Arizona Seventh-Day Adventist Elder Missing After Arrest Warrant Issued For Child Sex Abuse

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Mario Montano

Nogales International

“Local authorities are searching for a Rio Rico man accused of child molestation who appears to have fled the area.

Mario Montano, 60, is accused of one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child that allegedly occurred between August 2010 through August 2011. He is also accused of two counts of furnishing harmful items to minors – child and adult pornography – between August 2010 and Sept. 15, 2010.

The felony charges were filed at Nogales Justice Court on Feb. 27, a day before a warrant was taken out for Montano’s arrest.

“The investigation in this matter is still ongoing and law enforcement is working diligently to take Montano into custody,” said County Attorney George Silva.

Silva confirmed that Montano’s whereabouts are unknown, but he would not say where officials suspect he is living or fled to. He said anyone with information on where Montano is should contact law enforcement.

He and a spokesman for the Nogales Police Department said they could not share any other details about the case.

The charges against Monano and his fugitive status came to public light after a family member of the alleged victim sent an email to the NI and a number of other news outlets on March 5 labeled as “breaking news” and containing news release-style accounts in English and Spanish. Some Mexican media immediately published information from the email and a version of it is also circulating on Facebook.

The email alleges that Montano fled to the Mexican state of Sonora, was an elder at the Spanish-language Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nogales at the time of the abuse, that the church hid his acts from members, and that there are other victims and allegations against Montano in Phoenix.

The victim’s mother shared these same allegations with the NI during a phone interview Friday. She said the abuse occurred when her daughter was 9 and that it took place at Montano’s home and inside the church. She said she learned of the abuse after her daughter confided to her and her husband, and that she reported it to the police the same day.

The mother also alleged that church members helped Montano move before he could be arrested, possibly without knowing about the charges against him.

Church officials acknowledged Montano’s past membership, but denied the allegations.

Rito Soto, Sr., an elder at the Spanish-language church in Nogales (the Seventh-day Adventists also operate an English-language church in the city), said NPD contacted him to ask if he knows where Montano is, but he doesn’t. He told the NI that the church was unaware of Montano’s alleged abuse and doubted that any occurred at the church itself.

“As far as I know, I think he’s innocent,” Soto said.

He said Montano was a church member, but not an elder, at the time of the alleged abuse. He said Montano moved to the Phoenix area in 2013 or 2014 and has not attended the Nogales church recently, a statement the alleged victim’s mother disputed.

Soto said that around 2016, the local church received orders that Montano could not serve in any leadership role at the church. He said the Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists – the administrative body for the denomination’s churches in Arizona – did not include a reason for the order.

The victim’s mother also told the NI that the local church received this order from the conference, but that it occurred in 2015 and was issued because there was a sexual abuse investigation of Montano in Maricopa County. No records of any criminal charges filed against him in Maricopa County appear in online court databases, though those records often exclude cases involving child victims.

“Instead of protecting the children, the most vulnerable in the congregation, letting parents know, (the local church) hid the information among the leadership of the church to protect the name of the church,” the mother said.

Ed Keyes, president of the Scottsdale-based conference, said he is unaware of any previous allegations or past church orders against Montano. He said the conference did issue an order earlier this year that said Montano could not hold leadership positions after learning about allegations against him that were circulating on Facebook.

“We have a strict policy we follow which says he’s allowed to attend church but he has to fill out a contract signing that he will be chaperoned (within the church),” Keyes said, adding that this rule applies to informal allegations, not just charges filed by law enforcement.

Church leaders are not ordered to alert members about other members with abuse allegations unless they are registered as a sex offender, Keyes said.”

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