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It started with bags of dead chickens left to rot in white trash bags. Then, another gruesome discovery in the woods.

Now, some residents along Birkdale Avenue in North Fort Myers are concerned their pets could be snatched for ritual animal sacrifices, or worse.

“They say a serial killer will start out with animals,” said Frank Konnors. “The next step, what is it? Children?”

Michael Mitchell said his wife began noticing the bags just off a sidewalk in front of a large, undeveloped tract several weeks ago while walking the dog near their Cape Coral home. A few days later, she caught wind of an unnerving stench wafting from the woods, so he decided to investigate.

First, he saw the vultures — more than 100 of them, he estimated — then, his eyes fell on something he expected to see only in crime shows.

“I looked on the other side of the tree and I could see the profile — about a foot high, about three feet long — the profile of a rib cage and a spinal column,” he said.

He called the sheriff’s office, which determined it was likely the skeleton of a hog. Meanwhile, the chickens kept appearing.

One chicken carcass left inches from the sidewalk was wrapped in red, black and white fabric with a braid of the same colors tied to its foot. On the other end was a bundle of herbs.

Another one left hanging in a bag across the street contained the same fabric, foot braid and herbs, along with what appeared to be a teal shirt and a partially smoked cigar.

Miguel A. De La Torre, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and author of “Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America,” said the chickens seem to be offerings to orishas, quasi-deities in the Afro-Cuban religion. But, he said, they could also be the work of copycats, or practitioners of other religions that employ animal sacrifice, including Palo and Voodoo.

De La Torre said the sacrifices are typically left in places where certain orishas reside.

In this case, he said, he’s leaning toward Ellegua, who opens paths and provides new opportunities. “Exactly what path he is opening for this individual is impossible to tell,” he said in an email.

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But they could also be offerings for Ochosi, who has power over jails and courtrooms. “Whoever made the sacrifice could be having some kind of a legal problem,” he said.

Santeria is extremely decentralized, he said, with the practices of one house church differing drastically from those of another down the street.

Originated by West Africans who were enslaved and brought to Cuba — where they were forced to convert to Catholicism but simply cloaked their religion in Catholic symbols — Santeria has larger followings in places with heavier concentrations of Cuban-Americans, such as Miami.

“In Miami, Fla., every morning the employees have to clean all the sacrifices that are left at the courthouse,” De La Torre said.

While sacrificing animals for religious purposes is legal, those responsible could potentially face criminal charges or fines for animal cruelty, littering and improperly disposing of dead animals.

Records show sheriff’s deputies responded to the property three times in September but recommended no further action.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Sgt. Stephanie Eller said she was unable to comment on the matter because of the sheriff’s policy of not granting interviews to The News-Press.

Ria Brown, spokeswoman for Lee County Domestic Animal Services, said the agency sent an employee to look into the matter Friday but decided not to investigate further.

As far as having the rotting chicken carcasses removed, Patty DiPiero, spokeswoman for the county’s Public Works Department, said she was told by the director of the Solid Waste Department that it is the property owner’s responsibility, even for bags on the sidewalk.

Guy Whitesman, a local agent of Brandenburg Properties of Florida, the company that owns the 39-acre parcel, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sisters Jennifer and Laura Ruiz, ages 14 and 11, said they hope something can be done soon about the bags, because they are tired of the smell on their walk home from school. “It’s annoying,” Jennifer said. “They should throw it in the trash,” Laura added.

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