The macabre slaying of mystical healer Benny Evangelista and his family sent shockwaves through the city of Detroit in 1929. The unsolved case of the Detroit Occult Murder has become the most mysterious and strangest murder in the history of American crime. Who killed the Evangelista family?
Who Was Benny Evangelista?
Benjamino Evangelista, and his older brother Antonio, immigrated to the United States. The brothers arrived in America from Naples, Italy, in 1904. Like many immigrants, Benjamino Americanized his name to Benny Evangelista. The two were ready for a better future.
Benny and his brother moved to Philadelphia and lived together for a time. While there, Benny became interested in the occult and claimed to receive visions from God. As a devout Catholic, Antonio was disturbed by his brother’s visions which were not very Catholic in nature, and the two had a falling out.
Benny was sent by his brother to work in York, Pennsylvania. While in York, Benny became very good friends with another man from Naples, named Aurelius Angelino. The men began exploring the occult as a pair, investigating the world of dark magic and mysticism. However this was to prove deadly when Angelino attacked his family and murdered his twin sons with an axe.
Angelino was sent to the Fairview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1919. It is unknown if something happened to turn the father into a murderer. Did the occult study he was doing with Benny make him snap and kill two of his own children?
Whatever the cause, Benny was clearly spooked by the occurrence. Seeking to distance himself from his friend and his crime and to find somewhere new, he moved to Detroit, Michigan.
Life in Detroit
In Detroit, Benny worked as a carpenter and became a successful realtor and landlord. Becoming prosperous, he settled down, marrying and started a family. However, at this time he also became interested in the occult again. Benny became a self-proclaimed mystical healer and spiritual leader, making a little money on the side to support his household.
He was soon well-known for selling herbs, hexes, and spiritual remedies. Benny would also perform dances, chants, and even animal sacrifices for customers. He would charge $10 for his services, which was around the amount earned when working for two days in a local factory.
To say Benny Evangelista was an eccentric would be an understatement. The basement in his home on the corner of Saint Aubin Avenue was transformed into a ritual space with a kind of altar. He would charge visitors a nickel to enter the basement to see depictions of the gods of a religion he had created.
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Benny’s depictions were evidently convincing, although in reality they were home-made paper-mâché and wax figures hung from the ceiling by wires. He called these figures “celestial planets” and even created a giant “eye” that could light up.
Many people in the neighborhood and the Italian immigrant community came to Benny for cures and potions. Many customers were disappointed at the lack of effects and felt like they had been tricked or scammed, and Benny stole their money.
A Dangerous Scam
Things came to a head when Vincent Elias, a client of Mr. Evangelista, visited the family to close a real estate deal with Benny on July 3, 1929. Elias went to the basement entrance after noticing that the home was silent, even though there should have been four young children inside.
Elias thought that Benny was down there working and hadn’t heard his knock at the door. Benny was indeed in the basement, but what he saw down there horrified Elias, who fled to fetch the police right away.
The police found Benny Evangelista seated at his desk, hands folded as if in prayer, but with no head. The head was lying on the floor near his feet and surrounded by three framed photos of a child in a coffin. It was discovered later that the child in the coffin was one of the Evangelista children who had died a few years earlier. There has been no explanation as to why those photos were located around Benny’s severed head.
After seeing the body and the ritual arrangement, the police went upstairs to look for the rest of the family. Everyone else in the house had been murdered. Benny’s wife was found in bed with their youngest child Mario (18 months old). The mother’s head was almost entirely severed, and baby Mario’s skull had been crushed.
The three other children, Angelina (7), Margaret (5), and Jeanne (4), were found across the hall in their beds. Like their brother, the girls’ skulls were crushed, and one of the girls had their arm partially amputated at the shoulder.
There were no signs of a struggle or robbery. The only evidence from the scene was bloody footprints leading away from Benny, and a single bloody fingerprint on a doorknob.
Many of the Italian immigrants in the community refused to speak to the police or admit they knew the Evangelista family. Officers turned to Benny’s physician and lawyer for information about the family.
The physician painted a compromising picture, describing Benny as an insane religious fanatic. Searching for other explanations, Benny’s lawyer informed officials that Benny had also gone through several recent lawsuits related to his real estate business. The lawyer said the cases were so mild however that they didn’t seem like a reason for a violent family annihilation.
Police eventually developed three theories for what may have happened to the family. The first theory was that the family had been killed by the Italian criminal society known as The Black Hand. Notes were found threatening Benny, but this theory was quickly disregarded.
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The Black Hand was, at the time, a thing of the past that had evolved into an organized criminal enterprise, and such occult arrangements (or the murder of family members) was not their style. Benny was believed to have received extortion notes from someone pretending to be part of The Black Hand but there did not seem to be a genuine link to organized crime.
The second theory was a man who did business with Benny was the killer. The police identified a main suspect who denied any involvement, however when pressed he did confirm that he went to the Evangelista house the night before the murders.
According to his testimony, nothing strange or bad happened, and he left the home and went for drinks with a friend. This man had drawn police attention because only three months earlier, he killed his brother-in-law with a knife. He was deemed to have acted in self-defense in the earlier incident. With a lack of confession and evidence, the man was removed as a suspect.
The third theory is that Benny’s friend from York, Aurelius Angelino, killed him. Angelino’s murder of his two sons with an axe was very similar to the scene in the Evangelista home, and six years earlier in 1923 Angelino had escaped from prison and was never seen again.
The belief was that maybe Angelino went to Detroit to seek revenge. A strange quirk of the earlier case drew police to this theory: bloody fingerprints discovered in Angelino’s home after the murders had been found to belong to Benny.
Did Benny frame his friend, and did the wrongfully convicted Angelino finally come to seek his revenge?
An Occult Mystery
Almost 100 years have passed since the Evangelista Occult Murders occurred, and the case is still unsolved. Earning the title as one of the oldest and most gruesome cold cases in the history of Detroit, we may never know who killed the family.
Who killed this eccentric businessman, medicine man, and religious fanatic? Why was the rest of his family killed as well? In the quest for answers it is important to leave no stone unturned, and there is one more theory.
Could Benny Evangelista, and his friend Angelino, have stumbled on something during their occult studies? Did they learn something they should not have uncovered, a secret that destroyed both their families?
We will likely never know.
Top Image: Who killed Benny Evangelista and his entire family? Source: Sved Oliver / Abode Stock.
By Lauren Dillon
American Hauntings Ink, 2022. The Evangelista Occult Murders. One of the Most Sinister Crimes in Detroit History. Available at: https://www.americanhauntingsink.com/evangelista
Haddad, K. 2020. St. Aubin Street Massacre: 1929 Detroit family murders still unsolved. Click on Detroit. Available at: https://www.clickondetroit.com/features/2016/10/05/st-aubin-street-massacre-1929-detroit-family-murders-still-unsolved/
Pellicer, M.P. 2019. The Detroit Ax Murder. CrimeDoor. Available at: https://share.crimedoor.com/articles/J1ksuuOf20frUwkXhlFD
Villegas, Z. 2014. Hex & Violence: Occult Murder in Depression-Era Detroit. Critical Moment. Available at: https://archive.org/details/the-detroit-ax-murderdfe_202111/1929%20Detriot%20Ax%20murder%20occult/Hex%20%26%20Violence_%20Occult%20Murder%20in%20Depression-Era%20Detroit%20_%20Critical%20Moment/