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Worship of folk saint linked to fatal hotel shooting in Baton Rouge

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Officials are investigating a Wednesday morning fatal shooting at a Sleep Inn in Baton Rouge, believed to be part of a ritual tied to folk saint Santa Muerte.

Virginia Commonwealth University religion professor Andrew Chestnut wrote the book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.  He said he has heard of cases similar to this one.

“I know of murder cases in Mexico where the perp also said that, ‘Yeah. Santa Muerte told me that I needed to kill this person. Came to me in a dream or appeared to me in my living room,'” Chestnut said. “So yeah, that’s kind of standard operating fare.”

According to a 2013 report by the FBI, the name Santa Muerte directly translates to mean “Holy Death.” She is known as a “saint of last resort” and is represented by an image that resembles the Grim Reaper – a skeleton figure in a hooded robe and holding a scythe. Santa Muerte is known as a folk saint because she is not recognized by the Catholic church.

The belief system started in Mexico and became most popular in the late 80s and early 90s, particularly among people who belong to poor communities. The faith includes priests, shrines, temples, and rituals such as the offering of food, alcohol, and certain drugs. The FBI has described these practices as, “unsanctioned saint worship mixed with varying elements of folk Catholicism.”

Chestnut said most devotees pray to Santa Muerte for health, wealth, and love. However, because she is not a Christian saint, Chestnut says requests to her could be darker in nature.

“But again, because she is not a Catholic saint and because she is kind of amoral that means she does have a pretty good following among organized crime,” Chestnut said. “Particularly in Mexico. More specifically some of the drug cartels.”

Members of drug cartels and other criminals are known to take the rituals a step further by using the heads of people they’ve killed as their means of sacrifice. Officials believe they take on this faith practice to justify their actions and criminal behavior.

In 2013, KRGV News in Texas went undercover to learn more about the practice. Reporters spoke to a card reader, Anthony Hudgins, who said people who worship Santa Muerte are, “mainly people in desperation. They feel they have no other help.”

Police say David Mendez, 45, who is accused of shooting and killing 26-year-old Juan Reyes Lugos Wednesday morning, told investigators that Santa Muerte encouraged him to kill the victim. He was booked on charges of second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon.

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