Man who allegedly posed as L.A. priest for years arrested, accused of defrauding churchgoers

Erwin Mena called himself “Padre” and celebrated Masses, confessions and baptisms, police say, but he was not your typical man of the cloth.

He was a con man posing as a priest, swindling churchgoers out of several thousands of dollars, police allege in court documents.

Officers arrested Mena, 59, Tuesday in Elysian Park on suspicion of grand theft. LAPD Det. Gary Guevara alleged in court documents that Mena sold parishioners bogus trips to see Pope Francis last year in Philadelphia and New York. He has been charged with 22 felonies and 8 misdemeanors, according to a criminal complaint filed by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.

When asked to comment on the charges while being escorted from LAPD headquarters, Mena said, “Not at this time.” It was unclear whether Mena was being represented by an attorney.

Mena, who also used the surname Menacastro, posed as a priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park. for about five months beginning in January 2015, according to Guevara’s affidavit filed in L.A. County Superior Court. Mena traveled from parish to parish, selling CDs that he recorded and peddling a book he claimed to have written titled: “Confessions of a Renegade Catholic Priest,” the affidavit states.

In early June, the pastor of St. Ignatius reported Mena to police. Days later, detectives met with the top lawyer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and an investigator who works for the church, according court papers.

Church officials told detectives that Mena had misrepresented himself as a priest in the archdiocese since the mid 1990s, according to court documents. Whenever the archdiocese caught wind of his activities — leading prayer groups or working in parishes — he would disappear, the affidavit said.

He also turned up at Catholic parishes or prayer groups in San Bernardino, Stockton, Fresno and Orange County, authorities said.

Archdioceses across the nation have procedures in place to prevent impostors from claiming to be priests. In Los Angeles, the archdiocese keeps a list of unauthorized priests and deacons, which numbered more than 95 people as of Sept. 1. Mena’s name has been on the list since it was first created in 2008.

When a priest arrives in a new diocese, he needs to present his credentials, said Sr. Terry Davis, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Stockton.

“This request is accompanied by a letter from his bishop and identification that he is who he says he is. That has to check out before he operates,” Davis said.

But Guevara, the LAPD detective, said Mena found a parish that needed a substitute. The pastor of St. Ignatius allowed Mena to celebrate at the church without referencing the archdiocese's list, said Doris Benavides, a spokeswoman for the L.A. archdiocese.

Those who met him say he showed charm and good humor.

“He smiled, talked about how good things were. There was never anything negative,” said Joaquin Oviedo, a retired high school teacher. “He was not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher.”

After Mass, however, he would hawk a video for $25, a price some found to be high, said one parishioner who asked not to be identified.

An organization lent about $16,000 to Mena for recording and producing CDs about Pope Francis, Guevara said. Investigators concluded that Mena had pirated the video, which was originally produced in Madrid.

But his biggest scam, police allege, was the trip to see the Holy Father. Guevara said Mena solicited between $500 and $1,000 from people to go see the pope back east. The money was supposed to cover airfare and lodging in convents, he said, adding that more than two dozen people signed up.

When Michelle Rodriguez first found out about the trip, she said she jumped at the opportunity and handed over more than $900 in cash. The 60-year-old legal secretary said she learned about the trip from a close friend who often hosted Mena for dinner.

“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,'“ said Rodriguez.

But their interactions grew increasingly suspicious, she said.

Rodriguez and others would press him for details on the trip, like flight departure times. He typically urged Rodriguez to be patient.

She joined scores of others for a special meeting with LAPD investigators this fall at St. Ignatius church. Her name was among those listed as victims in the criminal complaint.

“He used us, he stole from us, and that's it,” she said.

When parish staff tried to obtain Mena’s credentials, he also stalled, police said.

The archdiocese has reimbursed some victims. Any witnesses in the criminal case against Mena could possibly be reimbursed after the case concludes, Benavides said in an email.

A marriage performed by Mena has been re-celebrated, and those who received sacraments from Mena are able to receive them again, she added.

At St. Ignatius, Mena’s brief tenure has left some parishioners feeling betrayed.

“We had always been raised not to question authority figures. He’s a priest — what he said is holy writ,” Oviedo said. “We never imagined he was a phony.” 

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:16 p.m.: This article was updated with minor editing throughout.

5:35 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

4:48 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details, including comment from the defendant as he was escorted from police headquarters.

This story was originally published at 3:34 p.m.

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