Leaders of an El Centro, California-based ministry are accused of using homeless people as forced labor, forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, and holding them in locked group homes, U.S. prosecutors said.
The former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, Victor Gonzalez, and 11 others were arrested Tuesday in San Diego, El Centro and Brownsville, Texas. They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.
The allegations against the church date back to 2013. According to a grand jury indictment filed Aug. 23 and unsealed Tuesday, church officials preyed on vulnerable homeless or drug-addicted people in San Diego and other nearby cities with promises of a warm bed and meals.
Instead of helping them get back on their feet, the ministry that billed itself as a "faith-based rehabilitation" center allegedly confiscated their identification documents so they couldn’t leave and forced them into labor, including pan handling up to 54 hours per week to provide money to the church.
The ages of the alleged victims range from someone in their 60s to a 17-year-old male.
The indictment accuses organizers of stealing members' food stamp and welfare benefits, locking people in group homes, and in one case withholding medicine or medical treatment from a diabetic person. Punishment for violating home rules, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included withholding food, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer told NBC 7 the human trafficking accusations are "appalling."
"With false promises of a soft bed and warm meals, instead these victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, stripped of their identification, their freedom and their dignity,” Brewer said.
NBC 7 was the only local media outlet at the news conference where the arrests were announced. Brewer described an incident at a so-called group home that tipped off investigators.
“Windows were nailed shut at some group location homes, leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window to escape and run to neighboring property to call the police,” Brewer said.
Neighbors told NBC 7 they've seen IVM members panhandling on H Street at Jefferson Avenue, not far from one of the group homes run by the ministry.
A woman, who only wanted to be identified as Anne, said she moved into a house in April that was once used by the ministry as a group home. She told NBC 7 she was burglarized within the first month she lived there.
Since moving in, she's had more than a dozen people knock on her door asking if she was associated with the ministry, and says she's received mail addressed to a dozen different people.
IVM has 30 affiliate churches throughout the U.S. and Mexico and runs five group homes in Southern California, officials said.
One defendant was arraigned Tuesday and the others were scheduled to appear Wednesday. Three of the charges brought against the defendants carry up to 20 years in jail and fines of up to $250,000.
IVM did not comment about the charges but told NBC 7 the church would release a statement Wednesday after the remaining defendants were arraigned in Imperial County.