By Mark Mueller and Brian Donohue
Estelí, Nicaragua — More than 200 guests sang “Feliz Cumpleaños” — Happy Birthday — to the man they’d come to celebrate in this city’s most elegant banquet hall in November. Mariachis strolled the room, serenading the Dominican-born preacher and his friends.
Gregorio Martinez, a self-proclaimed prophet and missionary with ties to the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, had but one request of those gathered for his 48th birthday, according to three people who attended.
Martinez had reason for caution. He needed to remain a ghost.
For more than a year now, Martinez has been a fugitive from New Jersey, where a jury took just 30 minutes to convict him of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy he knew from his Hudson County church.
Permitted to remain free on $250,000 bail despite additional sexual assault counts pending against him, Martinez disappeared within weeks of the verdict.
A two-month investigation by NJ Advance Media traced him to Estelí, a city of 120,000 in Nicaragua’s northern highlands.
The investigation, encompassing dozens of interviews in Nicaragua and New Jersey, showed how easily a convicted criminal slipped from the grasp of law enforcement, fleeing the country without a valid passport and building a new life in which he continued to have contact with children. Martinez faced a sentence ranging from probation to five years in prison.
His former defense lawyer, Louis Serterides, said it appeared Martinez “wasn’t going to take any chances” by returning for sentencing once he learned he’d been charged with molesting three more people, all young adults. A conviction on those counts could have sent him to prison for a decade.
“He’s very canny, and he’s a con artist, and you don’t realize that until you’re well into your professional relationship with him,” Serterides said. “Certain things start to pop up, and you realize you’re dealing with a three-dollar bill here.”
Beyond the factors that eased Martinez’s escape, NJ Advance Media’s inquiry revealed gaps in the child-protection measures employed by some Assemblies of God churches: A positive word from a pastor opened doors for a predator vetted by no one.
An Assemblies of God official said Martinez was not ordained by the group and was therefore not subject to a mandatory criminal background check. Yet simply by attending the group’s meetings, networking with its ordained pastors and preaching at its churches, Martinez gained enough trust to be fully accepted by ministers and parishioners alike.
NJ Advance Media found that Martinez’s work in Estelí had been facilitated by Verardo Acosta, a prominent New Jersey pastor and former Assemblies of God leader in the state.
Acosta, 58, of Bergenfield, acknowledged he wrote a letter of recommendation on Martinez’s behalf about four months after the conviction and vouched for him on a trip to the Central American nation in November, telling a council of ministers Martinez represented him there.
The pastor said he also spoke to Martinez by phone as often as three times a week until early this year.
A second Assemblies of God minister from New Jersey, Uriel Sanchez, 38, spent several days in Nicaragua with Martinez in late January, preaching with him at a large outdoor event and staying with him at a church compound in Estelí, according to people who say they saw the pair together. Sanchez presides over a church in the Trenton area.
Both New Jersey pastors said they were unaware of Martinez’s arrest and conviction, which were covered extensively by local media and picked up by news aggregation websites. The stories remain among the top search results under his name on Google.
The probe further revealed how two of Martinez’s close friends — a mother and son who served as alibi witnesses at his trial and who secured his bail with property they now stand to lose — knew he was in Nicaragua but did not alert authorities, according to people who said they met them there.
Jersey City residents Paula Martinez, 52, and Kelvin Martinez, 28, who are not related to Gregorio Martinez, were among the guests at the birthday party in Estelí, the three fellow attendees said.
Both remain deeply involved in a Jersey City church where Gregorio Martinez’s father, Arturo, serves as pastor, the father confirmed.
In a brief telephone interview, Paula Martinez initially said she did not know Gregorio Martinez’s whereabouts. Told that several people in Estelí had placed her and her son at the party, she grew angry and said she could “explain what happened” but needed to return to work.
She later canceled an interview scheduled for the next day.
“I talked to my son, and I want to talk to my lawyer first,” she said. She would not name the attorney.
Both Paula and Kelvin Martinez declined further comment when a reporter knocked on the door of their home on Whiton Street in Jersey City.
Paula Martinez’s older sister, Maria Sanchez, who lives in a second-floor apartment at the home, said she is baffled by the allegiance shown to Gregorio Martinez by her sister and nephew, saying it’s as if they are under the preacher’s spell.
