The Mystery of the Headless Goats in the Chattahoochee

When I was twelve, my mother, Sally Bethea, co-founded a nonprofit that was eventually called Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, or C.R.K. Part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of environmental groups devoted to defending rivers, bays, and other bodies of water, C.R.K. seeks to protect the four-hundred-and-thirty-five-mile river that flows across northeast Georgia and then south to the Gulf of Mexico. (There are now more than three hundred waterkeeper groups around the world.) She was not only the group’s executive director but also the designated riverkeeper, positions she held for more than two decades.

After my mom retired, Jason Ulseth became the riverkeeper, assuming all boat-related duties. One October a few years ago, he took three of the group’s donors, all women in middle age, on a two-hour tour of the river that included a stretch ten miles west of downtown Atlanta, where the Chattahoochee passes a Six Flags Theme Park and goes under an I-20 bridge. Ulseth had boated it a hundred times before. “But, this time,” he told me recently, “I saw something white off on the side near the bridge.” He pulled the boat over to the bank. “There were eight or nine baby decapitated goats just floating in the water. The ladies flipped their shit.”

Ulseth “booked it out of there,” he told me. It wasn’t the first time a dead goat had been seen in the river—in the nineties, Georgia Power informed C.R.K. that a goat carcass was caught in a swirling eddy near a power station’s intake pipe. (Riverkeeper employees have also come upon grocery carts, sex toys, mannequins, bowling balls, and TV sets, among other objects.) But that morning in October, Ulseth said, marked the beginning of the Chattahoochee’s headless-goat era. “After that, I found them there pretty much every single time I’d go out,” he told me. “Just bodies, never heads. Sometimes dozens.” Ulseth estimates that in the roughly four years since that day he’s found around five hundred decapitated goats in the Chattahoochee.

Others have found them, too. “Half the time we boat by the bridge, I smell them,” Matt Robinson, a local fishing guide, told me. He’s seen hundreds, he said, including thirty on a single trip. “I’m sure some catfish or some turtles chew on them once in a while,” he added. “They’re pretty big animals.”

A few years ago, Robinson introduced Ulseth to a man who was living under the I-20 bridge, who called himself Hot Dog. Hot Dog took pictures and videos of the goats on a cell phone, sometimes capturing the moment they were flung from the highway. He told Robinson that the goats were usually freshly killed, and he shared some of his photos with Ulseth, who showed them to me: headless goat carcasses falling from the sky. “They just go plop,” Ulseth said. “Could be two in the morning or two in the afternoon.”

The carcasses sometimes get caught midcurrent by downed trees or underwater debris; some end up among heaps of trash along the bank. Others have lately shown up farther afield. “We just found a big pile of them dumped in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area last week, at a boat ramp,” Ulseth said, referring to a spot about forty miles upriver that paddlers and other recreationalists have long used to enter and exit the water. “They were all covered in maggots when I got there. Pretty disgusting.” It was not his worst encounter: he once found three such carcasses rotting inside a floating burlap sack, which he had opened “in case it was a body and needed to be reported,” he said.

The case of the headless goats is a mystery. It’s also a public-health hazard, and a nightmare for a stretch of river that’s newly safe for recreation—the water south of Atlanta is dramatically less polluted than it was decades ago, thanks in large part to C.R.K.’s work. Private developers and local governments have begun installing boat ramps and other infrastructure to make the area more accessible. “A family can now have a nice paddle on the river and then take out right there near Six Flags,” Ulseth told me. “But, as soon as someone paddles down and sees that crap,” he said, referring to the goat carcasses, “they’re never coming back.”

One theory about the headless goats of the Chattahoochee focusses on the Afro-Caribbean religious tradition Santería, also known as Lukumí and La Regla de Ocha. The practice sometimes involves animal sacrifice. A similar theory was floated several years ago, when numerous goat heads turned up in and around Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. In both cases, no one has established a definitive connection, at least not publicly.

I called former agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to see if they had heard of any leads. One directed me to Robert Almonte, a retired deputy chief of the El Paso Police Department, who worked a number of narcotics investigations, then served as the U.S. Marshall for the Western District of Texas from 2010 to 2016. He has since founded a consulting company that specializes in the activities of Mexican drug cartels, including how “they involve the spiritual world in their activities,” as Almonte put it. Almonte offers seminars, which, he told me, help law-enforcement agents identify likely perpetrators. (He says that several major arrests of cartel members have resulted from these seminars.)

I told Almonte about what was turning up in the Chattahoochee. He didn’t sound surprised. “I’m seeing more and more of the drug traffickers using Santería for protection over the last couple of years,” he said. “But that’s a lot of goats. That would mean they’re moving a lot of drugs along that highway.”

Drug smugglers have long attempted to exploit religion for their own purposes, Almonte said. “Back in the day, on raids, we’d mostly see shrines and altars,” he told me. “But it usually consisted of prayer candles related to the Catholic Church.” Now, he said, “you’re seeing more cartel traffickers using Santería” and Palo Mayombe, an Afro-Caribbean religious tradition, as well as a Latin American practice called Santa Muerte. The traffickers are not necessarily well schooled in these traditions, Almonte noted—he told me that when he shows pictures of headless goats that have been found to experts in Santería, “They often say, ‘Yeah, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ ”

Almonte had just returned from a trip to Mexico, where he was researching a case involving a drug cartel called La Unión Tepito. The case was set in motion in 2019, by a raid, in Mexico City, of a drug house which had spiritual paraphernalia inside it. The raid turned up massive quantities of methamphetamine, plus grenades, a rocket launcher, and items evidently associated with both Santería and Palo Mayombe, according to Almonte.

Atlanta has long been a major drug-trafficking hub, dating back to at least when the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar transported cocaine from Miami to Atlanta and points beyond. “It’s been a plaza for many years for the Sinaloa cartel,” Almonte told me. “Several years ago,” he added, “you had the Jalisco New Generation cartel”—Sinaloa’s chief rival—“move in.”

Almonte figures that Mexican cartel operators could be sacrificing goats for safe passage to or from Atlanta, and dumping them in the river. He said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the G.B.I. or the F.B.I. is investigating the connection between the goats and drug trafficking; later, someone with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed to me the existence of such an investigation. (“There is no G.B.I. investigation,” a spokesperson for that agency told me. “I’d recommend checking in with the F.B.I.” An F.B.I. spokesperson told me, “We can’t discuss or acknowledge the existence of any current or potential future investigation.”)

After speaking with Almonte, I called up Miguel De La Torre, a professor of social ethics at the Iliff School of Theology, in Denver, who grew up practicing Santería and has written extensively on the subject. He describes himself as “a Roman Catholic–Southern Baptist Santero, who still follows some of the Santería traditions though I may not believe in it.” I described the situation, and explained Almonte’s theory. “There are certain religious traditions where animal sacrifices are made to gain enough power to accomplish something,” De La Torre said. “The strongest energy, the strongest power, is in blood. But I’m always a little hesitant when a dead animal is found and it’s connected to Santería.” Many of those who study Santería are frustrated by the eagerness of outsiders to connect any unexplained dead animal to the practices of this tradition. De La Torre did not think that the connection between Santería and smuggling was clearly established—and the location of the headless goats in the Chattahoochee struck him as odd. “If it was Santería, the fact that it was by a river means that it was an offering to Oshun, the goddess of love,” he explained. “Not exactly the kind of orisha that you want to sacrifice to to smuggle drugs.”

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