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Relatives charged in exorcism death of 3-year-old girl in US

  • >>Alex Traub, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-18 23:09:01 BdST

Representational Image. Reuters

The mother, uncle and grandfather of a 3-year-old girl smothered her during a daylong exorcism at a church in San Jose, California, authorities said last week, announcing charges in an investigation that began with the girl’s death in September.

The San Jose Police Department said that the adults — Claudia Hernandez-Santos, the girl’s mother; Rene Hernandez-Santos, her uncle; and Rene Trigueros Hernandez, her grandfather — had been charged with felony child abuse leading to her death, which took place Sept 24.

Each of them would face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted. All three were being held without bail, according to jail records.

A police spokesperson did not name the church. The Mercury News of San Jose, which reported details of the exorcism this month, identified it as the Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas, a small Pentecostal church that holds services in the backroom of a multifamily home.

Experts say that faith in miracles is common in Latino Pentecostalism, but exorcisms are highly unusual and very rare. Authorities said the defendants in the San Jose case were trying to induce the girl to vomit to expel what they believed was an “evil spirit” possessing the toddler.

The girl, identified in court papers as Arely Doe, died of asphyxiation, a spokesperson for the Santa Clara County coroner’s office said last week. She added that the death was ruled a homicide.

The police became aware of the exorcism shortly after 8 p.m. Sept. 24, when Claudia Hernandez-Santos called 911 to report that Arely had died, according to a “statement of facts” signed by a San Jose police sergeant that was submitted as part of the case against her. Emergency medical workers arrived and took Arely to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead less than an hour after the call, authorities said.

The police statement, relying on interviews with the girl’s relatives, says Hernandez-Santos began to believe her daughter was possessed by a demon on the night of Sept 23, when Arely repeatedly woke up, screamed and cried. Hernandez-Santos and her brother prayed for Arely and took her to the church around 6:30 the next morning.

Their actions at the church took an increasingly violent form, according to the police reports. Hernandez-Santos stuck her finger down her daughter’s throat while squeezing the girl’s neck to induce vomiting, which Hernandez-Santos believed would drive out the evil spirit. At some point, Arely’s grandfather arrived, and the three adults began to take turns holding Arely’s neck, abdomen and legs, with the intent to make her vomit, the police said.

According to the police report, the girl’s grandfather told investigators that she had tried to fight back, attempting to bite his arms. Eventually, she vomited a “clear/purple liquid,” according to the statement.

At one point, Arely’s uncle pressed his hands against Arely’s back and chest while closing his eyes to pray, said authorities. When he opened his eyes, about 10 minutes later, Arely was dead, he told authorities, according to their statements.

Hernandez-Santos told investigators that her daughter had died between 6 and 6:30 that evening, the police said. No “lifesaving measures” were taken to help Arely, and Hernandez-Santos called authorities only at the urging of her relatives and some two hours after Arely’s death, according to the police statements.

At the time of her death, Arely had not eaten for around 21 hours, and she had consumed only around 6 ounces of water since the previous day, authorities said. The police said that they had found her with “numerous” bruises on her neck and clavicle, brain swelling, blunt-force wounds to her chest and back and internal bleeding of the heart, among other injuries.

“I urge everyone to reserve judgment until the full facts are known,” Dana Fite, a lawyer for Hernandez, 59, wrote in an email.

Edward Sousa, a lawyer for Rene Hernandez-Santos, 19, said in an email that he had only just begun to investigate the allegations, but he added that “numerous misconceptions” surrounded the case.

A lawyer for Claudia Hernandez-Santos, 25, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Hernandez-Santos was arrested Jan 31, and her brother and father were arrested May 11, according to the police. A police spokesperson said authorities had been waiting for a “comprehensive medical examiner’s report” before making the arrests last week. He did not explain how the factual basis for Claudia Hernandez-Santos’ arrest differed from the arrests of her relatives.

Gastón Espinosa, a professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College and an expert in Latino Pentecostalism, said in a telephone interview that prayers for healing and belief in miracles were widespread in Pentecostal churches, but he described exorcisms as “very rare.”

“I’ve written about Latino Pentecostals over the past 100 years, the past 100 years in US history, and I’ve never read of an exorcism that led to any sort of physical harm,” he added.

Rafael Escobar, a pastor of a Pentecostal church in Reseda, California, told The Mercury News that his congregation once belonged to the same umbrella group as the Iglesias Apostoles y Profetas Libres did but that the San Jose church had since left.

“God’s power is one thing, and another is exorcisms and darkness,” Escobar said. “It’s not common at all in our church, and we don’t practice it.”

The San Jose church came under scrutiny last month when authorities searched it as part of an investigation into the kidnapping of a 3-month-old boy, The Mercury News reported. Authorities declined to comment when asked if there was a connection between the kidnapping and the exorcism.

The infant was found unharmed within a day of his disappearance April 25. Two people — Jose Portillo, 28, and Yesenia Ramirez, 42 — were charged with conspiracy to commit a felony, kidnapping a child younger than 14 and first-degree burglary in connection with the abduction, according to the San Jose police.

A police statement on the arrest does not mention a church, but Cody Salfen, a lawyer for Ramirez, said in a telephone interview that “all or most of the individuals involved in this case were associated with that church,” referring to the Iglesias Apostoles y Profetas Libres.

But Karri Iyama, a lawyer for Portillo, said her client was not a member of the church, adding that she did not believe he worshipped there.

Salfen said there was no evidence that the exorcism case and the kidnapping case were connected, adding that Ramirez would explain in court “what appears to be a wildly mischaracterized set of circumstances.”

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