Fugitive Sonoma ex-priest reported dead in Mexico

The Press-Democrat, California/June 3, 2011

Francisco Xavier Ochoa, the fugitive ex-priest from Sonoma wanted on 10 felony child sex abuse counts since 2006, has died in Mexico.

A copy of his death certificate, obtained by The Press Democrat Friday, shows that Ochoa died Nov. 30, 2009 of lung cancer in Zapopan, Jalisco, Mexico, at age 71. Ochoa fled the United States in May 2006.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa confirmed Friday that it has known about Ochoa's death since April and has closed the case. A church official said the diocese decided not to make the information public and relied instead on local law enforcement officials to inform Ochoa's victims.

Although the Sonoma County District Attorney's office has received a certified copy of the death certificate, the office is working with the Mexican Consulate to confirm that the person in the death certificate is Ochoa.

"We want to be absolutely sure that this is the same individual," said District Attorney Jill Ravitch, adding that once confirmation is made, the arrest warrant will be withdrawn and the case closed.

Ravitch said the Sheriff's Office has notified family of Ochoa's alleged victims about the death certificate.

Ochoa fled to Mexico several days after an April 28, 2006, meeting with Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa Rosa Diocese and other church officials. He admitted that he offered a boy $100 to strip dance in front of him and that he had kissed other boys on the lips.

After the meeting, Walsh removed Ochoa from his duties, but the diocese delayed in reporting the allegations to authorities. A subsequent police investigation revealed that Ochoa, who had ministered to Latino Catholics in the Sonoma Valley since the late 1980s, had allegedly molested multiple children from different families.

It was three days before Walsh, through diocesan attorney Dan Galvin, reported Ochoa to Sonoma County Child Protective Services and four days before the Sheriff's Department was notified. State law requires such reporting be done immediately by phone.

In July 2006, a federal arrest warrant was issued against Ochoa for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. The federal warrant allowed U.S. marshals to work with Mexican authorities to locate and apprehend Ochoa.

For his failure to report Ochoa immediately, Walsh was assigned to a five-month counseling diversion program in late 2006.

Walsh, who is expected to retire later this year, will be replaced by Bishop Robert Vasa, formerly of the Baker Diocese in eastern Oregon.

The Santa Rosa Diocese was sued by families of Ochoa's victims and in September 2007 the diocese settled the case for $5 million, including $20,000 of Walsh's own funds.

Ochoa's case then seemed to drop off the radar. For years, the only public reminder was his mug shot on the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office website listing the county's most-wanted criminal suspects.

Ochoa, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, has relatives in Santa Rosa and talk of his death began floating around Sonoma County last year, apparently reaching the Santa Rosa Diocese two months ago.

"We found out about his death on April 11," said Deirdre Frontczak, a diocese spokeswoman. "Apparently there had been some rumors floating around in the Hispanic community that he had died."

She said that Monsignor Daniel Whelton decided that no action would be taken until the diocese received "verifiable information." Frontczak said that Ochoa's sister in Mexico sent a letter to Whelton on April 11, informing him of Ochoa's death. Attached was a copy of the death certificate from Mexico.

Two days later the diocese contacted attorney Galvin, who then contacted the District Attorney's Office on April 26. Ochoa's death certificate has made its way to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mexican Conference of Catholic Bishops and Cardinal William Levada in the Vatican.

"We're informed that the case was closed," said Frontczak.

The death certificate, in Spanish, provides details about where he died and the cause of death. Under cause of death, the document lists pulmonary thromboembolism (four days), pulmonary cancer (six months) and metastatic bronchial carcinoma (one year).

Frontczak said that Ochoa was removed from the clergy "years ago" and that local church officials have had no communication with Ochoa since he left five years ago.

"The case is closed as far as the church is concerned," she said.

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