The pastor of a San Fernando church has been sentenced to more than 10 years in federal prison for pursuading scores of mostly low-income families to invest in what turned out to be a $7-million Ponzi scheme.
Pastor Luis Serna, 62, was sentenced Monday to 10 years and one month in prison and ordered to pay $4.6 million in restitution.
Families wrote to the court prior to the sentencing that they had lost their life savings when they invested their money with Serna, who promised annual returns as high as 20%, according to court documents.
"We invested our retirement money to Luis," one victim wrote. "Now we are less hopeful [and] fearful of our future due to this loss."
One family that wrote to the court said they lost their home of 20 years, their credit was ruined and they had to file bankruptcy.
"This is the most heartbreaking betrayal," the family said in court documents. "To have been betrayed by someone in the Christian community, it made me question my faith in the people of Christ."
Serna, a pastor at Zion Living World Christian Center in San Fernando, was accused of duping more than 82 victims.
Prosecutors said Serna operated Architects of the Future Investment and asked the victims for loans, which he said would be invested in foreign currency.
Instead, Serna only invested small portions of the money and used money from new investors to pay off and appease others, prosecutors said.
"Mr. Serna accepts responsibility for his actions," his attorney Jennifer Wirsching said in court documents.
Some congregants said Serna had saved them from drug addition and others described him as a moral man.
According to U.S. District Court documents filed by his attorney, Serna, who did not graduate from high school, had a difficult upbringing, which forced him to beg for food.
The Mexico native moved to the U.S. when he was 16 and began working in 1978 toward becoming a pastor.