From San Diego to Texas, homeless people were cajoled into vans with promises of food and shelter.
Instead, prosecutors allege the needy were forced to panhandle for up to nine hours a day, locked into group homes against their will and held captive by leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries.
A dozen leaders of the El Centro-based church were arrested Tuesday morning on charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.
The church’s former pastor, Victor Gonzalez, and four others were arrested in Brownsville, Texas, while six leaders were arrested in El Centro and one in San Diego.
The allegations laid out in a 29-page indictment unsealed Tuesday depict what U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer called “an appalling abuse of power by church officials.”
A man who answered the phone at the church headquarters in El Centro Tuesday afternoon said the organization had no comment.
The non-denominational ministry was founded in the 1970s but didn’t open its doors in El Centro until 1992. It advertised itself to the community as “missionaries to the drug addicts” and providing “no charge homes for men and women with drug related problems,” according to the indictment.
The church, however, is not registered as a nonprofit nor is it licensed as a rehabilitation facility, investigators say.
It has about 30 affiliate churches around the country, from Los Angeles, San Jose and Las Vegas to Cincinnati, Oklahoma City and Charlotte.
The FBI investigation focused on Gonzalez’s tenure as pastor, beginning in 2013, and five group homes located in El Centro, Calexico and Chula Vista. The Chula Vista property, on Jefferson Avenue, was a rented home that is no longer being used for that purpose.
San Diego’s homeless population was particularly ripe for recruitment, with church members even approaching people who were seeking services at Father Joe’s Villages, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Tenorio, who is leading the prosecution, said in a news conference held in the city of Imperial.
Once in the van, some were surprised to find themselves being driven as far away as El Centro.
“We encountered people who were exploited simply because they were down on their luck or simply because they were homeless and needed a place to sleep and eat,” Tenorio said.
And while the ministry focuses on drug rehabilitation, many of the victims were not even addicted, prosecutors said.
Once driven to a group home, they were advised of the rules, which included no contact with family members for the first 30 days and no discussing “things of the world.” They also had to sign an agreement that all of their personal belongings — including their identification — would be confiscated.
Many soon learned what was truly expected of them.
Instead of taking 40 percent of their government welfare benefits as agreed upon, church leaders swiped all of it, authorities said.
According to the indictment, victims were kept under strict supervision, with church members locking them into their group homes with deadbolts on doors and in some cases with windows nailed shut.
One 17-year-old girl at a group home for women in El Centro escaped by breaking a window and running to a neighbor’s home, authorities said. She was treated at a nearby hospital for cuts suffered in the escape.
Time spent outside of the group homes was for panhandling, the indictment states. Victims were forced to hand out religious pamphlets and pixie stick candy in El Centro and other cities while asking for donations to fund the work being done by Imperial Valley Ministries. They’d work up to 60 hours a week, with all proceeds going back to the church, authorities said.
“They were required to obtain a certain amount to get lunch,” Tenorio said. “Daily and weekly quotas had to be met.”
In at least one instance, a victim was told by a house leader that a toothbrush was something that had to be earned, according to the indictment. Food was withheld as punishment, authorities said.
The church leaders turned to psychological coercion to prevent people from leaving, including threats that their children would be taken away, that their loved ones had rejected them and that “only God” loved them, according to the indictment.
One woman with diabetes was able to escape after church leaders allegedly withheld medicine, medical supplies and food from her.
El Centro police had encountered a few alleged victims over the years, and county prosecutors had also investigated some code violations.
But it was the teen’s harrowing escape from the window that made police take a closer look at Imperial Valley Ministries.
The indictment is based on 31 identified victims, and authorities have talked to many more, Tenorio said.
The FBI served search warrants on the El Centro headquarters and group homes in May 2018, providing the backbone of the investigation.
At the time, Gonzalez told the region’s KYMA news station that the investigation stemmed from a mother claiming her daughter had been held against her will and brainwashed.
“This lady, she wasn’t happy because her daughter was in the women’s home,” Gonzalez told the station. “We tried to help her out as much as we could. We tried to help her out even to bring her son, and the mom was always in denial. She ended up leaving and when she got home all these accusations started popping up.”
On Tuesday, Jose “Chito” Morales, accused of being a counselor at the Men’s Ranch in El Centro in 2018, was arrested in San Diego and arraigned in federal court there. The remaining defendants, including Jose Gaytan and Sonia Murillo, who are accused of being home directors in Chula Vista, are expected to be arraigned Wednesday.
Some of the church affiliates have started to break away from the parent organization, Tenorio said. The current pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries has not been charged.
Brewer, the U.S. attorney, and Scott Brunner, the San Diego FBI’s new special agent in charge, said the case was fraught with many of the hallmarks and challenges of investigating labor trafficking: isolation from the outside world, psychological coercion, threats and the withholding of identification documents.
“The healing for the victims begins today,” Brunner said of the arrests. Victim advocates have been deployed from several agencies to help support those affected in the case.
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.