Garbed completely in white and claiming he is an agent of God, a man named Hector Torres is accused of leaving a trail of more than $30,000 in bad checks across Orange County, telling some unhappy merchants that the Lord has exempted him from paying for what he buys.
Tustin police arrested him after he and a companion, Esteban Aviles, drove off in a fancy used car that they bought from a luxury auto dealership in December, using a worthless $15,000 check. But prosecutors could not make a case against him, since it was his companion who reportedly signed the check, and Torres was released.
Now investigators think he is at it again, and they are gritting their teeth. They want him. They have issued a $50,000 warrant for his arrest.
One after another, bad checks worth about $32,000 and bearing what police say are Torres' trademarks have turned up since late February all over the county. Notations in the lower left corner of the checks say "exempt" or "loan," and some of the checks cite a fictitious law that excuses him from financial obligations.
"He says he's exempt by federal law because he's a religious sovereign state, or because he's a messenger of the Lord, or sometimes he says he's the Lord himself," said Tustin Police Sgt. Mark Bergquist. "He acts like a loon, but he's extremely confident and he knows exactly what he's doing."
On occasion, Torres has left his business card, which identifies him as "Doctor Hector Torres, D.D." and "Doctor of Divinity," and in the corner, states: "We are exempt from all charges, taxes, burden." An answering machine at the listed phone number thanks callers for reaching the "Spirit House of God," and politely suggests that they leave a message.
The latest batch of bad checks was drawn on a bank account that had been closed, and has left supermarkets, drugstores, furniture stores, a limousine company and many other merchants holding the bag, Bergquist said.
"We're getting merchants all over Orange County that have been hammered," Bergquist said.
In a series of rambling letters to police, Torres has repeated his claim that his religious work exempts him from having to make good on his checks, and he argues that he was illegally detained, Bergquist said.
Police reports say that when the bank closed his account, with $223.35 in outstanding bad-check charges, Torres responded with a letter saying that he "owes no one any money as he lives only by the laws of the spirit and is not governed by the laws of the court."
Court records indicate Torres was convicted of grand theft in San Bernardino County in 1982.
In the Tustin case involving the luxury car purchase, a dealership employee who dealt with the pair said Torres, who was acting as an English interpreter for Aviles, wrote the check and Aviles signed it. It was accepted on the basis of a California driver's license, a California identification card, and a card saying Torres was minister of a Chula Vista church, the employee said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Henderson, who handled the case, said Aviles was never apprehended, and without him, it is impossible to prove that Torres did anything criminal by appearing at the car dealership. As a result, the case was dismissed, she said.