HOUNGAN HECTOR Salva, a native of Vineland, claims he can improve people's fortunes, get the incarcerated out of jail and return lost lovers. But he, too, answers to a creator who does not grant interviews.
That's why the mysterious death earlier this month of Lucie Marie Hamilton, 20, a male-to-female transgender woman from Little Rock, Ark., who traveled to the voodoo priest's home in Camden County for a spiritual cleansing, can't be solved on an earthly level, he said.
"That's God's choice," he told the Daily News yesterday. "I don't have no say in when God deems your turn."
Authorities are awaiting results of a toxicology test to determine the cause and manner of Hamilton's death, which has not been deemed suspicious. No charges have been filed, and Salva, who goes by "Houngan Hector," said he is "100 percent confident" there was no wrongdoing on his part.
Salva, soft-spoken and polite with a constant smile, said that no drugs were involved in the spiritual cleansing called the Lave Tet, but that small amounts of rum sometimes are consumed.
"Maybe a sip," he said, but he added that Hamilton had "passed on the rum."
Salva said Hamilton was referred to him by someone else, and was in good spirits when he picked her up July 10 at Philadelphia International Airport. He said she was undergoing hormone treatment for an eventual sex-change operation, although friends of Hamilton's have said that isn't true.
The following night, he said, Hamilton's last hours in the house on Loch Lomond Drive, in Gloucester Township, were spent "laughing, dancing and singing voodoo songs" with the other six participants, some of whom traveled from as far as Canada and the Netherlands to pay for the spiritual cleansing.
"She was happy, very positive," he said. "She seemed very fine as far as everyone knew."
What happened about 11 p.m., Salva said, is the same scenario he told dispatchers during a frantic 9-1-1 call.
"She was taking a nap and we woke her up to see if she was hungry, and she was nonresponsive," he reiterated yesterday. "We kept calling her name and she wouldn't respond."
The other participants in the ritual could not be reached for comment. Salva declined to provide their names.
Authorities and hospital officials have declined to say why Salva and the others in the house were taken to Virtua Hospital in Berlin Township for treatment July 11. Salva said that everyone was having their "spirits called" and may have looked "different" to police.
"A true spiritual possession changes the way a person looks," he said, adding that everyone was cleared from the hospital in an hour and that no blood was drawn.
Since the death, Salva said, he has moved his fiancee and his four children from Gloucester Township because of the negativity he feels has been heaped upon him by neighbors, the news media and some in the voodoo community.
He and his supporters also needed to mourn, he said.
"We all loved Lucie, that's why we didn't speak to the media," he said. "Lucille was a family member to us as well." Hamilton used both the names Lucie and Lucille.
Salva said he had contacted Hamilton's mother, Karen Michele Thompson, after the death, and had sent flowers to the funeral in Little Rock. Thompson, in an e-mail to the Daily News, confirmed the conversation with Salva but could not be reached for further comment.
Salva's neighbors on Loch Lomond Drive spoke to reporters in the days after the incident, recalling strange smells and chanting in foreign languages emanating from his home on most weekends, with the occasional dead chicken showing up in nearby woods.
"Most of what they said about me is based on too much television," he said with a smile.
Voodoo is not a religion of darkness or evil, and is most likely more widespread in South Jersey than anyone can imagine, he said.
"My branch of voodoo does not deal with zombies," he said.
An ethnic Puerto Rican born and raised in Vineland as Hector Salva, he said that he was initiated as a voodoo priest in Haiti in 2003 and that the "magical" side of the tradition is now his main source of income.
He has traveled to Spain, Germany, Mexico and various other countries to speak to supporters of his Gade Nou Leve Society and partake in rituals, he said.
"The voodoo religion believes in God, and we believe in spiritual assistants and guides that assist us through life," he said. "They're not all that different from what people in the Catholic Church refer to as saints and angels."
In voodoo, there is no discrimination against race, gender or sexual orientation, which is why Hamilton felt so welcome, he said.
"I don't care if Lucie was black, white or purple," he said. "She was a beautiful person who I knew as Lucie."
News reports that Hamilton was forbidden to bring a cell phone or laptop were untrue, he said.
His computer, along with a skull, have been confiscated by police.
"They're just doing their jobs," he said.
Salva said that he'll continue to practice voodoo and that the lingering mystery of Hamilton's death hasn't fazed the supporters he's garnered on Yahoo and Facebook voodoo groups.
"What people have to understand is death is part of life," he said.
"Anyone could have a guest stay the night and when they go to wake them, they don't wake up.
"No one is promised tomorrow."