False Profit: How an El Mirage Preacher Swindled Followers
Guadalupe Davila Jr. isn't standing at the pulpit of his small church in El Mirage preaching to the congregation about living a godly life. He isn't inside the baptismal font, waist-deep in water and immersing new members and cleansing them of their sins. And he's not at the church's learning center giving children a lesson about the evils of lying.
Instead, on this warm day in May, the 47-year-old is sitting in a crowded El Mirage courthouse waiting for his turn to stand before a city judge. He fidgets, crossing and uncrossing his arms and legs. He places his left ankle on his right knee and anxiously shakes his foot.
The pastor with graying hair swept up into a faux-hawk is here to answer allegations that he repeatedly harassed an ex-girlfriend.
The young woman had been his secret lover for about two years, but she ended the relationship after realizing she wasn't the only church member with whom he was sexually involved. She obtained an order of protection last November.
Davila started barraging her with calls, text messages, and e-mails almost as soon as she stopped attending Primera Iglesia Bautista Camino al Cielo, once affiliated with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.
He sent her hundreds of erratic communiques — one minute telling her he misses her and that God loves her and the next that she's a "fucking bitch" and a "fucking liar." In others, he writes that he's "unsettled with remorse" and that he'll pray for her.
Davila ignored a warning from an El Mirage police detective to stop the campaign, and he was arrested March 22 on two counts of aggravated harassment and for violating a court order. He spent several days, including his birthday, in a Maricopa County lockup.
He pleaded guilty in May and was ordered to attend domestic-violence-intervention counseling and pay more than $650 in fines.
His court appearance for harassment is just the latest of his troubles, evidence that a deceitful world he built has started to crumble.
Former church members and volunteers also sit in the courtroom gallery. The once-loyal parishioners, who donated thousands of hours and dollars to refurbish the church and build up a learning center for children, pulled away from Davila just as he launched another fundraising campaign. His goal was to draw even more money from nearby retirement communities and neighboring churches.
Estranged congregation members tell New Times they believe that as they helped the church and its children, Davila helped himself to donations.
In a promotional video shot in late 2012, Davila pleaded for more volunteers, as well as for window blinds, folding chairs, a big-screen television, and "continual monthly financial support." He used stories of neglected children, photo montages of little brown faces fading in and out, and a backdrop of woeful gospel music.
"We need your help," he implored. "Do it for the little children."
They called him Pastor Lupe.
When volunteers first arrived in 2010, they were smitten by the children living across the street in a strip of worn, government-subsidized apartments. They fell in love, too, with the charismatic, suave preacher.
Without hesitation, they started to improve the learning center and give the church a facelift. They were eager to donate to the cause, opening their hearts and wallets and bringing in other volunteers.
A fundraising campaign surely would attract more of what the longtime parishioners called the "big-money people" — generous Sun City retirees.
Tens of thousands of dollars in cash, checks, gift cards, and materials poured in — not just for the learning center but for the major renovations to the church.
None of it was carefully tracked.
In fact, no one knows for sure how much money was donated. Davila may know, but during a visit to the church in May, he stood with his arms crossed tightly and told New Times repeatedly that he had nothing to say.
When confronted a second time outside the El Mirage Municipal Court about other irregularities at the church, including what appears to be an invalid tax-exempt number he used to collect donations of food and other items from local stores, including Costco, he said several times: "I don't have to tell you anything."
He also wouldn't discuss what happened to money he cleared out of a bank account set up for contributions to the children's center.
Volunteers started coming after Davila enticed a few members of Calvary Church in Surprise to go see the dilapidated church and meet its children. Word quickly spread, drawing more volunteers. Other churches decided to make monthly contributions to the poor El Mirage church.
By spring 2011, Calvary agreed to take on the learning center as part of its outreach ministry. Church volunteers called it the Nehemiah Project, after the biblical prophet said to have led the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
At first, no one saw past Davila's whitewashed veneer.
After all, he'd spent years cloaking himself in Holy Scripture. His personality, piety, and the children with whom he surrounded himself made him an endearing character in El Mirage and beyond.
He developed a bond with certain retirees, a few of whom he even called Mom and Dad. And, when he needed or wanted money — which he frequently did — he knew they were good for it.
He often told a story that he'd been ordered by God to care for poor children.
"You will start a learning center, my servant," he'd claim God told him. "And you will help the deprived children of El Mirage, Arizona, with their needs."
The children arrived twice a week for help with their homework, lessons about Jesus and hygiene, and a hot meal prepared by volunteers from other churches.
