Mini-golf (aka Putt-Putt) is supposed to be casual. Easy. Fun! But less than two holes into my outing with members of Miami’s heralded “Voodoo Squad,” it was abundantly clear nobody bothered to tell them that.

“We agreed—no bank shots allowed!”

We didn’t agree. You said it, but I didn’t say shit!”

“Right. Which means we agreed.”

“The hell it does!”

“You trying to back out of the bet?”

“We never agreed to the terms!”

“The hell we didn’t!”

I was starting to think I’d be much safer hanging out with the actual voodoo instead of the supposed experts who were conscripted to clear it on a daily basis.

Confused? Allow me to explain …

When it comes to visuals worthy of eternal enshrinement, few places can match the city of Miami. Tanned, toned bodies modeling dental floss thongs. Multimillion-dollar waterfront mansions. Posh megayachts as long as battleships. Racy exotic cars with lease payments eclipsing mortgage payments. Severed goat heads. Pigeons with their throats slit. Dead lizards with twine-wrapped mouths. Rotting chicken carcasses. And no, those last four aren’t remnants from an Ozzy Osborne concert.

Just about anywhere you go in the Sunshine State’s most popular city, there’s a damn good chance you’ll spot one of the first four. But should your travels include a visit to the Miami-Dade Criminal Courthouse (formerly known as the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building) at 1351 NW 12th Street, I’d wager a kilo of Peruvian snow that you’ll see one of the latter. Simply put, there’s a whole lot more goin’ on there than just law & order.

For two decades and counting, many “wrong side of the law” Miamians have been appealing to higher, darker powers for assistance with their legal vexations. And because Miami is home to a large and ever-growing tally of Haitians, whose chief religion is Santeria (often referred to, incorrectly, as Voodoo) — an Afro-Caribbean theosophy that’s A-OK with animal sacrifice for deity appeasement — the discovery of critter carcasses should come as no surprise.

But in recent years, more and more dead things, along with additional “voodoo paraphernalia,” are being discovered around and inside the criminal courthouse. So much, in fact, that courthouse officials have assembled a specialized task force to deal with these freaky pseudo-religious artifacts.

Enter “The Voodoo Squad.”

Now there are some downright nasty jobs out there. Just ask Mike Rowe, whose hit television show, Dirty Jobs, explored well over a hundred unglamorous professions. But as tolerant and gutsy as Rowe had proved to be, you’d never catch him getting down and dirty with The Voodoo Squad.

Comprised of the courthouse’s janitorial staff and maintenance workers, Voodoo Squad’ers may not have received specialized training in witchcraft, black magic and the occult — not officially, anyway — but their constant exposure to the haunting and often odorific objects left by those hoping to tip the scales of Lady Justice in their favor has made them bona fide experts on the subject. And while this may sound like a great premise for a Hollywood movie — rumors are there’s already interest — Squad members take their work seriously. And so they should. Most of the courthouse’s staff are deathly afraid of looking at the grisly offerings, let alone accepting responsibility for their removal. After all, nobody wants to incur the wrath of angry gods whose sacrificial gifts have just been taken away!

Take the case of Acelio Hernandez. When no Voodoo Squad’ers were immediately available to remove three dead roosters from his shed, he paid a homeless man $5 to do it. Said Hernandez, “I would have paid him $20.” Strangely, a man bearing a strong resemblance to that very same rooster-removing indigent won a gigantic Powerball lottery jackpot shortly thereafter, proving you never know which way a voodoo hex will swing.

Meet the guys who clean up the mess

As you can imagine, it takes a special individual to cope with the stress and anxiety of daily voodoo sacrifice eradication. This has made the Squad’ers celebrities of sorts, causing them to adopt nicknames to maintain some level of anonymity. Names like Big Eye, El Guapo, The Dorch, and Skeleton Slick.

Understandably, every high-stress occupation needs a release, and for the Voodoo Squad, it’s Putt-Putt. Not long ago, they invited me to join them at their favorite place to play: Palmetto Mini-Golf.

But first, I had to endure their pre-round ritual, which consisted of some strange incantations and a Zombie-like tropical cocktail served in a bowl the size of tableside Caesar salad.

Prior to my arrival at Big Eye’s home, I didn’t know what to expect. Black light posters, candelabras, crystal skulls, eerie music — my mind was working overtime. But what I found couldn’t have been further from the images my twisted subconscious had conjured.

The house was normal, on the smallish side — three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths in under 1,700 square feet — with a light, bright and familial Brady Bunch feel. There was a blue carpet, furniture seemingly straight out of Sears Catalog, and flower-print curtains. Surprisingly, the welcome mat read: Welcome. Definitely not the hardcore anti-black magic abode I anticipated.

About the only thing that was unusual was the foodstuffs Big Eye’s wife, a Cajun from Shreveport, Louisiana, had prepared. Homemade cracklins (fried pig fat with skin attached) and boudin (a type of sausage). Now I’m not sure if this was the usual fare or was simply offered due to my attendance, but I skipped the semi-edibles, mumbled a silent prayer to save my stomach, and joined the group in the downing of their bowl of juice-and-booze intoxicant.

A limo arrived a few minutes later — damn, these guys do Putt-Putt right — but a few minutes after getting into the extended luxury sedan, I figured out the reason for the hired driver. The world started to spin. Not just round and round, but up and over, with twisting spirals that an Olympic aerialist would envy. By the time we arrived at the Palmetto Putt-Putt, my brain was more numb than a novocaine sundae.

