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A Born-Again Bank Robber

Mexico's 'Public Enemy No. 1' in the 1980s found religion and a new life in the Southland until his past caught up with him. Fellow church members are shocked by the revelations.

July 31, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't much of a movie. But there's one scene in the 1992 religious comedy "De Lengua Me Como Un Plato" that Mexican police are probably wishing they had noticed.

Late in the film, a Mexico City detective thinks he has finally cornered a notorious bank robber. It was a throwaway scene except for one fact: The bit-part actor who played the detective was in real life Mexico's most notorious fugitive, Alfredo Rios Galeana, a daring and violent serial bank robber who had escaped from prison three times.

After his last breakout, in 1986, he had seemed to disappear -- until earlier this month when he was arrested in South Gate, where he was living under the alias Arturo Montoya.

During his time in California, Montoya kept his past to himself, say friends, fellow church members and business associates. But he didn't hide. He preached openly on street corners. He held Christian revivals in parks and apartment complexes, dressing as a mariachi and performing Christian songs. He raised a family. He built a successful janitorial business. And he grew into a devoted lay leader at a Baptist church.

His luck ended after an informant tipped an investigator with the California Department of Motor Vehicles that Montoya was really Rios Galeana, said Bill Branch, a DMV spokesman.

Investigators took the tip seriously enough that they sent to Mexico for Rios Galeana's fingerprints, which matched those in DMV files, Branch said.

On July 11, investigators from the South Gate Police Department, the DMV and the Department of Homeland Security arrested Montoya outside his home, leaving those in his church wondering how to reconcile the hard-working and deeply religious family man they knew with the violent bank robber who was once Mexico's "Public Enemy No. 1."

Finds Jesus on the Run

The years immediately after Rios Galeana's 1986 prison escape are sketchy. But this much is known: On the run in Mexico, he found Jesus Christ and Arturo Montoya. He took one as his savior, the other as his alias, and made his way to Southern California.

Once here, he bought a house in an immigrant suburb southeast of Los Angeles. And he went looking for a church.

Like many evangelical congregations, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Huntington Park cares more about a man's present than his past. So when a trim fellow with a mustache showed up one day in 1993, no one asked a lot of questions.

Montoya told Ebenezer Baptist's pastor, Melvin Acevedo, that he had been saved in Mexico. He said he lived two blocks away in South Gate and had a wife, three children and a growing janitorial business.

Acevedo said Montoya displayed a deep passion for God and for sharing his faith with others. He was the host of frequent church events at his house. In the last few years, he attended church four times a week and led four Bible study groups. He had a beautiful voice, which he used to perform Christian mariachi.

Montoya often referred to Corinthians II, 5:17: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new."

Friends say Montoya worked day and night to build his janitorial service, Genesis Loami Services Corp., which employed more than 40 people and provided daily cleaning to 10 Ross Dress for Less stores in southeast L.A. County and Orange County.

Ross officials declined to comment. But Ricardo Moreno, a spokesman for Support Services of America in Norwalk, said the company hired Montoya's firm in 1997 to fulfill the Ross contract.

Montoya and his son, Luis, hired, oversaw and paid workers who cleaned the stores, Moreno said.

"He was a pretty good guy. When I heard the news [of his arrest], I was shocked," said Moreno, who is Mexican. "I think I read about him [years ago] in Mexico. I never could have imagined meeting him in the U.S."

Montoya appeared to have close relations with his wife and three children and with a growing pack of Chihuahuas the family bred.

Montoya's church friend Americo Munguia, a 64-year-old former Salvadoran guerrilla, said he initially gave the family two Chihuahuas. They multiplied until the family was caring for 12 of the small dogs.

"They gave them so much love," Munguia said. "He didn't want to give them away."

Montoya's fellow church members have no doubt that he was sincere in his beliefs.

"You cannot imitate a Christian life for 12 or 13 years," Acevedo said. "Jesus said, 'You will know them by their fruit.' The fruit he gave was serious. He was constant."

People who knew him say Montoya told them about acting in the movies, but not how he landed his roles, which also included a bit part in a film called "El Chupes" (The Drunk). The film starred two of Mexico's best-known actors: comic Rafael Inclan and Maria Rojo, a wellregarded actress who in the last decade also has served as a congresswoman and a borough president in the Mexico City government.

Paco Del Toro, owner of Armagedon, the film company that made the movies, declined to be interviewed.

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