He concealed from members and volunteers that he'd been involved in sexual relationships with two church members at the same time. And until his arrest in March, those closest to him didn't know he'd chronically violated an order of protection filed against him by the young woman who ended the relationship.
Davila didn't disclose to parishioners that he's a former Goodyear police officer and a felon. He was busted in 1998 for stealing money earmarked for drug buys while he was working undercover on a special task force connected to the FBI. He was arrested, pleaded guilty, and spent five months in a federal prison near Seattle in 1999.
He didn't tell them, even though they asked, that none of the requisite paperwork had been filed with state and federal officials for the church's nonprofit, tax-exempt status.
After he welcomed them into the church, he was careful never to give them as much as a peek into the church's finances.
Donations for the children's center weren't the only sources of revenue during those flush times. Some Calvary volunteers started to regularly attend Camino al Cielo, and its Sunday offerings skyrocketed from a few dollars, some of it loose change, to several thousand dollars in a typical month.
Former parishioners Elizabeth Rojas and Dolores Garcia say they were at different times in charge of counting the offerings, and the money coming in was significant.
"One lady — I was shocked — we got $1,500 from," Garcia says. "And, every now and then, she would give $500 or $600. And we had other people, the snowbirds, we got nice amounts from them."
Other churches also took on Camino al Cielo as a part of their mission, including Happy Trails Christian Fellowship in Surprise. Happy Trails made a $1,500 donation, and it was poised to set up an ongoing monthly contribution to Davila.
Surprise's Radiant Church sent over its members to improve landscaping, add a playground and volleyball court, and paint Camino al Cielo's exterior — everything was donated and installed by volunteers.
Some came from Horizon Church, also in Surprise, to work with the children, and they reached deep into their pockets to help Davila.
Skyway Church in Goodyear had provided a $300 monthly donation to the El Mirage church since Davila's dad was at the pulpit. Skyway Pastor Greg Brown had known the senior Davila for decades, and it was he who ordained Davila Jr. as a minister of God on November 9, 2011.
And on March 29, 2013 — eight days after Davila's arrest — it was Brown who stripped Davila of his ministerial license and ordination, telling him in an e-mail that he was in need of help because of his dangerous "patterns of dishonesty and deceit."
Davila also solicited donations by calling in regularly to a talk show on Family Life Radio, which broadcasts to about 15 million listeners across 11 states, and talked about his church and its "many needs." For ministering to children and the poor, the station recognized Davila as a Hope Hero of the Week in March 2012 — although Davila likes to say he was dubbed "hero of the year."
Volunteers tell New Times that, about that time, the church also received out-of-state donations.
Money was coming in from many directions — and church members who requested an accounting of it say Davila rebuffed them. Those who pressed too much for answers were shamed, by name, from the pulpit as Davila openly prayed to God that they leave his church.
Alan Thompson, an associate pastor at Calvary Church in Surprise, rests his Bible on his crossed legs as he reads aloud from 2 Corinthians.
"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ," he says. "No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
He reads a few more verses before he sets down the Good Book and pulls off his reading glasses.
"That sums up what we're seeing," he says of Calvary's experience with Davila. "There has been a lot of deception."
Calvary Church started helping Camino al Cielo in spring 2011.
When members first heard about the church in El Mirage, Thompson recalls, the congregation thought that helping it would be a great way to make a difference.
Calvary and other volunteer groups repaired the church's frayed electrical wires and installed new wood floors and new windows. Some drove to Sedona to pick up newer pews, bought appliances (including a new kitchen sink), painted the church, and added playful and artistic murals to the building.
They even added a bell to the church tower and renovated the pastor's office.
Amid all the work, including tending to children, money kept coming. Well-intentioned volunteers stuffed donations for the children's center in an envelope and kept only a rudimentary accounting. They say donors also gave funds and gift cards directly to Davila, but they have no idea how much money was involved.
They agreed to open a joint bank account in January 2012 to keep better track of how the money was used. Davila, however, arrived at the bank early and opened the account himself, with volunteers getting limited access as "signers" on the account.
It wasn't long before Davila claimed that a family had an emergency, forcing him to pull money out of the children's fund. Some suggested that he get the money out of the church's general fund — not the specialized account — but they relented after he insisted. Bank records show that he took out $200 and that he didn't repay the account another $250 he owed.
One woman gave about $300 in Walmart gift cards to Davila for window coverings. She later asked some of the volunteers whether they had received them. They said no but that it surely was just an oversight by the busy pastor who'd forgotten to pass along the cards.
When they asked him, they say, he acknowledged receiving the cards but said he'd forgotten them at home. Each time they asked about the cards, they say, he had a ready answer.
