This is old school religion, as any Pharaoh would agree:
Inside a beige bungalow in California’s Imperial Valley with a well-trimmed lawn and beds of pink flowers, the 17-year-old girl felt imprisoned. The doors were locked from the inside. The windows were nailed shut.
Like the other homeless and vulnerable people who came to Imperial Valley Ministries seeking shelter, food and rehab, the teenager was not allowed to leave without supervision, was not allowed to contact her family, to “discuss things of the world” or read any book but the Bible, according to federal prosecutors. Those who lived in the church’s group homes had to turn over their money and welfare benefits, their identification and all of their personal belongings, so that even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, prosecutors said.
Then, once they settled in, they were allegedly forced to panhandle up to nine hours a day for six days a week in parking lots and on street corners — turning over every penny to the church.
Finally the 17-year-old had enough: She busted through the locked window to escape, bleeding from the shards of glass, and ran to a neighbor to call the police.
Now, after her outcry helped propel an FBI investigation, the girl’s alleged captors — Imperial Valley Ministry’s religious leaders — were charged Tuesday with forced labor for allegedly luring in dozens of victims under false pretenses only to lock them inside group homes and compel them to panhandle for the church’s profit. Prosecutors also say a dozen ministry leaders defrauded taxpayers by taking guests’ welfare benefits. The victims gave the church permission to take up to 40 percent of their benefits to go toward their expenses. Instead, prosecutors say, IVM took everything.
U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer, of the Southern District of California, called it the “most significant labor trafficking prosecution” in his district in years.
“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with false promises of a warm bed and meals,” Brewer said at a news conference Tuesday. “Instead these victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, stripped of their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
Victor Gonzalez, a former pastor who allegedly directed much of the conspiracy, denied he’d done anything wrong last year when the FBI raided the group homes and the main church office in El Centro, Calif., a small city in the arid Colorado Desert, just north of the Mexican border.
With the proceeds the church earned largely on the backs of the homeless, prosecutors said, church leaders opened 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico, although the criminal conspiracy focuses on five group homes based in El Centro, Chula Vista and Calexico, Calif., from 2013 to 2018, when Victor Gonzalez was in charge.
The participants would immediately be forced to turn over all of their documents, money and belongings to the home supervisors, he said. They would then sign an agreement that laid out a strict set of rules and expectations, all designed to isolate them from the rest of the world. “There will be no use of the telephone,” Rule No. 3 said. “You have two meals daily except on Sundays,” sometimes a day of mandatory fasting, Rule 25 said. “If any of the above rules are broken there will be discipline,” Rule No. 28 said.
If convicted of the forced labor conspiracy, benefits fraud and document servitude, Gonzalez and the 11 others could face up to 20 years in prison. Most will be arraigned Wednesday afternoon.
Not long enough.