A California pastor was sentenced to serve more than ten years in prison for duping more than 80 victims - many of them low-income families - in a $7 million Ponzi scheme. Luis Serna, 62, was sentenced to 121 months in federal prison by U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O'Connell, who also ordered Serna to pay $4.6 million in restitution to his victims. Serna previously pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges.
Serna was a pastor at Zion Living Word Christian center in San Fernando. When he was not directing his congregation, Serna was the owner and operator of Architects of the Future Investments ("AFI"), which solicited potential victims by promising annual returns of up to 20% from his prowess as a foreign currency trader. In total, investors entrusted more than $7 million with Serna - of which authorities estimated that $4.6 million was ultimately lost.
However, according to authorities, Serna used very little of the funds raised from investors to trade foreign currency. Rather, Serna admitted to operating a Ponzi scheme by using new investor funds to pay fictitious returns to existing investors. The scheme collapsed when Serna was unable to satisfy monthly obligations to investors, many of whom came from low-income backgrounds. In a statement to the sentencing judge, prosecutors indicated that:
This case involves an egregious fraud that targeted non-wealthy victims who believed in the defendant because he was a pastor. The effects of this crime on the victims are truly devastating in every way. In short (Serna) has caused not only financial loss, but the loss of homes, the loss of ability to pay for education for children, the need to declare bankruptcy, psychological damage, physical damage and endless suffering.
Serna's attorney claimed that Serna had accepted responsibility for his crimes, but sought leniency based on Serna's immigration from Mexico when he was 16 and a difficult upbringing.