Nationwide manhunt for a fake priest who stole faith as well as cash ends in Moreno Valley

A notorious fake priest who left a trail of doubt and disbelief among the faithful he's accused of swindling from coast to coast will soon face judgment in Riverside County, sheriff's officials say.

For months, Malin Rostas, accused of calling himself “Father Martin,” allegedly donned black garb and showed up at Catholic churches across the U.S. and Canada claiming to be “a visiting priest from Chicago,” according to investigators.

But when his all-too-trusting hosts would leave him alone in the rectory — a priest’s personal quarters next to the church — investigators say Rostas would rifle through their valuables and make a hasty exodus with their cash.

In March, Father Peter Raydar, of the American Martyrs Roman Catholic Church in Queens, N.Y., got burned for $900.

“He’s a vulture, he’s a vulture,” Raydar told a local TV station. “It’s very sad that someone is going to come to any house of worship and just violate everybody.”

But, Raydar confessed, the alleged fake priest had done his homework. He’d learned the names of people at the church, used ecclesiastical vocabulary and knew where to find the loot, he said.

Rostas is accused of pulling a similar caper at a church in Houston, allegedly making off with $500. And authorities say they suspect him in the theft of more than $1,700 from a church in Oregon.

There’s nothing new about diabolical scammers posing as men of the cloth, of course.

In October, the Diocese of Stockton issued a warning about two men who had assumed the identities of real priests in Toluca, Mexico, and were charging mostly immigrant parishioners exorbitant fees to perform impromptu rituals: baptisms, confirmations, first Communions.

The “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” as a diocese spokeswoman described the men to the National Catholic Register, also started demanding copies of the parishioners' birth certificates, raising fears of identity theft and possible human trafficking.

In Miami, church officials recently warned the faithful about fake priests performing bogus rituals in exchange for iTunes gift cards loaded with cash. One parishioner was duped for $1,500.

Read more: A priest walked into this taqueria. The owner wanted employees to 'confess' sins at work

It got so bad, the local archbishop had to go on TV and remind his flock that, although it is common for priests to pass around the collection plate asking for money during Mass, "no Catholic clergyman will ask a parishioner for a gift card."

But perhaps the most inspired recent priest scam occurred in Sacramento, when the owners of a small chain of taquerias that was under federal investigation for labor law violations hired a fake father to hear employees’ confessions.

“I found the conversation to be strange and unlike normal confessions,” one of the servers later told investigators.

Instead of giving her space to search her soul and reflect on her sins, the fake priest kept steering the conversation to her job performance: asking if the server ever showed up late, stole from the restaurant or did anything to harm her employer.

For "Father Martin," the reckoning arrived Thursday morning in Moreno Valley in the form of Riverside County sheriff’s deputies who said they noticed his car matched the description of a vehicle used in a string of burglaries.

Behind the wheel they found Rostas, 45, of New York. After running a routine check for arrest warrants, they quickly realized they were face to face with what so many had been searching for — the man accused of being the pilfering padre.

Rostas was booked at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside on an outstanding felony warrant from Pennsylvania. More charges are expected to be filed soon, according to the Sheriff's Department.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.