For years, an Opa-locka pastor asked members of his congregation to open up their hearts and their wallets.
Since December, Anthony Cheverez of the Sanctuary Pentecostal Church has been sued by four women who left his church and claim that they lent him a total of about $20,000.
When an El Nuevo Herald team asked him about the lawsuits he is facing for not repaying thousands of dollars he had borrowed from members of his congregation, Cheverez, 46, who works as a maintenance mechanic at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), pulled out his wallet and bragged that he was a federal officer though he never actually showed his ID.
Cheverez refused to comment on the four lawsuits filed by Nery Nancy García, who is disabled, Luz Marina Méndez, who has worked selling hotdogs in the downtown area for almost two decades, Luisa Guerra and Karla Zaldívar.
I was conned mercilessly by these people, said García, crying. This false prophet used the word of God to take our money. And he told us constantly that he was an immigration official.
An ICE spokeswoman said in an email that Cheverez did not make decisions on immigration policies and their enforcement.
As public servants working for a law enforcement agency, ICE employees are held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct. Allegations of misconduct are treated with the utmost seriousness and routed for appropriate investigation."
For months, the women who filed the lawsuits say they contacted Cheverez and his wife asking for payment of the loans. After receiving no response, they decided to sue.
Bernice Cheverez, the pastors wife, who also preaches in the church, said that the lawsuits were filed by people who want to harm the church.
Without giving any details, Bernice added that one of the cases had been resolved and they were working to settle another one.
The women used to visit the church at 4300 NW 135 St. However, that location has been closed. According to Bernice, the church moved when the lease expired.
García and Guerra filed lawsuits against the pastor and his wife for payments of $3,500 and $5,000 respectively.
According to García, 65, her first loan to Cheverez was for $500 before December 2011 to help build a new temple for the church.
Two months later, García lent him $6,000 more to organize Whit Sunday, a journey commemorating the arrival of the Holy Spirit. García said that Cheverez told the congregation that this event, held on May 26, 2012, would cost about $40,000.
However, several months went by and Cheverez did not repay the money, García said. A Uruguayan who has lived in South Florida for 35 years, García urgently needed the money back because it was part of her brothers pension, which she managed. Her brother had authorized García to use the money for any necessity.
García began discounting what she was owed directly from the offerings she used to give the church, which settled $3,042 of the $6,500 of the loan. After leaving the church, García sued in December 2012 for the remaining $3,500.
In April, the Miami-Dade court ruled that García was owed $2,900. The rest of the money was considered a donation.
This has brought me a lot of problems, García said. I lost my relationship with my brother, who is justifiably angry. At this moment, I dont trust anybody. I distanced myself from all churches and now I am under psychological treatment.
Méndez and Zaldívar sued for $5,000 each, although Méndez says that she actually gave the $5,000 claimed by Zaldívar.
Méndez, a 56-year-old Nicaraguan, says she lent $5,000 to Zaldívar in May 2012 to lend the church for the organization of Whit Sunday. She said Zaldívar gave her a personal check as collateral, but the check had no funds. El Nuevo Herald was not able to reach Zaldívar.
A month later, Méndez lent Cheverez another $5,000. This time she made the pastor sign a document reflecting the loan.
He is very persuasive, Méndez said. Three weeks after I joined the church, [Cheverez] called me to his office and asked me to lend him $30,000. Where was I going to get that kind of money?
In May, the court ruled that the pastor and his wife were to pay the $5,000 to Zaldívar. However, that has not happened yet, Méndez said.
In Méndezs case, Cheverez did not show up for a June 4 court citation.
That day the judge called me to his office to tell me that I had won the case, Méndez said.
Then he sent me to the criminal court to continue the process. And where is my money?
When the El Nuevo Herald team asked Cheverez about these lawsuits, he refused to answer, saying, Dont take pictures of me because I am a federal official and that is prohibited. If you do that, you will be in trouble. You cant even tape me.
Members of his congregation say that in his sermons, and especially during Bible studies, Cheverez refers to his part-time job with the Department of Homeland Security as immigration official.
His plaintiffs say that on workdays they could see him in church dressed in uniform, with handcuffs and a badge on his belt. Though no one claims that Cheverez has used his alleged position in the agency to get money, García and Méndez say that they have occasionally heard that the pastor had the authority to arrest people.
In fact, they both noted that on one occasion the pastor expelled a young Nicaraguan from church after threatening him with arrest for being and undocumented immigrant. He reportedly did not do it because the community asked him not to.
He didnt use it to get money, Méndez said, but I believe that many people do not speak up because of fear after he made them believe that he was an immigration official.
Reporter Enrique Flor contributed to this story.