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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, October 3, 2022

The Mystery Of The Headless Goats In The Chattahoochee

"Sol Prendido" for Borderland Beat

Hundreds of decapitated goat carcasses have turned up in the river that runs through metro Atlanta. Are they evidence of animal sacrifice? Drug smuggling? Both?

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.”

Still, De La Torre conceded that the headless goats could be the work of spiritual opportunists, “copycatting Santería” for their own purposes. “Drug dealers who are not part of the religion but are making it up as they go along based on what they read on the Web,” as he put it. He offered an analogy. “It’s like not knowing anything about Catholicism and bathing in holy water because you think it’s gonna help you.”

One Monday morning, earlier this month, I got in a boat with Ulseth. My mom came, too; she wanted “to see what this whole crazy goat thing is about,” she said. We put in downstream from the bridge. Motoring against the current, we saw an osprey, a snowy white egret, a hawk, a great blue heron, a few kingfishers and buzzards, and dozens of turtles sunning themselves on logs and rocks. We also saw Styrofoam containers, a plastic chair, two rafts, a basketball, and discarded tires trapped by downed trees and marooned in the mud along the bank.

We got out at a dock and walked around new apartments built a little ways back from where junk yards once teetered on the edge of the river. Farther on, we stopped to marvel at a Six Flags roller coaster rising from river right (the Mindbender, bane of my anxious childhood).

Then we came upon a decapitated goat, caught in a pile of trash between a downed tree and the riverbank. 

“This one was probably dumped over the weekend,” Ulseth told us.

“Holy fucking shit,” my mom said, overwhelmed by the stench.
“That’s the neck right there,” Ulseth continued, pointing to a fleshy stump. “We’re a little further downstream than where we normally find them,” he added. “So probably we’re going to find a lot more.”

In the next hour, we found six headless goats. “I just got punched in the face,” Ulseth said as we approached the reeking sequel to the first. It was covered in flies and maggots. “That one’s been there a little longer,” Ulseth said. We saw a third, and then, every five minutes or so, we’d first smell and then see another headless goat bobbing in the water.

We reached the highway bridge. Beneath it was a platform and a blue tarp; on a concrete column, the words “HOT DOG” and “GOD IS GOOD” had been painted. Ulseth told me that Hot Dog claimed to have confronted the carcass-discarders with a gun, after one too many goats had been dropped near his camp. 

“If you motherfuckers ever come back here, I’m gonna blow your head off,” he supposedly told them. Ulseth said he later saw the gun in question, under the bridge. (“It shot those rubber pellets,” he said.) Had Hot Dog, whom Ulseth hadn’t seen recently, ever shared details about the identities of the goat dumpers? What they looked like, or anything they said? “Nope.”

A week after our trip up the river, Ulseth went out on the same stretch again and found fifteen headless goats. “Maybe a few repeats,” he said. “But a lot of goats.”

When I first spoke to De La Torre, he said that if he were going to use Santería to gain protection for smuggling drugs, he’d probably sacrifice a black dog, because that is what Oggun, a warrior deity, would want. He’d leave the dog’s body by a railroad track, because Oggun is also lord of iron, he added. But he followed up by e-mail a few days later. 

“The more I think of it, the goat is one of the preferred sacrifices of Elegguá,” another orisha, “who ‘opens the way,’  he wrote. A sacrifice to Elegguá would typically be “left by a four-way street crossing.” Goats and highways, in other words, made some sense to him. But a headless goat, in a river? That was harder to understand. 


  1. or classic rock. Rolling Stones album Goats Head Soup

    1. The goats read SIR's comments and decided to "off" themselves. (We love SIR!!)

    2. 1:32 have you been having roo much fun with the goats???
      Your comments seem to be too suspect trying to deflect from your guilty deeds.
      Stick to squeezing chicken necks...

    3. Haha SIR, I'll stick to "jalandole el pescueso al ganso".

    4. Jalarle el pescuezo al ganso is a lonely enterprise...
      with a chicken is more like fun in company

  2. Narco-occult animal sacrifice even happens in San Diego

  3. Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee it gets hotter than a hoochee coochee.

  4. Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee it gets hotter than a hoochee coochee.

  5. Es el chupa cabra!

    1. Polac farmers all over the US always get abducted by space aliens and get probed in the mother ship, Chupacabras can't even wear bloomers!

  6. The headless goat mystery was a secret operation run by Sicario 006.This was his most successful operation yet.
    Sicario 006 was trained by the VERY ELITE Group of the Culiacan municipal police.


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