The Devil and Mr. Hernandez

Paul Hernandez sits in a dimly lighted two-room apartment on the west side of Phoenix and prepares for battle.

Hernandez has no accomplices. He brandishes no firearms, no blunt instruments. His only weapons are a wooden crucifix, a bottle of holy water on a corner bookshelf, and a hardbound prayer book spread out on a small Formica dining table.

The 49-year-old Hernandez isn't primed for gang warfare or a confrontation with cops. He's a self-styled exorcist, a spiritual vigilante who's spent the past 19 years trying to smack Satan into submission.

This work can get dicey, Hernandez is quick to advise you. He says he was once rushed to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center after evil apparitions pounded his kidneys. He says that on another occasion, four cherubic-looking little demons restrained his arms and legs while he was reclining in a La-Z-Boy chair. He also recounts being plagued by a series of mysterious eye infections and foot ailments over the years.

If all this is true -- it's difficult to confirm most of his stories and those who have asked him to perform exorcisms describe much more mundane sessions than Hernandez -- why does he put himself through the aggravation? After all, he's not a priest or an appointed church official. He's a plumber by trade, better equipped to expel clogs from a drain than demons from a human body.

"It's because I hate evil that much," explains Hernandez, in a serene but dead-serious monotone voice that can get a bit spooky in big doses.

Dressed in his uniform of choice -- black tee shirt, faded blue jeans and tennis shoes -- Hernandez looks like any number of his compatriots in the local pipefitters union, a group that he himself describes as "a bunch of brawlers and bar fighters."

He has bronze skin, a bushy, black mustache and coarse, dark hair, sprinkled with gray around the temples. He's soft and pudgy in the middle, but his biceps have the ripples that come from nearly three decades of sweat-inducing manual labor.

Hernandez brings some of that brawling, pipefitter mentality to his exorcism work. Confronted with a person he believes to be demonically possessed, his first response is to disregard church piety and simply shout at the devil -- as he would at a lazy co-worker: "Hey, knock off the bullshit!"

For the past three weeks, Hernandez has been minding the home of an illegal immigrant and her young daughter. He says the woman was sexually assaulted in her sleep by some unseen force, and left with bruises all over her body.

To Hernandez, her story sounded like a classic case of demonic attack. So he offered to look after her apartment while she visited relatives in Mexico, and promised to punish those evil forces when they decided they were ready to rumble.

So on a Saturday night in mid-December, while many Phoenicians are getting sloshed at Christmas parties, Hernandez sits by himself in this sparsely furnished room, with nothing but a cheap boom box and a pack of Marlboro Lights to keep him company, endlessly waiting for heaven (make that Hell) knows what. But to hear him tell it, waiting is far more pleasant than the alternative.

Two weeks earlier, he says, this same room violently spun around on him for three minutes while he was lying on the floor, on the verge of falling asleep. The next night, he set his pager down on a nightstand, and says it disappeared by the following morning. A few nights after that, he says he suffered an injury to his right leg when a pesky apparition kicked him in a violent wrestling match.

Hernandez is quick to say that he'd rather not be doing this stuff. He used to have a normal life, he assures you.

He used to hang out with friends, go on hunting and fishing trips, barbecue on weekends, and enjoy domestic bliss with his wife and eight kids. He also made good money as a valued contract worker for the pipefitters union.

These days, he's a solitary figure: divorced from his wife, keeping his distance from most of his 14 siblings, frequently taking extended sabbaticals from work to concentrate on exorcism projects, and changing residences so often that even longtime pals have trouble finding him.

When a friend recently asked Hernandez where he was living, the self-appointed spiritual warrior cryptically responded, "I can't let people know where the Bat Cave is."

The allusion to a vaunted comic-book superhero is no accident. Although he insists that he's "very far from being a righteous person," Hernandez fancies himself a crusading American badass, sacrificing his own personal life in a never-ending grudge match against the forces of darkness. In much the same way that archetypal superheroes take charge when law enforcement can't handle the job, Hernandez contends that he's only doing what the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix -- which maintains a public silence on exorcism -- has failed to do.

