Police Brutality and Voodoo Justice


A grief-stricken Marie Dorismond, clutching a black, leather-cased Bible, struggled to her feet following a rousing introduction by her adviser, the Reverend Al Sharpton, on a Saturday morning last month. An overflow crowd at Sharpton’s House of Justice in Harlem, which had welcomed the mother of alleged police-brutality victim Patrick Dorismond, was ululating with fervor akin to a mau-mau victory dance.

Overnight, a scandal-scarred Mayor Rudy Giuliani seemed to have committed political suicide: He had dropped out of the U.S. Senate race against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. At long last, the spell cast by the city’s famously ill-tempered leader appeared to be dissipating.

Many in the crowd seemed captivated by the stocky, church going Marie Dorismond, believing that the Haitian immigrant—who had named her slain son after Ireland’s patron saint, and whose familiar, raspy-voiced complaint about Giuliani-style justice had touched New Yorkers—had something to do with the sudden turn of events in the mayor’s life. Every time Mrs. Dorismond prayed, every time she tilted her head toward the heavens—her wide-set eyes rolled back—enraptured blacks felt that she had an inside track on Giuliani’s destiny. Whatever Mrs. Dorismond prayed for remains her secret. But Giuliani, she often predicted, had it coming for what he’s done. “The Lord said, ‘I put my child in the earth. Don’t touch my child! You got no right to kill!’ ” she would cry. “The Lord said, ‘The time soon come. I am the Lord! You must respect me!’ ”

In March, after an undercover cop fatally shot her son in front of a Manhattan nightclub, Giuliani said Dorismond was “no altar boy.” He released the victim’s sealed juvenile record and refused to send condolences to the family. From then on, nothing seemed to go right for the garrulous chief executive. Since Dorismond’s death, Giuliani and his top cohort, Police Commissioner Howard Safir, have been diagnosed with prostate cancer; the mayor has announced that he is separating from his wife of 16 years, Donna Hanover; and his Senate bid lies in ruins.

In Brooklyn’s Little Haiti and on black talk-radio station WLIB, the so-called “Dorismond Curse” permeated discussions about police brutality and Haitian voodoo, the little-understood Caribbean religion, which once empowered slaves from Africa who were whipped and worked to death but finally revolted. The slave revolution started with a voodoo ceremony in 1791 and ended 13 years later with the birth of Haiti. To this day, some voodoo holy men carry machetes symbolizing the spiritual power that fueled their ancestors’ hard-won freedom. The slaves who arrived in the 1600s on the island of Hispaniola—one-third of which is now occupied by Haiti—toiled in cotton, sugar, and coffee fields. To survive, they worshipped the Roman Catholic saints of their European masters, while secretly seeing them as representations of African deities. Thus was born voodoo, a word derived from the Fon language of West Africa, meaning “sacred.”

In Little Haiti, it is not uncommon to walk into homes or apartments that have been converted into voodoo temples filled with dolls—”messengers” for spirits that help people probe the mysteries of life and death. Some are well-worn Barbies with notes that hang upside down by threads tied to their ankles. Doing “business” means summoning the 11 principal voodoo divinities, or “Iwa,” derived from benign West African spirits and aggressive Central African and Creole ones. Rhythms beaten on drums and beaded rattles with bells awaken the deities.

While some blacks, who adhere to the notion that voodoo is an “evil religion,” envision zombies sticking pins in dolls resembling Giuliani and Safir, others wonder whether Mrs. Dorismond herself has done a little “business” to cajole the deity who would solve the mystery of her son’s death. But Mrs. Dorismond would have no part of that, scoffing at rumors that voodoo is responsible for “who get hurt,” a reference to Giuliani’s and Safir’s prostate cancer.

“This is my voodoo! My Bible!” she said, hoisting the book and waving it around to accolades from supporters at the Sharpton rally. “I will never stop carry this!” she added. “It’s in my hand! . . . And everybody gonna hear this! The Lord said, ‘If you touch my hair, you’re gonna pay for it.’ “

For some believers in “evil voodoo,” the first Abner Louima police-brutality trial hinged on a handful of lavender rocks and holy water. During the explosive civil rights case in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn earlier this year, the father of Justin Volpe, the white cop who was accused of sodomizing Louima with a broken broomstick, told friends he was warned by Haitian spiritual healers that Louima is a wicked voodoo high priest bent on deadly revenge.

