Moises Meraz-Espinoza walked into the Huntington Park Police Department two years ago to report a crime: He had killed his mother.
Officers went to the Maywood apartment that the then-18-year-old factory worker shared with his mother, Amelia Espinoza, 42, and found a gruesome scene. A trail of blood led to the bathroom, where plastic covered the walls and floor. There, they found an electrical circular saw with pieces of bone, blood and flesh stuck to the blade. Nearby, in a freezer, police found skin and muscles stored in plastic bags. The woman's skull, with all her teeth plucked out, her eyes removed and two upside-down crosses carved into the bone, was stashed in a backpack.
Prosecutors say that Meraz-Espinoza strangled his mother and then skinned, filleted and dismembered her body as part of a satanic ritual. A Norwalk jury convicted him of first-degree murder in June.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas I. McKnew Jr. sentenced Meraz-Espinoza to 25 years to life in prison, saying that the slaying "certainly ranks up there at the top" of "the most disgusting, hideous and vulgar" cases he has seen during his 50 years in the legal profession.
"I don't know what I can say to turn your life around, but you'll have a lot of time to think about it," McKnew said.
With the side of his head shaved and nearly foot-long braids extending from his scalp, Meraz-Espinoza, 21, turned periodically to look at his father and relatives in the courtroom.
According to court records, Meraz-Espinoza admitted to his cousin that he killed his mother, saying that he stabbed her and cut her up. He sought his cousin's help in disposing the body, but she persuaded him to turn himself into the police.
Initial reports speculated that Meraz-Espinoza was depressed over his girlfriend's recent death when he killed his mother. But Deputy Dist. Atty. Heba Matta, who prosecuted the case, said he was more motivated by satanic beliefs, which he was "heavily entrenched in."
Matta said Meraz-Espinoza has numerous tattoos that draw on satanic imagery, such as upside-down crosses and a 666 behind his right ear. Authorities recovered his copy of a satanic bible near the crime scene. The date he chose to strangle and dismember his mother, Feb. 2, 2011, also fell on a day in the satanic calendar that calls for ritual human or animal sacrifice.
"This crime was not in the heat of passion or rash and impulsive," Matta said. "It was done for the purpose of devotion. That's pretty much the ultimate sacrifice."
But defense attorney Jonathan Roberts disagreed, contending that prosecutors overplayed Meraz-Espinoza's involvement in satanic worship and relied on dated interpretations of the church.
"The contemporary church of Satan doesn't believe in human sacrifice," Roberts said outside the courtroom. "I never bought that an [18-year-old] kid would adopt the principles of an organization from 50 years ago."
Roberts added that his client lacked the expertise to skin and dismember a person on his own and he referred to Meraz-Espinoza's later statements to police that two other people were also involved. Meraz-Espinoza's only role was helping cut up his mother after she was strangled, Roberts said.
The woman's internal organs were never recovered, Matta said.
Meraz-Espinoza has no prior convictions, and prosecutors and defense attorneys said his relationship with his mother before the killing was typical for a teenager. His father was mostly absent from family life, Roberts said, which strained the mother-son dynamic. His mother disapproved of his listening to death metal music and he regularly disobeyed her, Matta said.
"This was sheerly motivated by evil," Matta said.