THE EVANGELISTA OCCULT MURDERS
ONE OF THE MOST SINISTER CRIMES IN DETROIT HISTORY
On July 3, 1929, police officers walked into the house located at 3587 Saint Aubin Street in Detroit. Inside, they found a man named Benny Evangelista seated behind his desk. His hands were neatly folded in his lap as though in prayer. His head was at his feet, lying on the floor.
Upstairs they found Mrs. Santina Evangelista and their children- Mario, 18 months, Angelina, 7, Margaret, 5, and Jeanne, 4. Santina was in the bed with baby Mario. Her head had been severed, and Mario’s skull was crushed. Across the hall, the other children had been slaughtered in their beds.
The story of the Detroit “Occult Murders” is one of the strangest in American crime. It’s a story of black magic, murde,r and a clever and enterprising man who came to Detroit with a strange dream and who made use of the opportunities he found in a city that was bursting at the seams in those days. Immigrants from around the world had flocked to Detroit, hoping to capture their piece of the American dream in the factories that had brought the city to life. Sadly, many of them found overcrowded wooden tenements, brutal working conditions – and death.
Born in Naples, Italy, in 1885, Benjamino Evangelista was best-known as Benny Evangelista, a self-proclaimed "Divine Prophet.” Benny came to America in 1904 and invested his savings in real estate, soon emerging as a prosperous realtor and landlord. On the side, he supplemented his income by the sale of herbs, hexes, and “spiritual remedies,” performing chants, dances. and animal sacrifices for paying customers for the purpose of either cures or curses.
But he hadn’t started out in America as a Detroit “hex man.” He had originally settled in Philadelphia with his brother, Antonio. But the two had a falling out. Antonio, by his own accounts, disowned Benjamino when he began having mystic visions of a very non-Catholic nature and sent him on to York, Pennsylvania, and a job on a railroad construction crew. Benny's best friend in York, another immigrant from Naples, was a man named Aurelius Angelino. The two of them began to dabble in the occult. Something snapped in Angelino and in 1919, he attacked his family with an ax and killed two of his children. He was sent to a prison for the criminally insane and Benny, unsettled by what had occurred, moved to Detroit.
Benny went to work as a carpenter, began to dabble in real estate, and got married. Settled comfortably into his new life, he returned to his interest in the occult. Benny began performing psychic healings on those who paid his fees, which went as high as $10 (the equivalent of two days’ pay on the assembly line). He did quite well for himself, and moved his wife and children into a house at the corner of Saint Aubin and Mack avenues. It was a large and comfortable home, painted green with a wide front porch. It was said that if a passerby cocked his head just right, he could see inside a basement window and view Benny’s "Great Celestial Planet Exhibition.” Using papier-mâché, wires and wood, he had built nine planets and a sun with an electric eye that sat in the center.
But what passersby could not see was the basement chamber where Benny practiced his infernal rituals. In that place, where he mixed up spells, hexes, and potions, and carried out his magical sacrifices, he kept a crude altar along with knives, bottles, and jars. Copies of his self-published book, The Oldest History of the World Discovered by Occult Science in Detroit, Michigan, were stacked around the room. Benny claimed to have produced the book through a series of nightly trances, beginning in 1906. He said it was the first in a series of four books that would reveal previously unknown information relayed to him from God. Unfortunately for Benny and his family, fate had another plan in store.
On the sunny morning of July 4, the Detroit Free Press broke the horrific story of the Evangelista murders. A man named Vincent Elias had come to Benny’s home on July 3 at about 10:30 a.m. to discuss a real estate deal. He had been the one who discovered the bodies and alerted the police. Nearly the entire Detroit homicide division was dispatched immediately to the crime scene. When the police arrived, they searched the house and made notes of some of the odd things they found. One of the strangest discoveries was that someone had surrounded Benny’s severed head with three large framed photographs of a child in a coffin. It was later determined to be a post-mortem photograph of Benny’s son who had died several years before. There was no explanation as to what message the photographs were intended to convey. The newspaper noted some other odd discoveries:
“Several pieces of women's undergarments, each tagged with the name of its owner, police point out, reveal that the so-called mystic indulged in practices of "voodoosim," or devil worship. Such garments, "voodooism" has it, can lead to the finding of a missing person, when they are properly handled by one versed in the mystic arts of that belief.”
No one had any clue as to what this meant, either. But it wasn’t long before rumors spread that Benny’s occult dealings had caused his death.
