By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Gutierrez called KRCA, and John Doe No. 115 was identified, two weeks after his death, as the hard-working snow-cone man of Hollywood.
ON SEPTEMBER 13, following the trail from the YMCA card found inside the red Jetta parked near Castro’s body, homicide detectives tracked down 17-year-old Sogui Godinez, who admitted she had gone to Cabrillo Beach that summer night of Castro’s beating.
It was Godinez who gave Los Angeles police the first hint, two months after Castro’s death, that he was killed as a direct result of witchcraft, in which superstition reigns supreme and dark, voodoolike hexes are placed on enemies and wayward lovers.
According to Godinez, Castro and the much younger Gomez seemed good friends. Castro felt comfortable lending his car to Gomez even though she didn’t have a license or really know how to drive. On occasion, he wined and dined her and her friends.
Gomez’s recent minor brushes with the law, involving vandalism, along with those of her girlfriend, 20-year-old Carla Mendez, didn’t seem to bother Castro, and his infatuation with her appeared harmless. But to Gomez, it would come to seem deadly.
Godinez, testifying at a preliminary hearing trial in which Gomez and Mendez are charged with Castro’s murder, said Gomez was influenced to kill Castro by a bruja — a witch doctor, a sinister version of the much more common and accepted curanderas or spiritualistas, who work out of Los Angeles botanicas peddling spiritual healing and protection from bad spells.
After consulting a bruja, Godinez says, Gomez became convinced that the snow-cone peddler had put a bad spell on her for spurning his romantic advances. “The [witch doctor] told her that she was going to have a [car] accident,” testified Godinez. “She told her what date, what time — and she indeed had that accident.”
Swept up in a superstitious paranoia fed by her belief in brujas, Gomez allegedly became certain Castro wanted her dead by September, and that he’d put a curse on her daughterand her money.
The witch doctor, Godinez said, “told her that if she didn’t kill him before — if she didn’t do it first, he was going to do it to her.”
IN THE 1950S, CUBAN-AMERICANS opened L.A.’s first botanica, which was closely associated with Afro-Cuban religion. Eventually, many botanicas became religious-supply stores that sold herbs and candles touting mystical powers. They are often centers for immigrant faith, supporting the folk-religion practices of Mexican and Central American traditions.
Southern California has close to 500 botanicas — at least a dozen near the intersection of Alvarado and Sixth streets in Los Angeles. Heavily Latino Huntington Park has more than 30. The shops and their spiritualistas are believed to influence the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
People seek herbal remedies to help with back pain — as well as clues about whether a husband or wife is cheating. The prices for good fortune vary. A spell to get a raise at work will run about $25. For something to really stick, it can cost around $125.
Domestic problems are a big part of the business, and botanicas peddle revenge hexes right along with upbeat chances for a bigger paycheck. To get back at your cheating spouse, some fortunetellers recommend burning a black candle. A more elaborate death ritual can cost upward of $3,000, although that practice is believed to be rare.
“They may say they are a healer, and usually what it really means is, ‘I am a counselor, a psychotherapist or a shoulder to cry on,’?” said Patrick A. Polk, lead author of Botanica Los Angeles.
“It is not uncommon [for fortunetellers] to say, ‘This person is trying to do something to you,’?” he said. “There is no question that people believe that folks can work magic that might have that outcome. If anything, it is more to do unto others as they would do unto you.”
Last month, for example, troubled 28-year-old fortuneteller Santiago Arellano decided to do unto another fortuneteller he was convinced had given bad advice to his wife. Police said Arellano torched a car and yard in South L.A. he believed the fortuneteller owned.
A week earlier, Arellano was believed to have shot at buildings he thought were used by fortunetellers. He was arrested on January 10 wearing a painter’s mask over his nose and mouth and carrying a rifle in the back seat of his car. Charged with arson and destruction of property, he is being held without bail at Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
GOMEZ, HER FRIEND GODINEZhas testified, was also a true believer. In the early hours of July 14, partying at Cabrillo Beach with Gomez, Godinez and Mendez, Norberto Castro took a beer from Gomez and drank it down. But, Godinez said, Gomez had tainted his beer with nail-polish remover and paint thinner, and Castro soon began to stagger.
Godinez said Castro was barely conscious when the girls drove back into the city, toward Silver Lake, where police said the girl he loved bashed his head in with a rock.
As they drove, Godinez said, Gomez struck Castro, saying, “?‘This is for what you did to me, and this is for cursing my little daughter’ .?.?. And she would spit in his face, and she would say, ‘You’re nasty’ and ‘I hate you’ and this and that .?.?.”