EL CENTRO, Calif. (KGTV) - Church leaders in San Diego, El Centro, and Brownsville, Texas were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of subjecting homeless people to forced labor, according to U.S. Department of Justice officials.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Robert Brewer said those charged coerced the victims to give up their welfare benefits and forced them to panhandle up to 54 hours a week.
Twelve people said to be leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM) are charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude, and benefits fraud, said Brewer.
“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,” said Brewer. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom, and their dignity.”
IVM is headquartered in El Centro and operates about 30 churches in the U.S. and Mexico including locations in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and San Jose. The church’s stated purpose is to “restore” drug addicts at faith-based rehab homes, the Department of Justice said in a news release.
The church operated one group home in Chula Vista, along with others in El Centro and Calexico. Many victims were recruited in San Diego, officials said.
Defendants include Jose “Chito” Morales of San Diego, Ana Robles-Ortiz, Jose Gaytan, Sonia Murillo, Arnoldo Bugarin, Azucena Torres (aka Susana Bugarin), and Sergio Partida of El Cajon, and Victor Gonzalez, Susan Leyva, Jose Diaz, Mercedes Gonzalez (aka Mercy Diaz), and Jose Flores of Brownsville, Texas.
IVM leaders allegedly “inducted many to participate with offers of free food and shelter with the false promise that victims would be provided with resources to eventually return home,” according to the DOJ.
The homeless people would check in to the homes and sign agreements to stick to the IVM rules such as “you are not to discuss things of the world” and “if any of the rules are broken there will be discipline”, DOJ officials said.
Many victims claimed they were held against their will, officials said. The indictment claims church leaders used deadbolts to lock the victims into the homes, and confiscated identifications.
Windows were also nailed shut at some group homes, according to the indictment. In one case, a 17-year-old victim broke a window to escape and run to a nearby home to call police.
Prosecutors say church leaders also refused to allow a diabetic woman to obtain medicine and food in response to low blood sugar. She was able to escape and get help, officials said.
In some situations, IVM members told the victims they would have to stay or they would face punishments, including having their children taken away from them, the DOJ said. Victims were also told loved ones had rejected them and they must stay because “only God” loved them, said officials. Punishments, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included the withholding of food.
DOJ officials said IVM leaders also stole victims’ EBT cards and used them for improper purposes.
The identified victims are now free and have access to necessary support services.