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- A dozen church officials in El Centro, California, were arrested Tuesday and charged with holding homeless people captive in an “appalling” forced labor scheme.
- Prosecutors said the Imperial Valley Ministries took in homeless and vulnerable people looking for food and shelter, then seized their documents and held them captive.
- The victims were forced to panhandle for up to nine hours per day, six days per week, and turn over their earnings to the church, a federal indictment alleged.
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A dozen California church officials were arrested Tuesday and accused of holding homeless people captive and making them panhandle for up to nine hours a day in a forced labor scheme that prosecutors called “an appalling abuse of power.”
Prosecutors said the Imperial Valley Ministries in El Centro had a familiar routine when it came to the homeless and vulnerable people seeking shelter and food: church leaders would check in victims, offer them a “false promise” that they’d be given resources to return home, and make them sign agreements to follow certain rules.
Among those rules were directives such as, “You are not to discuss things of the world,” “The only thing to be read is the Holy Bible,” and, “If any of the rules are broken there will be discipline,” according to prosecutors.
From there, the church leaders would trap victims inside group homes using deadbolt locks and windows nailed shut, a federal indictment said.
Church leaders told victims their children would be taken from them if they left, prosecutors say
Church leaders would also confiscate personal items that might help victims escape, such as driver’s licenses, passports, and even immigration documents, according to prosecutors.
The twelve defendants, which include IVM’s former pastor Victor Gonzalez, are charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude, and benefits fraud.
The indictment alleges that church leaders would force victims to panhandle for up to nine hours a day, six days a weeks, surrendering all their earnings and even welfare benefits, such as food stamps, to the church leaders.
Church leaders would coerce victims to stay and continue panhandling by telling them their children would be taken away if they left, or their families and loved ones would reject them, prosecutors said.
Authorities say church leaders ‘preyed on vulnerable homeless people’
- US Attorney’s Office, Southern District of California
Authorities identified several victims who managed to escape, including a diabetic woman who they say was denied medicine and medical supplies, and a 17-year-old girl who broke through a nailed-shut window and ran to a nearby property to call police.
Robert Brewer, the US Attorney for the Southern District of California, said in a statement that the church officials “preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals.”
He continued: “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom, and their dignity.”
Prosecutors said all of the victims they identified have since been freed and will be provided shelter, transportation, and other resources.
Court records show that at least five of the defendants have been appointed lawyers, but it’s unclear if any have made pleas yet.
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