The cards never materialized.
One of Davila's former lovers says she saw Davila take liberties with church donations, including exchanging donated gift cards for Visa gift cards to use in nearby casinos.
Church volunteers overseeing the Nehemiah Project called for a meeting in late March 2012 to discuss these issues. What they didn't realize was that Davila already had quietly emptied the account of its nearly $3,600, bank records show.
And, as he'd done with others who'd demanded accountability, he shoved Calvary out the door.
During the meeting, he told volunteers to "be on board" with what he wants or "they could leave." After this meeting, Calvary decided it was time to cleanse itself of Davila.
In an April 4, 2012 e-mail to Thompson, Davila wrote that Camino al Cielo had voted that his group needs to move on with another ministry.
"No way is Calvary Chapel in Surprise in charge of our accounts," Davila wrote in a two-page e-mail. "The funds have been frozen, since many of your people and those [who] are [listed on] the accounts have resigned."
However, Wells Fargo records show that the account wasn't frozen but zeroed out on March 23, 2012 — 12 days before Davila sent his e-mail to Thompson.
Davila then accused Calvary members of "spreading rumors" and ordered them to "stop their mouth immediately in the name of Jesus." He lamented that Calvary members carry a "seed of division" and harbor "jealousy and anger" toward Camino al Cielo.
As Thompson goes over the e-mail, he shakes his head.
He says he reached out to Davila at least five times, but the preacher refused to meet him or to return his calls. As a pastor himself, Thompson says, he felt obligated to call other churches involved and express concern about Davila's operation.
Naomi Holtan, a member of Happy Trails Christian Fellowship, says her church cut off funding and its association with Davila after learning that he was "not living as a Christian" — that is, having affairs with church members and refusing to be open about church finances.
"He was doing lots of good for the children, and he had a good thing going," Holtan says. "But he wasn't practicing what he preached. It's sad, but the devil never sleeps."
Erin Wiens, a representative of Radiant Church's outreach programs, tells New Times that Radiant's relationship with Davila and was limited to sending 300 volunteers to the church for two hours to put in volleyball courts, install a playground, upgrade landscaping, plant trees, and provide clothing for families.
Skyway Church's Brown tried reaching out to Davila when calls started coming in about his behavior.
"You are a man in need of real help," Brown wrote in a March 28 e-mail to Davila, criticizing him for returning to the church after he was released from jail.
"Your speech to the people did not contain all the facts of your failures, but a mixture of enough truth combined with manipulative words . . . to sway the crowd, to make you [seem] like the victim."
Brown noted that Davila and his "ways of deceiving others to get [his] way" hadn't stopped, adding:
"I can no longer give you the credentials to be a minister of the gospel . . .Your license and ordination to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ will be revoked immediately."
Some were shocked when they learned of Davila's arrest, even wanting to rush to his aid, certain he'd been wronged.
Among the last volunteers to step back were Donna and Rod Hennig, church members heavily involved with the learning center.
The couple opened their house and even set up a bedroom in which Davila could "rest." He stayed there from time to time during summers, when they were out of town, calling their home his "oasis."
Only later would they learn that he brought one of his lovers to the oasis.
"We were all suckers," says Donna Hennig. "He's such a manipulator."
Rod Hennig, whom Davila appointed as principal of the learning center, had trouble seeing past the children.
He and Donna first heard about the church when they were in Seattle and received a call from a Calvary Church member excited about helping El Mirage's kids.
"When we came back, we rolled our sleeves up and started working," Donna says.
As Brown said about Davila's behavior, the preacher told them and other volunteers that he was a victim or was under attack by those raising questions about his administration of the church.
"He always had a plausible explanation, every time," Rod says. "We were defending him."
Drawn in by the children, the couple says they personally got taken by Davila for at least $6,000 — not including their donations to the church and money they spent buying items for the learning center.
The couple says they gave Davila money for backhoe classes that he never took and for a landscaping trailer that he never bought. When he was fired from a landscaping company, they gave him money to hire an attorney because he said he was wrongfully terminated. He never hired a lawyer.
Several volunteers at the children's center hired Davila, who claimed he was a master gardener, to do landscaping. They say he took their money up front and didn't finish jobs.
In retrospect, the Hennigs can see the many problems with Davila.
"All the treasurers did was count the money on Sundays," Rod says. "[Davila] was solely responsible for finances. And when we asked about it, he would say he was going to add us to the bank account. Or that he was too busy to talk about it because he was on his way to pray for a child dying of cancer."
