Skull probe focuses on cult rituals

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP – As forensic experts yesterday sought to identify a human skull found near the bank of the Delaware River here on Monday, police consulted with religious experts to determine what cult might have left the decrepit remains and other items in the Titusville section.

“Right now we’re researching different religions to see if the items we found fit the practices of one of them,” said Police Chief Michael Chipowsky.

He said the findings – which also include an animal skull and a dozen other items he would not identify – may be related to the ancient African religion called Palo Mayombe.

A secretive religion originated in the Congo, Palo Mayombe was brought to Cuba during the slave trade and arrived on U.S. shores with Cuban immigrants, according to religious literature and experts consulted by police yesterday.

“In Palo Mayombe, when the priest or priestess dies, all their artifacts are disposed of in a river,” Chipowsky said. “We think that’s what this might have been.”

According to literature, while human sacrifices have been associated with the religion, they are not the norm. Animal sacrifices, however, are common and usually include ducks, chickens, turtles, goats and other small animals. Larger animal sacrifices, while rare, do occur. They include dogs, cats, pigs and larger mammals.

Chipowsky said the animal skull found at the site appears to be a deer or a dog.

“It looks like the items were put into the river,” he said, adding that it does not appear that a more complicated ritual was performed at the site.

“There was a small campfire, but the area is used by fishermen who also make small fires,” he said.

Chipowsky said investigators’ main concern was identifying where the human skull came from.

A jawbone section containing teeth, discovered by police yesterday morning, may yield more clues, he said.

“The state police anthropologist is trying to determine the age, sex and race of (whomever the skull belonged to),” Chipowsky said, adding that he doesn’t believe the skull is connected to a recent homicide.

“We’re trying to figure out if it was stolen from a cemetery,” he said.

Police have concluded the items were placed in the river at the spot they were found and did not float downstream.

A couple walking along the river bank on Upper River Drive discovered the human skull Monday afternoon and alerted police.

State police divers searching the shallow waters uncovered more items that led police to conclude the site was used for some type of religious ritual.

Residents in the quiet river town were puzzled but not overly worried about the grisly discovery.

“It’s creepy and it makes you pause and think,” said resident Lauren DiPalo. “But we feel really safe here.”

“Cults are everywhere,” said John D’Antonio. “It’s disconcerting one may be practicing at the end of my street but I’m not worried in the least.”

“I’d be more concerned if the Christian right-wingers were practicing down there,” quipped neighbor Deborah Maher.

Chipowsky said at this point the most serious charges facing the person who dumped the items is the charge of illegally disposing of a corpse.

One resident who did not want to be identified said in the weeks before Halloween he and other neighbors saw a black pickup truck traveling north of River Drive coming from the direction of the dumping site. In the pickup’s bed was an old metal coffin, the man said.

“We all watched it go by and (one neighbor) said, `Boy they don’t make coffins like that anymore,’ ” the man said.

He said he reported the incident to investigators yesterday.

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