Homeless people throughout California were invited into church vans with promises of food, shelter and spiritual restoration. But then, those promises disappeared as they were forced to panhandle for up to nine hours a day before being locked inside group homes, with whatever money they’d gathered going to line the pockets of Imperial Valley Ministries’ church leadership, prosecutors say.
On Tuesday, a dozen Imperial Valley Ministries church leaders were arrested on charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. The church’s former pastor Victor Gonzalez was arrested in Texas along with four others, while seven more were taken in California. U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer called it “an appalling abuse of power by church officials.”
Imperial Valley Ministries began in the 1970s and has 30 churches around the US. in places like Los Angeles, San Jose, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Oklahoma City and Charlotte. It opened its doors in El Centro in 1992 and Gonzales became pastor in 2013, opening 5 groups homes in El Centro, Calexico and Chula Vista. Those who worked in the group homes advertised themselves as “missionaries to the drug addicts” who provided “no charge homes for men and women with drug-related problems,” according to an indictment.
But prosecutors say that the homeless people who came to them — or, as was often the case, were recruited by them — ended up in a nightmare. Church leaders confiscated their possessions, denied them any contact with friends or family members and collected all their government welfare benefits. Church leaders would deadbolt the doors to their group homes and sometimes even nail the windows shut. They were sent to panhandle and hand out religious literature, sometimes for 60 hours a week, and were not allowed to keep any of the money they collected. Daily and weekly quotas were set to “qualify” for lunch, prosecutors say. Food and even toothbrushes were withheld as punishment.
A 17-year-old girl finally escaped her group home by breaking a window and running to a neighbor’s house for help. Police say they had heard rumors of the operation before, but it was the teenager’s testimony that helped them crack the case.
The current pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries has not been charged.