HomeCrimeChurch officials charged with running a human trafficking scheme

Church officials charged with running a human trafficking scheme

The front of the Van Nuys Kingdom of Jesus Christ church compound. Photo via Google Maps

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Three officials of a church based in the Philippines have been arrested in California and Virginia for human trafficking and visa fraud. “We believe they are bringing people into the United States, from the Philippines with promises of work, legitimate work, in some case musical related work and when they get here, the passports are taken from them,” said FBI spokesperson Laura Elmiller.

The three arrested defendants who are described as the main administrators of Kingdom of Jesus Christ in the United States. are:

  • Guia Cabactulan, 59, the top KOJC official in the United States who maintained direct communication with KOJC leadership in the Philippines;
  • Marissa Duenas, 41, who allegedly handled fraudulent immigration documents for KOJC workers and secured the passports immediately after workers entered the U.S.; and
  • Amanda Estopare, 48, who allegedly handled the financial aspects of the KOJC enterprise, including enforcing fundraising quotas for KOJC workers.

No charges have been filed against Apollo Quiboloy— who proclaims himself as the “appointed son of God.” He founded the church in 1985. His church claims to have six million followers all over the world.

“We will show to you that this is nothing but a grand conspiracy of lies concocted by former members of KOJC who struck an alliance with forces who have an ax to grind against Pastor Quiboloy,” said Israelito Torreon, Quiboloy’s spokesperson in Manila.

A federal criminal complaint alleges that representatives of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ church obtained visas for church members to enter the U.S. by claiming, for example, they would be performing at musical events.  But, once the church members arrived in the United States, they were required to surrender their passports and work long hours as “FTWs” (full-time workers, who were also called “miracle workers”), who solicited donations for a church non-profit called the Children’s Joy Foundation USA (CJF), according to the complaint. While the workers raised funds by telling donors their money would benefit impoverished children in the Philippines, the complaint alleges that most or all of the money raised was used to finance KOJC operations and the church leader’s lavish lifestyle. Cabactulan and Duenas were arrested Jan. 29 at a KOJC compound in Van Nuys, California where they lived. Estopare was arrested in Virginia.

In conjunction with the arrests, federal agents executed search warrants at the KOJC compound in Van Nuys, the CJF office in Glendale, and three other locations in the Los Angeles area. Searches were also conducted at two locations linked to KOJC in Hawaii, and agents fanned out across the United States to interview witnesses as part of a larger investigation into the organization.

Apollo Quiboloy, founder of the church of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Photo via Facebook

The criminal complaint that led to this morning’s arrests charges the three defendants with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud. A 42-page affidavit in support of the complaint outlines a years-long scheme to bring FTWs to the United States under false pretenses and to make arrangements for productive fundraisers – known as “Assets” – to remain in the country by forcing them to marry other KOJC members who were US citizens, or to obtain student visas and enroll FTWs in schools with lenient attendance policies. Over the past 20 years, according to immigration records summarized in the affidavit, there were 82 marriages involving KOJC administrators and FTWs.

The affidavit alleges that the immigration fraud scheme provided KOJC with workers to participate in widespread efforts to solicit donations with false claims that donors’ money would be used for the benefit of poor children in the Philippines. KOJC allegedly established daily cash solicitation quotas for FTWs, and if these quotas were not met, workers suffered abuse, according to victims who have fled KOJC and provided information to the FBI.

“[B]ank records show that KOJC accounts received approximately $20 million in cash deposits from 2014 through mid-2019,…[and] most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation,” according to the affidavit, which notes that “little to no money solicited appears to benefit impoverished or in-need children.”

The affidavit summarizes the experiences of a series of victims who fled KOJC and provided information to the FBI over the past several years. Some of the victims described being sent across the US to solicit donations, working long hours to reach their daily quotas, receiving little to no pay for their efforts, and participating in sending large sums of cash back to the Philippines on commercial and private flights.

The FBI has established a toll-free phone number for potential victims or anyone with information about KOJC activities to provide information. The information line is 1-800-CALL FBI (1-800-225-5324), and it will be staffed by English- and Tagalog-speaking personnel. Individuals may also contact the FBI through its website at https://www.fbi.gov/tips.

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