The Voodoo Priestess in Court

Science may be taken in by Sharon Caulder's blandishments, but the feds and her insurers have come to a different conclusion.

I know what you’re thinking: you’re a werewolf. Hey, it happens all the time. Just ask Sharon Caulder, who once had a thriving Oakland practice as a spiritual therapist, and believes that werewolves and other fell spirits constantly vie to infect our auras. Silicon Valley professionals used to pay her $300 a session to find and root out the demons and freaky spirits that burrowed through their energy shields and possessed their souls.

Caulder is something of an expert in demonic possession; as an official “voodoo priestess,” licensed by the Universal Life Church and the West African government of Benin, she has been plucking spooks out of people — very rich people — for years. For a time, Fruitvale forensic psychiatrist Jakob Camp consulted with her on some of his more exotic mentally ill and dual-diagnosed patients. Last year, this newspaper published a cover story about Caulder’s growing legitimacy (“Voodoo Doctor,” 5/14/2003), and suggested that a new school of therapy, based on the belief in hobgoblins and werewolves using your spirit as a Holiday Inn, was gaining acceptance among psychiatric professionals.

But those unenlightened spoilsports at the Federal Bureau of Investigation apparently just don’t get it. Because earlier this year, FBI agents raided Caulder’s new base of operations in New Orleans, shackled her, and hauled her back to Oakland to face four counts of bankruptcy fraud. Caulder managed to get out of jail pending the trial and is back in the Big Easy, curating a growing supply of Beninese voodoo artifacts and serving high-octane drinks at her bar/cafe/museum. But her trial is approaching, and Caulder claims that the government is so terrified of the revolutionary potential of voodoo healing that it’s determined to destroy her life and terrorize her colleagues. “Every year, they focus on a person who does spiritual healing,” she says, adding that the story about her in the Express brought her so much fame that the government had to single her out before she became too prominent. “When that story came out, the finger was pointed at me, and I was supposed to be the next person.”

It all started in the early ’90s, when Caulder, a physical therapist making decent scratch in New Jersey, moved to California and began studying energy healing. As she studied under “human energy field” expert Barbara Brennan, Caulder began experiencing strange fragments of memory bubbling up from her childhood. She began remembering being buried alive or crucified, she claims in her memoir, as animals were ritually slaughtered around her. Eventually, she decided that her parents’ Christian Scientist sect was really a secret voodoo coven, and she was being raised as the next leader of their local clan.

What do you do when you realize you were groomed to be the leader of a sinister cult dedicated to human sacrifice? File a claim with your life insurance company, of course. Caulder had an expensive policy with Equitable Life Insurance, and when she realized what her parents had done, she claimed that she was too freaked out to earn a living. She even got away with it for eighteen months. “Because I suffered a lot of abuse in my childhood, I got a diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder, and I used that time to understand what had happened to me,” she says. Eventually, she claims, Equitable officials offered her a lump sum to be relieved of their obligations, and, when she refused the offer, challenged her disability claims. “They pulled me in for testing and pretty much said not that I was malingering, but that my symptoms were so strong that I couldn’t function in society,” Caulder says. Since she seemed to be functioning just fine, Equitable sued to regain $150,000 in disability payments, prompting her to file for bankruptcy in 1998.

For all the anguish her spooky childhood rituals caused her, Caulder was intrigued enough to fly to Benin and study voodoo practices at the feet of Chief Daagbo Hounon Houna, sacrificing goats and entering into a taboo sexual relationship with her mentor. Back in Oakland, she began casting out demons professionally and building a hefty clientele. In 2003, shortly after the publication of the Express story, she moved to New Orleans and set up a voodoo museum, bar, and cafe, where she conducted readings (since Louisiana’s standard of living doesn’t quite match the Bay Area’s, she reduced her fees to a mere $100 a session) and began collecting a stash of voodoo trinkets from West Africa — a project, she says, that was commissioned by none other than the Dalai Lama, in order to disseminate the healing power of indigenous religions throughout a world corrupted by modernity.

But those damn worldly matters kept interfering with Caulder’s pursuit of the spiritual realm. First she earned the indignation of many people in the “voodoo community” by setting up shop right next to a temple owned by “Priestess Miriam,” the recognized matriarch of the New Orleans voodoo scene. Then she ran into a few money problems. According to Deanna Bernard, the cafe’s former manager, Caulder burned through her cash buying and renovating the building, and just before the grand opening, confessed that she was broke. Bernard claims she lent Caulder $17,000 to keep the cafe afloat — a loan, she says, that was supposed to be repaid immediately, but which remained outstanding until the time of Caulder’s arrest. Caulder acknowledges borrowing money from Bernard, but claims the amount was closer to the neighborhood of $7,000. She also has a few unprintable words for Bernard, who got a lawyer and served Caulder a notice of intent to sue while she was shackled in a New Orleans jail cell.

Officially, the federal government has charged Caulder with four counts of bankruptcy fraud; Caulder claims that during the bankruptcy proceedings, she didn’t mention two bank accounts she held on behalf of her dying father, who needed round-the-clock care. On the other hand, she says, the judge never asked her to tally up her assets, so where’s the fraud? Officials with the FBI and the US Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case in detail, but assigning three agents to tail Caulder for months seems a little heavy for a penny-ante fraud case. Bill Leony, the FBI agent who helped organize the investigation, suggested that the feds began the case by investigating different allegations against her, and the fraud stuff just fell into their lap. But he won’t say what else they’ve got on Caulder.

Meanwhile, the fraud case seems stalled for now. No trial date has been set, but Caulder is confident she can beat the rap. In fact, she claims that the feds just cooked this whole thing up to help the man who sold her the cafe building rip her off. She claims that the FBI deliberately delayed the process of transferring her to her arraignment in an Oakland court at the request of her old real-estate lawyer, who would have been able to seize the property if she missed her mortgage payments. “The idea was I would get lost in jail, and he could take the building,” she says. “They kept me for five weeks in jail. They call it diesel therapy, I’m told.”

But even if the feds throw the book at Caulder, don’t worry. She’s been known to conduct her exorcisms over the phone, so all you victims of demonic possession can just let your fingers do the walking, and you’ll be demon-free in no time.

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