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Bell pastor and his congregants feel vindicated after verdict

Ex-Bell Councilman Luis Artiga, exonerated of 12 counts of misappropriation of public funds, reminds his flock that their church was now cleansed of ridicule and criticism.

March 24, 2013|By Corina Knoll and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Pastor and former Bell City Councilman Luis Artiga,with his daughter Sarah, 7, by his side, clutches a parishioner's hand through a car window after he gave his sermon at Bell Community Church. The congregation was overjoyed and thankful for his acquittal on 12 charges of misappropriation of public funds in the city's salary scandal.
Pastor and former Bell City Councilman Luis Artiga,with his daughter Sarah,… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

His story once made for a shameful headline: a small-town preacher accused of stealing from a working-class community that had trusted him for years.

Arrested on a September morning in 2010, Luis Artiga was dismissed by many as a criminal who hid behind his faith, one in a pack of city leaders who paid themselves handsomely while residents struggled to pay bills.

Initially, Artiga said he believed his near-six-figure salary was "a miracle from God." Later, the day before he was arrested, he was apologetic and called the money "a trap from the devil."

But members of Bell Community Church insisted that the former City Council member and pastor they had known for almost two decades had been falsely accused. And on Sunday — just days after Artiga was exonerated of 12 counts of misappropriation of public funds — the congregation whooped and hollered at the mention of the trial's end.

Despite the reversal of fortune for Artiga, the pastor reminded the church that Sunday's service was not about him, but about keeping faith in God, through whose powers the church was now cleansed of ridicule and criticism.

Before he stepped to the pulpit, children in the congregation presented a special prayer they had prepared for their pastor.

"Thank you, Lord, you took care of him and sent him angels," one boy said, holding one hand over Artiga's head. "You liberated him."

At the end of the service, Artiga expressed his gratitude to the more than 60 people seated in the modest building, where water damage mars the ceiling and the rough seams of the mulberry-colored carpet meet a tarnished wood floor.

"I want to thank everyone for their support. Thank you for the food you provided, for the financial aid, for all those brothers who called, cried and laughed with me," he said in Spanish.

Some members saw the end of the trial as a new chapter for the tiny church on Gage Avenue. "The truth came out and the whole world heard it," said Miguel Vasquez, 49, who began attending the church 10 years ago.

Artiga called his time as an accused criminal "a great, humbling experience." Some parishioners left. Residents approached him on the street just to call him a thief. Once a man spit on him in an alley.

The grinding trial left him mentally and emotionally exhausted, and he took a monthlong break from preaching. The 52-year-old remains wary of reporters, who he said often failed to provide a balanced story.

"They can destroy people's life in an instant," he said. "A pastor stealing is big news for them."

But, he added, "I cannot hold grudges. I have no hard feelings to nobody."

Born in El Salvador, Artiga arrived in the United States in 1979. He began leading the Spanish service at Bell Community Church in 1993 and became the senior pastor a few years later. He and his wife raised their three sons in the small, working-class city of Bell, where mom-and-pop auto businesses, coin laundries and beauty salons dot the main thoroughfares.

Five years ago they adopted a girl from Tijuana with help from a $20,000 loan authorized by then-City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who faces trial later this year. Among the charges against Rizzo is that he illegally lent city money. Artiga paid off the loan after 10 months.

Artiga was appointed to the council in 2008 to fill an unexpired term. By then, council members were already drawing salaries approaching $100,000. Had he been in office earlier, Artiga said he would not have joined other council members in voting for the multiple pay increases. He and five other former officials were charged with boosting their pay from boards and authorities that rarely met. In a mixed verdict last week, the others were found guilty and acquitted on an equal number of charges. Only Artiga was acquitted on all counts.

Artiga said his paycheck was never broken down into specifics.

"It was one check with 80 hours every two weeks," he said.

Anxious when he first appeared in court, Artiga said he began to feel a sense of calm as the trial wore on. He taped signs around his office that read "Not guilty." While in court, he made entries in a journal.

"I can see it, I can hear it, I can see myself glorifying God and hugging and kissing my loved ones and my adversaries as well and for that I thank you, Lord," he wrote on Feb. 22, the day the case went to the jury.

Throughout the trial, Artiga — a hulking man with a constant grin — was gregarious and affable, even with reporters whose stories he disliked. At times, his attorney would have to remind him not to share everything that was on his mind. During lunch breaks, he would stand outside the downtown Los Angeles courthouse and eat a sack lunch. When the verdict came in Wednesday, Artiga broke down as the "not guilty" counts were read. His chest trembled and tears flowed as he looked heavenward. Afterward, he thanked Jesus for delivering him from "false allegations."

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