Editor's note: A brief in Friday's Herald about dead chickens found in a church cemetery included errors about the church location and the investigating agency. The investigation by the York County Sheriff's Office took place at the Flint Hill Baptist Church cemetery at 269 Flint Hill Road, Fort Mill.
Across the street from the church cemetery where something happened that probably never happened before, ever, came the word from a woman named Esther Buchanan who has lived and worked and worshipped within sight of the church and cemetery all her life: "Unbelievable."
But it happened. Somebody, or a group of somebodies, left a sacrifice of dead chickens, and other chicken parts, and candy and other strange stuff, just inside the Flint Hill Baptist Church cemetery gates early Tuesday. The chickens were found, and the ceremony abruptly halted, when a church employee came to work and saw what was described to police as "some type of ritual."
Tuesday was the last day before Christians around the world began their 40-day Lenten period for penance. The chickens and offerings of flowers, left on Fat Tuesday, present the distinct possibility that Santeria was involved, said Lt. Jeff Cornwell, shift supervisor of the York County Sheriff's Office patrol units who handled the call. Cornwell has traveled extensively through Latin America.
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"You see this kind of thing there far more frequently, a combination with Catholic beliefs, practiced out in the open, but it is unusual for this area for sure," Cornwell said.
The men involved fled, police responded and took pictures of the sacrificed chickens, but Bobby Long was left to get rid of the chickens. Long, who has lived and run a business across the street and taken care of the cemetery grounds for decades, said he looked long and hard at what was inside the two shoeboxes that contained the chicken parts and other stuff, but had no idea what significance it could have or why it would be done.
"There was chickens, but also cooked chicken wings, butterscotch candies, flowers and feathers and stuff," Long said. "I sure didn't have any idea what it was all about, but my daughter looked it up on the Internet and said it could have been some kind of religious thing, or connection to Mardi Gras, that kind of thing."
The people involved were not caught, although the church secretary who came upon the ritual saw the men flee in the direction of a nearby mobile home park.
The historic church and cemetery just off U.S. 21 and S.C. 51, less than a mile south of the North Carolina state line in northern York County, dates back 220 years and has some of the oldest graves in York County. It is bounded by the mobile home park on the south, and a housing subdivision to the east.
Sheriff's deputies used spotlights to search the cemetery after 6 a.m. Tuesday when the sacrifice was found, but no suspects were found.
Santeria is generally accepted as a blend of Catholicism with African and Native American cultural and religious beliefs, and has a long history in parts of the Caribbean and Latin America.
Yet authorities and church members remain in the dark as to who was conducting the ritual, and why in a cemetery.
Flint Hill has opened its doors to many immigrants from other countries for more than a decade in a popular English as Second Language class. Barbara Garrison, who runs the ESL classes that sometimes have people speaking as many as eight different languages, said the people of nearby neighborhoods who attend the English classes are Christians and, "fine people."
The Rev. Larry Twitty, who took over as Flint Hill Baptist's interim pastor a few weeks ago when the longtime pastor moved to another state, said Friday the little bit he has heard about the incident is "strange and unusual."
"Clearly, we do not want this kind of thing to happen on the grounds," Twitty said.
Officers will continue to investigate, said Capt. Allen Brandon, who runs the patrol division for the Sheriff's Office.
Long, the cemetery custodian, drove through the cemetery Friday morning with another worker whose grandfather is buried in the cemetery to make sure nothing else was out of the ordinary. Because for Long, a volunteer firefighter who has seen just about everything, this chicken sacrifice is a new one.
"There is no place for this kind of thing - dead chickens - in this church cemetery," Long said.