Local church officials may be reluctant to discuss the issue, but exorcism is experiencing a profound resurgence of interest in Western culture. Dismissed for centuries as a barbarous, embarrassing relic of the Middle Ages, exorcism began to grow in popularity after the success of the 1973 film The Exorcist, and it has steadily gained favor since then. The September 2000 rerelease of The Exorcist -- which grossed an impressive $39.7 million domestically last year -- has only fueled the public's fascination with demonic possession.

In 1999, for the first time in its 160-year history, the Archdiocese of Chicago hired a full-time exorcist. The New York diocese currently has four exorcists on staff. In Italy alone, the number of official exorcists has grown from 20 in 1976 to more than 300 today.

Last year, the Vatican updated its exorcism policy for the first time since 1614, and it has been widely reported that Pope John Paul II himself performed an exorcism on a young woman last September.

Exorcism has also become a lucrative business for pop-culture gurus like Bob Larson, a Colorado-based, nationally syndicated radio host who performs mass exorcisms at "spiritual freedom conferences" around the country.

Say what you want about Hernandez; his crusade doesn't seem to be based on trend mongering. He says he's never heard Larson's radio show, and expresses disapproval of anyone who makes money off of exorcism. And his chief comment about The Exorcist is that its depictions of Linda Blair's head making a 360-degree spin were slightly exaggerated. "I've seen heads spin, but not like that," he says.

Ultimately, what's unique about Hernandez's exorcism work is that unlike Catholic priests -- who have the authorization of the church behind them -- or Larson -- who's got the power of the airwaves behind him -- he's a renegade, who seems bolstered by nothing but his own unrelenting obsession with Satan.

Such obsessions are often derided by modernists as "spiritual paranoia," and Hernandez frequently does sound more than a little paranoid. For instance, when discussing the legal problems of his 22-year-old son, who has been busted for offenses ranging from methamphetamine to concealed-gun possession, Hernandez proclaims: "The devil hates my boy real bad." Similarly, he blames demonic influence on his ex-wife's decision to leave him nine years ago, and on his car's occasional failure to start.

Experts generally agree that the feeling of being possessed is a real one, but question whether its origin is an external demonic force, or merely an internal psychological reaction to everyday problems.

"Most academics would say this is some kind of structure of the mind that is elicited by people's fears, by their expectations, and their interactions with other people," says Michael Winkelman, Arizona State University professor of anthropology. "And once that gets elicited, it's very hard to make that go away."

Some science-based thinkers are less charitable, branding exorcism a medieval superstition run amok in a postmodern world.

"It's an example of the dumbing down of society," says Charles Griffin, a local consulting engineer and mathematician, who is also a vociferous critic of the current exorcism boom. "Exorcism was nearly nonexistent 40 years ago. There's no excuse for its growth, at a time when we've made so many scientific advances."

Nonetheless, Hernandez has his adherents: Liam Tierney, an ex-cop from New York who says Hernandez rid his home of demonic influence after objects had begun flying around the house; Cage Keller, a chronic juvenile delinquent who says he was haunted by voices telling him to mutilate himself and others, until Hernandez stepped in; and Perla Beltran, a motel manager who says demons physically and psychically attacked her in bed for two years until she met Hernandez.

But even some of his supporters offer noticeably less exciting accounts of his demon-busting efforts than he does. For all his braggadocio about going toe-to-toe with the man downstairs, his work usually amounts to little more than sprinkling around a little holy water and saying a few prayers. Most often, what he defines as exorcism sounds more like a placebo for the psychologically distressed.

Despite his tales of being brutalized by Satan, Hernandez says he doesn't fear for his safety, because he's convinced he's got a lot of spiritual firepower behind him. Besides, he's not the kind of guy to back away from a confrontation, even an imagined one.

"No matter how violent this gets, you understand Christ is always in control," he says. "You may take a pounding, or get some infections, but you just go in there. Either you throw down, or you pick up your panties and go home."

Hernandez wasn't always so dedicated to Christian ideals.

As a kid, growing up in a small, wood-frame house in a predominantly black southwest Phoenix neighborhood, he regularly attended Sunday Mass, at the urging of his godmother. But his preoccupations were decidedly secular.

