The 13th Floor

The Unsolved Mystery of Detroit’s Occult Murders

When police arrived at 3587 Saint Aubin Street in Detroit, Michigan, on July 3, 1929, they found Benny Evangelista seated behind his desk, his hands neatly folded in his lap as though in prayer. They found his head on the floor right next to his feet. Upstairs they found Mrs. Santina Evangelista and their children- Mario the 18-month-old baby, 7-year-old Angelina, 5-year-old Margaret, and 4-year-old Jeanne. Mrs. Evangelista was found in her bed with Mario. Her head had been severed, and Mario’s skull was crushed. Across the hall, Angelina and Margaret were found in their twin beds massacred. On the floor, next to the beds was the body of Jeanne, also dead.

 

Benny Evangelista was a Sicilian immigrant and was also the founder of his own religion known as the Union Federation of America. The church, or cult, was founded twenty years prior to his murder when Benny first arrived in Philadelphia. In 1926, he wrote a 200-page bible entitled THE OLDEST HISTORY OF THE WORLD: DISCOVERED BY OCCULT SCIENCE. Benny claimed to have been guided by various deities from several religions who would only speak to him between midnight and 3 am. Soon after settling in Detroit, Benny began holding services in his home. A self-proclaimed herbalist and healer, Benny also used his home as a treatment center for his followers, charging around $10 for his services.

 

The police made several arrests in the family’s murders and questioned several suspects, but in the all turned out to be dead-ends. The case quickly went cold. But as the the police and the citizens of Detroit would soon discover, the murder of the Evangelista family was only the beginning of what would be a string of bizarre cult killings that would plague Detroit from 1929 to 1932.

 

DETROIT VOODOO CULT

One major suspect in the Evangelista case was a man by the name of Robert Harris. It wasn’t a far stretch considering Harris was also the founder of his own Detroit-based cult and already in jail for murder. On November 20, 1932, Police found the body of James J. Smith tied to a crudely built alter and stabbed through the heart with a silver knife. Harris claimed that Smith was a willing sacrifice and had offered himself as such.  However, the fact that Harris had to knock Smith out with a wagon axle before stabbing him threw suspicion on that claim. After his arrest, Harris declared himself to be a king and revealed his plans to kill several more people, including Detroit’s mayor. Although Harris had originally confessed to the Evangelista killings too, the finger prints found at the scene did not match his. He was quickly ruled  not the Evangelista killer and as just wanting to promote his own religion. But despite the unusual nature of the Evangelista case and Harris cult murders, it would not be the most unusual thing Detroit would see during those early days of the depression.

THE WITCH OF DELRAY

At first glance, you wouldn’t think much of Rose Veres. A Hungarian immigrant, Rose was not unlike most immigrants of the time. She had escaped the harsh living conditions of the old world for a new life in America. She worked hard, and even though it was during The Depression, she still managed to piece together enough money to purchase a home which she turned into a boarding house. But to her neighbors, Rose Veres was also known as “The Witch of Delray”. On August 27, 1931, police arrived at Veres’ boarding house with a warrant for her arrest in connection with the deaths of ten men who had at one time or another lived under Veres’ roof.

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The police were tipped off to Veres’ activities after the death of 68-year-old Steve Mac, who died after falling or being pushed off a ladder. It was quickly discovered that Veres had placed life insurance policies on her boarders and was making up to $4,000 for each death. In total, the police found fifty other insurance policies, some of which had already been paid out. Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence, Ms. Veres was not easy to convict. This was primarily due to the fact that none of Veres’ neighbors wanted to testify against her. It was widely believed by her Hungarian neighbors that just making eye contact with Veres was enough to make children sick and husbands lose their jobs. She was believed to possess great knowledge of all forms of black magic. Many of believed she had the power to transform herself into a wolf, so none of her neighbors dared testify against her.

Veres undoing wouldn’t come until several years after the murders started when more African Americans began moving into the neighborhood. Veres found these new neighbors not as easy to intimidate with stories of evil eyes and dark magic. After the death of Steve Mak, Veres’ new neighbor, an African American by the name of George Halasz, came forward to testify that he saw a pair of arms push Mak off the ladder from an upstairs bedroom. Also damning was the testimony of African American John Walker who said that he not only saw Mak fall, but that he was also offered $500 by Veres to keep his mouth shut.

Finally, in August, Veres admitted to pushing Mak, claiming money as the motive. Veres was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. However, in December of 1945, Veres, now in her 60s was retried and exonerated. Detroit’s most prolific serial killer was set free.

 

STILL UNSOLVED

Several years ago, the Evangelista’s home on Saint Aubin Street was demolished. All that remains now is a grown over empty lot that no one has built on since. There are those that say the site is haunted and others who have claimed to have seen a headless man walking the lot. Others have reported hearing disembodied screams. The Evangelista murders remain unsolved to this day.

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