WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Aracely Meza held the child's limp body in her arms as worshippers looked on. She spoke loudly into a microphone, chanting words in Spanish as she stroked the child's hair and rubbed something on his forehead.
The scene captured in a video was a ceremony to resurrect the lifeless two-year-old boy. He died after more than three weeks without food.
Meza, a Dallas-area pastor and a self-proclaimed prophet, had claimed that God wanted the boy starved to get rid of demons inhabiting his body.
Now, three years later, Meza is set to spend the rest of her life in prison for Benjamin Aparicio's starvation death.
A Dallas County jury found the 52-year-old guilty last Friday (March 23) of felony injury to a child causing serious bodily injury, the Dallas Morning News reported. She was sentenced to 99 years in prison and ordered to pay US$10,000 (S$13,115) in fines.
Meza and her husband, Daniel Meza, ran a church called Iglesia Internacional Jesus es el Ray out of a brick home in Balch Springs, a suburb southeast of Dallas. Public records show that Daniel Meza was the church's president and director, while his wife was the vice-president. Several adults and children were living with the couple around the time the boy died in the spring of 2015.
Aracely Meza claimed to have the ability to speak with God and to perform healing miracles. She told investigators that God had told her the boy needed to fast. He was given only water four or five times a day for 25 days, the Dallas Morning News reported, while followers were told not to help the child. But even after the fast, Meza still deprived the boy of food when he did not say "amen", authorities said.
The boy was reduced to skin and bones, unable to lift his own head up during his last days.
He died March 22, 2015. That day, Meza conducted a "rising ceremony" to bring him to life. She told police later that she believed God would wake him up, the Dallas Morning News reported. But the boy never woke up, and Meza and the child's parents, who were also her followers, took the body to Mexico the next day to be buried.
Charges are pending against the boy's parents, Zenon and Liliana Aparicio, an online court docket shows. Meza's husband does not appear to have been charged.
Meza's attorney, Charles Humphreys, said his client was imprisoned by her faith, according to the Dallas Morning News. But Assistant District Attorney Patrick Capetillo told jurors last week that Benjamin's death was the result of Meza's desire for control, not her faith or religion.
The case, albeit bizarre, is not unheard of. Cultlike religious leaders have previously been linked to criminal acts.
Last year, investigators in Alachua County in Florida said a woman who ran a religious boarding school there had killed a child in her care. Anna Elizabeth Young, who was known as Mother Anna, was charged with first-degree murder in December. The charge stemmed from the 1980s death of a toddler whom authorities said was tortured and starved, the Gainesville Sun reported.
The authorities also said Young may have had many other victims. She had been convicted in Florida for bathing a 12-year-old girl in a steel tub full of chemicals that severely burned the child. Young fled and was captured eight years later after police found her living in the attic of a relative's house in Illinois.
Young ran the House of Prayer for all People, which opened in 1983 in Micanopy, a town just south of Gainesville, Florida.
In 1992, a self-proclaimed son of God who went by the name Yahweh ben Yahweh was convicted of plotting several murders and attempted murders, as well as a terrorist bombing of a Florida neighbourhood. Six of his 15 followers were convicted of conspiracy to murder.