SANTA ANA, California — A federal grand jury has indicted 3 leaders of a church founded by Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, a friend of President Rodrigo Duterte, for alleged labor trafficking and immigration fraud.
The 3 officials of the Davao-based Kingdom of Jesus Christ allegedly illegally obtained visas and other immigration documents for church members to enter and stay in the US.
They later allegedly forced church members to solicit donations for a bogus charity that claimed to help poor Filipino children, according to the indictment returned by the jury late Wednesday.
Defendants Guia Cabactulan, Marissa Duenas and Amanda Estopare were indicted for trafficking with respect to forced labor, document servitude, immigration fraud and marriage fraud.
Cabactulan, 59, was earlier described as a "top official" of Quiboloy's church who had direct communications with its Philippine leadership; while Duenas, 41, allegedly handled immigration documents and kept passports of victims of an alleged human trafficking ring.
The 2 were arrested in a raid at the Van Nuys, California compound of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ church.
Estopare, 48, who handled the church's "financial aspects" and fundraising, was also arrested in Virginia.
Federal prosecutors said the three leaders — Cabactulan, Duenas, and Estopare — brought church members to the United States under false pretenses, often telling them that they were invited to be special guests at a concert supporting the church’s ministry.
But once the church members arrived in the United States, their passports were immediately taken away by the three church administrators, who then forced them to collect donations for the Children’s Joy Foundation, a nonprofit run by the church that claims to help impoverished children in the Philippines, according to a criminal complaint.
The church raised about $20 million from 2014 through mid-2019, but most of the money went back into the church’s coffers and to pay for luxury goods for church leaders that included a Bentley, a bulletproof Cadillac Escalade, an Armani suit and real estate, the complaint said. The church also owns a mansion in Calabasas, California.
The workers received little to no pay and were required to meet steep fundraising quotas. Top performers, known as “assets,” were then forced into sham marriages with other church members, or made to obtain student visas so they could stay in the country, prosecutors said. Investigators said church leaders had arranged 82 such marriages in the past 20 years.
Those who failed to meet quotas faced punishments that included paddling or being forced to spend three to five days in isolation in a walled section of the compound while being denied food and listening to prerecorded sermons by church leaders, according to the complaint.
One victim told investigators that church leaders “shaved her head and made her wear an orange shirt with ‘SOS’ on the back, which stood for ‘Son of Satan,’ ” Anne M. Wetzel, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, wrote in the criminal complaint.
A lawyer of Quiboloy earlier said the trio's arrest was part of a "grand conspiracy" by former members who wanted to humiliate the church leader.
Malacañang respects the US legal process, Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo said in January.
“You must remember that if a crime is committed in any country then the laws of that country will have to be followed. We have to respect them the way we ask them to respect ours,” he said.
Report from Yong Chavez, ABS-CBN News; with New York Times