Inside a beige bungalow in California’s Imperial Valley with a well-trimmed lawn and beds of pink flowers, the 17-year-old girl felt imprisoned. The doors were locked from the inside. The windows were nailed shut.
Like the other homeless and vulnerable people who came to Imperial Valley Ministries seeking shelter, food and rehab, the teenager was not allowed to leave without supervision, was not allowed to contact her family, to “discuss things of the world” or read any book but the Bible, according to federal prosecutors. Those who lived in the church’s group homes had to turn over their money and welfare benefits, their identification and all of their personal belongings, so that even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, prosecutors said.
Then, once they settled in, they were allegedly forced to panhandle up to nine hours a day for six days a week in parking lots and on street corners — turning over every penny to the church.
Finally the 17-year-old had enough: She busted through the locked window to escape, bleeding from the shards of glass, and ran to a neighbor to call the police.
Now, after her outcry helped propel an FBI investigation, the girl’s alleged captors — Imperial Valley Ministry’s religious leaders — were charged Tuesday with forced labor for allegedly luring in dozens of victims under false pretenses only to lock them inside group homes and compel them to panhandle for the church’s profit. Prosecutors also say a dozen ministry leaders defrauded taxpayers by taking guests’ welfare benefits. The victims gave the church permission to take up to 40 percent of their benefits to go toward their expenses. Instead, prosecutors say, IVM took everything.
U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer, of the Southern District of California, called it the “most significant labor trafficking prosecution” in his district in years.
“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with false promises of a warm bed and meals,” Brewer said at a news conference Tuesday. “Instead these victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, stripped of their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
Representatives for the church did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night. It’s not clear whether those charged have attorneys.
Victor Gonzalez, a former pastor who allegedly directed much of the conspiracy, denied he’d done anything wrong last year when the FBI raided the group homes and the main church office in El Centro, Calif., a small city in the arid Colorado Desert, just north of the Mexican border
“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.”
Prosecutor Christopher Tenorio said the desperate 17-year-old’s outcry was not the first time police had encountered former tenants in Imperial Valley Ministry’s group homes. They had been hearing from people on the streets about horrific experiences with the ministry, and as the FBI began interviewing more of them, a theme began to develop, Tenorio said.
“Dozens of victims have alleged the same thing once they were inside the group homes: that IVM had become a venture designed to keep as many people as possible for as long as possible, and to allow IVM to profit from victims’ welfare benefits and panhandling,” Tenorio said at the news conference.
According to the indictment, church leaders frequently intimidated and threatened participants to manipulate them into staying in the homes. Some were told they would lose custody of their children if they tried to leave, according to the indictment. Others were told that their friends and family members didn’t love them anymore and that there was no point in leaving — that “only God” loved them now. And if they did ask to leave the program, church leaders withheld all of their money and important papers, including immigration documents, to compel them to stay, the indictment says.
Some with medical issues were not allowed to see doctors, Tenorio said. Those victims included a diabetic woman who was refused medicine, medical supplies and even food when her blood sugar dropped to dangerous levels. Another woman was suffering from a prolapsed uterus. The home supervisor denied her request to go to a hospital, the indictment says.
With the proceeds the church earned largely on the backs of the homeless, prosecutors said, church leaders opened 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico, although the criminal conspiracy focuses on five group homes based in El Centro, Chula Vista and Calexico, Calif., from 2013 to 2018, when Victor Gonzalez was in charge.
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SOURCE: Washington Post, Meagan Flynn