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Desmond Ohankwere

GONZALES — A Catholic priest indicted in Ascension Parish and arrested in Houston, Texas, has surrendered to Louisiana authorities more than a week after he had been allowed to bond out of the Texas jail without going through extradition.

The Rev. Desmond Ohankwere, 63, the former pastor of St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Donaldsonville and most currently serving as a pastor in the Houston area, was booked Tuesday into Ascension Parish Prison on a single count of theft of more than $25,000, online records show.

Questions about the case — a felony count of spending up to $80,000 of the church's money on himself — remain despite this latest booking.

After a grand jury indictment in Ascension on May 20, Houston authorities picked up Ohankwere on May 29 on an Ascension Parish warrant and booked him as a fugitive. But he was released soon afterward once a Houston judge granted him $5,000 bail on May 31. 

Late last week, before Ohankwere had turned himself in, Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre had said he was surprised to learn the priest had been released on such a low bail in Houston. The bail was a misdemeanor amount, Houston records indicate.

Ascension deputies were planning to pick him up and bring him back to Louisiana, Webre said. In warrant papers, the lead Ascension detective had asked Houston authorities to hold Ohankwere without bail pending extradition.

On Tuesday, he was granted bail of $50,000 in Ascension Parish but had not posted it as of late Tuesday afternoon.

Webre said in an interview last week that questionable expenses were found for travel and on church credit cards that might total close to $80,000, though the sheriff said he was not able to detail what those expenditures were at this time.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has said in a statement it was made aware of questionable expenditures at St. Catherine and opened an investigation in February along with the diocese's insurer, which covers losses from theft. Sheriff's deputies were notified then as well, the diocese said.

Details of Ohankwere's extradition case in Houston and his status with his current church and with his religious order have been scarce since his arrest. Court and religious authorities in Houston have remained mum about the priest's legal troubles in Louisiana, despite repeated inquiries.

Since late last week, prosecutors in Harris County, Texas, have not responded to repeated phone messages and emails for comment.

Online court records in Harris County show Ohankwere refused to waive extradition on May 29 and that a hearing set for May 31 was continued to Monday. In the interim, however, Ohankwere was ordered to turn himself in to Ascension authorities by Friday and return with proof by Monday.

Ohankwere is a U.S. citizen who was born in Africa and who belongs to the Nigerian Catholic order the Missionary Society of St. Paul. Online court records in Harris County show the authorities forced Ohankwere to surrender his passports before he was released from jail there. 

Ohankwere was pastor of St. Catherine of Sienna from October 2014 to July 31 of this year. After his departure, he became pastor of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Houston and was serving at that church at the time of his arrest last month, according to biographical information provided by the Baton Rouge diocese.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston referred questions last week about Ohankwere to the Missionary Society of St. Paul, where he has been an ordained priest since July 1, 1991. 

But after repeated calls and emails, the order's office in Houston had not provided any information as of Tuesday on Ohankwere's status within the order or at his church in Houston.

Inquiries with the church itself, St. Gregory, led to two hung up phone calls last week. On Monday, a person answering the phone said Ohankwere wasn't at the church and that she didn't know where he was.

Attempts to reach Ohankwere through Facebook and his listed phone numbers have been unsuccessful or led back to St. Gregory.

Ohankwere has claimed indigent status in court and requested an appointed legal counsel. That lawyer, Paria Rafiee, said Monday she was on vacation in Mexico. She added that she wasn't going to be able to comment and then ended the phone call. 


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.