LUCILLE HAMILTON paid $621 to have her "spiritual grime" removed by a voodoo high priest in an ordinary townhouse on a winding street in Camden County, a friend said.
Hamilton, 21, a male living as a woman, flew in on Friday from her home in Little Rock, Ark., to the house on Loch Lomond Drive in Gloucester Township, friends said, to take part in a three-day spiritual cleansing referred to on the priest's Web site as "Lave Tet."
By Saturday night Hamilton was dead, and authorities are awaiting results of an autopsy and toxicology tests to determine exactly what happened. No charges have been filed.
Although authorities have not called Hamilton's death suspicious, her friends are eager to know what went wrong.
"I'm still trying to find a scenario that makes sense," said Billie Miller, Hamilton's boss at Arkansas Flag and Banner, in Little Rock. "I can't come up with anything that makes sense."
Miller said Hamilton was a devout Catholic, with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe tattooed on her foot, but was also interested in voodoo. She said Hamilton - who used the name Lucie Marie on Facebook - had been saving money to travel to New Jersey, but was not planning to undergo a sex change.
"She was very spiritual and beautiful, too," said Miller. "She was not there for some dark purpose. She wasn't depressed; in fact, you couldn't meet a more upbeat person."
The voodoo priest identifies himself as Houngan Hector on his Gade Nou Leve Society Web site, which says the three-day Lave Tet ceremony was to begin Friday.
Lave Tet (from the French laver tete) literally means head-washing, according to several Haitian voodoo Web sites. Hector's site describes it as a ceremony that begins with cleansing, after which participants lie in a "badji," or altar room, before being "baptized."
Hector, who claims he was initiated as a senior priest in Haiti, said Lave Tet "improves the ability for possession, clears the mind, clarifies abilities for seeing, and substantially improves the life."
It is one of numerous spiritual services he offers.
A picture of a ceremonial table on his site shows several bottles of brand-name liquor. But Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, declined to say whether drugs or alcohol had been involved.
"As of right now, we have a sudden death and we're trying to determine how this person died," he said.
Someone called 9-1-1 from the home about 11 p.m. Saturday. Police found eight people there - including Hamilton, who was pronounced dead at the scene, then taken to the regional medical examiner's office in Woodbury, Gloucester County.
Seven others, including Hector, were taken to Virtua Hospital in Berlin Township, Camden County, as a precaution and later released, Laughlin said. He declined to say what treatment they received or whether they had taken part in the ritual.
Hector declined to comment when approached by a reporter at the Gloucester Township townhouse yesterday. A woman at the door said they were grieving and also declined to comment.
"No matter how much I explain, you people aren't going to understand," said the woman, who declined to give her name.
The New Jersey Division of Youth & Family Services was notified because young children were in the house, Laughlin said.
Neighbors in the townhouse development said they had never seen anything unusual at the home and, according to Laughlin, Gloucester Township police never had anything more than routine visits there.
Chiquita Middleton, who said she provided day care for residents of the house, said she knew the woman of the house better than she knew Hector.
"I don't really know him like that, but she's a real nice person," Middleton said. "This is a big surprise to us."
Miller said Hamilton had called a mutual friend in Little Rock upon arriving in New Jersey, and that Hamilton didn't mention to the friend that anything was wrong. She believed that Hamilton was staying at the home on Loch Lomond Drive.
"She was super-excited about going there," Miller said. "She was supposed to be back today. I'm still crying over it."
Miller said Hamilton was planning to start college next month.
According to his Web site, Hector also runs an online store out of the home, called Botanica Santa Clara, where customers can purchase candles, books, and La Bomba, a "spiritual floorwash" that removes evil from the home.
Laughlin said Gloucester Township's Code Enforcement Office has been notified of the incident. The Daily News was unable yesterday to reach anyone at the real-estate company that manages the townhouse development.