A California mom whose 3-year-old daughter suffocated to death during an exorcism to rid the child of “an evil spirit” said shortly before her arrest that she was sad the girl had died but was thankful she wouldn’t have to live in a world where “everything is just so bad, like, everything just going downhill.”
In a video posted to YouTube on Jan. 27, 2022 and unearthed by The Daily Beast, Claudia Elisia Hernandez Santos, 25, told viewers, “Like, I could sit here and be negative… be sad about the whole situation that she passed away, but it’s like, there’s no point, you know, because it is what it is. It is what it is. You know, she’s not here with me, it is what it is, you know? And it’s like, what’s the point, you know? I’m just gonna be… putting myself down when there’s no point for me to do that, you know? Like, I cannot change the past.”
On Jan. 31, Hernandez was booked into the Santa Clara County jail on one felony count of assault on a child with force likely to produce great bodily injury resulting in death, according to detention records.
The previously unreported video of Hernandez discussing her daughter’s shocking death is titled “Arely Naomi Proctor Hernandez,” and runs for nearly 45 minutes. In it, Hernandez covers a range of topics related to her late child but makes a specific point not to get into details of how she died.
“People could talk, but at the end of the day, I know what happened,” she says. “God knows what happened, and the people that were there when she passed away knows what happened.”
However, according to an affidavit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, the San Jose Police Department also has a pretty good idea of what happened. The charges against Hernandez can be traced back to Sept. 24, 2021, when Hernandez called police shortly after 8 p.m. to report that her daughter was dead. When cops arrived at the Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas church, which is run out of a private home in San Jose, they found little Arely unconscious on the floor, states the affidavit, which was first obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. After attempting “life-saving measures,” Arely was pronounced dead at an area hospital about 45 minutes later, the affidavit says.
A preliminary autopsy determined her death to have been a homicide, with asphyxia due to suffocation listed as the cause. The pastor who allegedly performed the deadly exorcism was identified as Arely’s maternal grandfather. He has not been charged with a crime and was unable to be reached for comment on Tuesday. Santiago Garcia, the owner of the building where the church is located, hung up immediately when contacted by The Daily Beast.
Officers on the scene “learned the suspects believed the child was possessed by a demon and they were at the church praying for her,” the affidavit continues. “[Hernandez] provided a statement to a patrol officer stating the victim was possessed by an evil spirit. [Hernandez] stated she attempted to stick her finger down the victim’s throat and squeezed the victim’s neck to induce vomiting. The victim fell asleep several times while [Hernandez] pushed down on throat with her hand.”
First responders observed bruising around the child’s eyes, neck, and chest. Hernandez said she and the others waited an hour or two before calling 911, according to the affidavit. In follow-up interviews with investigators, Hernandez explained that she “began to believe [Arely] was possessed because [she] would wake up and scream or cry periodically,” the affidavit goes on. “Defendant and uncle prayed for [Arely] while inside of a bedroom.”
At around 6:30 the next morning, Hernandez and her uncle drove Arely to Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas, still believing the girl was under demonic control. She told police she held her daughter around the waist and neck to “help her throw up, which she believed would help her get the spirit out.” Along the way, Hernandez’s father, the church’s pastor, showed up to assist. The three of them continued to try and induce vomiting, and eventually Arely threw up “a clear/purple liquid,” states the affidavit, citing Hernandez as saying she believed her daughter died sometime between 6 and 6:30 p.m., some 12 hours after arriving at the church.
“The victim last ate on Thursday 9/23 around 9:00 p.m,” the affidavit says. “The victim was only provided about 6 oz of water from Thursday up until the time of her death.”
A few days later, Hernandez set up a GoFundMe campaign to solicit donations for burial expenses. Her Instagram profile’s description includes a nod to “Isaias 55:8-11,” a Bible verse about finding strength during difficult times.
Hernandez’s father, who is not named in the affidavit but was identified by the San Jose Mercury-News as Rene Huezo, told the outlet, “If you read the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus casts away demons and made sick people healthy again… 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.”
Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas is also linked to a man arrested, along with two others, for allegedly kidnapping a baby boy last month from his grandmother’s apartment. In a video posted to the church’s YouTube channel, Baldemeo Sandoval, who is reportedly married to primary suspect Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez, can be seen delivering a sermon to parishioners in July 2020. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Sandoval, but not those facing Ramirez and another man, Jose Roman Portillo.
Prof. Allison Kavey, whose research focuses on the history of magic, science, and religion, told The Daily Beast that exorcisms have become increasingly common over the last five to seven years in both the United States and Latin America.
“One of the challenges is that the Catholic Church has not been preparing priests to perform exorcisms over the past 100 years or so, so this demand is not being met by people who are qualified,” said Kavey, who teaches at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There is also some demand in evangelical churches, so the increased demand comes from across the Christian spectrum.”
The idea of demonic possession is an ancient one, said Kavey, noting that a range of cultural factors present in today’s society seem to be driving the demand for exorcisms: poverty, anxiety, and a lack of trust in the state and in medicine.
“When people choose an explanation like demonic possession in the 21st century, I think we need to ask why,” Kavey continued. “And I have argued that when people choose a magical explanation or a supernatural explanation, it’s because natural explanations are not satisfying. And usually, that means… the supernatural explanation is more comforting to them because it has no penumbra of blame or responsibility.”
It is, obviously, very difficult for a parent to accept that their child will be taken from them by a disease or illness of some sort, and people want to believe they can do something to solve a problem they might not fully understand, according to Kavey.
“So we attribute those problems to things that are known unknowns, like God or demons, and then we try to solve them through human intervention,” she said.
In the YouTube video she recorded before her arrest, Hernandez shied away from detailing the events of Sept. 24 but happily recounted her pregnancy as a joyous phase of her life.
Hernandez met her unnamed partner in 2016 and moved with him to a different state, she says in the clip. When she first thought she was pregnant, a home test the couple bought at Walgreens subsequently dashed their hopes.
“Like, I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to expect… but whatever, so I did what I had to do,” she says. “We waited a minute… and then it came out negative. And I was, like, relieved at this but at the same time, I was so sad… I was scared but I was excited to be a mom.”
They then decided to try and get pregnant, Hernandez explains, adding that she came down with an infection during this process and sought treatment at the hospital.
“We were just sitting there, and they made me—you know how they make you pee in the cup to see whatever it is, right—so the nurse came in and she was like, ‘Did you know you’re pregnant?’” Hernandez recalled. “And I was just like, ‘What?!’ and I looked at him and he had the biggest smile… And then she left and we were just, like, so excited… I wasn’t even prepared, like, I decided to get pregnant and… I just wanted a baby, that’s it.”
Although Hernandez said in the video that Arely would “wake up like five times a night and it was so tiring,” she said, “I would always tell her that I loved her… and just made sure to show her so much love… It’s so hard now, going from having her every day to not having her at all… To think that I’m not gonna see her grow up… but I know she’s in a better place.”
If convicted, Hernandez, who is being held without bail, faces a sentence of 25 years to life. Her court-appointed lawyer did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. Hernandez’s next court appearance is set for June 13.