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Justice for the Snow-Cone Man 

His female killer blames witchcraft and brujas, but the jury calls it murder

Wednesday, Aug 29 2007
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NORBERTO CASTRO NEVER SAW his untimely and violent death coming. The 43-year-old Mexican immigrant’s life had taken a positive turn, and by March 2005 he had saved up enough money as a Los Angeles busboy to buy a snow-cone cart, which he pushed the six blocks from Melrose Avenue to Beverly Boulevard in the Hollywood flatlands each day.

A salesman from Mexico’s state of Guerrero, the resourceful Castro soon built a reliable customer base. Castro told his niece Adrianna Torres that he missed his hometown and even planned to return for a vacation. He joked with his 20-year-old son that he expected him to pay $1,200 for Castro’s return to L.A. using a “coyote.”

He also told his niece he had fallen in love with a much younger woman named Maria Gomez, a 20-year-old Mexican immigrant he met in his Hollywood neighborhood. Little did he realize that Gomez was gripped by a dark belief system, an internal landscape haunted by Mexican witch doctors, evil spells and superstitions.

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Castro never caught on. He was so wild about the vibrant Gomez that he lent her his green Nissan — even though Gomez didn’t really know how to drive. He wined and dined her, along with her lesbian lover and other girlfriends. He gave her money regularly — as much as $500 at a time. When Gomez got into spats with her lover, Carla Mendez, she would often curl up overnight at Castro’s.

It didn’t bother him that Gomez and Mendez had minor brushes with the law, or that the two roommates were lovers. His puppy love seemed harmless, but the superstitious and paranoid Gomez came to believe that the snow-cone man would doom her. According to Gomez, after consulting a bruja — a Mexican witch doctor operating out of a botanica within the city’s sprawling immigrant community — Gomez decided Castro had cast a spell on her as punishment for spurning his advances.

Swept up in her eerie beliefs, Gomez decided her only escape was to murder Castro. At Gomez’s murder trial, which ended August 21 in her conviction, her friend Sogui Godinez testified that Gomez concocted a sinister plan, ultimately tricking Castro into drinking paint thinner and nail-polish remover, then joining her lover in bashing his head in with rocks.

The entire tragedy was driven by Gomez’s belief in love spells and witchcraft, practiced underground in many poor Latino neighborhoods. It was a way to “explain the unexplainable,” says Patrick A. Polk, lead author of Botánica Los Angeles,whotestified at her trial.

Believers like Gomez convince themselves that bad news — such as “my father started drinking, then died” — is caused by witchcraft rather than bad decisions or legitimate illnesses. And believers see unwanted “spells” cast on them as “akin to physical violence,” Polk says.

Hocus-pocus aside, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney successfully argued that her motive was not that exotic. Castro had cut off his generous cash gifts to her shortly before she killed him.

After the trial, prosecutor Hyunah Suh explained to the L.A. Weekly that Gomez’s story, told via translator, was not believable. “She found everyday, commonplace events to justify or to prove that the victim was engaging in witchcraft. It was very hard to believe what Maria Gomez was saying.”

Added Suh: “I don’t believe she was motivated purely out of fear for her life. .?.?. There was some evidence that they had some kind of relationship where she received money on a regular basis. .?.?. She did testify that the victim stopped giving her money when she finally had sex with him.”

THE EVENING OF JULY 13, 2005, Castro joined Gomez and her two friends Mendez and Godinez in a late-night trip to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, where, Godinez testified, Castro accepted a beer from Gomez and guzzled it — not realizing Gomez had spiked it with nail-polish remover and paint thinner.

As the Weekly reported (“Death of the Snow-Cone Man,” Feb. 1–8), Castro was barely conscious when they shoved him into the car and drove back into Los Angeles. As they drove, Godinez claims, Gomez began striking Castro with a beer bottle and shouting, “?‘I hate you! This is for cursing my daughter! My money!’ .?.?. He was just mumbling, saying, ‘No.’?”

Police found evidence to support Godinez’s harrowing story of arriving at Allesandro Street in Silver Lake, where Gomez and Mendez pulled Castro from the car. Godinez fled and hid, she said, as Gomez and Mendez tried to back the car over Castro — but the car wouldn’t start. So, according to Godinez, Gomez and Mendez used two large rocks to bash in his head.

Unaffected throughout the trial by the brutal allegations against her, Gomez insisted to the riveted jury that she and her family were at the mercy of mystical forces: “Every time [grandmother] would make chile rellenos — every time — maggots would show up.”

Gomez recounted how, as a teenager, she moved to North Carolina, met a man named Alex, and rented a room from a Colombian woman who, she claimed, was a practitioner of witchcraft. Her landlady “threw holy water on me and cursed me and told me that my [relationship with] Alex would end — and I would end up like a dog.”

The couple moved to Los Angeles, where Gomez claimed that a strange man approached her and told her that she had been cursed and her relationship would end in three months. Gomez claimed that her relationship ended three months later. It wasn’t long after that she met Castro.

“[Castro] looked like my father,” she testified. “He would pay attention to me, invite me to eat and make me feel special. .?.?. I only wanted to be a friend to him. He was older and he was married and he had nine children in Mexico.”

In early 2005, Gomez says she found a photo of her taken while she was sleeping in Castro’s apartment. Ever more drawn to her beliefs, she became obsessed with the notion that Castro had used the photo to place a “love spell” on her. She didn’t confront him because, she insisted, “When he was younger, he put a hex on his wife so she would leave her fiancé .?.?. and marry him.”

An industry of practitioners peddling themselves aswitch doctors helped feed her paranoia. Polk says that Southern California alone has close to 500 botanicas, or religious-supply stores that support traditional folk religion and spiritual practices of Mexico and Central America. In February 2005, Gomez went to a bruja named Estrella to confirm her suspicions about Norberto Castro.

The bruja told her that a man “around 42 years old” had cast a spell on her. The bruja cleansed her body with eggs and herbs and performed a fire ritual. Gomez says the bruja warned her that the “spell” against her could be broken only if Castro died — or if he broke the spell himself.

“She told me not to go back to where he was, because all cleansing would be in vain,” she said. If she did, “I would die in a car accident in the month of September.” But Gomez continued to see Castro, and says she even had sex with him for the first time. “It wasn’t that I liked him or found him attractive,” she testified. “It was something stronger than me. .?.?. It is a spell. The witchcraft stuff pulls you and pulls you toward that person.”

She decided to kill him after her car stalled on the freeway in May 2005. After all, the bruja had predicted an “accident” in which Gomez would die. Gomez says she saw the car stalling as a sign that the prediction was coming partly true. Once she made her morbid decision, she says, “I was rested and I finally could be happy.”

Last week, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury rejected her folkloric tale of witchcraft and jilted love, deliberating for less than a day to find her guilty of first-degree murder. Her lover, Mendez, picked up by the LAPD’s fugitive task force in 2006, faces trial in January.

Torres was at a loss to explain why anyone would want to kill her uncle, who was generous and hard-working and loved to kick back with friends. “He was happy every day,” recalls Torres with a smile. “He liked to talk.” But in the world of love spells and witchcraft, it’s all about winning or losing. “The idea is .?.?. once you put something into action, it has to come to an end,” says Polk. For Castro, his end came too soon.

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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