BY PATRICIA MAZZEI, MICHAEL SALLAH AND GERARDO REYES
SANTO DOMINGO — The man providing legal advice to American church workers charged with trying to take children out of Haiti did jail time in the United States for bank fraud years before emerging as the key suspect in a child prostitution ring in El Salvador, according records and interviews.
The mother and stepfather of Jorge Anibal Torres Puello told The Miami Herald in an extensive interview Saturday the fugitive wanted by Salvadoran police was their son, who has been advising the church volunteers in the unfolding legal drama.
“That’s him,” a teary Ana Puello said from her modest home in the outskirts of Santo Domingo. “But those things they say about him, I doubt they’re true . . . He told me, `Mami, I swear I didn’t.’ He would never hurt a child.”
Though his wife was convicted in the case, Torres Puello left the country — wanted by Salvadoran police — before ending up in Haiti.
A self-styled lawyer with no Dominican law degree, Torres Puello has had other brushes with the law, including a charge in Miami in 1999 for possessing fake documents, records show. His bond was later revoked and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The revelations represent another twist in the drama surrounding the church workers from Idaho, who have been jailed for trying to take 33 children from Haiti without permission after the earthquake ripped through Port-au-Prince on January 12.
It’s unclear how the 32-year-old Torres Puello became involved with the Central Valley Baptist Church, or when he met the group’s controversial leader, Laura Silsby.
But his stepfather, Franco Cerminara, said his son had no intention of taking the children to the United States, but to a church in the Dominican Republic where space had already been leased.
Cerminara added that he went with his son to take food and medication to the jailed church workers. Torres Puello could not be reached for comment Saturday.
For the past 10 days, Torres Puello has been a visible figure in the church case, granting interviews with reporters about his role as legal advisor to the group.
But little was known about his background until Friday, when Salvadoran police announced an investigation into whether Torres Puello was the same suspect who led the notorious trafficking ring.
Using photographs and fingerprints, police say they are close to confirming that he is the same man wanted since last year for leading a large network that recruited children for prostitution in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
In the interview with The Herald, Torres Puello’s mother confirmed that her son’s wife — Ana Josefa Galvarina Ramirez Orellana — was already convicted in the case and remains in jail in San Salvador.
Police broke up the ring last year after three children, 14, 15 and 16, escaped from a house in El Salvador and went to the police to report they had been forced to pose naked to promote the enterprise.
Torres Puello managed to leave the country, but his wife was arrested.
His mother said that for most of his adult life, Torres Puello has moved around to different places — including living in Miami in the 1990s — sometimes getting into trouble.
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., he was raised mostly by his grandmother in Santo Domingo, but began to change after moving to Miami during his teenage years.
“Jorge was a clean boy; he never wore jeans,” Cerminara said. “He was mentally precocious, and he never came home late.”
After settling in Miami-Dade, she said he began dating a stripper who was 10 years older — creating tensions between he and his mother.
During a fight, he moved out of the house — calling the North Bay Village police to complain about his mother — and by 1995 he married his first wife, Valerie Sara Ramos Velasquez, public records show.
At some point he joined the U.S. Army, his mother said, displaying a photograph of Torres Puello in uniform posing next to an Army tank.
Though sketchy, records show he was arrested in Miami in November 1999 for carrying false identification — a felony — but it’s not clear whether he appeared in court. Once the bond was revoked, a warrant was issued.
His mother said her son has served federal prison time in the United States. Records show he was indicted for bank fraud by a federal grand jury in Philadelphia in 1998 and was released from prison in January 2002.
It’s not clear whether he violated the terms of his release, but a warrant was issued ten months later and he is now wanted by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Cerminara, his stepfather, said Torres Puello was released on parole after Cerminara traveled to the United States to testify on his behalf.
By 2005, he had divorced his first wife, records show, and eventually remarried Ramirez — who already had several children — living in Puerto Rico and possibly even Canada before returning to Santo Domingo a few years ago and buying a house with a pool.
She said the family lived in El Salvador until “a few long months ago,” when he called his mother from Guatemala.
“He said, `Mami, I’m in trouble. Please send me a ticket home,’ ” she said. She and her husband had to take out a loan to pay for it, but they did.
Since then, Torres Puello has apparently worked as a legal consultant, though his parents and a cousin said he’s not a licensed attorney.
A spokeswoman for Universidad del Caribe in Santo Domingo, where his mother said her son had taken some legal courses, said Torres Puello had enrolled twice for classes, in 2000 and 2007, but had either withdrawn or never showed up to class.
On his voicemail, Torres Puello describes himself, in English, as an attorney-at-law.
While Torres Puello has been telling reporters during recent interviews that he is convert to Judaism and is president of the Sephardic Jewish Community in the Dominican Republic, several Jewish leaders say they have never heard of him.
“I don’t know any Jews by that name,” said Rabbi Shimon Pelman, head of the Chabad Lubavitch of the Dominican Republic.
“The only Jewish community in the Dominican Republic is the chabad community or the Centro Israelita community. I know everybody, and he doesn’t exist.”