Self-proclaimed Antichrist loses bid in divorce court to protect church assets

The Miaimi Herald, McClatchy Newspapers/January 11, 2009

Miami - The Christmas season was not kind to the self-proclaimed Antichrist.

Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, who gained international notoriety by declaring himself first to be Jesus Christ, then the Antichrist, roundly lost his divorce court bid to protect his church from financial claims by his most recent ex-wife.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Roberto Pineiro in Florida essentially ruled that De Jesus' Growing in Grace church was his personal business rather than a religious non-profit, and awarded Josefina de Jesus Torres the more than $2.2 million she sought in the divorce - the amount her lawyer deemed was half the assets of her ex-husband and his church.

"I think the judge did what was right and awarded Josefina what she was entitled to under the law," said Torres' lawyer, Norman Segall. "The church has millions of dollars ... and I'm sure if De Jesus issues an edict from up above that he needs money, it's available to resolve the situation."

The ruling marks a downturn in the fortunes of the colorful preacher, one that affects not just him but others in his life. His daughter JoAnn De Jesus is fighting contempt charges related to the case. His father and first wife face possible eviction from properties held in his and the church's names that the judgment awarded to Torres if he doesn't pay up this month.

De Jesus disappeared in August, when the judge declared him in contempt of court and ordered him to surrender to authorities for not paying Torres $15,000 a month in alimony. The divorce trial went ahead without him that month.

JoAnn has since testified that her father has been living in Houston - in a house that Torres could soon own, according to the ruling.

De Jesus' lawyer, Leonardo Renaud, is in the process of appealing the ruling and is filing a request to halt the property transfers until the appeal is heard.

"We obviously believe the ruling was incorrect, and there are a lot of different issues in the ruling that we take exception to," said Renaud. "It doesn't read so much like final judgment of dissolution of marriage, it's almost like an opinion regarding the man himself."

Church leaders called Pineiro's decision "ignorant."

"We clearly see that Pineiro's religious belief has influenced this decision, which evidences his desire to personally cause damage to our organization, thereby manifesting - much like the intentions of Ms. Torres - his wish to obtain monetary gain," church board member Alvaro Albarracin wrote in a statement. "His inexperience and ignorance in handling justice within family cases is made evident with this sentencing."

De Jesus exploded into popularity - and controversy - in the past few years after he declared himself to be Christ. He later claimed that his teachings replaced those of Jesus and so he should be called the Antichrist. He and his followers then began tattooing themselves with "666," a practice that generated protests and headlines.

Growing in Grace has since expanded to more than 300 churches in 30 countries, with De Jesus' sermons broadcast by satellite to thousands of households worldwide.

During the trial, de Jesus' representatives argued that neither he nor the church was as rich as Torres' team claimed, especially since the values of many of the properties have fallen in the past two years. They also said that donations have dropped since the start of divorce proceedings, with the revelation of de Jesus' tangled finances, including disclosures that he paid his first wife's alimony with church funds.

Many of his followers believe that De Jesus' divorce court difficulties are further proof that he is Jesus' Second Coming, quoting biblical prophecies of persecution such as Luke 17:25, which says "first, He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation."

"These life events are further proof that Jose Luis De Jesus is the reincarnation of the same spirit that dwelled in Jesus of Nazareth," said church member and spokesperson Axel Poessy. "We are privileged to be witnessing the days of the Son of Man, the last manifestation of God on Earth who is here to reign over all nations."

Torres was an ardent devotee of De Jesus when the pair began their relationship in 1999, which she said made her feel like "God himself had come to love me." The divorce carried them far from that lofty beginning, with a nasty round of accusations, including Torres' allegations of physical abuse and church members' descriptions of her as a gold-digging lesbian who wanted only to use him to achieve fame and wealth.

The December decision gave Torres a total of $642,000 in property, as well as the right to claim properties including the North Miami Beach apartment where de Jesus' father lives, the Puerto Rico condominium where his first wife resides, and de Jesus' current Houston home if the preacher does not pay the remaining $2.2 million.

In explaining his decision to treat de Jesus' and the church's finances as one, the judge wrote that de Jesus "dominates the ministry like only a god can.... In what other corporation does the board of directors literally worship the president?"

Daughter JoAnn, the ministry's finance manager, potentially faces contempt charges at a Jan. 21 hearing when she must explain why the church has not complied with an order to deduct Torres' alimony from de Jesus' salary.

De Jesus owes Torres $121,000 in back alimony, above and beyond the divorce judgment.

Shortly after the judge issued the August deduction order, JoAnn switched her father from a salary of approximately $21,000 a month to paying him as a private contractor, with monthly payments of about $12,000 a month. She began writing those checks to cash, which she then used to pay his bills.

In a November deposition, she said that she cut his salary because the church was in financial trouble, not because she was trying to avoid paying Torres' alimony.

"It just happened by coincidence, but the ministry could not afford him," she testified.

JoAnn said that the church has been kicked out of its Doral, Fla., location, and is being sued by the landlord for $80,000. The church now has a new meeting hall in Hialeah, Fla. She said that de Jesus - who often boasted of his lavish lifestyle and the "box ... of Rolexes" provided by donations from his followers - had closed one of his local bank accounts and had a negative balance in another.

Segall, the ex-wife's attorney, dismissed de Jesus' and the church's claims of poverty.

"We don't believe their poor-mouthing for a minute," said Segall. "I think he has plenty of resources, places where he has money or people holding money for him, and sooner or later he'll pay."

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