Miami -- Accompanied by a tenacious phalanx of supporters at the federal courthouse in Miami, the husband-and-wife leaders of a Brazilian evangelical megachurch pleaded not guilty Tuesday to currency smuggling and other charges.
Estevam Hernandes Filho and Sonia Moraes Hernandes, the founders of the Reborn in Christ Church, stared stoically as Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley asked if they understood the charges against them and as their lawyers entered pleas on their behalf.
Their church is the second largest neo-pentecostal church in Brazil, and the charges against the couple both here and in Brazil have ignited a firestorm of media attention in their homeland.
The couple were arrested on Jan. 8 after a customs officer at Miami International Airport found they were carrying more than $56,000, but had declared only $10,000, according to the arrest affidavit. Investigators found the extra money spread out through the family's bags, including $9,000 tucked into Sonia's Bible and another $19,000 in their young son Gabriel's backpack, investigators allege.
The couple, who preside over a network of about 1,200 churches, including at least two in Florida, is also under investigation in Brazil, where organized crime investigators have accused them of money laundering and tax evasion, among other charges. The Brazilian government has asked that they be extradited to face charges in Brazil.
Estevam's lawyer, Albert Krieger, declined to comment on the case.
"Nada - is that how you say `nothing' in Portuguese?" Krieger said when asked for a statement.
Their supporters, including two men wearing hooded sweatshirts and jackets, linked arms around the couple as they hurried out of the courthouse. The group rushed the pair into a gold Chevrolet SUV that bore a sticker saying "God is Faithful" across its dark tinted windows.
The Hernandeses have not commented publicly on the charges against them, though in a statement on the church's Web site, their Brazilian lawyer Luiz Flavio D'Urso called the charges "absurd."
The couple's followers have sent hundreds of messages to the Web site.
"This case is just another sign that the Lord is really working through your lives," said one follower from Curitiba, Brazil. "Nothing can deter the growth of the apostle movement of Jesus."
The Hernandeses are out on a $100,000 bond, though they are essentially under house arrest.
They are being electronically monitored, and can only leave their Boca Raton, Fla., home for certain reasons, including medical treatment and court appearances.
Their trial date has not yet been set.