On July 11, 2009 a 21 year-old college student named Lucille Hamilton died. This is a tragedy. Lucille died at a Vodou ceremony. This also meant that her death was news.
As is often the case, and that the coverage would often focus on the lurid and controversial aspects of the case. "Dead chickens" were frequently mentioned, an allusion to the animal sacrifice practiced in Vodou and many other religious traditions. So too were chanting in foreign languages and frequent use of incense and other scented products. (Still more proof that Vodou and Roman Catholicism are joined at the hip!)
Because Hector Salva, the presiding Houngan, charged money for the services, figures were tossed out ranging from "upward of $1500 each" to $621. (The latter would be a very reasonable figure for a resource-intensive ceremony, and quite in keeping with what other Houngans and Mambos in the area would charge). And because Lucille was a male-to-female transgendered person, there was an added air of Jerry Springer nastiness to much of the coverage.
In all this, one important point was downplayed. In the words of Jason Laughlin of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, “At this time we’re not calling this a suspicious death, but rather a sudden death.” At present the cause of Lucille Hamilton's death is unknown and will remain so at least until after toxicology results come back. That didn't stop some journalists from declaring her a "Voodoo Victim" for whom "Voodoo Became a Fatal Obsession" and who was "killed in a bizarre voodoo ritual."
It appears that after Lucille became unresponsive somebody called 911: paramedics, and later doctors, were also unable to revive Ms. Hamilton. It is unclear what else Salva, or anyone else at the ritual could have done for her, or that her death was due to malice or incompetence on the part of Gade Nou Leve Society.
I should also add that I know Houngan Hector Salva. He is a validly initiated priest who has spent a good deal of time in Haiti (both Jacmel and Leogane): he is also a practitioner of Sanse, Vodu Dominicano and other Hispaniola traditions practiced on the other side of the Haiti/DR border. He and his initiators are generally well-regarded within the community.
On several mailing lists, I've heard priests and practitioners speculate that Lucille needed a headwashing before she died. The Mysteries will often pressure you to get your spiritual affairs in order when time is pressing. It could be that Houngan Hector did Lucille a great service: he cleansed her soul so that she could go on to Grace.
We do not know whether Lucille Hamilton's death was an accident, an unavoidable tragedy or a miracle. Until the medical examiner's report is released - if then - the cause of Lucille Hamilton's death remains a mystery. For Lucille the greatest of mysteries has been revealed. Lucille is beyond suffering now, beyond whatever truth or slander the future may bring. She has walked out of the darkness into the light: she has come to the lwa with wonder and respect and the lwa have accepted her as their own. Blessed are those who die in the Presence of the Lord.