For all I know, the Voodoo Squad’s arguing began before we started playing, but I was too soused to comprehend anything. But then on the 2nd hole, somewhere between a lagoon and a waterfall, I heard the yelling and caught the tail end of their squabble.

Ever the peacemaker, and trying to keep our group from becoming even more of a spectacle than we already were, I insisted they forego their fighting long enough to explain the gist of their work. This did the trick. Apparently, the only thing the Voodoo Squad likes more than betting on Putt-Putt is bragging about the insanity of their job.

Turns out their unit has two distinct teams: Recon and Reaction. And their daily task list contains only three items:

1) Make sure drain covers are in place.

2) Check lights in front and rear of the building.

3) Report any voodoo objects that need to be removed.

If Task No. 3 yields paydirt, the “low man on the totem pole” is called in for the clean-up. The “low man” goes by the name of Aldo, last to join the Voodoo Squad, hence his bottom-of-the-barrel position. Although Aldo’s English is “no muy bueno,” when asked what he thought of his daily duties, he had no trouble getting his point across: “It sucks very bad.”

The Voodoo Squad’s initial search begins outside the building every morning at 7:30 a.m. Occasionally, items do find their way inside, especially voodoo powder — the charred remains of photographs, usually of the judge, DAs, Assistant DAs, and any witnesses against the defendant, along with copies of relevant court documents. The powder is then “blessed” and sprinkled near/in the courtroom, where it will hopefully create problems for the prosecution. When voodoo powder is discovered, Squad’ers armed with dust-busters are immediately called in to vacuum the demonic substance up from the judge’s chair, prosecutor’s desk, courtroom aisle or anywhere else it might be.

Infrequent occurrences to be sure, but not infrequent enough for defense attorney Louis Casuso. While working the other side of the table as an Assistant State Attorney for Dade County, Casuso became the victim of a voodoo hex. While prosecuting a Santería priestess for cocaine trafficking, he returned from lunch to find his chair covered with white powder. Moments later, Casuso’s nose started to bleed. Casuso left the courtroom to stuff toilet paper up his nostrils while co-counsel finished the trial and won a conviction.

How anyone manages to get inside the courthouse with hex paraphernalia is a mystery, as metal detectors, X-ray machines and armed police officers aren’t all that easy to bypass. But then again, we’re dealing with voodoo here. Take the time when a courtroom bailiff found two dead lizards, mouths wrapped with twine, during the lunch break of another cocaine trial. A government informant was supposed to testify that afternoon. He flat-out refused!

Another time, a 1 foot-tall snowman-shaped figure made out of mashed potatoes, with seashells for eyes, was found behind the toilet in the main floor men’s bathroom. After it was determined not to be an explosive device, the snowman was cut open, revealing corn, hair, fingernails and sticks. Yet another example of an attempted Santeria hex — one that just might have worked, too, had the trial’s assigned judge not called in sick, causing his trial calendar to be rescheduled. Because later that day, the equivalent of 12 wheelbarrow loads of wet cement crashed down on his bench.

What to offer the gods to sway the criminal justice system

So is there any substance to the various objects and substances continually turning up around the Justice Building? I can’t say for sure. So I posed that same question to the Squad’ers. Skeleton Slick shrugged his shoulders and flashed a wicked smile: “You don’t fuck with voodoo.”

Here’s what I learned about voodoo offering and their meanings:

  • Dead chickens, roosters, pigeons or goats — The dead animal’s spirit is offered to the gods in the hopes that the gods will enter the minds of the judges or prosecutors and persuade them to drop the charges.
  • Eggs — To make the case collapse.
  • Black pepper — To keep someone incarcerated.
  • Corn kernels — To speed up delayed trial dates or simplify confusing cases.
  • Candies and cakes — To sweeten a judge’s or prosecutor’s spirit in favor of the defendant.
  • Dead lizards with twine-wrapped mouths, cow’s tongues, or cat’s tongues tied with twine or string — To stop someone from testifying.

As for the rest of the mini-golf adventure, we got through a total of six holes before Aldo and Big Eye started arguing about whether or not the former’s last putt was a sweep or a stroke. Then, the Dorch and El Guapo got into it when they took opposing sides because if Aldo got penalized, that technically also penalized his partner for the match.

Meanwhile, I was having the freakin’ round of my life, having aced four of the first six holes — a feat I was told by the 9-year-old girl playing ahead of me was “really, really unbelievamazing.”

But six holes is where the round ended. On the verge of fisticuffs, and clearly, under the influence — we were all a bit wobbly thanks to the voodoo potion (which makes my putting performance all the more spectacular) — the manager and two beefy security guards kindly but firmly suggested we take our party elsewhere.

And that we did. How I woke up in a swanky little pastel-colored bar the next morning is anyone’s guess — with a green and white golf ball in my pocket, no less — is anyone’s guess, but I’m blaming it on the voodoo!

Adam Rocke

Adam has dived for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, hunted for poachers in Africa, played poker with cartel kingpins in Juarez, scouted for UFOs in the Sonora Desert, raced in the Baja 1000 and the original Gumball Rally, swam with great white sharks sans cage, jumped out of planes sans parachute, and taken part in Sasquatch safaris, Chupacabra expeditions and many other “crypto-quests” around the world. Or so he says.