The police failed to keep newspaper reporters and the dozens of gawkers who gathered around the house from contaminating the crime scene and from destroying any potential clues except for one -- a bloody fingerprint on the front doorknob. To make matters even more difficult, most of Benny's neighbors and clients were recent Sicilian and Italian immigrants who were reticent to provide information to law enforcement. Detectives were unable to compel even one of them into making an official statement that could have provided at least some starting point from which to launch their investigation. Benny's own records and the collection of personal trinkets found in the home proved that hundreds of people had come to him for services, but scarcely a handful of those questioned admitted to even having known him.
The police used what few clues they had to pursue three very different theories. One of them revolved around several notes found in the home that suggested Benny had once been threatened by the “Black Hand,” a criminal group that preyed on wealthy Italian immigrants. The most recent letter was six-month-old and warned, “This is your last chance.” The problem with the Black Hand theory was that by 1929 it was an outdated, defunct enterprise that had long since evolved into the traditional Mafia structure of organized crime. Crude extortion schemes were a thing of the past, dating back to the years before Prohibition became the law of the land. It seems unlikely that Benny took the notes very seriously. Whoever was trying to extort money from him was almost certainly an amateur, looking for an easy mark, not someone who could have carried out the grisly murders of an entire family.
The second theory was significantly more plausible. A 42-year-old local man named Umberto Tecchio had visited the Evangelista home on the night before the bodies were found. He was making the final payment on a house Benny had sold him. Tecchio, along with a friend named Angelo Depoli, who had accompanied him to the house on the night before the murders, were brought in for questioning the next day when an ax, a "keen-edged" banana knife, and a pair of suspiciously clean work boots were found in the barn behind the boarding house where they lived. Tecchio and Depoli claimed to know nothing about the murders. They both stated that nothing unusual had happened during the visit and that they had gone out drinking after dropping off the last payment on Tecchio's home to Evangelista. But the newspapers – largely thanks to prejudice against Italian immigrants – cast suspicion on Tecchio. Accounts mentioned that, just three months prior to the massacre, Tecchio had knifed his brother-in-law to death in an argument. How he escaped prosecution for that is unclear, but it certainly gave investigators a reason to make him a prime suspect. However, with no physical evidence and no confession, Tecchio was let go. He died a few years later in 1934.
The police also briefly suspected one of Evangelist’s tenants, posthumously accused of the murders by a vengeful ex-wife, but the dead man’s thumbprint didn’t match the bloody fingerprint on the doorknob, which brings us to a third theory.
In 1923, Benny’s old friend Aurelius Angelino (who murdered two of his children with an ax) escaped from the Pennsylvania prison for the criminally insane where he was incarcerated — and was never seen again. Had Angelino somehow made his way to Detroit, where his old friend had set up his eerie basement room? It is certainly possible, but was there any proof of this?
The Detroit police seemed to have invested more of their time in the pursuit of Umberto Tecchio, but looking back after more than 80 years, the nature of the crime itself seems the most damning evidence against Aurelius Angelino. The murders seem to most closely match the crime Angelino committed back in York and it’s not hard to imagine him slowly making his way west to Detroit, and finally tracked down his old partner in "voodooism," the code word for occult activities that the police and the newspapers used in those days. Upon arriving at the door of the now-prosperous Evangelista, isn’t it possible that Angelino thought back over the horrors of the previous nine years and felt rage boil up inside of him? It isn’t hard to imagine the escaped madman and convicted ax-murder slithering in an open window while Benny sat at his desk during the early morning hours of July 3. And once inside the house, how difficult would it have been for him to murder the family of the man who had left him behind in York to rot in the insane asylum while he practiced his magic and grew fat off selling spells and potions? It’s not hard to imagine at all.
And yet, after Angelino's escape from the state of Pennsylvania's custody in 1923, no record of his existence, whether in Detroit, or anywhere else, can be found. Could a family of six be slaughtered so easily and the killer simply disappear? It’s certainly possible, as history has proven time and time again.
This murder will never be solved but for the purposes of bringing an end to the tale, we’ll simply say that an evil “spirit” of some sort exacted retribution upon Evangelista and his unwitting family. When he was finished, he disappeared into the humid July night, leaving his bloody fingerprint on the door knob when he let himself out of a house filled with death.
Several years ago, the Evangelista’s home on Saint Aubin Street was demolished. All that remains now is an empty lot that has never been used again. There are those that say the site is haunted. There are disembodied screams heard on occasion, they say, and a headless man who walks the lot and vanishes. Are such stories true? No one can say, but is it any wonder that these tales are told? History has left its mark here, and it was written with blood.