Before we get into this, I want to start off by saying that this case does not have a lot of reputable sources online – which, as a hobbyist writer, is where I draw 99% of my information from. Lucky for me (and all of you!) Michael Whelan of the Unresolved podcast has done the most extensive research I’ve seen in regards to Leroy Carter Jr. – including deep dives into local and contemporary newspapers that detail the case. You can read his writeup and view his sources here. Now that we’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, let’s explore the strange and frightening unsolved murder of Leroy Carter Jr.
Who Was Leroy?
Leroy Carter Jr was born on September 17, 1951 in Louisiana. There is very, very little information publicly available about his life. According to Find A Grave.com, Leroy was in the United States Army at some point in his life. He attained the rank of Private First Class before being discharged. Unfortunately, it seems like Leroy had a hard time after his time in the Army. Again, we don’t know a lot about his life, but we do know he was living on the streets in San Francisco, CA. He did have a record for petty crimes, but his infractions stem from his situation and the actions he took in an attempt to survive. It was perhaps his homelessness that singled him out as a target, and eventually led to his grisly death.
Death and Discovery
On Sunday, February 8, 1981 a concerned young woman called the police to report that she had discovered a backpack splattered with blood in Golden Gate Park. Inside, she found nothing overly ominous, but the blood was enough to prompt her to call. SFPD Officer Dougherty reported to the park to investigate and at first did not see any sign of any foul play – until he came across a sleeping bag. Inside the sleeping bag was most of a body, lying in a pool of blood. The only way the body was able to be identified was by fingerprints – Leroy’s prints were on file due to his previously discussed criminal record.
The most disturbing aspect of the crime scene, however, was the fact that there was no head found with the body. In fact, the park was searched and the head was nowhere to be found. It would seem that whoever was responsible for the murder had taken it with them. Examination of the body showed that the cut was clean and precise, hinting that the killer knew what they were doing. The strangest aspect of the scene is what was found alongside the body. Corn – some articles say individual kernels and some say whole cobs – and a chicken wing were crammed into the gaping wound where the body’s head should be. Eventually, the San Francisco Police Department also admitted that there was a mutilated chicken corpse near the body.
Thorough searches of the park turned up no further evidence – no weapons, no further traces of blood, no suspects, and no sign of Leroy’s missing head. With no apparent leads, a new officer was added to the case – Sandi Gallant, who had recently worked on cases related to Jim Jones and the Jonestown cult. The infamous massacre (note: many cult members were forced or coerced to ingest the poison or outright were shot, so referring to the incident as a mass suicide is objectively incorrect) had occurred only a few years prior, in November 1978. Gallant’s work in relation to the Jonestown case quickly garnered her the reputation of being a cult expert or the “cult cop.”
Gallant noted several similarities between Leroy’s case and some subsects of Santeria. According to dictionary.com, Santerteria is “a pantheistic Afro-Cuban religious cult developed from the beliefs and customs of the Yoruba people and incorporating some elements of the Catholic religion.” Tens of thousands of Americans practice Santeria. Some core beliefs involve one god creating the universe and smaller gods overseeing niche aspects of the world. Rituals and sacrifice are often used in the practice of Santeria, but the sacrifices are typically small animals and are rarely human. The subsects of the cult mix classic Santeria with other religious beliefs ranging from ancient Aztec practices to Satanism. In order to try and get the most from this line of investigation, Gallant sought out an expert in Santeria named Charles Wetli.
Wetli postulated that Leroy had been murdered so his killers – presumably practitioners of Santeria or some similar religious cult – could obtain his head. There are some examples of using human heads to make a sort of potion – boiling it or pulling out the brain, eyes, and slicing off the ears. Consuming the mixture would presumably grant desirable traits linked to magic, but I didn’t come across any specifics. In Santeria, according to Wetli and Gallant, the ritual called for a 21-day period of brewing in a cauldron. After that, the priest would sleep in the same room as the head and the cauldron for 21 more days, ostensibly to connect with them. After this 42 day period, the final step of the ritual would be to return the head to the body’s final resting place. Gallant went to her superiors with this theory and the evidence that supported it, and was met with unflinching skepticism.
Unfortunately, the decision was made to not even have the entire park covered on the 42nd day. The only officers on the scene were Gallant and her partner, who were beginning to doubt the theory as a result of being dismissed. Because they were beginning to second guess things, maybe their attention slipped. Maybe the killers slipped by them, or noticed the pair and actively avoided them. The point is, Gallant and Wetli were right. Leroy Carter Jr’s head was found 42 days after he was murdered, just as they had hypothesized would happen. The killers slipped in and out of the park unnoticed. As of the writing of this blog, they have never been caught.
The big theory here is that Leroy was killed in some sort of human sacrificial ritual based on the practice of Santeria. And I have to say, based on what’s available, it…really seems like that’s the case here. The chicken corpse near the body, the wing and corn stuffed in the neck, the 21 day ritual cycle. It all fits. If this were a movie, I’d say Charles Wetli was the killer or knew more than he was letting on. In reality, he lived literally across the country and it’s extremely unlikely he had anything to do with it. His accuracy on the timeline was just so…stunning.
The only other theory I can come up with is someone incredibly obsessed and consumed by the idea of Santeria, but not necessarily an authentic practitioner of it. Maybe they were mentally ill, maybe they couldn’t find a cult to practice with, maybe they were booted from their cult – there are an endless number of possibilities here. This theory is kind of an offshoot of the first one in that it’s still related to Santeria, but perhaps the murder or ritual sacrifice was not an organized ritual by an actual cult of followers of Santeria, but rather the actions of a single, disorganized killer who desperately wanted to practice the religion (or wanted the effects of the rituals). I’m not sure where I land here. I think I lean towards this being the actions of a single person not in the right mind, but maybe that’s just because it’s a story that’s easier to digest for me. What do you all think happened?