A Dallas judge sentenced Pastor Aracely Meza on Friday to 99 years in prison for starving a two-year-old boy to death as part of an exorcism.
Meza, a self-proclaimed prophetess, said that she starved Benjamin Aparicio for over three weeks in 2015 because she thought God told her to do so to expel a demon from him, according to The Washington Post. Prosecutors showed video from March 22, 2015, in court of Meza trying to perform a “resurrection ritual” on the toddler’s limp body, which ultimately failed to resuscitate him.
Meza told investigators that God told her the boy needed to fast in order to be freed from a “demon of manipulation,” according to The Dallas Morning News. She withheld food from him, giving him only water four to five times a day over a period of 25 days. Meza said that after 25 days God told her the boy needed to eat, but she continued to withhold food from him if he failed to say amen after a meal was blessed or failed to go to the bathroom properly. Benjamin died as a result, and the court found Meza guilty of felony injury to a child causing serious bodily injury.
Meza’s defense argued that she was victimized and imprisoned by her own faith, but the prosecution argued the case was not about religious rights.
“This case is not about religion. This case is about control,” said prosecutor Patrick Capetillo, according to Dallas News.
Meza garnered a cult-like following among the parishioners of Iglesia Internacional Jesus es el Ray, which she and her husband, Daniel Meza, ran out of a home in a Dallas suburb. Several families who attended the church, including Benjamin and his parents, lived with the Mezas in the home. Aracely used scripture to manipulate followers, ordered people to fast, and performed bizarre rituals to expel demons from those she deemed to be possessed.
She also separated children from their parents, including Benjamin, before they were weened from breastfeeding, and would not allow the parents to hold their children. Benjamin’s parents lived in the same house with Meza, but did not intervene and feared going to the authorities for help because they are illegal immigrants.
Nazareth Zurita, a member of the church, testified against Aracely in court, saying she realized in retrospect that Aracely “distorted scripture” and used “brainwashing” to control her congregants. If anyone disputed Aracely’s teachings or orders, Zurita claimed Aracely would say, “The devil is speaking through you. You’re the devil,” according to Dallas News.
Prosecutors also charged Zurita with felony injury to a child, but the court gave her a reduced sentence in return for her testimony against Aracely. Benjamin’s parents could also face charges, but they have fled to Mexico.
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