Erwin Mena, 59, bilked dozens of parishioners out of their money – offering them fake sacraments and confessions, "officiating" at funerals and weddings, practicing medicine without a license and selling bogus trips to see Pope Francis.
Mena, who calls himself “Padre,” was arrested Tuesday in the Elysian Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, on suspicion of grand theft. He’s currently looking at 30 charges, ranging from felonies to misdemeanors, according to the criminal complaint filed by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.
Mena declined to comment to the Los Angeles Times, as detectives escorted him in handcuffs from police headquarters. He remained jailed, and it was unclear whether he had an attorney.
Last year, he allegedly posed as a priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in northeastern Los Angeles and sold tickets to a pilgrimage to visit New York and see the pope in Philadelphia in September, prosecutors said.
The trip supposedly included airfare and lodging at convents.
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Michelle Rodriguez, 60, and some of her friends and co-workers each paid more than $950 in cash for the trip.
"It was a great deal for the price," Michelle Rodriguez told the Times. "We were thinking, 'Oh, we'll have this great time in New York. We'll see the pope and it will be a great experience.' "
"He used us, he stole from us, and that's it," she said.
Mena, who was acting as a substitute priest, made a good impression.
"He smiled, talked about how good things were. There was never anything negative," Joaquin Oviedo, a retired public high school teacher, told the paper. "He was not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher."
"We had always been raised not to question authority figures," Oviedo said. "He's a priest – what he said is holy writ. We never imagined he was a phony."
Mena had been posing as a priest since the mid-1990s, appearing at parishes or prayer groups in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Stockton, Fresno and Orange counties, then vanishing before Roman Catholic authorities could act, court papers indicated.
He showed up at St. Mary parish in Fontana more than five years ago and celebrated Mass on a few occasions, John Andrews, a spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino, told the Times.
Mena allegedly made money by borrowing from people and selling his services or videos.
One group loaned him about $16,000 to produce CDs about Pope Francis that turned out to be pirated, Los Angeles police Det. Gary Guevara told the Times. His biggest scam, however, was the pope's visit, for which he charged between $500 and $1,000. More than 24 people signed up, according to the paper.
Mena's name is on a list of dozens of unauthorized priests and deacons that is kept by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Some victims have been reimbursed, and those who received the sacraments from Mena can receive them again, said Doris Benavides, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles archdiocese.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.