"I was a rough and rowdy kid," he says. "My friends and I would go out and try to date the girls from St. Mary's and get run off over there, go to Phoenix Union football games, and drink and carouse. We'd go fight downtown by the old Woolworth's building."

The 12th of 15 children born to Ysabel and Isabel Hernandez, he was particularly close to his mother, a Mexican immigrant who he describes as a "beautiful, cultured, refined person." He says, however, that the atmosphere was constantly tense because his father was a high-strung man prone to physical and verbal abuse.

Hernandez's eldest sibling, Betty Vargas, now 70, recalls that their father would sometimes come home at two or three in the morning, wake up all the kids, and tell them to get out of the house. She says they would scatter like scared cats, spending the night with friends or godparents.

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.

"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.

In the ensuing months, however, he says Hurtado's friends confirmed that the priest was working on three exorcisms at the time of his death. At that point, Hernandez decided that, in order to protect his family from evil, he had to carry on any exorcism work that Hurtado had begun.

Nonetheless, he says his family spent the next several years under attack from Satan. He says some of his children were molested in their sleep, and occasionally saw ghosts floating around the house. He also says his son Paul Michael often spoke in tongues in his sleep.

Paul Michael, now a 22-year-old apprentice pipefitter, says he knows nothing about his siblings being attacked in their sleep, or about his own bouts of speaking in tongues. And, although he remembers having strange visions as a child, he's not convinced that it was anything paranormal.

"We used to see things going from room to room at night," he says. "It looked like an illuminated figure, but it was so faint that when it vanished, you weren't sure if you'd seen it."

As a member of the Immaculate Heart parish council, Hernandez gathered a group of council members together in 1983 to meet with a representative for Bishop Thomas O'Brien. They told him they were facing problems that they considered paranormal in nature. They suggested the need for a diocesan exorcist.

Hernandez says O'Brien's representative was visibly uncomfortable during the meeting, impatiently gazing at the ceiling and drumming his fingers on the table while they spoke. When they finished, Hernandez says, the priest merely said, "Thank you very much," and ushered them out.

Diocese communications director Marge Injasoulian declined to answer New Times' questions about the diocese's policy on exorcism, but Hernandez says the diocese has long chosen to avoid the issue.

For that reason, Hernandez decided that if he wanted to take the devil by the horns, he'd have to do it himself. He began reading books about exorcism and learned the basics: You find out if aberrant behavior is happening. You check to see if this behavior is inherent to that person's psyche, or something that appears to come from an outside source.

Then, you make intercessory prayers on that person's behalf, and wait for evil to respond. At that point, you bombard the demons with holiness, showering the room with holy water, reciting Latin prayers ("For some reason, Latin works better than English," he says) and invoking the holy name of Jesus Christ.

He also learned that not all exorcisms are created equal. Some are simple affairs, he says, rituals that take less than 30 minutes, while others drag on persistently for a period of years, with no resolution in sight.

Hernandez says word started to get out about his exorcism work, and complete strangers began approaching him for help. In one case, Hernandez received a call from a parole officer. The PO was handling the case of a brawny, sandy-haired Tolleson kid named Cage Keller, and didn't know where else to turn.

Keller had built a long rap sheet by this point, getting busted repeatedly for robbery and drug possession. At the age of 16, he was sent to Adobe Mountain Juvenile Institution.

For years, Keller says, he had been hounded by voices that tried to control his actions. He says when he was 13, the voices led him to pull out a knife and cut himself. The problem persisted while he was at Adobe Mountain, and reached the breaking point at age 18, when he was sent to Prehab of Arizona, a Mesa group home which he shared with three other juveniles.

"The voices were telling me to hurt myself, and hurt other people," Keller recalls. "It would tell me to cut someone's throat, or to mutilate myself. It was demonic, I know that for sure. I didn't hurt myself, but I came close to it."

Keller says the guards knew he was being terrorized by something, so they agreed to slip Hernandez into the group home -- without approval from their superiors -- to perform an exorcism.

