- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2020

To immigration officials they were tourists. To the Kingdom of Jesus Christ church, they were “full-time workers,” ready to be sent out onto the streets to beg for money to keep church leaders living in luxury.

That’s the picture painted by investigators in a stunning new immigration prosecution out of California, where three people have been charged with leading a cultlike church that imported teenagers from the Philippines, lied to immigration authorities about why they were coming, then forced them into labor begging on the streets.

Those that did well were forced into sham marriages to keep them in the U.S., while those that failed to meet begging quotas were beaten and starved, escaped church members told investigators. Women were pressed into “night duty” — forced to have sex with church leaders.

Three of the church’s leaders, all immigrants themselves, were arrested in January and a grand jury handed up an indictment last week charging them with marriage and immigration fraud, document servitude and human trafficking for forced labor.

The FBI said it recovered wedding rings believed to be used in the sham marriages, and tracked $20 million in income from the begging from 2014 to 2019. The money was funneled back to church leaders to sustain lavish lifestyles, investigators said.

The details were shocking enough that a federal judge on Friday ruled the leaders couldn’t be released on bail.

“Put simply, the evidence suggests that KOJC operates a human trafficking ring and abuses victims for violating the terms of their confinement,” Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote in his detention order.

Charged were Guia Cabactulan, 59, a legal immigrant identified as the head administrator of the church here in the U.S., and two underlings, Marissa Duenas, 41, and Amanda Estopare, 48.

The case is the latest immigration fraud to involve bogus visa requests, sham marriages and people brought into the U.S. for forced labor.

Prosecutors said the scam dates back to at least 2007, when the church hit upon the idea of forcing the best beggars into bogus marriages with church members who were U.S. citizens.

FBI agents have been probing the church since at least 2015, according to the affidavit by Special Agent Anne M. Wetzel.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also was investigating marriage fraud in the church as far back as 2018.

When the three church leaders in the U.S. were arrested, agents found wedding bands and an engagement ring stashed away, apparently to be used to bolster the fake stories they told to immigration officials.

Agents also found documentation of 82 marriages arranged for beggars, and said church members saw marriage not as a romantic endeavor but something mandated by “the father’s will.”

Investigators said ex-church members came forward to blow the whistle on the operation. They described a cultlike environment, being forced to sign commitment letters surrendering “attachments” to their family and to live in Spartan conditions with almost all of their begging income confiscated by the church.

Money was funneled back to church leaders in the Philippines by church members who hid cash in their socks and other clothing, stuffed in their luggage.

When agents searched a church airplane in Hawaii in 2018 they found more than $330,000 wrapped in socks.

After one church leader in the Philippines bought his own aircraft, he decided he needed more money and the quotas for the begging in the U.S. were raised, the FBI says. Leaders also bought and shipped to the Philippines a Mercedes, a Bentley and a bulletproof Cadillac Escalade.

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