Robert Volpe, a former NYPD detective, reportedly carried around the kind of protection his spiritual advisers bragged would make Louima’s evil bogeys suffer. The irony in Volpe’s alleged fear that Louima—who wears a bulletproof vest—threatened his family with voodoo has not escaped some Haitians, who contend that Volpe’s son brought a curse on himself. Some believe that Justin Volpe got the idea for the sadistic assault from the 1996 mutilation killing of popular Haitian family doctor Claude Michel.

Police found Michel’s body slumped over in the passenger seat of his Nissan Pathfinder within the confines of the 70th Precinct. Someone had slashed his throat and cut off his penis, placing it in his hand. The grisly slaying, which remains unsolved, has the hallmark of a Haitian voodoo sacrifice, says an East Flatbush specialist in ritualistic crimes who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Asked why some Haitians see a similarity in Michel’s death and the sodomizing of Louima, the source replied, “We’ve seen these crimes before in Haiti and in the Haitian community in America; they’re both crimes of passion. They are meant to kill.” Volpe was charged with handcuffing and beating Louima, and ramming the broken broomstick into Louima’s rectum and mouth in a fit of rage in a bathroom stall at the 70th Precinct station house in August 1997. He mistakenly thought Louima had sucker-punched him in a disturbance outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush, where a popular Haitian band called the Phantoms was playing.

The phantoms Louima allegedly unleashed on the Volpes to avenge the attack on him were taken seriously, according to James Ridgway de Szigethy, a Volpe family friend, who associates with members of the right-wing National Police Defense Foundation. The suspicion that Louima is heavily into devil worship developed in de Szigethy’s mind when he began to assume the role of “Occult Cop.” For three years, de Szigethy and a group of reporters have been investigating allegations that the killers of club kid Angel Melendez dealt in the netherworld. De Szigethy also has been looking into the Santeria religion “as spread by [Cuban refugees], who Castro dumped in this country” during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

“It was something that I’d suspected from the beginning about Louima,” he says. “I suspected that he might be involved in the practice of voodoo.” But de Szigethy could not find anyone in Little Haiti to confirm his eerie hunches. He recalls Louima giving him the willies on the first day of testimony about a night of torture at the hands of Justin Volpe. “I looked at his appearances and I just got a funny feeling.”

He says that after Louima testified, he approached Robert Volpe about Louima’s alleged association with satanic voodoo. “I said, ‘Bob, you’re gonna think I’m crazy.’ ” The elder Volpe grabbed de Szigethy by the arm and led him out of the courtroom. “No, I don’t think you’re crazy,” de Szigethy quotes Volpe’s father as saying.

According to de Szigethy, Volpe then pulled out “a little purple crystal . . . and a little vial of holy water.” (A Haitian voodoo practitioner, who asks good spirits to do deeds for the living, says that the actual ritual seeking an order of protection from an enemy is performed when someone binds “a handful of small rocks soaked in lavender oil.” After 10 days it is removed and placed in a jar of holy water labeled with the name of the person who threatens to do you harm.) The concerned father reportedly confided that Haitian spiritualists urged him to carry the emblems of good over evil at all times.

What happened next might cause even Papa Doc to spin in his grave. “He took a sprinkling of the holy water and made the sign of the cross on his forehead,” de Szigethy claims. Convinced that Volpe’s ritual somehow confirmed that Louima believes in the supernatural, de Szigethy contacted the Reverend William G. Kalaidjian, the controversial former NYPD chaplain who was forced to resign from the department last year after referring to assistant district attorney Thomas Hickey as a “fag.”

“I want you to come into this courtroom because there is evil here,” de Szigethy told Kalaidjian, who also is a member of the National Police Defense Foundation. Kalaidjian, who attended the trial as an observer, could not be reached for comment. (On the day testimony in the trial was canceled because a juror fell ill, de Szigethy says he also asked the Reverend Louis Gigante, brother of former reputed Genovese crime family boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante, to pray for the Volpe family.)

In addition to hawking the evil-Louima tale, de Szigethy advocated a temporary insanity defense for his friend’s son. “When this whole thing started, everybody [asked], ‘Why would some young man do such a strange and insane thing?’ ” he explains. “I looked into his background and although one source had called him a psycho I could find no evidence of mental illness on his part. [But] what would happen if Justin Volpe changed his plea from not guilty to guilty by reason of insanity?”