"He was there for about an hour," Keller recalls. "He sat down and talked to me for a while. He blessed me and the room, prayed for me and sprinkled holy water. After that, the voices went away."

Typical of Hernandez, his version of the Keller case is a bit more spectacular than his subject's. He says invisible forces pounded Keller in his sleep, to the point where blood covered the walls of his room. Keller says he remembers no such incidents.

But Hernandez believes that he turned Keller's life around, and regards this exorcism as his greatest achievement. Keller, 20, has spent the last several months working as a diesel mechanic and living with relatives. Hernandez checks in with him periodically, like a proud teacher keeping up with a prized pupil.

Another person who swears by Hernandez is Perla Beltran, assistant manager of Monterey Lodge, a low-cost south Phoenix motel. Beltran says from 1997 to 1999 she lived in utter agony, terrorized by a demon that refused to let her sleep at night.

"When I tried to sleep, it would sit on me," she says. "I couldn't breathe. I'd be up until four or five in the morning. It would talk to me real ugly, say things like: 'Ha, ha, we're back.'"

As evidence of this Satanic attack, Beltran offers a photo taken at her home during this period. The entire roll of film -- most of it containing pictures of Beltran's family -- looks normal, except for two photos of Beltran by herself. Both of these photos feature billowy white figures in the frame. While the white figures could easily be the result of film leakage, to Beltran they represent proof of demonic presence.

In the summer of 1999, Hernandez was driving home after seeing a movie, when he impulsively decided to pull into the parking lot of Chico's, a popular south Phoenix bar. Inside the bar, he struck up a conversation with Beltran, and she told him about her problems. He offered to perform an exorcism at her house.

The exorcism itself was a simple one, but Hernandez contends that when he chased the evil spirit out of Beltran's house, it followed him and cursed him with an eye infection. But because he's suspicious of most doctors -- who inevitably tell him they can find no cause for the pain he's describing -- he resisted seeing an eye specialist until he found one who moonlights as a Catholic deacon.

Beltran says her disturbing nocturnal episodes ended after Hernandez's exorcism. But Hernandez isn't satisfied. During one of his periodic post-exorcism consultations, he asks Beltran if she's been going to church every Sunday. "No," she responds sheepishly.

In a calm but stern voice, he tells Beltran: "You need to go. You need the sacramentals to help keep evil away."

Beltran nods like a dutiful child.

Liam Tierney doesn't strike you as someone who believes in the supernatural.

The 32-year-old Tierney has the kind of no-nonsense, working-class demeanor you'd expect from a former New York cop who's spent the last nine years as a contract worker for the pipefitters union.

Tierney, a New York native, left the NYPD in December 1991, after two and a half years on the force. That Christmas, he visited his parents in Phoenix, and impulsively decided to settle in the Valley. While serving a pipefitters apprenticeship, he met Hernandez, by then an established union worker.

"I was new to how things worked out here, so they partnered me up with him," recalls Tierney, who with his blond ponytail looks like a longhaired Kiefer Sutherland. "He's a sharp guy, and a hard worker. We'd start at 6 a.m., and he was sweating bullets by 6:15."

They'd carpool together sometimes, and Hernandez would open up to Tierney about his exorcism experiences. "A lot of people thought he was crazy," recalls Tierney, a former Catholic altar boy. Tierney himself didn't know what to think about these stories, but his lingering Irish-Catholic reverence for the church made him somewhat receptive to the concept of demon purging.

By 1997, Tierney and Hernandez rarely saw each other anymore. During this period, a friend of Tierney's wife asked for a favor. The friend had a teenage girl as a houseguest, and they weren't getting along with each other. The friend wondered if Tierney and his wife could put the girl up for a week or so.

The girl had a dark, goth vibe about her, and Tierney was immediately shaken when he noticed that she had vampire tattoos on her neck, complete with fake blood dripping down. For reasons that he still doesn't understand, the first thing she did after entering his home was to take four plaster floor tiles she'd brought with her, and place them on the walls.

"She was a very weird girl," Tierney recalls. "She had a lot of issues. She was a compulsive liar. I think she had some demonic presence, because the last time I saw her, I talked to her about God, and she started saying the Lord's Prayer in a mocking way. Then she ran off and I never saw her again."

