The Devil and Mr. Hernandez

A man possessed, plumber turned amateur exorcist Paul Hernandez wants to get the Hell out of Phoenix.

Even before he graduated from Phoenix Union High School, Hernandez says he'd tired of the strained atmosphere at his house. So he moved out, and spent much of his senior year living downtown at the Swindall Tourist Inn. After graduating, he thought of enlisting in the Marines, but changed his mind when he was told that he'd probably make a good truck driver. He thought he was officer material.

Instead, he decided to apprentice with the local plumbers union; he spent five years learning his craft before becoming a full-fledged union member. He quickly developed a reputation as a dedicated worker, and a hard-nosed ball-buster, who thought nothing of reprimanding lax workers, or pushing union leaders to make greater contractual demands.

In one case, he says, he even threatened to "squeeze the nuts" of a group of firefighters he encountered buying building materials at Home Depot, believing they were taking contract work away from his union.

Hernandez holds his most prized spiritual weapon, a bottle of holy water, consecrated by Roman Catholic priests.
Paolo Vescia
Hernandez holds his most prized spiritual weapon, a bottle of holy water, consecrated by Roman Catholic priests.

"He's a steadfast worker, he's very conscientious about his work," says Dutch Price, vice president of the United Association of Local 469. "If he believes in a cause, he'll take on all challenges. When he thought the union should strive for more, he'd push hard. And he'd have all his information correct."

Tierney adds: "Some guys don't like Paul, because he plays union politics by the book, and a lot of guys try to go around things like that. They like to cut corners."

In 1971, Hernandez met Mary Hurtado, a beautiful, dark-haired 17-year-old girl who was working as a waitress at El Molino restaurant. They married in 1973, and had eight children together over the next 15 years.

Hurtado was the first cousin of the Reverend Jose Hurtado, a prominent activist priest in the Phoenix diocese. Father Hurtado fearlessly threw himself into political causes, which made him a controversial figure for much of his career.

In 1970, he was transferred from Tucson to Phoenix, after a falling-out with then-bishop Francis Green. In 1971, he helped form the Council of the Spanish Speaking, a group designed to provide spiritual and material assistance to Hispanics. In 1972, he led a campaign to recall then-governor Jack Williams.

For nearly a decade, Hurtado served as pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, the Valley's oldest and most popular Hispanic-based Catholic parish. Hernandez and his family faithfully attended services at Immaculate Heart, but although he respected the work of the priest, Hernandez says he and Hurtado never grew close.

"I'm a really tough guy to like," he says. "And I was a jackass back then, full of myself, on top of the world. You couldn't tell me anything. But Father Hurtado was never petty, and he always treated my family well."

On the afternoon of November 20, 1981, Father Hurtado was driving back to Phoenix from a religious meeting in Prescott. In a church van, with six Immaculate Heart parishioners, he traveled south on Arizona 69. About 2:30 p.m., as he passed through Prescott Valley, a trailer heading in the opposite direction separated from the pickup that was pulling it. The trailer, which was loaded with steel pipe, hurtled across the median and slammed head-on into Hurtado's van.

The priest and one of his passengers were killed instantly. Five others were injured. In the November 21, 1981, issue of the Arizona Republic, investigating officer Rusty Hammacher described the freak collision as the worst accident he had seen in 10 years as a police officer.

From the beginning, Hernandez thought there was something bizarre about Hurtado's accident. Within days, he says, inexplicable events began to occur, which convinced him that the priest's death had been the work of an evil force.

"The first indication that anything paranormal was happening was on the day of his funeral," Hernandez says. "When we got home, I lay down on my bed. It was against the window, and when I lay back, on the glass I heard a loud thumping sound. I thought it was a dog. It was a muddy day, and I thought it would leave footprints. But when I went outside, there was nothing there."

Later, while looking over the bassinet of his infant daughter, Marissa, he heard a rhythmic clicking sound -- like someone repeatedly snapping his fingers in perfect time. He says he asked his wife, "Did you hear that?" She responded, "No, I don't want to talk about it." At that point, he says he heard a spirit talk to him. It spoke to him in tongues, for about 45 seconds.

"It was very beautiful, like music," he says. "I had never heard that language before. I knew it wasn't earthly."

Hernandez didn't immediately understand what he was hearing, but he says the following morning everything made sense to him. He says he realized the voice was Father Hurtado, telling him that he'd been holding $500,000 in his personal bank account for the parish, and asking Hernandez to make sure the money got back to the church. "Then he told me that he'd been doing an exorcism, and that there was a demon in the gymnasium at Immaculate Heart," Hernandez says.

Hernandez says he tried speaking to the diocese's attorney about the money, but got nowhere. He says he never learned if these funds actually existed.

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