De Szigethy chided the NYPD for not considering the theory that Volpe’s rumored use of steroids may have triggered violent outbreaks known as ” ‘Roid Rage.”

“Unfortunately the NYPD does not test for steroids,” he says. “The theory never took off.” (The late Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, the only reporter to interview Volpe, observed, “It was easy to see him as some version of Mark Fuhrman on steroids.”)

The family friend pointed to the testimony of another Haitian immigrant, Patrick Antoine, who claimed Volpe punched him for no reason while police searched for suspects in the nightclub melee. Antoine testified that he, too, was taken into the bathroom by Volpe, where Volpe apologized for acting like a madman. “He told me he was sorry,” said Antoine, who, like Louima, was arrested on an allegedly false charge of assaulting a police officer. “He told me he was like somebody who was going crazy.” Antoine said Volpe then noticed that he was wearing a cross and asked if he believed in Jesus. “I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Antoine recalled at the trial. “He told me he believed in Jesus, too.”

If Louima indeed has satanic powers with which to punish his enemies, why, some supporters argue, did he depend on a mostly white jury to give him justice? Wouldn’t he have asked the evil spirits for the ultimate sacrifice? But that in no way resembles the man New York Times reporter David Barstow found one Sunday sitting “perfectly still, his face a mask of calm,” in the third pew of Croisade Evangelique de Pecheurs D’Hommes, the East Flatbush Pentecostal church pastored by his uncle, the Reverend Philius Nicolas II. “And yet, again and again church members spoke of Mr. Louima in the kind of reverent tones reserved for those whose lives seem touched by divine intervention,” Barstow wrote. “To them, he is ‘a gift from God,’ or ‘anointed by God,’ or ‘one of God’s special ones.’ ”

Some people have exploited the ignorance surrounding the voodoo religion for political reasons. One of them had close ties to Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign. In October of that year, this reporter learned that Dr. Guirlaine St. Fleur, a graduate medical student, who is Haitian, was the strategist behind a quietly run campaign to recruit Haitian immigrants to come out publicly in support of Giuliani. (I wrote about St. Fleur in “Black Magic Woman: How an Operative From Haitians for Giuliani Made a Devil Out of Me,” in the October 19, 1993, Voice.) It sounded like a sick joke. Giuliani is to the Lavalas—followers of then exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide—what Czar Nicholas II was to Jews. To this day, the Lavalas hold Giuliani, a former associate attorney gerneral in the Reagan administration, responsible for the detention program in which some 2200 Haitian “boat people” were imprisoned under inhumane conditions in a detention center near the Everglades swamp.

I discovered that “Haitians for Giuliani” operated out of then Giuliani-backed comptroller candidate Herman Badillo’s downtown Manhattan campaign headquarters, and I eventually tracked St. Fleur to a Brooklyn apartment. In a phone conversation, she disclosed that she had trained at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, where she had studied forensic medicine, and claimed that made the Lavalas “paranoid” about her. In fact, some said she was a member of the Tonton Macoutes, Haiti’s dreaded secret police under the Duvalier regimes. St. Fleur insisted such fears about her were unfounded and invited the reporter to Badillo’s campaign headquarters to learn more about her work on behalf of poor Haitian immigrants.

The meeting ended suddenly after a Badillo staffer questioned how the reporter had gained access to the office. St. Fleur denied talking to me and arranging the meeting. The next day, she left this message on my voice mail: “Mr. Noel, this is Dr. St. Fleur speaking. I do not know you. Now, I see by your last name you seem to be Haitian. . . . I do not know who sent you to speak to me, and I’m not going to take this lightly. I’m extremely upset, but I’ll tell you one thing, and I’m gonna spell it out for you, in Creole. B-A-F-F-I-M M-A-M-Y-A-N. You will have to answer to Baffim Mamyan. You don’t know what I mean, you will know. . . . This is the last person in your life you are going to . . . treat like this, abuse like this, verbally, socially. . . . Baffim Mamyan will have to answer with you. And I’m not joking. I’m from Haiti. I was born in Gonaive, and Gonaive people NEVER, NEVER play with people. I’m scientific; you may laugh as much as you want. But spiritually, you and I, we have a rendezvous. Never forget that in your life.”

Marie Dorismond, who says she was “born on a Libra star,” calls on Saint Patrick, not Baffim Mamyan, for justice. “And I will always pray,” she vows, “as long as my son’s justice is not done!”

Additional reporting by Amanda Ward and Associated Press