Tierney believes the girl left behind an evil spirit.

"A day or two after she left, out of the corner of my eye, it looked like someone threw a black tee shirt from the bedroom to the bathroom, but no one was there but me and my wife. I went into the bathroom and didn't see anything. Then I saw it move into the kitchen.

"Shortly after that, the phone rang, and it was Paul. I hadn't talked to him for a while. He asked, 'What's going on?' I told him what I'd seen. He said, 'Come pick me up and I'll take a look at it.' So he came over, went up to a walk-in closet. He saw this big mess on the floor and said, 'I think you have a problem, let's do an exorcism,' just like saying, 'Let's go to a ballgame.' That's how blatant he was."

Hernandez reached into a bag and pulled out a prayer book and some holy water. After sprinkling holy water around the house, he told Tierney, "We'll wait a couple of minutes and see if things start bumping around."

Tierney says less than five minutes passed before the girl's floor tiles began flying off the walls as if they'd been yanked with extreme force. Toiletries began flying off the counter of the bathroom. Tierney stood in stunned silence, while his wife jumped on the couch and screamed hysterically. For Hernandez, it was just another day at the office.

"Paul's reaction was nothing," Tierney says. "He was totally calm."

Midway through the horror-film classic The Exorcist, troubled mom Ellen Burstyn -- seeking help for her possessed daughter -- asks a modernist Jesuit priest how a person can find someone to perform an exorcism.

"Well, the first thing, I'd have to get them into a time machine, and get them back to the 16th century," the priest responds. "It just doesn't happen anymore."

In fact, exorcisms never completely disappeared, but they definitely went underground for at least two centuries. In his 1999 memoir An Exorcist Tells His Story, Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of Rome, bemoans the fact that even within the Catholic Church, exorcism has long been a source of embarrassment.

"The Catholic hierarchy must say a forceful mea culpa," Amorth writes. "I know of only a few [Italian bishops] who have ever practiced or who have assisted during an exorcism or who are adequately aware of this problem."

Because the topic startles so many people, exorcism priests have generally maintained a low profile over the years. But when the Archdiocese of Chicago hired a full-time exorcist in 1999, church officials were conspicuously public, and unapologetic, about the move.

"Our position is that it's a necessary thing," says Chris Spoons, assistant communications manager for the Chicago archdiocese. "We believe this is just something that a diocese should have. There should be a person to go to in times of trouble.

"People don't really understand. They think, 'It's just some mental case. What are they doing going to a priest?' But the church believes that is not always the case, although that is the first thing you look at."

Spoons emphasizes that the church has made concessions to modern psychiatry, and subjects people to mental evaluations before considering an exorcism. But when the priest decides that he has eliminated every possible psychiatric explanation for the problem, and determined that it could only be caused by some external force, exorcism is the next step.

Beyond the pop-culture impact of the film, there are many theories on the recent growth of exorcism. The most persuasive one is that baby boomers are simply more comfortable targeting an outside influence, even a demonic one, for their behavioral problems, than blaming themselves. In an era of relentless, impatient self-enhancement, it's somehow more comforting to believe that your problems can be solved with a simple exorcism than with a lifetime of painstaking therapy.

But the growth of exorcism has been problematic for the Catholic Church, which worries that mavericks like Hernandez will take up the cause on the church's behalf.

For that reason, last November the Vatican issued new guidelines that limit exorcism to priests who've received prior approval from their bishop. This policy was a direct response to Bishop Emmanuel Milingo, a Roman bishop who had taken to performing public exorcisms in the streets of Rome, without any prior individual consultation or psychiatric evaluation.

Popular radio evangelist Bob Larson isn't Catholic, but his approach to exorcism is probably what the Vatican had in mind when it decried "hysteria, artificiality, theatricality or sensationalism" in the field of exorcism.

Larson has helped to make exorcism a spectator sport in America, addressing packed convention halls and "provoking the devil" until audience members go berserk. Larson sees exorcism's increasing popularity as a reflection of an increasingly decadent society, which makes people vulnerable to Satan.

