A dozen leaders of a California-based ministry have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that they lured homeless people into forced labor with the false promise that they would be provided meals and shelter, prosecutors said this week.
Instead, authorities said, they were imprisoned in group homes and coerced to forgo welfare benefits and panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week “for the financial benefit of the church leaders.
Robert Brewer, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, called it “the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years.”
“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,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
The 12 defendants, including the Rev. Victor Gonzalez, former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries who authorities say oversaw the conspiracy, were arrested this week in San Diego and El Centro, California; and Brownsville, Texas. They are all charged with conspiring to commit forced labor, to document servitude and to benefits fraud.
The top charges they face carry the maximum possible penalties of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Calls to the Imperial Valley Ministries were not immediately returned, and attempts to reach a lawyer representing Gonzalez were not immediately successful Wednesday afternoon.
In May 2018, after federal agents raided several of the church’s properties, Gonzalez defended the operation.
“I don’t think I did anything bad,” he told The Imperial Valley Press. “Whatever the accusations are, we didn’t do any of that.”
Federal investigators began looking into the church, which was not registered as a nonprofit entity, in 2017 — after several people broke free and contacted the authorities.
In one instance, a 17-year-old Mexican American woman from El Paso, Texas, who had been locked inside one of the group homes — a beige bungalow in El Centro — escaped by throwing a dresser drawer through a window, climbed through broken shards and ran — bleeding — to a neighboring house, according to the indictment, which was unsealed Tuesday.
The young woman, referred to as P.P. in the indictment, was recruited into the organization after getting out of a bad relationship and believed “nice church people” were giving her a good opportunity, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Tenorio, who is prosecuting the case.
But after arriving in El Centro, she was not allowed to call her father, could not leave without supervision and was ordered to read only the Bible and “not to discuss things of the world,” authorities said.
Some of the victims — most of whom were homeless — were ordered to “fundraise” on the streets for hours at a time, handing out religious brochures and Pixy Stix in exchange for money.
In some cases, victims agreed to give up to 40% of their monthly government food allowance to pay for expenses. But according to prosecutors, church leaders took all of it, gave the benefits to people who did not qualify and prevented rightful recipients from applying for jobs.
If they resisted or said they would leave, leaders threatened to take away their children, deny them transportation home and told them that their loved ones had rejected them and that “only God” loved them, according to prosecutors. Others were forced to hand over personal property, passports and immigration papers to ensure they would not leave, prosecutors said.
The money was partly used to pay for the expansion of Imperial Valley Ministries, authorities said. Founded in the 1970s, its stated mission is to “restore” people with drug-related problems at faith-based rehabilitation homes, according to prosecutors. The organization ran about 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico, prosecutors said.
After the May 2018 raids — when federal agents confiscated computers, cellphones and more than $45,000 in cash from several properties — Gonzalez told local reporters the money was used “to pay for the cars, to pay for the bills.”
But former members and those familiar with the church’s activities have described exploitative practices and dismal outcomes.
Shaunte Martinez, a former resident and a homeless woman from El Centro, told a reporter she was shocked by the restrictions and expectations in the homes and described it as “brainwashing.”
“They wanted me to speak in tongues, and I wouldn’t,” she said.
Martinez said that she later became homeless again.
Jessica Solorio, founder of Spread The Love Charity, told local news station KYMA in 2018 that her organization had helped people leaving Imperial Valley Ministries.
“The ones that came into our center told us that they were brought under false pretenses, they weren’t exactly sure what they were getting into,” she said. “So, one way or another, they would leave the program, and were stuck in El Centro homeless.”