Standing at the front of a packed 35th Judicial District courtroom late Wednesday morning, two young women choked out emotional messages of forgiveness to Fernando Hernandez.
“I’m sorry … I’m sorry,” the 51-year-old former pastor sobbed in response, looking back at the packed gallery after the women — one in her early 20s, the other in her late teens — resumed their seats.
The young women were two of the three victims Hernandez was accused of sexually abusing from 2010 to 2018.
Hernandez stood trial for continuous sexual abuse of a young child or children, a first degree felony with a sentencing range of 25 to 99 years or life in prison. The sentence in that charge is “day for day,” meaning there is no parole, it was explained in court.
The exchange happened after District Judge Steve Ellis approved a sudden plea deal that resulted in a 30-year prison sentence for Hernandez, who also must register as a sex offender for life.
Hernandez had been standing trial for continuous sexual assault of a young child or children. In the plea bargain — negotiated between the prosecution team of First Assistant District Attorney Elisha Bird and District Attorney Micheal Murray — Hernandez pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child.
Continuous sexual abuse, a special range felony, carries a sentencing range of 25 to 99 years or life in prison, it was announced in court. The sentence in that charge is “day for day,” with no parole, Ellis and the attorneys explained.
Aggravated sexual assault of a child, also a first degree felony, carries a sentencing range of five to 99 years or life in prison. With that charge, Hernandez will have to serve half the sentence before he first becomes eligible for parole, Ellis and the attorneys explained.
Ellis scolded Hernandez, saying Hernandez’s actions as “a preacher, someone posing as a minister of the gospel” had been “a pretty despicable thing and it hurts beyond description everyone involved.”
Hernandez and his wife, Lorena, are the parents of several adult children and have several grandchildren.
High drama seemed to surround the case beginning with Hernandez’s initial arrest in July 2018 on warrants for continuous sexual abuse of a child and indecency with a child.
“Child victim 1” and “child victim 2” had made outcries that Hernandez, their relative, had touched them inappropriately, a report by Texas Ranger Jason Shea stated. One of the children said Hernandez instructed her not to tell anyone or he would go to prison, Shea’s report stated. Shea spoke with Hernandez, who told the Ranger he has not sexually abused anyone.
Hernandez was arrested and quickly bonded out of jail.
A few days later, Hernandez was arrested once again on an allegation that had first surfaced in 2010. A then-13-year-old girl in Plainview reported that she and other youth in a church, where Hernandez was youth pastor, had traveled to Columbus, Texas for a youth function.
When returning back from Columbus, the group stopped in Brownwood to spend the night at the home of a Hernandez family member. The girl said at approximately 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., she felt a hand going down her shorts and touching her. The girl alleged that the person touching her was Hernandez.
The allegation was reported to law enforcement but was not followed up on until investigators learned about the case while following up on the 2018 allegations, Shea’s report states.
In May 2019, the state sought to have Hernandez’s bond increased, alleging he had violated bond conditions. Several pre-trial hearings were scheduled but were either canceled due to last-minute delays or ended quickly when Hernandez arrived in court without a lawyer.
Hernandez maintained he couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer until he was able to sell some land. Ellis, who had earlier announced he was giving Hernandez six months to hire a lawyer, ultimately appointed an attorney for Hernandez.
At one of the hearings, Ellis asked Hernandez if Hernandez was still a preacher. When Hernandez said no, Ellis asked, “how are you living?”
“I still have some supporters,” Hernandez replied.
At an August 2019 hearing, Ellis ordered Hernandez placed under house arrest and ordered him to have electronic monitoring.
When Ellis asked Hernandez what kind of work he was doing, Hernandez replied, “I go and minister to people and pray for them.”
In November 2019, Lorena Hernandez was arrested on a witness tampering charge in connection with the case against her husband.
The trial begins
After jury selection Monday, jurors gathered in the jury room Tuesday morning to be brought into the courtroom to begin hearing testimony.
Drama began before the jury was brought in. Bird told Ellis she had learned that Hernandez had sent out a group text to numerous members of the religious community, saying he was about to stand trial. Hernandez stated in the group text that the state had no evidence and it was a case of “he said she said.”
Bird told Ellis a member of the jury was married to someone involved in ministry, and she was concerned about jury tainting. Ellis instructed Hernandez to stay off of text messaging and social media.
After a full day of testimony Tuesday, the state resumed its case Wednesday morning. State’s witnesses Wednesday included the father of one of the child victims. The man said Hernandez had apologized to him for an unspecified act, which the man took to mean sexually abusing the man’s daughter, who is now 10.
Plea bargain reached
Later Wednesday morning, a good 30 minutes before a plea deal was officially announced, there were indications suggesting a plea deal might have just been reached.
Court resumed after a recess, and just as Bird was about to begin questioning a newly seated witness, Bird suddenly asked Ellis, “May we approach?”
“You may,” Ellis replied.
The attorneys had a whispered conference with Ellis at the judge’s raised bench at 11 a.m. Moments later, Ellis announced he was recessing court once again and told jurors to return at 1 p.m. Ellis also announced “developments” in the case and said court would resume at 11:30 a.m. without the jury.
As court prepared to resume at 11:30, Hernandez entered the courtroom with a stricken expression. Hernandez took his seat at the defense table with his attorney, and a defense investigator.
On the other side of the courtroom, Bird, who had presented the entirety of the state’s case, sat next to Murray.
Behind them, a packed court gallery included Hernandez family members — several of them state’s witnesses — and other observers and witnesses including law enforcement officers.
Statements from Ellis and the attorneys confirmed a plea bargain had been reached.
‘It’s been 10 long years’
Ellis asked Hernandez several questions, including whether anyone had threatened him or promised him anything “to get you to plead guilty.”
Hernandez sat silently for several seconds, then buried his face in his hands and began sobbing. Hernandez said through sobs that the state was trying to give him life in prison.
Ellis asked if there would be any victim impact statements, and the young woman from Plainview approached the front of the courtroom. Ellis instructed Hernandez to look at the young woman and listen to what she had to say.
“Mr. Hernandez, I just want to say I forgive you for what you’ve done to me,” the woman said. “It’s been 10 long years … I know prison is not a good place but’s where a man like you belongs. I know God has something planned for you.”
Another victim, who is now in her late teens, told Hernandez, “I forgive you as well.”
The woman cried as she made several additional statements. Hernandez looked at the woman, his eyes filled with tears, and nodded several times as she spoke.
Hernandez choked out apologies, calling each woman by name.
Bird asked Ellis to direct Hernandez not to speak.
Ellis replied that he was not going to tell Hernandez he could not speak.