"It's more popular because the need is more prevalent, and the need is more prevalent because of a general moral decline of culture, and because we're so much more of an abuse-based society," Larson says. "It is that kind of thing that makes evil more bold.

"In culture at large, the film has had an impact. But that's not the reason people come to me. They hear about me through word of mouth, and they've got a problem that wasn't generated by the movie, it's been generated by torment that they're suffering. For instance, they may hear a voice that's telling them to kill themselves. So someone suggests that they see an exorcist."

Hernandez says he's not familiar with the Vatican's recent decree, but he insists that he's well within his rights as a practicing Roman Catholic. And although he's not officially sanctioned by the church, he's not devoid of supporters in the local clergy.

In recent years, he has turned to the pastors at Our Lady of Sorrows Church for help, and says they have provided him with emotional strength -- as well as continuous supplies of holy water. "Those guys are real heavy hitters," he says. "I really turned the corner when I met them."

In 1997, when Hernandez missed a court date related to a traffic ticket, he asked then-pastor Kenneth Dean to write a letter on his behalf. Dean complied, and his March 24, 1997, letter described Hernandez as a "lay exorcist." It explained that his exorcism work occasionally "makes him dysfunctional," rendering him unable to show up for appointments because he's too busy tackling demons. For that reason, Dean asked the judge for leniency.

Hernandez says he's never discussed exorcism directly with Our Lady of Sorrows' current pastor, Joseph Pfeiffer, but believes Pfeiffer supports his work. In a New Times interview, however, Pfeiffer says he's never performed an exorcism himself, and demonstrates a skeptical attitude about the practice.

"In most cases, when you get a request for an exorcism, it's really a mental disturbance," Pfeiffer says. "Many people who want exorcisms are really suffering from psychological disorders, and they want attention. It's like a child's subconscious telling them to do bad things, to get their parents' attention."

Hernandez blames his own unreliable, erratic behavior for his 1992 divorce. For instance, his sense that hellhounds are on his trail often persuades him not to drive, for fear that Satan will steer him into a collision. He knows that such obsessive behavior made him hard to live with, but also suggests that his ex-wife has been influenced by the same demonic forces that he believes killed Father Hurtado. Although she has remarried, Hernandez continues to insist that when he purges all the demons from his family's life, she will come back to him.

His ex-wife could not be reached for this story, because both Hernandez and his children -- who are almost uniformly supportive of him -- were adamantly opposed to her speaking with New Times. Hernandez says an interview with Hurtado would create unbearable hostility within his family.

Hernandez's troubles in the '90s even extended to his pipefitting work, an area where his credentials were previously beyond reproach. For three years in the mid-'90s, he was expelled from the union. The reason remains shrouded in mystery. Dutch Price, vice president of the union's executive board, says he can't remember why Hernandez was expelled.

Hernandez says, "One of the agents accused me of not being ethically or morally fit for membership." But the only further explanation he offers for such an accusation is that his union enemies were "on the side of evil."

Before successfully reapplying for union membership, Hernandez talked to Price about his exorcism work. It's a subject that makes the ordinarily easygoing Price uneasy. "It's a little above me," Price says tersely. "It doesn't pertain to his work."

Even after rejoining the union, Hernandez has taken extended breaks from work whenever he's been particularly consumed by an exorcism project. For the past two months, for instance, he's been on hiatus, working on a case that he describes as a blockbuster, involving "members of the Hurtado family and various government agencies."

Without a solid income to rely on, in recent years he's taken to living for short periods of time with friends, or whoever he's helping to exorcise at the moment.

His behavior can appear puzzling even to those closest to him. His son Paul Michael, the only child who chose to live with his father after his parents divorced, says he didn't know his father was an exorcist until a couple of years ago.

"My dad has a lot going on that he doesn't talk about," Paul Michael says. "I know him, so I can tell what's going on. But it's taken time for even me to figure out where he's coming from."

