Woman faces prison time for smuggling skull for religious rituals

He was a black man, in his 30s or 40s, buried sometime in the last year.

His skull still had pieces of dirt on it when it was seized Thursday by Federal agents at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. It was found in a Miramar woman’s carry-on bag as she went through customs after her return from Haiti.

Federal officials arrested Myrlene Sevère, 30, after she brought the skull from Cap-Haitien in a rice bag on Lynx Airlines.

She told investigators that she purchased the skull from a man in Haiti to use in religious ceremonies and had hoped it would ward off evil spirits, according to the federal complaint. Sevère told them that she practices Vodou, or Voodoo, an African-Christian religion, with roots in Haiti, whose practitioners worship spirits that can heal and provide guidance.

Laws governing the importation of human remains are rigid, but they don’t prevent a small number of such cases in South Florida each year.

“Human remains that are imported for proper medical or educational purposes are required to have a death certificate,” said Zachary Mann, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Any human body parts that are imported for religious purposes are considered restricted importations and are seized.”

Sevère appeared before federal magistrate Lurana Snow in Fort Lauderdale Friday morning and later posted $100,000 bond. Sevère, who is a legal U.S. resident, is accused of smuggling a human head without proper documentation, failing to declare the skull to customs and transporting hazardous materials. She faces up to 15 years in prison.

Sevère could not be reached for comment. Ingrid Llera, a Vodou priestess who saw her at a January gathering of practitioners in Little Haiti in Miami-Dade County, said the Miramar woman is also a priestess. Llera, of Pembroke Pines, said Sevère probably didn’t know her actions were illegal.

“For her, she was doing something normal,” Llera said. “Often, what people take for granted in Haiti, they might do here without knowing it’s against the law.”

Sevère’s neighbors knew she practiced Vodou, but never expected the arrest.

“It is pretty wild,” said Guerlain Desrouleaux, 47, who is also from Haiti. “I was shocked.”

Neighbor Shawn Jean-Charles, 18, said Sevère’s arrest only feeds the stereotypes about Haitians and Vodou.

“Not all Haitians do that,” he said.

Dr. Joshua Perper, chief medical examiner for Broward County, said the skull appeared to have been buried for a year or less. The lower jaw was missing, he said, and the skull had “a very small bunch of hair sticking to it.” It showed no signs of trauma or disease. Perper has called in a botanist to examine leaves and vegetation that accompanied the skull in the rice bag and to look for any exotic insects.

Perper said he had never seen a case like this in Broward County.

In Miami-Dade, however, the medical examiner has the “Bone Room.”

They are “usually skulls brought in for some religious purpose,” said Larry Cameron, the office’s director of operations. “We may get eight or 10 skulls a year.”

Almost every case comes from Miami International Airport, he said. Those skulls and bones end up in the “Bone Room,” a room for all skeletal remains found in the county. Cameron said the remains are stored there until claimed by relatives.

Perper said his office will try and track down the man’s family or where he was buried.

Rafael Martinez, an anthropologist and expert in Afro-Caribbean religions, consulted with Perper about the skull. He said skulls are commonly used in two prominent South Florida religions: Vodou and the Afro-Cuban religion called Palo Mayombe.

Martinez said that in Vodou, it is common for practitioners to put a human skull on an altar in the home dedicated to spirits of the dead known as gede. The spirits contained in that skull are thought to have a powerful, positive influence on one’s life.In Palo Mayombe, human bones are often put into a ceremonial pot or nganga, for similar purposes.

“The belief is that that the spirits of those people will help you in life, will do things for you,” Martinez said.

But the use of skulls and bones, he said, can be seen in almost all world religions. In Catholicism, for example, many relics are purported to be human remains of saints.

“People need to have an open mind about these things. We keep in our living rooms the ashes of our loved ones and that doesn’t come across as unusual,” he said. “We need to recognize these are all very valid religions. Very different, but very valid.”

Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer Vanessa Blum contributed to this story.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Feb. 11, 2006
Brian Haas and Macollvie Jean-François

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday February 11, 2006.
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