The mother, grandfather and uncle of a three-year-old girl who died during an exorcism at San Jose church will be tried together on charges connected to her death, after a judge ruled Monday that prosecutors could consolidate the cases.
Barring a formal objection from their attorneys, the three suspects — Claudia Hernandez, the girl’s mother; Rene Trigueros Hernandez, her grandfather; and Rene Hernandez Santos, her uncle — will now be tried together on August 9 on charges of felony child abuse resulting in death, after allegedly killing the three-year-old, Arely Naomi Proctor, during a daylong church ceremony aimed at ridding the toddler of “evil spirits.”
The decision comes about a month after Trigueros Hernandez, 59, and Hernandez Santos, 19, were arrested in connection with the alleged ritual exorcism, which took place at their small Pentecostal church in South San Jose eight months earlier. Claudia Hernandez was arrested on Jan. 31, though her arrest — and Arely’s death — were not made public at the time. if convicted, each faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Hernandez Santos’ attorney Edward Sousa said a plea isn’t coming any time soon.
“We’ll have to discuss pleas down the road, I don’t know if a plea will be entered on August 9 or not at this point,” Sousa said. “We don’t have all the discovery in the case, we have some initial discovery but there’s a whole bunch that’s missing.”
It remains unclear why it took so long to make arrests in the gruesome killing of a child months before. Arely’s death only came to light in May after San Jose police searched the church where the exorcism occurred while looking for a kidnapped 3-month-old boy, who was allegedly taken by a member of the church.
Her death was ruled a homicide by the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office, which found that she died of asphyxiation. In court records, investigators said that she died after being denied food for hours, and after being held down repeatedly by relatives in the ritual exorcism.
San Jose police have declined to specify why they waited so long to make the arrests, or why they did not disclose Arely’s death back in September.
Just days before they were arrested, the girl’s grandfather and uncle were seen worshiping at the Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas, a small one-room Pentecostal church in the converted garage of a home on the south side of downtown San Jose. with about six people in attendance, including Melendez.
As leader of the congregation of about 20 or so members, Trigueros Hernandez, also known as Rene Huezo, gave an impassioned sermon to a room of about half a dozen devotees – some of them women who wore white lace veils and sat on the other side of the room from the men – loudly quoting the bible and preaching about belief without proof.
In interviews with this news organization during that May church service, faith leaders at the tiny church confirmed that they were performing an exorcism on Arely, calling her death “the will of God,” and not the consequences of an exorcism.
“If you read the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus casts away demons and made sick people healthy again,” Huezo said. “It’s not when I want to do it, it’s when God, in his will, wants to heal the person. The preacher is like an instrument of God; what we do is what God says.”
Looking visibly anxious and upset, Huezo said that he feels a lot of pain at the death of his grandchild. “It’s difficult for people to understand what happened,” he said, but “it’s the stuff of God, and everything is in the will of God no matter how small or big.”
Little is known about the church’s practices, though they appear to be fringe members of a wider pentecostal movement originating in El Salvador with branches across immigrant communities in the U.S.
Experts and faith leaders familiar with the highly charismatic type of pentecostal evangelicalism practiced by Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas were stunned by the practice of exorcism on a child as young as Arely. Pastor Rafael Escobar, who leads a sister church in Reseda, said the San Jose congregation no longer belongs to their alliance and expressed dismay at the church’s use of exorcism, calling it a “dark practice.”
This past Sunday, the makeshift house of worship — where dozens of pentecostal christians largely from Central America once came together in prayer, documented in videos posted on YouTube — was quiet. On Monday, however, Eliza Melendez, a member of the congregation who attended the court hearing, said she “feels good” about the case.
At another hearing Monday morning, Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez and Jose Roman Portillo opted to postpone a preliminary hearing until August 1 for kidnapping charges alleging they abducted a 3-month-old boy April 25 in San Jose. The boy was eventually found safe, but it was later revealed that the church was visited by authorities during the 18-hour search for the infant.
Deputy District Attorney Rebekah Wise, who is working both cases, has said she will prosecute the people charged in the exorcism to the full extent of the law.