US church lured in homeless people, locked them in houses and forced them to panhandle, feds say

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 they earned 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 neighbour to call the police.

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Now, after her outcry helped propel an FBI investigation, the girl's alleged captors - Imperial Valley Ministry's religious leaders - were charged on Tuesday with forced labour for 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 per cent of their benefits to go toward their expenses. Instead, prosecutors say, IVM took everything.

US Attorney Robert Brewer, of the Southern District of California, called it the "most significant labour 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."

Church leaders scoured Californa's streets for people who appeared "down on their luck", prosecutors say (file picture).
RACHEL THOMAS/STUFF
Church leaders scoured Californa's streets for people who appeared "down on their luck", prosecutors say (file picture).

Representatives for the church did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night. It's not clear if those charged have attorneys yet.

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, California, 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 consistent 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 their friends and family didn't love them anymore so there was no point in leaving anyway - that "only God" loved them now. And if they did ask to leave the program, church leaders simply 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 even allowed to go to the doctor, 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 the hospital too, 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, California, from 2013 to 2018, when Victor Gonzalez was in charge.

The Imperial Valley Ministries church is accused of taking homeless peoples' benefits.
GOOGLE STREETVIEW
The Imperial Valley Ministries church is accused of taking homeless peoples' benefits.

The homes were small, unassuming bungalows or shotgun houses, either tucked in a dense neighbourhoods with yards bordered by chain-link fences or out on the edge of town, surrounded by blowing dirt and farmers' fields.

To recruit the ministry's participants, IVM leaders typically travelled to San Diego to scour the streets for people who appeared "down on their luck," Tenorio said. The church leaders represented themselves as "missionaries to drug addicts," although not all of the recruits were struggling with addiction. The church leaders would then promise them shelter, food and restoration, helping them to get back on their feet all at "no cost."

"What the participants got was something very different, and very illegal," Brewer said.

The participants would immediately be forced to turn over all of their documents, money and belongings to the home supervisors, he said. They would then sign an agreement that laid out a strict set of rules and expectations, all designed to isolate them from the rest of the world.

"There will be no use of the telephone," said Rule No. 3. "You have two meals daily except on Sundays," sometimes a day of mandatory fasting, said Rule 25. "If any of the above rules are broken there will be discipline," said Rule No. 28.

Then the months of prayer and panhandling would begin - and there were quotas, Tenorio said.

Each day, he said, the participants would hit the streets with a bag of Pixy Stix and religious literature, handing them out to passersby while asking for donations in exchange. They had to raise enough money by lunchtime if they wanted to eat, Tenorio said, and raise enough each week to avoid discipline.

If participants did manage to leave the homes, they simply returned to the streets destitute.

Those taken in by the church were allegedly made to panhandle (file picture).
Spencer Platt
Those taken in by the church were allegedly made to panhandle (file picture).

Other charities started to notice.

"The ones that came into our centre told us that they were brought under false pretenses," Jessica Solorio, founder of Spread the Love Charity in El Centro, told KYMA last year when the FBI raided the ministry. "They weren't exactly sure what they were getting into. So, one way or another, they would leave the program, and were stuck in El Centro homeless."

One formerly homeless woman told the Imperial Valley Press she felt like the ministry was "brainwashing" her. "They wanted me to speak in tongues and I wouldn't," she said.

Patricia Thompson, a Valley resident, told the newspaper that she alerted the FBI to her concerns about her pregnant goddaughter who lived in one of the homes. She said the panhandling demands were so intense that on one occasion, her goddaughter had to go to the hospital after she spent 14 hours in the sun without water. On another occasion, she said, the ministry took her to Texas to help with a "fundraising" effort only to leave her stranded there when she got in a fight with one of the church leaders.

"Personally, I think they're dangerous," she said of the ministry.

Last May, Gonzalez brushed off the community's concerns in an interview with the Imperial Valley Press. The FBI had just finished raiding the homes, seizing US$45,000 (NZ$70,000) in cash along with computers, phones and other devices. But Gonzalez said he wasn't concerned, and that everything, including the existing sets of rules and discipline, would continue as usual.

"The discipline is for them to have some kind of foundation," he said.

If convicted of the forced labour conspiracy, benefits fraud, and document servitude, Gonzalez and the 11 others face up to 20 years in prison.

The Washington Post