Sanchez — who is not related to Uriel Sanchez, the pastor who visited Estelí — said she has no doubt the two have been in contact with Gregorio Martinez since he fled. Her sister, she said, told her Martinez escaped with a fraudulent passport obtained from a fellow Dominican living in New Jersey.
“They know,” Sanchez said. “They know where he is, may God strike me down.”
➽ Key figures in the search for Gregorio Martinez
➽ Timeline: a Fugitive’s Odyssey
➽ Fugitive preacher allegedly assaults new victim while on the run (July 5, 2016)
An evangelical preacher wanted by authorities in New Jersey for molesting a teenage boy and for allegedly abusing three other young men has been accused by a parishioner of groping a teen in Nicaragua, where the fugitive had been in hiding, according to church officials there.
Gregorio Martinez, whose flight from justice was profiled in a special report by NJ Advance Media in May, allegedly groped a 15-year-old boy in Estelí, Nicaragua, earlier this year, said Pedro Matamoros, the pastor of the church where Martinez lived for about seven months.
Martinez, 48, left the city Feb. 1, after Matamoros learned of his past and confronted him, the pastor said. Later in February, the alleged victim’s mother told the pastor Martinez had touched her son inappropriately in January, Matamoros said in a recent interview. Martinez remains at large.
Enrique Osorio, who presides over a council of Pentecostal churches in the city, confirmed the allegation had been lodged and said he reported it to the national police in Nicaragua.
Authorities, with assistance from Interpol, were hunting for Martinez, Osorio said. A spokesman for the national police in Estelí did not respond to a request for comment. (More)
➽ Fugitive preacher who molested N.J. boy arrested in Honduras (Aug. 21, 2016)
An evangelical preacher who has been on the run since a jury convicted him last year of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy has been arrested in Central America, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office said Sunday.
Gregorio Martinez, whose flight from justice was chronicled in a special report by NJ Advance Media this spring, was detained in Danli, Honduras, on Tuesday, Prosecutor Esther Suarez said in a statement.
Few details were immediately available, but Suarez said Honduran police made the arrest. The U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI had been involved in the hunt for Martinez. It was not clear if representatives of either agency were present when the fugitive was detained.
The prosecutor said her office would be “exploring all options” to return Martinez to New Jersey, where he would face sentencing for the molestation conviction and stand trial on the charges related to the three other teens. (More)
➽ A fugitive’s reckoning: Ex-pastor who fled child sex conviction back on U.S. soil (Aug. 22, 2016)
Days after his arrest in Honduras, a former New Jersey pastor who fled the country following his conviction for molesting a 13-year-old boy has been returned to the United States to face punishment.
Gregorio Martinez was being held Monday in a detention center in Miami, said Nikki Credic, a spokeswoman for the US Marshals Service in Washington D.C. Martinez, 48, was escorted to Florida by marshals on Saturday, Credic said.
It was not immediately clear if U.S. authorities made an official request for extradition or if officials in Honduras voluntarily offered up Martinez, a Dominican who has been criminally charged with sexually assaulting three additional teenagers in Hudson County and who has been accused of molesting another boy in Nicaragua.
NJ Advance Media reported in May the former Jersey City resident had been in hiding in Esteli, Nicaragua, until earlier this year.
Credic said the marshals service’s International Investigations Branch, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security investigated information that led them to believe Martinez was in Honduras.
The federal agencies then “worked with Honduras law enforcement officials to establish surveillance in the town of Danli, Honduras, which led to Martinez’s arrest,” Credic said.
Martinez was detained in Danli Tuesday night, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office announced Sunday, adding that investigators had traced him by following a “money trail.” (More)
➽ Accused child predator, back in U.S., held without bail (Dec. 23, 2016)
The last time Gregorio Martinez stepped foot in a Hudson County courtroom, a jury pronounced him guilty of molesting a 13-year-old boy.
Martinez, an evangelical preacher who held himself out as a prophet, walked out of the courtroom that day, free on $250,000 bail pending sentencing.
Within weeks, he was gone, frustrating his victim’s family and law enforcement officials.
On Friday, 22 months after he vanished, the former Jersey City resident finally returned to a Hudson County courtroom, this time in handcuffs.
Superior Court Judge John A. Young Jr. ordered Martinez, 49, held without bail in connection with the February 2015 conviction on charges of aggravated criminal sexual contact, child abuse and endangering the welfare of a child. (More)