This story was published on NJ.com on Dec. 23, 2016. It can be found here.
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.
Additionally, Young set bail at a combined $1 million cash on other counts alleging Martinez sexually assaulted three other people, all 19-year-old men he had met through churches in Hudson County.
“It’s obvious Mr. Martinez, but for the extraordinary effort of law enforcement to secure his return, had no intention of coming back,” Young said. “If given the opportunity, he would again leave.”
Martinez, whom NJ Advance Media tracked to Nicaragua earlier this year, was arrested in neighboring Honduras in late August and swiftly transferred to a detention facility in Miami. Because he fought extradition to New Jersey, he was not returned to Hudson County until Thursday.
In court, Assistant Prosecutor Linda Claude-Oben described Martinez’s extraordinary efforts to avoid capture, hopscotching from one Central American nation to the next.
When Honduran authorities detained him in the town of Danli, near the country’s southern border with Nicaragua, all 10 of his fingertips were bloody and bandaged, suggesting he intentionally tried to obliterate his fingerprints, Claude-Oben said.
Martinez, unshaven and dressed in green prison clothing, listened quietly as a Spanish-language interpreter translated the proceedings. Early in the hearing, he smiled and warmly greeted defense lawyer Anthony Carbone, whose firm represented him at trial.
He spoke little, saying only that he did not know to whom the judge was referring when Young used the initials of the three young men he is charged with sexually assaulting.
Young set Martinez’s arraignment on those charges for Jan. 23. He is to be sentenced for molesting the 13-year-old on March 24. He faces up to five years in prison. It was not immediately clear if he will be charged with fleeing.
Martinez remains in the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny.
In a brief press conference after the hearing, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said her office, in conjunction with federal authorities, worked tirelessly to find Martinez, who has connections throughout Latin America because of previous evangelical missions.
She also credited NJ Advance Media, which reported in May that Martinez had been hiding in the city of Esteli, Nicaragua. The fugitive, with help from a New Jersey pastor, had secured a position at a church there.
Two reporters traveled to Esteli in late February but missed Martinez by little more than two weeks, according to residents of the community. It’s unclear if he went directly to Honduras.
Martinez had been living in a church compound affiliated with the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. Members of the congregation called him a charismatic figure who regularly preached at religious festivals and churches across the city, inspiring the faithful with spirited sing-song messages about heaven and hell.
He claimed he could cure illness and cast out demons. On many occasions, he spoke in tongues.
After Martinez left Esteli, the mother of a 15-year-old boy told the church’s pastor that Martinez had groped her son, NJ Advance Media reported in July. The pastor said he reported the claim to police in Nicaragua.
Suarez, who was present in court for Friday’s hearing, said authorities found evidence Martinez had also traveled to Guatemala and Panama while on the run.
The prosecutor has previously said investigators followed a money trail to track Martinez, a native of the Dominican Republic.
She said it was gratifying to have him back in N.J.
“It’s very satisfying for us as prosecutors and for the victims,” she said.
Suarez declined to say if she would pursue charges against two Jersey City residents who visited Martinez in Nicaragua. Paula Martinez, 52, and her son, Kelvin, 28, were aware of the preacher’s criminal case and had used their home to secure his bail. They are not related to Martinez.
NJ Advance Media previously obtained photos of the two with Gregorio Martinez at a lavish birthday party the preacher threw for himself in Esteli.
In court Friday, Claude-Oben, the assistant prosecutor, addressed the issue of why Martinez was allowed to remain free on bail in 2015, saying the defendant did not have a criminal history and that the charge on which he was convicted was a third-degree offense with a presumption of non-incarceration.
➽ A preacher’s flight from justice (May 24, 2016)
➽ Fugitive preacher allegedly assaults new victim while on the run (July 5, 2016)
➽ Fugitive preacher who molested N.J. boy arrested in Honduras (Aug. 21, 2016)
➽ Ex-pastor who fled after sex conviction returned to New Jersey (Dec. 22, 2016)