ON A TYPICAL DAY, Norberto Castro pushed his snow-cone cart the six blocks from Melrose Avenue to Beverly Boulevard, a familiar face to the throngs of children in this dense Hollywood neighborhood. On a hot day, the 43-year-old Mexican immigrant could pull in upward of $300.
It was a job he was suited for. A salesman back in Mexico’s Guerrero state, he moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and fit in nicely with the bustle of the city’s illegal-immigrant neighborhoods, first working as a busboy and then packing groceries at a fruit market on Western Avenue.
His dream was to become his own boss, something nearly impossible to attain in Mexico’s stratified and often corrupt economy, even in his touristy hometown of Acapulco. By early 2005, the industrious Castro had saved enough to buy a snow-cone cart, and soon built a customer base near the studio apartment he shared with two friends and his newly arrived 20-year-old son, Auberto.
One of his friends, Adriana Torres, the sole woman to share the small and utilitarian Hollywood apartment, said Castro was happy: “He liked working for himself.” He liked to cook Mexican food for his roommates, play basketball, lift weights and cut loose clubbing with friends. The snow-cone business was brisk enough that he bought a green Nissan for $600, and his $200-a-month rent became a small dent in his healthy wallet.
He was a middle-aged man, yet life was turning a promising corner: He told Torres he had fallen in love with a girl he’d met. Torres never had a chance to meet the object of his affection, Maria Gomez, a 21-year-old unemployed Mexican immigrant.
“He was happy every day,” said Torres. “He liked to talk.”
It was so unlike Castro when he went missing on the evening of July 13, 2005, after a night out with his friends. The hard-working Castro never strayed from his snow-cone cart for long, so on July 16 Torres filed a missing-persons report with LAPD’s Hollywood Division and went to a local hospital to see if he’d been hurt.
She’d last seen Castro around midnight the night he disappeared. “I looked every day and wondered what happened,” said Torres. “Norberto didn’t like the night.”
Two weeks later, she learned he had died. And not until recently did she realize that although her friend got out of Mexico, he apparently did not escape an eerie aspect of its culture he neither believed in nor practiced: witchcraft and fortunetelling, rife with hexes and even death rituals, practiced in many of L.A.’s poor Latino neighborhoods.
THE MORNING OF JULY 13 started off with no hint of trouble. Castro got up at 9 a.m., did his laundry nearby, and made his rounds with the snow-cone cart, finishing up at Lemon Tree Park, a favorite after-school spot for local kids four blocks from Melrose and Normandie avenues.
He had an after-hours date with Maria Gomez and two of her girlfriends at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, and, police said, around midnight the girls swung by to pick him up in Gomez’s 1987 Volkswagen Jetta. They bought bottles of Mickey’s Ale and chips and cigarettes, and got to Cabrillo Beach about 30 minutes later to drink and watch waves crashing along the mile-long stretch.
But something went terribly wrong. Much later that night, police said, miles away in Silver Lake, loud voices awakened a homeowner at 4:30 a.m. on Allesandro Street alongside the busy 2 freeway that runs north to Glendale. Peering out, she spotted two figures standing above “something” — perhaps an animal, perhaps not — that lay on the pavement, moving slightly. To her horror, she later told police, the two figures ran to a nearby house, returned with large rocks, and violently crashed them onto “whatever object it was on the ground.”
Los Angeles Police Department officers found a barely-alive man lacking ID, lying next to a red Jetta with his head badly beaten. Nearby, two large rocks were covered with blood and hair. At Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center, hospital staff detected an “odor of gasoline” from his body and fought to save him. But he died, anonymously and alone, identified by the coroner only as John Doe No. 115, two days after the attack.
At first, Northeast Division detectives had a hard time identifying Castro. He had never been arrested, so fingerprints were no help. They traced the nearby Jetta to a guy who bought and sold cars impounded at police lots. One of the car’s former owners vaguely recalled selling the car a few months earlier to a Latina.
However, police were dealt one trump card. On the front driver’s seat, they found a YMCA membership card, and pursued that lead.
On July 28, Northeast Division detectives, unaware that a missing-persons report had been filed, held a press conference asking for the public’s help in identifying John Doe. They provided a composite sketch of him — and circulated a photo of his mangled big toe, an old injury in which the toe had been badly severed and sewn back together.
That night, Castro’s male roommate in Hollywood, Pedro Gutierrez, was watching Spanish-language news on KRCA Channel 62 when, to his horror, he recognized the toe as it flashed on a newscast. Gutierrez knew Castro had severed it with a machete years earlier, working the fields in Mexico.
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 GODINEZ has 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 .?.?.”
Godinez claims she became a target herself when Mendez placed a shoestring around her neck and threatened her with a gun. “[Mendez] put it around my neck,” she said. “She was just like, ‘Drive or else you and him are going to die.’ I was paranoid. I was scared. I was crying. I couldn’t even drive. The car was going side to side.”
Near Dodger Stadium, Godinez said she was ordered to drive along surface streets until they arrived at Allesandro Street, where she pulled in behind a white truck. She refused to help with the semiconscious Castro, and ran away to hide. Cowering in nearby bushes, she saw Castro struggling. “He was saying, ‘No, no,’ but he — he wanted to say something else like ‘stop,’ you know, like, ‘Don’t hit me,’?” she said.
As he struggled, one of the women screamed — perhaps the noise that woke up the homeowner on Allesandro Street.
“Oh, I thought he was dead. He’s still alive,” testified Godinez. But Gomez and Mendez found two large rocks and “just threw it on his head,” then fled without the car, she said. Godinez, paralyzed with fear, hid for an hour then called her mother.
With fingerprint evidence placing Gomez inside the bloodied Jetta, she was arrested during a six-hour stakeout on a South L.A. street two days after Godinez told police her harrowing story. Mendez eluded the law for five more months, and was picked up by the LAPD’s fugitive task force on February 23, 2006, visiting a friend in South L.A. The trial of the two women is set for some time this month.
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CASTRO’S L.A. ROOMMATE and friend during better days in Mexico, Torres was shocked to hear what had happened to the snow-cone man. As she sat on a blue couch in the apartment she once shared with Castro, she remembered him as a good soul.
She dismissed Gomez’s bizarre claim that Castro tried to put a spell on her, or somehow caused her to be in a car accident. She said Castro didn’t involve himself in superstitious beliefs, and never went to a botanica.
He was just a man trying to carve out a life in L.A. with his son — and succeeding.
“He was a nice person,” said Torres as she shook her head sadly. “I miss him.”