Being a single mother can be a struggle, particularly when that mother has little to no resources to turn to. Being a single mother with little to no resources to turn to when your child has autism could lead that mother to a point of desperation. Patricia Cooper was such a mother.
Cooper’s son, 8-year-old Terrance “Junior” Cottrell, had been diagnosed with autism at age 2. By the time Junior had reached school age his behavior became increasingly more difficult to manage, particularly in the classroom. Cooper received reports from teachers that Junior had difficulty sitting down in class, was often disruptive, and at times acted out violently. The school told Cooper that Junior would have to find a new school.
As a poor single mother, Cooper was devastated by the news. Private schools or tutors certainly weren’t an option on the table but Cooper believed her prayers were answered one day at the grocery store.
A woman had witnessed Junior acting out and decided to approach Cooper. The woman introduced herself and told Cooper that she was a member of the Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith, a small house of worship located in a rundown strip mall in what had once housed a bar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The woman told Cooper that she believed that Junior had been possessed by demons and requested Cooper to bring him in for a special prayer service at once.
With little other support to turn to, Cooper threw herself into the church’s teachings and for three months Cooper and Junior had been attending their prayer services. Denise Allison, Cooper’s neighbor, told CNN that after Cooper had begun attending the church she believed whole-heartedly that it was demons, not autism, that had been causing her son’s outbursts. Cooper had even claimed that the demons had spoken to her through Junior. “She said he said, ‘Kill me, take me, kill me,'” Allison recalled during the interview.
Overseeing the church was a former maintenance worker turned preacher named Ray Hemphill. Hemphill claimed that these prayer services, which some are calling an exorcism, consisted of church members gently laying their hands on the boy and praying over him. This practice had been based on Matthew 12:43, which states, “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.” said Hemphill.
It would seem this prayer service – or exorcism if you will – entailed far more than just the laying of hands. According to reports, during the final prayer service Junior would attend, the boy was forced to lie on the ground where several women, including Cooper, held the child down and Hemphill laid across his chest. As the boy flailed and gasped for air, the group believed that their exorcism had been successful in casting out the demon that had taken over Junior’s body. After the two-hour ritual was over, the group had discovered that Junior was dead.
It was determined that Terrance Cottrell, Jr. had died as a result of suffocation, which had taken place during the exorcism. The prosecution decided that although they believed child had died as a result of Hemphill’s prayer ritual, it would be difficult to prove that Hemphill had intended to harm the child in any way. Rather than a murder charge, Hemphill was arrested and charged with felony abuse of a child.
In spite of the serious charges, Hemphill stood true to his faith. In interviews, Hemphill claimed that the boy had been possessed and that autism was not the cause of his problems. He also believed that it was God’s Will that had caused Junior to perish during the church’s prayer session.
Regardless of what Hemphill believed, in the eyes of the law, the self-proclaimed preacher had been responsible for the death of a child. In 2004, a jury found him guilty of felony child abuse. He was ordered to pay $1,224.75 in restitution and ordered to refrain from performing any form of exorcism rituals until he had received “extensive training” in them. Hemphill was also sentenced to serve two and a half years behind bars with an additional seven and a half years of probation.