Three top administrators at a Los Angeles church have been arrested in connection with an investigation into immigration fraud and human trafficking, authorities said.
Federal investigators said members of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ congregation in Van Nuys were brought to the U.S. from the Philippines under the pretense they would perform in musical events at the church. Once in the United States, the members were forced to surrender their passports and engage in sham marriages to stay in the country and fundraise full-time for the church, which referred to them as “miracle workers.”
Workers who escaped from the church told the FBI that they were dispatched across the U.S. to solicit donations for Children’s Joy Foundation USA, a nonprofit that was supposed to benefit poor children in their homeland. Instead, the criminal complaint said that most of the money raised was used to finance the church and lifestyle of its founder Apollo Quiboloy.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Quiboloy denied the allegations and said the FBI was fed a “grand conspiracy of lies” by former church members who sought retaliation after they were disciplined for wrongdoing.
“Their aim, therefore, is to exact revenge, extortion commingled with a brazen but shameless desire to put [Quiboloy] and the [church] as a whole into a quagmire of shame, blatant humiliation and defeat through trumped-up charges,” lawyer Israelito Torreon said in a statement in the southern Philippines’ Davao City.
According to Torreon, Quiboloy ordered an internal audit last year that prompted a trusted officer and other members to leave the group and strike an alliance with “forces” jealous of Quiboloy’s rise.
The criminal complaint details several victims’ accounts from October 2013 to December 2019. Arrested in Van Nuys on Wednesday were Guia Cabactulan, 59, the top official at the church in in the United States, and Marissa Duenas, 41, who allegedly handled fraudulent immigration documents for church workers. Amanda Estopare, 48, who allegedly handled the financial aspects of the group’s enterprise, was arrested in Virginia.
Workers told federal prosecutors they were forced to work nearly every day and often slept overnight in cars parked at truck stops in order to reach daily cash quotas set by administrators. According to the complaint, workers endured emotional stress and those who did not meet their quota risked physical punishment.
“Subpoenaed bank records show that KOJC accounts received approximately $20 million in cash deposits from 2014 through mid-2019. Based on witness interviews, subpoenaed bank records, and police reports, most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation,” the complaint states.
Workers determined to be successful were often forced into sham marriages.
Authorities said an analysis by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services found that church administrators facilitated 82 marriages for those brought to the U.S. from 1999 to 2019.
The FBI has also executed search warrants at the Kingdom of Jesus Christ’s Van Nuys compound, the Children’s Joy Foundation USA offices in Glendale and three other locations in Los Angeles, as well as two locations in Hawaii linked to the church.
Federal agents are also interviewing witnesses throughout the country as part of a larger investigation into the church, which is formally known as the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above Every Name.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.