Former police detective Amy Godoy, South Florida’s foremost authority on occult crimes, shares tales from the voodoo beat.

From a distance, it looks like an apparition, or some imagining from master surrealist Salvador Dalí. It’s a chicken claw, leg intact, tacked upside down to a tree. Amy Godoy spots it right away.

“They’ve been here,” she says.

The tree is a ceiba, a tropical species distinct for its buttress roots; in this instance, they resemble a maze of walls growing out from the trunk. In Cuban Santería, the ceiba is worshipped for its curative and magical powers. Godoy searches for other telltale signs of spiritual visitors, before settling on a large bushel of tiny, green bananas nestled at the base of the tree. “Those are an offering for Changó,” she concludes, naming the most powerful of the Santería gods.

Godoy would know. There’s not a lot about the petite 51-year-old dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans that screams “cop,” but that’s exactly what Godoy was for more than 25 years: an officer and, later, a detective on the Miami-Dade Police force. Her beat for a good chunk of that time was occult crimes. In Miami, that meant Cuban Santería (“the cult of the saints”) and Haitian voodoo (or vodou), modern incarnations of ancient African religions brought to the New World by the slave trade and to South Florida by the winds of political upheaval and immigration from the Caribbean.

On this spring afternoon, Godoy is walking through Little Havana, Miami’s historic Cuban district, where she’s agreed to meet for lunch. Up and down Southwest Eight Street, the area’s famed Calle Ocho, are reminders of her old job. Not just the ceiba tree, which is a neighborhood landmark, but the numerous religious shops (called botánicas) specializing in everything from Catholic statuary—Saint Lazarus on crutches is especially popular—to oils, incense and herbs, some of which have practical uses in Santería rituals.

So how did a nice Catholic girl from a Cuban family get mixed up with all this voodoo?...

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