrepreneur who supplied bones to other priests for a fee. She was the last of seven accused Palo worshippers arrested in connection with a series of recent thefts from above-ground tombs at the two cemeteries.
Oscar Cruz, a Palo priest who conducted ceremonies and allegedly received remains from Mirabal, was convicted in January of possessing the remains of Richard Jenkinson and Jacob Schmidt, a man whose bones were stolen from Mount Pleasant Cemetery in a separate incident.
Gonzalez and Mario Delgado, another admitted grave robber expected to testify against Mirabal, have pleaded guilty to thefts and are awaiting sentencing.
Richard Jenkinson, who died in 1930 at the age of 77, was once a prominent citizen in Newark, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported. He owned a metal goods manufacturer, served on the boards of nonprofit institutions, donated to the library and museum, and was a Republican candidate for mayor in 1900.