By EILEEN ZAFFIRO, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH -- Back in 1997, a string of bank robberies might have gone unsolved if Officer Bob Engborg hadn't been on the force.
Engborg -- who has studied fringe religions including Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Satanism and Haitian voodoo -- figured out that the suspects were all teenage boys being initiated into Yoruba. Yoruba, an African religion with roots thousands of years deep in Nigeria, has some offshoots considered to be voodoo.
The robbers' voodoo teacher and priest, who had just moved to Daytona Beach a few months earlier, encouraged them to raise the $500 he demanded from each for their initiation fee by holding up banks, Engborg said.
"One of the kids said his teacher did a spell for him to make him invisible to the police," Engborg said.
Engborg brought a rare skill with him when he joined the Daytona Beach Police Department in 1982, and that expertise will be missed now that he's retired. Well, sort of retired.
Engborg's last day as a full-time officer was Saturday, but he said he'll still put in about 20 or 30 hours a week to stay busy and consult on the bizarre cases that stump other officers. He's one of the few officers who can use someone's beaded necklace to decipher which special gods he or she worships, or can determine that a woman with a shaved head who wears only white for a year and refuses to shake anyone's hand is becoming a Santeria priestess.
"Everyone wants to solve mysteries," said Engborg, whose shelves at home are packed with books on religions and ritual crimes, Ouija boards and witch dolls. "It started out with a sincere quest for knowledge. I hate not knowing the answers. I just went deeper and deeper."
Many police departments don't invest in the training Engborg has had.
"Departments misunderstand things all the time," he said. "Everything gets blamed on Satanism, and very little of it is Satanism. There's so many hidden facts that would be overlooked or dismissed as trivial by an untrained officer that can be brought to the surface when going over a crime scene."
His fascination with religions began in the late 1970s, when he was a Fort Pierce police officer and a Haitian woman he had arrested three times for prostitution said she put a hex on him.
In the years since then, the 58-year-old has been tapped regularly by police departments and sheriff's offices throughout Florida, helping solve cases involving a goat's head, women who regularly drink blood and voodoo dolls.
While many cases result in only minor charges, some of his work involves very serious crimes. About eight years ago, he helped in a case involving a local teenage boy believed to be in a vampire cult, a group that believed they received a life force by drinking other people's blood.
The 16-year-old boy, who always wore black and a necklace of sorts with a vial of blood, was convicted of bludgeoning to death his girlfriend's parents in Umatilla.
Early in his studies of religions that fall outside Judeo-Christian beliefs, Engborg got interested in paganism. Although he was raised as a Methodist, the pagan beliefs rang true in his heart, and he is now a Wiccan minister.
Cheryl Castle, a local woman who describes herself as a pagan witch, has come to know Engborg over the past seven years.
"We've tried to work together to show people a united front for paganism," said Castle, known to many people as Druydess. "Bob works very hard to promote paganism and portray being a Wiccan in a positive light."
Engborg stresses that paganism is in no way related to any religion that advocates harming people. Wicca, for example, is a pagan religion that honors the Earth and maintains there is a divine force in all living things, not just in one deity.
Engborg became a Wiccan in 1989, but for years he kept his spirituality in the closet for fear of discrimination.
"People who saw things that I dug up from ritual sites and used to keep in my office were actually afraid to talk to me in my office, so we'd talk in the hallway," he said.
But not all of his co-workers fear him. Evie Lueck, a paralegal assistant at the department, has become a close friend.
"He's extremely nice and knowledgeable," said Lueck, who shares some of Engborg's spiritual beliefs. "He was instrumental as a technical adviser on a few fictional books loosely based on real Daytona Beach crimes."
If more people educated themselves about religions, there would be less fear, he said. He estimates 5 to 10 percent of Volusia County residents practice an occult or pagan religion. On his 27-person shift at the police department, there are four pagans, he said.
"People have been fed misinformation for years and years," Engborg said. "My belief is we should let all people practice what they want to as long as they don't harm anyone else and don't force anyone else to practice."