Paul Michael was in and out of trouble as a teenager, and in 1997 he was arrested for possession of methamphetamines and a concealed .380 handgun. He later failed to appear for presentence interviews and for his sentencing. In 1999, he ran a red light and was chased by police officers. After he was stopped, police discovered 67 grams of methamphetamines, numerous rounds of ammunition and a semiautomatic handgun. He was found guilty of possession of drug paraphernalia, and sentenced to three months in jail and three months probation.

Hernandez fretted about his son, and even made calls to Paul Michael's probation officer to explain his son's absences. In 1999, he told Paul Michael about his exorcism work, and offered to provide him spiritual help. Now free of legal hurdles, Paul Michael is working steadily as a pipefitter and recently became a father for the second time.

"Me and my dad have prayed together, and he's prayed for me," Paul Michael says. "Every time I see him, he blesses me with holy water. It probably doesn't seem like anything to anybody else, but if you're experiencing stuff, after you see my dad, you don't have any stress or worries anymore. That's just the way I felt."

Hernandez himself hasn't been immune to legal problems. In 1995, he fathered a son with a woman named Diane Murillo. In 1997, Murillo filed a complaint against him, suing for child support and an "appropriate portion of the expense" she incurred during her confinement for the birth of the child, as well as medical expenses and past support. Four years later, the case remains unresolved.

Hernandez says he and Murillo are now working to iron out these financial issues, and says the complaint was driven by her family, not her.

"I try to have a normal life," he says. "But every time I try to have a normal life, something new comes after me."

In truth, Hernandez's ongoing war against evil precludes any chance for a normal life. Inevitably, he sees most events through the prism of an obsessive exorcist.

For example, in 1996, when Maricopa County jail inmate Scott Norberg died in a struggle with detention officers, Hernandez was so convinced that Norberg was under Satanic influence that he walked into the local FBI office and offered to give a deposition. Unsurprisingly, the offer was rejected.

When Tierney told him he'd crashed his Geo Metro after falling asleep at the wheel, Hernandez decided that Satan had made him drowsy. But even Tierney believes there was nothing abnormal about the incident.

When his son Paul Michael drove his car off an overpass five years ago and nearly killed himself, Hernandez blamed "two bimbos" he'd been associating with that night, saying they represented the incarnation of evil.

But Hernandez's strangest anecdote is one that's not open to interpretation.

He says a few years ago he was hiding from Satan in a friend's townhouse when he had a most unwelcome visitor at the back door.

"This guy was standing there, and he confronted me," Hernandez says. "He was about 25, a little bigger than me. When we met eye to eye, he walked around me three times. He said, 'I'm one of the sons of Satan and I've been sent here to kill you. You know I have a knife and a gun.' He pulls out the knife and puts it against my throat."

Hernandez says he responded, "Number one, the knife's not going to cut it. And the gun's not going to discharge. Go back and tell your pal that he better send more next time."

He says he told the man that he needed to repent and be gone. He adds that the man walked away, turned around, and gave Hernandez a look of utter hatred.

The one person who can bring Hernandez back to earth is his 89-year-old godmother, Mary, who he refers to as "Nina." His bond with her is deeper than all others. When he was a child, she saw to it that Hernandez made it to church every Sunday, no matter how stressful his home environment was. Whenever he needs advice or support, he turns to her.

A devout Catholic, whose living-room wall is filled with framed pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the frail, white-haired Nina tends to zone out when Hernandez starts talking about his battles with evil. He interprets this as a manifestation of her deep fears for his safety, but it seems just as likely that the whole issue of exorcism makes her uncomfortable.

Nina doesn't hesitate to castigate Hernandez for splitting up with his ex-wife, or for expressing dubious spiritual theories.

When he tells Nina that his ex-wife's husband has experienced some bad luck, he pointedly adds, "God is punishing him."

Nina hesitates for a moment. Then, with firm conviction, she shoots back, "No. God doesn't work that way, mijo."

Coming from anyone else, the statement would probably be dismissed by Hernandez. After all, what does anyone else have to teach him about God, in light of all the monsters he's tangled with?

But coming from his Nina, the words take on the aura of profound insight. He leans against the wall silently for a minute. For once, the man with all the spiritual answers has nothing to say.

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