BALCH SPRINGS, Texas — A Texas pastor who ordered a 2-year-old boy to go without food for 21 days to exorcise a “demon of manipulation” from his body has been sentenced to 99 years in prison for causing his death.
Aracely Meza, 52, of Balch Springs, was found guilty Friday of felony injury to a child causing seriously bodily injury, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Jurors at Meza’s trial watched graphic video that showed a starving Benjamin so weak he could not hold up his head. The Morning News described his emaciated appearance, with sunken cheeks and jutting collarbones. His clothes hung off his bony frame.
His eyes would move around, but never focus on one person or object, the newspaper said.
The footage showed a vastly different child from photos of the boy prior to the starvation, when he was chubby-cheeked and happy.
One video shot March 22, 2015, the day Benjamin died, showed Meza propping up the boy, who had fallen to the floor. She pulled down his pants and put him over her knee, spanking him repeatedly as he cried, the newspaper reported.
It was not clear why Meza spanked the boy or why she and her followers believed he was possessed by a demon.
A video shot later that day showed the boy’s lifeless body being held up as Meza prayed over him, asking God to resurrect him. The resurrection attempt lasted for hours.
Benjamin's parents, Liliana and Zenon Aparicio, have not been arrested in his death, though charges against them are pending, the Washington Post reported. They are in Mexico, where they, Meza and other church members took their son to be buried after his death.
Nazareth Zurita, another member of Meza’s home-based church, was also charged with felony injury to a child for not stopping the abuse. She reached a plea deal with Dallas County prosecutors in which she will plead to a reduced charge in exchange for her testimony.
The trial shined a spotlight on Meza's church, Iglesia Internacional Jesus es el Rey, or the International Church of Jesus is King, which was described as a commune, the Morning News said. Benjamin, his parents and Zurita all lived there.
Testimony indicated that congregants turned to Meza because she claimed to be a prophet who could speak to God. Her religious instruction included ordering her followers to fast -- keeping a list on the refrigerator of who had to fast on certain days.
Children were separated from their parents, including Benjamin, who was taken from the Aparicios while he was still breastfeeding, the Morning News said. His parents were not allowed to hold him.
Zurita testified at Meza’s trial that anyone who questioned her methods was accused of questioning God.
"'The devil is speaking through you,'" Zurita quoted the pastor saying. "'You're the devil.'"
She testified that Benjamin’s parents were afraid to intervene in what Meza was doing to their son because they were undocumented immigrants, the newspaper reported.
An arrest affidavit from Meza's 2015 arrest indicated that multiple witnesses saw Benjamin was in serious distress, but did not intervene because Meza ordered them not to. One witness told police she saw the boy looking "frail and weak" the day before he died, and that he fell and hit his head multiple times, the Morning News reported at the time.
Another church member said she tried to feed Benjamin, but Meza and her husband, Daniel Meza, ordered her to stop.
Daniel Meza, who helped his wife run the church, does not appear to have been charged in Benjamin's death, the Post reported.
Meza testified in her own defense, telling jurors that God showed her what to do in her ministry. The Morning News reported that she said the instructions from God included a list of who in her congregation needed to fast.
"It's like inside yourself," Meza said through a translator, the newspaper reported.
When God told her that Benjamin should start eating again about a month before he died, she took him off his fast, Meza testified.
The 2015 arrest affidavit indicated that Meza told police she ended Benjamin's fast when he "looked like an alien, (and) that was the sign the demons were gone."
She admitted in court, however, that she took food away from him again as punishment if he failed to say “amen” after a prayer or didn’t change himself after going to the bathroom.
When a prosecutor asked why Benjamin was targeted for a longer fast than anyone else in the church, Meza had no answer. She said after he died, she knew she should have helped him.
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