Twelve leaders of a California-based church were charged with luring in dozens of mostly homeless people, locking them in group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Twelve defendants, including former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries Victor Gonzalez, were charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday.
The nondenominational church, which has been around since the 1970s, is headquartered in El Centro, California, and has approximately 30 affiliate churches throughout the USA and Mexico. The programs were meant to “restore” people struggling with drug addiction in faith-based rehabilitation group homes. Participants were enticed with offers of free food, shelter and the resources to eventually return home.
The alleged criminal activity began in 2013 around the time that Gonzalez became pastor, according to the indictment. Gonzalez allegedly told members that the church needed money and instructed them not to let participants leave.
Prosecutors said church members locked victims inside group homes with deadbolts and kept them hostage by taking their identification documents such as driver’s licenses, passports, immigration papers, money and personal items. At some homes, the windows were nailed shut.
“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
Church leaders allegedly stole their food stamp and welfare benefits and coerced them into panhandling, the proceeds from which all going back to the church. In some cases, church officials allegedly told victims that their children would be taken away if they left or that their loved ones had rejected them and only God loved them.
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The indictment alleges church leaders required their victims to follow a strict set of rules, prohibited them from going unaccompanied, reading books other than the Bible or discussing “things of the world.” If the rules were broken, the indictment says, there would be “discipline,” which allegedly included withholding of food.
Two people got out: a woman with diabetes who was allegedly refused medicine for her low blood sugar and a 17-year-old who broke a window and called the police from a neighboring property.
Officials said all known victims have been freed. The charges of forced labor, document servitude and violating the Food Stamp Act have a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“This is the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years,” Brewer said. “These cases are few and far between because many victims live in captivity and fear, powerless to report the crimes against them. My office wants victims to know that we are here to help you.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Church held homeless people hostage, forced them to beg, feds say