An Arizona man has been charged with first-degree murder after killing his 6-year-old son during an attempted exorcism using hot water. According to local news sources, the boy’s school said the child had a disability.
On Sept. 26, KVOA reported court documents claiming Pablo Martinez was bathing his 6-year-old son and another child when Martinez allegedly said the 6-year-old boy “had been acting demonic” in the past week. The news outlet said police reports show Martinez told investigators “he poured hot water down” the child’s throat repeatedly to “cast out the demon.”
The Martinez family lives on the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation near Tucson, Arizona. According to KVOA, the boy was in the special education program at Lynn Urquides Elementary School, though the student’s specific disability was not disclosed. Lynn Urquides Elementary School told The Mighty it cannot disclose anything about the child.
Though Martinez is not a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, according to the Washington Post, the boy, Romelia Martinez and the boy’s biological mother are members of the tribe. According to “Native American Communities on Health and Disability,” Yaqui people’s spiritual beliefs can share many commonalities with Catholicism due to the influence of Jesuit priests in the 1600s. Some of these spiritual practitioners hold the harmful belief that disability is the result of moral or religious issues, which can include demon possession. These dangerous beliefs still persist today.
While there aren’t any reliable statistics to indicate how many exorcisms are performed, The Atlantic and others have reported the demand for exorcisms is increasing. According to a 2013 YouGov survey, 46% of respondents said they “believe in the power of exorcism,” compared to 36% who said they didn’t know and 19% who said they “don’t believe in the power of exorcism.” The Catholic church employs at least 50 “official” exorcists (up from 12 just 10-15 years ago), but thousands more take up the role without an official mantel.
The belief in exorcism or demon possession is often directed at people with disabilities, particularly those who are neurodiverse, like people on the spectrum or people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Belief in “demon possession” or a “moral failing” that needs to be violently cast out of a person has led to significant shame, guilt and stigma for those with disabilities, as well as discrimination, abuse and death. In the U.K. for example, the Telegraph reported an estimated 1,500 child abuse cases each year are tied to witchcraft or demonic possession.
Mighty contributor Candace Lambert, who has schizophrenia, wrote about how they experienced attempted exorcisms and discrimination in their religious community because of having a mental illness in the article, “The Unbelievable Way This Pastor Described My Schizophrenia.” Lambert said:
[The pastor] continued to say that her schizophrenic niece got worse with medication because she ‘has a demon.’ She went on to explain that it’s either demonic possession or oppression. I explained to her that people have tried to perform exorcisms on me before, but they didn’t work simply because I’m not possessed. Her response was, ‘well if you get someone to do it who knows what they are doing, it will work.’
Some people have been run out of churches because people believe these things. Trust me — I am not going back to that church. Some people say it is best just to keep quiet about it, but how can things change if no one speaks up? How can we educate the so-called educated, as this woman claimed to be, and how can we help others if no one says anything?
The boy’s adoptive mother, Romelia Martinez, told police “she heard a gurgling sound coming from the bathroom,” at which point she broke into the bathroom and yelled at Pablo Martinez to stop. According to KVOA, Pablo told Romelia “he had to do it” because “he saw something evil” in his son’s “unnatural fit of rage.” Pablo Martinez said he “noticed that the hot water was casting out the demon” and he “needed to save him.” He said the boy was under the water for 10 to 15 minutes.
Romelia Martinez first tried calling a pastor before dialing 911. KVOA said at that point Pablo Martinez attempted to administer CPR and poured cold water on the boy. Reports indicate when police arrived on the scene, the boy was unresponsive and died soon after being rushed to Banner University Medical Center. Pablo Martinez told first responders they wouldn’t understand the family’s belief, according to the Washington Post. KVOA reported the boy had burns on 15% of his body.
“It is with deep regret and sadness that I inform you of the death of one of our students,” Lynn Urquides Elementary School principal Marisa Salcido wrote on Facebook Saturday. “Our heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends. On Monday we will have grief and counseling support available at the school if you or your child would like to meet with them.”
Pablo Martinez is currently being held by the U.S. Marshals Service following his first court appearance, according to the Washington Post. Martinez will face a federal charge for first-degree murder.