California ministry forced homeless to work, stole their benefits, officials say

EL CENTRO, Calif. (AP) — A dozen leaders of a California-based ministry were arrested Tuesday on charges that they used homeless people as forced labor, holding them in locked group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, U.S. prosecutors said.

The former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, Victor Gonzalez, and the others were arrested in San Diego, El Centro near the Southern California border with Mexico and Brownsville, Texas. They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

The El Centro-based ministry has about 30 affiliate church throughout the United States and Mexico and runs five group homes in Southern California, authorities said.

16 PHOTOSOn the streets with Los Angeles' homeless See GalleryOn the streets with Los Angeles' homeless Tashea Martinez, 38, who said she had been homeless since she was a teenager, sits in her tent with her dogs in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 13, 2018. Picture taken April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson“The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells lies on the sidewalk next to a homeless encampment in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 13, 2018. Picture taken April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonA tent is seen next to Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 11, 2018. Picture taken April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonPATH Housing Outreach Case Manager Kris Toriz (R) raps with a homeless man he is helping, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 13, 2018. Picture taken April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonBrian Romero, 42, sits in a park where he spends time when not sleeping outside a church in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 11, 2018. Romero said he became homeless six years ago after his apartment building burned down. His wife and daughter live with his wife’s mother but his hope is to be reunited with them and to have a job and a home. Picture taken April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonFernando Ochoa, 65, who has been homeless for a week, sits on a park bench in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 11, 2018. Ochoa said he had worked as a foreman for Albertson’s and a Service Advisor for Honda but is now retired and is looking for housing. Picture taken April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonMaxx Hamilton, 27, who has been homeless for 12 years, sits on the street in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 13, 2018. Hamilton said her mother died when she was 14 and her father died when she was 20-years-old. Picture taken April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonVincent Wigh, 39, stands by his dog snack business in a park in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 11, 2018. Wigh has been homeless for 6 months. Wigh said he worked as a software programmer and later an Uber driver in the Bay Area for years but his life was thrown off track when his four-year-old child died of cancer. Picture taken April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonCedric Sweeting, 63, who has been homeless for a year, sits next to his tent in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 13, 2018. Picture taken April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonDaniel McMillan, 45, who has been homeless for 20 years, sits with his dog on the street where he lives in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonVicki Dollar, 70, who has been homeless for a year with her son after he lost his job and they were evicted, stands next to her tent which they city requires her to take down during the day, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 13, 2018. Picture taken April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonPatricia, 26, and Denzel, 27, who came from Indiana and have been homeless for almost 2 years, sit on a park bench in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 11, 2018. Picture taken April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonCarmen Ramirez, 78, stands in front of the tent in which she sleeps on the street in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 29, 2018. Ramirez takes down her tent during the day to comply with city regulations. Picture taken March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonJimmy Melgar, 33, who has been homeless for 2 years, lies on the reclining chair on which he sleeps in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonA woman sleeps on the street in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonPATH Housing Outreach Case Managers Kris Toriz (L) and Brandon Ladell unload hygene kits and food to give to homeless people in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 11, 2018. Picture taken April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonUp Next

See Gallery

Dozens of victims, many of them homeless and some as young as 17, were lured to the group homes by the promise of food and shelter until they were able to return home.

Instead, the ministry that billed itself as rehabilitating drug addicts kept them inside deadbolted group homes, took their personal belongings and identification documents and refused to return them, stole their food stamp and welfare benefits and in some cases threatened to take away their children if they left, according to a grand jury indictment filed Aug. 23 and unsealed Tuesday.

“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,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said at a news conference. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

“Windows were nailed shut at some group home locations, leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window, escape, and run to a neighboring property to call police,” said a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.

Ministry members told people that “they would not receive transportation home, or that loved ones had rejected them and they must stay because ‘only God’ loved them. Punishments for violations of home rules, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included the withholding of food,” the statement said.

In addition to panhandling up to 54 hours per week to provide money to the church, some victims were refused medical treatment, the indictment alleged.

A diabetic woman was refused medicine, supplies and food for her low blood sugar but managed to escape and seek help, authorities said.

Another woman was refused treatment for a prolapsed uterus, the indictment alleged.

A man who answered the phone at the ministry’s headquarters Tuesday night declined to comment or be named but said the church would be posting comments on its website in a couple of days. An email message seeking comment was not immediately returned.

All the alleged victims that have been identified are now free and support services were available for them and for any additional victims that are found, authorities said.

Source: Read Full Article