Fort Worth

Former minister sentenced to 40 years for sexually assaulting teenage Fort Worth girl

Former minister Geronimo Aguilar talks to his lawyer Monday, Oct. 12, 2015.
Former minister Geronimo Aguilar talks to his lawyer Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. Star-Telegram

Geronimo Aguilar, a former minister praised for his good work in his churches, was sentenced Tuesday to 40 years in prison for sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the 1990s in Tarrant County.

Aguilar, 45, who has been in jail since his conviction in June, faced a life sentence on two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child — a girl who was 13 when he started having sex with her in October 1996.

Aguilar was not convicted of sexually assaulting the girl’s younger sister, as was previously reported. An aggravated sexual assault charge is still pending in that case, prosecutors said.

Aguilar had asked state District Judge Louis Sturns to sentence him. Sturns ordered a pre-sentencing report and heard 1  1/2 days of testimony this week from people who know Aguilar.

In pronouncing sentence, Sturns called Aguilar’s flawed character — his constant quest for sex contrasted with his ability to be a good minister — a tragedy of “epic proportions.”

Aguilar has been credited with establishing a large church in one of the worst neighborhoods on the south saide of Richmond, Va.

“I don’t have any doubt that your ministry did good things,” Sturns said. “The state attorney general, the governor, the police chief, fire officials, an impressive number of people felt strongly about your ministry. That you were able to establish a ministry like that in such a short period of time is amazing.”

But that made what Sturns characterized as Aguilar’s “campaign of destruction” all the more devastating.

“You had an opportunity to do things that very few people could do,” Sturns said. “The fact that you had such great gifts and were not able to use them properly is what makes this case one of my most difficult.”

A troubled family

Witnesses called by Aguilar’s attorneys this week said they did not recognize the man who seduced, coerced and sexually assaulted teenage and pre-teen girls and also had sex with married women who were members of his church. The defense witnesses said they knew a minister who clothed the naked, fed the hungry and housed the homeless.

Aguilar grew up in a troubled family, relatives said. Faye Zucker, his mother’s cousin, testified that Aguilar was 8 or 9 when his stepfather fatally shot his mother in the head five times.

Years later, when Aguilar met his biological father, Phil Aguilar, who founded a motorcycle-themed church in California called Set Free Ministries, their relationship had problems, his uncle, Mel Aguilar, testified.

“My nephew needed a better representative. His dad didn’t dad him,” Mel Aguilar said, looking directly at Aguilar’s father, who was sitting in the gallery. “Your father should have helped you. You should have been there.”

Mel Aguilar said his brother had an affair with his wife, and he and his wife eventually divorced because of her affairs.

“My wife had six affairs, but you know what, I forgave her for every one of them,” Mel Aguilar said. “I forgive my brother. I still love my brother. I forgive my ex-wife. I still love my ex-wife. There is still love there. There is still use.”

Mel Aguilar told Sturns that his nephew needed restoration, that he understood the gravity of the crimes he had committed and that he could still do good for the community. After visiting Aguilar in jail, Mel Aguilar said, he met men who credited his nephew with changing their lives and bringing them to Christ.

After leaving Fort Worth in 2003, Aguilar and his wife moved to Richmond, where he started the Richmond Outreach Center (The ROC) in a warehouse with only a few members. It grew to have several thousand members. The ROC had a salon, a gym, a laundromat, a clothing pantry where the church almost gave clothes away, among other programs, Mel Aguilar said.

“There’s going to be a penalty, I understand that. But we need to start restoring this man. He did the best he could with what he had where he was at,” Mel Aguilar said. “Christians are the only people who shoot their wounded.”

But Nickols asked Mel Aguilar how many young girls had to be victimized before the judge could begin to think about restoration for them and their families, and punishment for the crimes that were committed.

“I think you can agree with me that the best way to restore these families is to put the person who harmed them in a place where he can no longer harm anyone else?” Nickols asked Mel Aguilar.

Mel Aguilar said he did not know if he could agree with that.

In an interview outside the courtroom, Phil Aguilar, who did not testify, said he appreciated what his younger brother said.

“He's been with me through the good, bad and ugly, even though I did him wrong,” Phil Aguilar said. “He's my youngest brother, and I really love him for saying that and it proves how much a man of God he really is.”

Phil Aguilar said he was not always the best father, but said he loves his son.

“I’m a slow learner and a late bloomer,” he said. “God always saves the best wine for last.”

Ruined lives

The sisters at the center of the case testified in June that they grew up with Aguilar in communal homes owned by Phil Aguilar’s Set Free Church in Anaheim, Calif.

Geronimo Aguilar married his wife, Samantha, there in 1995 when she was 17. They soon moved to Fort Worth to the New Beginnings International Church, where he was music minister, according to testimony. The family of the two sisters followed the Aguilars to Fort Worth.

In December 2007, the older sister, then 30, told authorities in Anaheim and Fort Worth that Aguilar had repeatedly sexually assaulted her, beginning in October 1996, when she was 13, and continuing until she was nearly 15. The encounters occurred at their communal home, in motels, in the church van, in the church bathroom and in public restrooms, she told police.

The younger sister told police that she had sex with Aguilar beginning when she was 11. She said the abuse happened in the home and while she cleaned at the church.

He was indicted by a Tarrant County grand jury in 2014.

On Monday, the sisters testified that their lives have been in shambles since they became involved with Aguilar while living in the house with him and their parents.

“It’s ruined so many relationships in my life,” the younger sister testified. “He was part of my family and they loved him, and when that happened I felt like they hated me. It’s like I ruined their big dreams of being a part of a ministry like Set Free.

“My sister and I hated each other. We went years without talking to each other as adults. It created this competition between us.”

Aguilar’s 15-year-old daughter, now attending school in Tarrant County, said the family moved back to Texas from Virginia to be closer to Aguilar and to visit him in jail. He is and has been a good father, his daughter said. Aguilar made time for her and her two sisters, even though he was a busy man, taking them to the mall, movies and shopping, the daughter said.

The world and the media talk differently about her father now, she testified through tears.

“That’s all I’ve seen written” she said. “That basically they just think he is this monster.”

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3

Charges, sentences

Geronimo Aguilar was convicted in June of two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, three counts of sexual assault of a child under 17 and two counts of indecency with a child.

State District Judge Louis Sturns sentenced Aguilar to 40 years each on the aggravated sexual assault counts, 20 years each on the three counts of sexual assault and 20 years each on the two counts of indecency.

Sturns gave Aguilar, who has been in jail since his conviction in June, credit for time served and ruled that the sentences will run concurrently.

Aguilar will have to serve at least half of his 40-year sentence before he becomes eligible for parole, said prosecutor Elizabeth Kamber.