Phony Catholic priest pleads guilty to grand theft and is sentenced to 1 year in jail

Phony Catholic priest pleads guilty

Erwin Mena appeared in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday with his attorney, Denise Daniels. He was sentenced to one year in county jail and one year of supervised release after pleading guilty to one count of grand theft.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The man who allegedly posed as a Roman Catholic priest at Los Angeles-area parishes and sold bogus trips to see Pope Francis pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of grand theft, prosecutors said.

Erwin Mena, 59, entered his plea in a downtown courtroom and was sentenced by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David M. Horwitz to one year in county jail and one year of mandatory supervision.

As part of his plea agreement, Mena must pay about $53,700 in restitution, L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Tracey Stevens said.

More than two dozen other counts filed against him -- mostly misdemeanor and felony theft charges -- were dismissed, the prosecutor said. 


Finalized on the day Mena was scheduled to be arraigned, the plea deal marks a swift resolution to the case.

According to an affidavit filed by a Los Angeles police detective, Mena posed as a priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park for about five months starting in January 2015.

Parishioners said he delivered uplifting sermons, and he carried out the typical duties of a priest, such as officiating baptisms, confession, funerals and weekly Mass. He also officiated one Mass at St. Bernard parish in nearby Glassell Park, according to the church’s pastor.

Police said that Mena’s clerical role was a ruse. Since 2008, Mena has been on a list of people who are not authorized to perform the duties of a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to a diocesan spokeswoman.  


After Mass, Mena would sell a video for $25, a price some found to be high, recalled one parishioner who asked not to be identified.

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

But Mena’s biggest scam, police contended, was a trip to see the pontiff during his visit last fall to New York and Philadelphia.

Guevara said Mena solicited between $500 and $1,000 from more than two dozen people who wanted to travel and see the pope. The money was supposed to cover airfare and lodging in convents, the detective said. 

After speaking with the religious sisters who operate the convents, police learned that none had a reservation from Mena, according to court papers.

The convent near Philadelphia was a six-room facility with “very small” rooms and could not have accommodated a tour group such as Mena’s, the detective wrote in his affidavit.

When some pressed Mena for more details on the trip -- including flight itineraries -- he stalled, said Michelle Rodriguez, a legal secretary who paid Mena more than $900 cash for her place on the trip.

“He used us, he stole from us, and that’s it,” Rodriguez said.


Following a months-long investigation, LAPD detectives arrested Mena on Feb. 2 in Elysian Park. At the time, he was living out of his car, police said.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the archdiocese said, “We are grateful that this case has been resolved and for the Los Angeles Police Department’s work in ensuring that Erwin Mena was brought to justice.”

The archdiocese also said that it is compiling information on those who lost money from Mena before moving forward with a plan to compensate the victims.

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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