Jul 06, 2022 I Brent Swancer

A Detroit Occultist and the Mysterious Murders of the Evangelista Family

In 1904, Benjamino Evangelista and his older brother Antonio immigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy in order to pursue a new life and the American Dream. At the time the future seemed bright, Benjamino Americanized his name to Benny, and the two settled into their new life in America, but their plans were about to derail to go down a dark path involving black magic and mysterious murder. 

In the U.S., the two brothers first settled in Philadelphia, where they lived together for a time, and it was here where Benny would start to gain a strong interest in the occult, reading whatever he could find on mysticism, magic, and the esoteric. At first Antonio put up with this newfound interest his brother had, but things went too far for him when Benny began claiming that he was having visions and receiving actual messages from God, many of them of which were of an apparent unsavory and blasphemous nature. Being a devout Catholic, Antonio took offense to this, and so the two parted ways and Benny was sent to New York to toil away on a railroad construction crew. In New York, he would meet another Italian immigrant named Aurelius Angelino, and the two became quick friends over their shared interest in black magic and the occult. From there, Benny’s life would take a bizarre and dark turn.

The two of them talked about the occult constantly, and even tried out various rituals, but at some point Angelino began to lose his grip on reality until one day he snapped, brandishing an axe to attack his family and slaughter two of his children in cold blood. It is unknown what part the occult had to play in these murders, but Angelino was arrested and sent to the Fairview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1919, leaving Benny on his own and without much of a support system. Seeking to distance himself from the tragic event, he tried starting over yet again, this time in Detroit, Michigan, where he became a carpenter, going on to invest his savings in real estate and become a successful realtor and landlord. He was doing well for himself, getting married, starting a family, and enjoying his newfound wealth. He was a real immigrant success story, but the occult was still hanging over him like a dark cloud. 

Benny Evangelista

As a side gig, Benny began to do work as a self-proclaimed mystic and spiritual healer. He took to selling all manner of herbs, potions, powders, charms, amulets, and various other arcane paraphernalia, as well as performing pretty much any type of magical service for a fee, casting spells or hexes, performing rituals, even animal sacrifices, nothing was off the table for the right price. He was very popular at the time, attracting droves of people from the Italian American community, who came for everything from healing potions, to love spells and curses for their enemies. In the meantime, Benny meticulously constructed what he called the “Great Celestial Planet Exhibition” in the basement of his home, composed of paper-mâché and wax figures hung from the ceiling by wires, arranged along with nine planets made of papier-mâché, wires and wood, the whole of it revolving around a giant eye that could light up from within. This room came complete with an altar and depictions of various gods and spirits on the wall, and it became sort of his office for his occult activities. 

Throughout this all, he continued to claim to receive messages from God, proclaiming himself a divine prophet and spiritual leader, even starting to pen what was meant to be a self-published four-volume religious manuscript he called The Oldest History of the World: Discovery by Occult Science, of which he had finished one volume and which he claimed contained reams of secret information from God that he had received from nightly trances. It was starting to turn not a few heads in the neighborhood, and not only was Benny being increasingly seen as an eccentric oddball, but he was also receiving some flak from customers who were claiming that none of his spells, charms, and potions actually worked and that he was nothing but a scam artist. It is unclear how much any of this had with the sinister events that were about to transpire, but Benny’s time as a mystic and healer were about to come to a spectacularly brutal close.

On July 3, 1929, a business client of Benny’s by the name of Vincent Elias dropped by his house to close a real estate deal, but there didn’t seem to be anyone home. This was quite odd, as Benny was meant to be there waiting for him but the house was eerily quiet, no one answered the door, there was not even the noise of his four kids to be heard. Thinking that perhaps Benny just hadn’t heard him knocking on the door, Elias let himself in and went down to the basement “office,” and there he was met with a horrific sight. There, at his table sat Benny, surrounded by his fugures, planets, and arcane imagery, his hands neatly folded in his lap as if he were praying, but the problem was he was missing his head, which was lying on the floor near his feet in a puddle of blood. At that point Elias fled the home in shock and disgust and notified authorities.

When police arrived they found that Benny’s head had been savagely hacked off with an axe and carefully placed on the floor apparently intentionally. Surrounding the head was an array of three creepy framed photos of a child in a coffin, which turned out to be one of the Evangelista children who had tragically passed away a few years earlier. Scattered about the room among all of the occult stuff were also several pieces of women's undergarments, each tagged with the name of its owner, although it was unclear why they were there. Unfortunately for the police, this was just the beginning of the weirdness and horrors to be found in the home. Upstairs, Benny’s wife was found with her head nearly completely severed, still holding her 18-month old child Mario, who had also been killed by a crushed skull. Across the hall were found Benny’s three other children, Angelina (7), Margaret (5), and Jeanne (4), all of them dead in their beds, their skulls bashed in with a blunt object and one of them with the arm partially cut off. Oddly, there was no sign of any fight or struggle, as if all of them had been killed in their sleep, none of the neighbors had heard anything suspicious or unusual that night, and there were no signs of a robbery or break-in. The only piece of evidence found at all was a single bloody fingerprint smeared on a doorknob and police were stumped as to what had happened.

At the time, the Evangelista killings were the most ruthless and bloodiest murders Detroit had ever seen, and considering Benny’s dealings in the occult rumors were flying that this had had something to do with it. Police agreed, thinking that a disgruntled occult customer of his had decided to enact revenge for feeling ripped off, but why would they have done it in such a savage fashion, killing the entire family with such violence, and what were the meanings of the photographs, the carefully placed head, and women’s undergarments? Another possibility was that it could have been done by a business partner or client, but again why such savagery? Another idea was that he had been killed by an organized Italian crime syndicate known as The Black Hand, as he had received threats from them before in the past, but there was no evidence that they were behind the killings and by that time the organization was mostly defunct and inert. Another potential suspect was a local man named Umberto Tecchio, who had been making the final payment on a house that Benny had sold him and had not only met with him the day before the murders, but was also found to be in possession of an axe and a banana knife, but there was no hard evidence to hold him for any crime. There was even talk among the superstitious Italian American community that Benny had gotten into a spiritual battle with another magic user or had even invoked the wrath of an evil spirit or demon and been killed by the malicious paranormal entity. 

One interesting possibility that was considered was that he might have been targeted by his old buddy Angelino, who had escaped from the mental institution in 1923. Indeed, the gruesome nature of the murders seemed to have parallels to the crime that had gotten Angelino locked away to begin with, and since Benny knew him it could have led him to let him inside, explaining the lack of any break-in. However, what would have been the motive and why would Angelino have waited 6 years to carry it out? There was no concrete evidence for it, and even if there had been there was nothing police could do about it because Angelino had vanished off the face of the earth after his escape. Who had killed Benny Evangelista and his entire family and why? No one had a clue, and causing a headache to the investigation was the fact that Benny’s neighbors mostly refused to talk with police, making it an uncrack able cold case.

To this day, the case has never been solved, no one has ever been arrested or seriously considered a person of interest, and it has gone on to become one of the strangest and most brutal crimes in Detroit history. The house has long since been torn down and the lot sits empty, mostly because there have been odd reports of the paranormal from the property, including disembodied screams and a headless apparition wandering about. This might all be just adding to the lore of spookiness surrounding the case, but we are still left with a strange case that has few answers. Who killed Benny Evangelista and his entire family and why? What was the meaning of those photos and the women's clothing? Just what was going on here? It is certainly an eerie case that does not seem as if it will ever be solved. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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