After police accused Davila of violating the order of protection and arrested him, members quickly called a meeting. Unbeknownst to them, Davila was out on bail and showed up at the church. He told them he was stepping down, but he never did.
"There were a lot of older people, retirees, with good hearts. They just wanted to help," Donna says. "But he just saw dollar signs."
Davila's proclivity for easy money landed him in federal prison for five months and cost him his career as a cop, even though he earned a reputation in law enforcement as a top undercover detective.
Davila's supervisors "in an elite Arizona anti-gang unit have praised him for an uncanny ability to infiltrate the tightest gangs, bust up drug rings, and shut down operators dealing explosives and guns," the Arizona Republic reported in July 1998.
His arrest on corruption charges came after Davila "encouraged an informer to sell drugs on the side and took $6,000 while promising to shield the informer from arrest," the Associated Press reported a month later.
The AP report noted that "financial problems were apparently plaguing Davila at the time. He said he told the informer he needed $1,000 to pay a credit card debt."
Though he lost his law enforcement career, the skills that allowed him to deceive drug dealers and gang members and, according to the AP article, "switch gears at a moment's notice" came in handy.
Dealing with church volunteers requesting financial accountability must have been, at first, a breeze for Davila after tangling with violent gangs.
But Dolores Garcia, who attended Camino al Cielo for about four years and treated Davila as a son, says, "He [eventually] played with the wrong people, and they wanted facts."
He took "money from different people who aren't as forgiving," she says. "I don't want to call him a moocher, but I think that's why he's in trouble."
After comparing notes with other volunteers, Garcia says, she and her husband discovered that they'd given Davila money for some of the same expenses that volunteers such as the Hennigs already had covered.
She doesn't hold a grudge but says she's through with the man she and her husband took on vacations with them, including a trip to Las Vegas.
When they invited Davila to go with them to a Vegas casino, she says, he "never had money."
But when he took his girlfriends to local casinos on his own, Garcia found out, "He was dishing out money out of I don't know where."
Between casino romps, sexual liaisons, and keeping church finances cloaked, Davila kept delivering Sunday sermons about forgiveness and humility, about living a life according to God's word. He even chastised one churchgoer publicly for living with a man while her husband was in jail.
Few knew, but many suspected, that the preacher hardly practiced the morality he preached.
Davila's harassed ex-girlfriend showed New Times the text messages and e-mails he inundated her with after she broke off the relationship.
They hardly are the stuff that pious pastors are supposed to be made of.
The 27-year-old says the relationship started when she reached out to Davila for counseling for past sexual abuse. She says things quickly became intimate.
When she learned that he was living with a woman in Phoenix and dating others besides her, she says, she broke it off. That's when he started sending her more than a thousand erratic, sexually charged text messages.
In October 2012, he texted her in detail about having a sexually transmitted disease, as well as lice, that he claimed he contracted from her.
He and his doctor, he wrote, "did a time [chart] of yours and my sexual activity. We have been sexually active vaginally, orally, and [anally], and these are the ways to cont[r]act the disease. It took it about [three] weeks for it to cause me the drip."
Then, he questioned whether she'd been faithful to him.
She mostly ignored his messages but eventually replied that she wasn't sick and asked him to leave her alone.
By January, as volunteers pondered where the church money was going, Davila blamed the woman and her family.
"U and ur mom better not contact my friends. If u guys do, I will execute my legal options . . . u guys have hurt me and defamed and slander[ed] me enough," he texted on January 25, 2013.
But that evening, he sent more messages, telling her his "heart is unsettled with remorse" and that he wanted her to forgive him.
In February, he again accused her of slandering him.
"So you slander me with Calvary Church people, but when you were [f]ucking me and sucking my d[i]ck, you were on my side. What a hypocrite you turned out to be. See you in court. Stop talking sh[i]t and quit slandering me. Bye."
But among such messages was this one: "Happy Valentine's day. You are loved, and I will always be your greatest fan. You inspire me in so many ways. Loves always, [L]upe."
Longtime parishioners tell New Times that they recall Davila as unpredictable and temperamental when his father still was pastor, which gave them pause about inviting him to lead the church.
Camino al Cielo not only had suffered the loss of its pastor in August 2008, but the man who stepped in to take his place — Raymundo Santiago Ramos (Davila Jr.'s brother-in-law) was arrested for molesting a 12-year-old girl from the church just eight months later, on March 14, 2009.
County Superior Court records show that a judge sentenced Ramos to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty. He told police that he touched the girl's breasts only so "they would grow." He admitted touching her other private parts, having her touch his, and offering to lend her pornographic movies as a way to educate her "about different sexual body parts."
