Fiery preacher a divorce court no-show

Miami Herald/August 23, 2008

The Doral preacher who calls himself the Antichrist missed a court date, but his contentious divorce case went on without him.

The Antichrist is on the lam.

Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, the Doral-based church leader who first claimed to be Christ, then the Antichrist, disappeared after he was declared in contempt of court for failure to pay alimony to his soon-to-be ex-wife. Their divorce trial went ahead without him this week, with wife Josefina de Jesus Torres alleging abuse, abandonment and infidelity.

She's seeking half of both the Growing in Grace church assets and his personal property, which her attorneys argue are the same because they claim de Jesus controls the church's finances.

Torres' number: $2.2 million.

Miami civil court Judge Roberto Pineiro, who is presiding over the case, had ordered de Jesus to pay up or surrender to authorities by Aug. 6 after he failed to pay five months of alimony - more than $72,000 - to Torres.

De Jesus' attorney, Gregory Betancourt, told The Miami Herald that Torres' accusations of mistreatment are part of a gold-digging legal strategy.

De Jesus "categorically denies all those claims," Betancourt said, adding that he has not spoken to his client for more than two weeks. "She just wants to obtain as much money as she possibly can," Betancourt said.

The three-day divorce trial ended on Friday, and Pineiro asked both lawyers to submit settlement proposals within three weeks, after which he will rule.

The Growing in Grace empire, which has spread to 300 churches in more than 30 countries, attained international notoriety in the past two years after de Jesus declared himself to be Jesus Christ. De Jesus, 62, later claimed the title of Antichrist because, he argued, as he is the Second Coming, his teachings supersede those of Jesus. He and other followers got "666" tattoos to illustrate their devotion.

Testimony in his divorce case ranged from the spiritual - with one church leader explaining why he now considers de Jesus to be God - to the sordid, with Torres claiming that during their marriage de Jesus cast her off for another woman in Houston -- a woman his inner circle now calls his "wife."

Torres, 45, also claimed he pushed her against a fence on one occasion and emotionally abused her by threatening to send "angels of destruction" to her and her children.

"He didn't hit me, but in my mind he destroyed me," she said. "In that moment, I believed he was chosen by God with power over angels."

Can't work

Torres has told the court her failed marriage left her too psychologically damaged to work.

In her testimony, Torres described a married lifestyle that included stays in the presidential suites in Latin America's finest hotels, jewelry and cash pressed into de Jesus' hands by the grateful faithful, and a rotating litany of new cars and houses financed by his parishioners' generosity. She said it was like an "eternal vacation."

De Jesus himself has boasted of the luxuries he enjoys.

During the trial, Torres attorney Norman Segall showed a video of one of de Jesus' 2007 sermons after his divorce case exploded into the news. A defiant de Jesus talked about the "box...of Rolexes" and other gifts he had received from followers.

De Jesus now says his fortunes have changed. In a personal letter to Pineiro in July, de Jesus said that he was on the edge of bankruptcy.

No money

"The truth of the matter is that I do not have anything to my name but a car and an apartment that my 94-year-old father lives in" he said. "I only want to do the right thing by helping Josefina financially, but at this point I cannot even help myself."

De Jesus also complained that he was being "treated as a criminal and not as a respectful citizen of the United States of America."

Betancourt and church board members say that the church's wealth is far less than Torres' legal team claims and that as a nonprofit religious institution, it should not be considered his property. They also say donations have dropped since the start of the divorce proceedings - along with its revelations about de Jesus' financial situation, including the annual $144,000 alimony he is paying to his first wife and the $15,000 monthly alimony he has been ordered to pay Torres.

De Jesus' daughter, JoAnn de Jesus, the ministry's finance manager, testified that because of the drop in donations, the church is two months behind on the rent at its Doral headquarters and she is hoping for ''a miracle'' that will allow them to stay. Several church members implied that Torres' statements criticizing de Jesus in the press played a role in the financial problems.

Betancourt highlighted de Jesus' other financial difficulties, including possible tax penalties de Jesus faces after the divorce court revelations about his finances, which include using charitable donations to pay alimony to his first wife and to purchase properties in his and his relatives' names.

De Jesus' tax attorney testified that, based on his interactions with an Internal Revenue Service investigator, he believes a fraud investigation is under way. A spokeswoman for the IRS said she could not confirm or deny the existence of an inquiry.

Last year, de Jesus' earlier testimony about his tangled finances prompted Pineiro to forward a transcript to federal prosecutors. The U.S. attorney in Miami confirmed opening an investigation in June 2007 but would not comment on its current status.

Segall dismissed de Jesus' recent claims of poverty.

"The history of it shows that every time he goes out of the country, he rounds up money," he said of de Jesus' preaching trips abroad. "It's out there somewhere."

Damaging video

The interactions outside the courtroom also have grown increasingly nasty over the course of the divorce case. The Growing in Grace press team recently sent e-mails to reporters with links to video interviews with a woman who claims she was Torres' lesbian lover when Torres met de Jesus. The Colombian woman, Maria Teresa Charry, said Torres set out to entrap de Jesus and take his money, a sentiment echoed among his followers.

Segall said he hasn't seen the video but said it is another attempt by the church to discredit Torres.

"They're trying to pin the alleged fact that the church is not doing as well on her, when everyone knows that isn't true," he said.

Torres, meanwhile, says she has been "threatened" by his followers, an allegation church board members denied in testimony.

Betancourt conceded de Jesus' absence complicates his case.

"It is definitely a problem to go forward with a divorce case without the husband present," he said. "He should be here."

JoAnn de Jesus and several members of the church board said on the witness stand that they had spoken to him recently but didn't know where he is.

"From the get-go, he and his lawyer have never agreed to the $15,000 in alimony," said church board member Alvaro Albarracin, who was named the church's "Entrepreneur of Entrepreneurs" after he donated $1.2 million. "If he produces that money, he's going to make people think he can produce that money all the time."

Had a phone call

Albarracin said de Jesus had called him Wednesday after court. The caller ID showed it as an "unknown number," but Albarracin said he believed it to be a domestic call.

Albarracin said he and other followers believe there is a positive purpose in everything that touches de Jesus' life -- including the rancorous divorce trial.

"We believe that whether the press...paints his name bad we believe that his name is being announced, and at least one person or two [people] will believe in him," Albarracin said. "So it always serves to spread the word."

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