What Ochoa Left behind Tells a Story
Parishioner Stuck Paying for Storage Unit after Helping Accused Priest Move out

By Martin Espinoza
The Press Democrat [California]
July 1, 2006

In a chilly Petaluma storage space off Lakeville Highway lie the remnants of the Rev. Xavier Ochoa's life, an existence ruptured by sex abuse charges.

There's the toy police car sticking out of a box, a white ceramic clock with a broken minute hand lodged between boxes of books and picture frames and a shallow box of prescription drugs sitting on a box of clothes.

And there are the photos, hundreds of them, showing the fugitive priest from Sonoma conducting countless religious ceremonies such as baptisms and weddings.

The many smiling faces reflect a Latino community that seemed to love him.

Last week, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office filed 10 felony sex abuse charges against Ochoa, a former assistant pastor at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in Sonoma. The charges involve lewd conduct with three minors, forcible sodomy and forcible oral copulation.

It is believed Ochoa fled to his native Mexico shortly after he first made incriminating statements to church officials April 27.

Just before Ochoa left, on May 1, Sonoma resident and St. Francis parishioner Felix Zamudio went to Ochoa's apartment across the street from the church to help the priest pack his things and put them in storage.

Zamudio agreed to rent the storage space in his own name as a favor to Ochoa, who paid the first month's rental fee and promised to give the unemployed truck driver enough money for several more months. Zamudio said he never saw that money and was forced the pay the rental fee for June.

"What am I supposed to do with this stuff?" said Zamudio, speaking in Spanish. "I already paid $200 for the last month."

Zamudio, who lives in a modest home off Highway 12 in Sonoma, agreed to show the contents of the storage space. Investigators with the sex crimes unit of the Sheriff's Department searched the storage unit in late May and took several items as evidence.

Among the items were a computer, pornographic video tapes, a "plastic penis" and photos of Ochoa and his alleged victims, whose identities are being withheld by investigators.

Zamudio said he and other Latinos in the parish feel betrayed by Ochoa, although he said he and his wife reserve judgment until he is proven guilty.

"But if he's not guilty, why did he flee?" he said.

Zamudio recalled how Ochoa stood on the pulpit a few years ago and asked him and other Latino parishioners to commit themselves to helping the diocese recuperate from financial troubles. He gave $600 in installments.

"He said it was to help the poor, but we all knew the truth," he said, referring to widely reported sex abuse scandals that contributed to a multimillion-dollar diocese debt in 1999.

"I've been trying to get my kids to go to church for years and then things like this happen," he said. "My kids show me the newspaper stories and say, 'Here's your beloved priest.'"

On Friday, Zamudio peered in frustration at jetsam of Ochoa's life in Sonoma County.

"Look at the mess the police left," he said.

One box contained dozens of turquoise-colored plastic rosaries with prayer instruction sheets. Another box contained what looked like handmade wooden maracas (musical instruments) in the shape of holy scepters. A crucifix wrapped in a towel rested against wooden poster and photo frames.

Zamudio said that among the items he helped Ochoa pack were numerous old catalogs and magazines that seemed to have no value.

In the storage space Friday was a large canvas painting depicting thin black silhouettes of wild grass. The faces of toddlers and infants, apparently cut from magazines and catalogs, were pasted over the black stalks of grass.

Next to the canvas was a small white homoerotic statue of two men in embrace.

Zamudio said he has 15 days to empty the storage space. He said he'd like to take it all to the dump.

"But what if he comes back and asks where his stuff is?" he said. "And if they catch him and put him in jail, how's he going to pay what he owes me?"

Zamudio has pitched a shade tent in his back yard where he plans to temporarily store Ochoa's things.


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