A California pastor was sentenced Tuesday to more than ten years in federal prison for running a $7 million Ponzi scheme funded mostly by misled congregants, community members, and their families. In total, 82 victims lost approximately $4.6 million over the three-year conspiracy.
Luis Serna, 61, was a pastor at Zion Living Word Christian Center in San Fernando, who according to court documents used his position of power in the community to prey on non-wealthy, Spanish-speaking victims. He had been indicted by a grand jury on six counts of fraud and money laundering, and was arrested by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI in January.
Serna plead guilty to one count of wire fraud in August. In his plea deal, Serna acknowledged that sometime around 2006, he began soliciting loans from people in the church community via his company, Architects of the Future Investments. Serna claimed to be a successful investor in foreign currency and offered his victims between a 4 and 20 percent annual profit for turning over their life savings and mortgaging their homes.
In fact, Serna invested little to none of their money. “Profits” were returned to early investors with monies from newer victims. Eventually, even these checks started to bounce, according to the victim impact statement of one person who had lost $269,000, his home, and his job from stress over the scam.
“When I confronted him about when I was going to get my money, he promised me I would get it ‘soon.’ ‘Soon’ became never and he stopped returning my calls,” the victim wrote.
“[Serna] has caused not only financial loss, but the loss of homes, the loss of ability to pay for education for children, the need to declare bankruptcy, psychological damage, physical affliction, and endless suffering,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Dozens of victims’ statements filed in court recount the financial as well as physical and emotional toll Serna’s crimes took.
“We lost our home of 20 years. Our credit is ruined. I had to file for bankruptcy [sic]…To have been betrayed by someone in the Christian Community. It made me question my faith in the people of Christ.”
“My family was force[d] to split up, my wife lost our family business and her job ‘restaurant’ because we were unable to pay the bills and now we owe the IRS,” another wrote.
“What made this situation harder to deal with was that these people were spreading God’s word and using this for people to gain more trust, even though they knew this business was not legit,” another victim wrote.
Serna was sentenced to 121 months in prison for his crimes and ordered to pay $4.6 million in restitution. An agency within the Department of Justice is now tasked with finding assets in an effort to make the victims whole, but prosecutors see little indication that the pastor will ever pay the money back. Serna’s attorneys did not respond for a request for comment in time for publication.
“This one doesn’t feel like a win because the victims in this case suffered so much,” Assistant United States Attorney Ellyn Marcus Lindsay told The Daily Beast. “These are people who came to this country with the American dream, did everything they should have done, worked hard, built up savings, bought homes, and now its just gone. It’s devastating.”