Parents sentenced for exorcism gone wrong

The Globe and Mail (Canada), May 23, 2003

London — Walter Zepeda was possessed by the devil.

His parents, devoutly religious members of a Pentecostal church that believes in such manifestations, knew that much to be true.

They had seen their shy 19-year-old son engage in behaviours that could only signal the presence of Satan.

So Diego Zepeda-Cordera called his friend Alex Osegueda, a fellow member of the Missionary Church of Christ and a man of equal devotion, to help him rid his son of the evil. They had no idea the seven days of forced confinement it took to drive away the devil would also, literally, drain the life out of Walter.

He lost nine litres of fluid as he lay strapped with men’s ties to metal chairs in the basement apartment he shared with his family in this western Ontario city. Ultimately he died of dehydration.

Yesterday, the squarely cut shoulders of Mr. Zepeda-Cordero heaved silently as a judge sentenced him and Mr. Osegueda to four years in penitentiary for the ritual that caused the death of the teen.

They had pleaded guilty to manslaughter last week, ending a preliminary hearing that heard from 24 witnesses, among them some who had prayed over Walter as he lay bound in his bedroom.

The young man’s mother, Ana Mejia-Lopez, sobbed into a handkerchief as she was given a single day for failing to provide the necessaries of life to her son. She was freed yesterday afternoon — the 500th day the trio had spent in incarceration.

Ontario Court Judge Deborah Livingstone said she had been struck through the long hours of the preliminary hearing by their emotion, obvious distress, and significant remorse.

“The court cannot but have compassion for the loss of a son, the loss of a friend, which all three will have to live with for the rest of their lives.”

But in passing the sentence, a compromise between the three years requested by defence lawyers and the five suggested by the Crown, Judge Livingstone said the sanctity of life must be upheld.

“A young man is gone,” she said gravely.

Both Mr. Zepeda-Cordero and Mr. Osegueda have agreed in the months since Walter died that they were performing an exorcism. But it was not a botched exorcism, they said.

Mr. Zepeda-Cordero’s lawyer, Andy Rady, told the court his client takes some solace in his belief that, in the hours before Walter’s life ebbed away, the devil also left his body.

“When Walter died, he [Mr. Zepeda-Cordero] believed that he returned to Jesus,” Mr. Rady said. “Although he still believes in the rightness of the ends he was trying to achieve, he understands the wrongness of the way he went about it.”

Mr. Zepeda-Cordero, his wife and Mr. Osegueda were all born in El Salvador and came to Canada in the 1980s when their country was a dangerous and desperate place. They moved first to Montreal, where Mr. Zepeda-Cordero found God, then on to London.

Carol Lee, who cut hair with Mr. Zepeda-Cordero at Emmerich’s barber shop, said he was the kind of man “who would give you the shirt off his back” but was preoccupied by his devotion.

When someone sat in his chair for a haircut, they could expect a sermon. “If they’d go for it, he’d talk about it,” she said. “But sometimes customers got peeved off.”

Walter, who would often have his dad cut his hair, had finished school and worked part-time as a dishwasher in a seafood restaurant. He was quiet and posed no trouble for his parents, unlike his siblings.

His sister, Karen, who was 17 when Walter died, has significant mental-health problems, Crown attorney David Arntfield said yesterday.

Walter’s brother, Diego, was charged with drug trafficking after an early-morning police raid on the family apartment that began with a frightening crash through the front door. That deeply affected Walter, his father has said, and his strange behaviour began a short time later in the fall of 2001.

Some of it was normal kid stuff. Walter went to discos and smoked cigarettes and refused to help with housework. He liked rap music and a magazine describing satanic activities was found under his bed.

But there was a bizarre incident when the normally quiet teen went to the front of a religious meeting in Toronto and took the microphone to profess his devotion to Christ — then spoke gibberish.

His father, Mr. Osegueda and others then drove with him to Montreal and he threatened to jump out of the car. Once in Montreal, he tried to escape by running away in the snow barefoot.

For Mr. Zepeda-Cordero and Mr. Osegueda, the incidents added up to demonic possession and “they both agreed that Walter had to be prayed for,” Mr. Arntfield said. That meant strapping him down.

The two men wrestled him into submission on Jan. 2, 2002, and tied him to the chairs in the apartment. His mother, who didn’t originally agree with the action, acquiesced because she too believed Satan had control of her son.

Walter struggled against his restraints to the point that his wrists and ankles were a mass of bruises, but that was interpreted “as an example of the devil or the demon doing what he would with Walter,” Mr. Arntfield said.

The morning after he was tied up, Rev. Guillermo Fabian, the pastor of the church, was summoned to the home. As Walter swore and squirmed, Mr. Fabian prayed with the family to help exorcise the demon. He came back the next day and Walter was lying in his own urine — a problem solved by dressing him in adult diapers.

Over the weekend, at least 10 other members of the church visited the home and joined in the prayer sessions.

Diane Millar, who lives next door, heard the chanting, even at 2 a.m. “It just didn’t sound right, but with them being non-English, you couldn’t understand what they were saying,” she said. It could have been a party — so she didn’t lodge a complaint, she said.

All this time, Walter’s parents say they were offering him liquid, even his favourite Chinese soup, but he refused it all. When he screamed too loud, his mouth was duct-taped. And by Sunday, those who saw him were worried about his health. One said he “looked sick and dying.”

On Monday, Mr. Fabian urged Mr. Zepeda-Cordero to let his son go. That night, Walter was calm and his father came to the conclusion the devil had finally left the boy’s body.

“Walter’s last words were ‘forgive me,’ then he fell asleep,” Mr. Arntfield said.

The straps were removed and he was placed on a bed, but by then it was too late. A few hours later he stopped breathing. First his father called Mr. Fabian. Then, at the pastor’s urging, he called the police.

The three accused and Mr. Fabian originally tried to deceive police into believing Walter had been restrained for only three days but the lie was eventually revealed.

Despite the deception, it is obvious the trio “genuinely believed that Walter was possessed,” Judge Livingstone said. “They only wanted to help him, wanted to save his soul, but the facts of the matter show that despite their prayer and the zealousness of their religious convictions, what they did — and what they did not do — caused Walter’s death.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday May 23, 2003.
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