Church members, like sheep without a shepherd, reached out for help from the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, the entity that had donated their building to them in 1980.
Some recall that the Convention dispatched a pastor after the Ramos debacle, and after a couple sermons, he declared the church dead because of its paltry attendance.
Members reluctantly turned to the younger Davila.
When he took over, Davila listed Elizabeth Rojas as church treasurer on annual reports required by the Arizona Corporation Commission. He misspelled her name and listed her home address incorrectly.
"I never signed anything," Rojas tells New Times, adding that she was unaware that Davila even used her name. "I used to count the money, but he never let me see any of the bank statements or let me deposit the money."
Dolores Garcia has a similar story about her role as treasurer. She, too, would only count the money and turn it over Davila.
"That's what he told me to do," she says. "I would ask him about it, and, every time, he would just tell me that the bank would send me statements. I never did get a statement from the bank" over four years. When she suggested that she should deposit money to maintain the integrity of the treasury, she quotes him as telling her: "Well, I get to do that because I'm the pastor."
Rojas says the church ran differently when Davila's father was alive — there were business meetings and regular public accountings, complete with details of what was spent and how much was collected in donations.
Davila Jr., however, is known to have yelled at churchgoers if they asked about money. And he never hesitated to boot out detractors.
One banished member had attended the church since the 1970s. He was baptized in 1982 by Davila Sr., pastor for three decades.
The man pulls from a pile of papers an index card, dated November 2011, informing him that he'd been "removed from membership per vote of the church."
Other members confirm that there never was such a vote to oust the man whose only sin was questioning the pastor too often. The detractor never returned to Camino al Cielo.
A few longtime congregation members who were removed from the church, or left in disgust, tell New Times that they suspect Davila's holding on as pastor in anticipation of a much larger payout.
Plans long have been under discussion among state, county, and city officials to expand El Mirage Road from two lanes to five. Though there are no immediate plans to expand the road along church property, the church will have to be torn down when the thoroughfare's eventually widened. Then, the church must be financially compensated.
The county Assessor's Office lists the value of the church at $86,600. But because of volunteers' renovation of it, the building's worth far more, members believe.
Certain members say Davila told them that, if they supported him as pastor, he'd split the money with them when the payoff comes.
The church is owned by the membership — the deed is in the name of Primera Iglesia Bautista Camino al Cielo and is signed by Davila's late father.
Lately, Davila has scrambled to get documents filed with the Corporation Commission in an attempt to restore the church's tax-exempt status.
A search of federal tax databases doesn't yield any record of the church or the identification number Davila or his members were required to present when collecting food and other donations from places such as Costco, Fry's, and home-improvement stores.
Once word got back to those companies about Davila's arrest and the church's uncertain tax-exempt status, they also stopped donating, the Hennigs say.
Volunteers who never before spoke out — Davila posted messages on his Facebook page that they shouldn't — now are exchanging stories with former members about Davila.
A woman who lives in an apartment complex across from the church obtained an order of protection against Davila this month after he sent threatening messages to her Facebook account.
He contested the order granted by a judge. And before his court date, the church member got this message: "You better not show up to court or [you're] going to get it."
Other messages that prompted the order of protection: "Don't be surprised if you and your friend Donna get hurt"; "I don't care if you told Donna about me [threatening her with] burning down her house. There's no proof I said that. And no one will believe you"; and "Your the one that's going to burn along with the rest of the trashy people that live there. I'm saved. There is no way I [can] burn. The devil don't want me."
Moments later, another message came through: "I'm sorry. It's just that I miss you. You were my best friend and now you turned on me."
Some of the members feel broken spiritually after their experiences with Davila. Others are angry and want Davila held accountable. A few find it easier to just move on.
Garcia is among the latter.
She says she and her husband found a new church that "speaks from the Bible." The "last year or two, at Camino al Cielo, it was all about the pastor — him, him, him. Nothing biblical, and we weren't getting anything out of it."
Dianne Pratt Doerschel, a retired teacher who volunteered to teach the young students who showed up at the church after school, says:
"We were so bamboozled. And he had all of these wonderful people involved. It could have been so amazing. And he ruined it."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Stephen Colbert's Audience Boos U.S. Senator John McCain
Tue., Oct. 13, 7:00pm
Wed., Oct. 14, 3:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
- ACLU Vows to Appeal SB 1070 Ruling That Allows Cops to Investigate Suspects'...
- Loop 101 Shooting Incident Not Related to I-10 Shootings, DPS Says