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California church leaders charged with coercing homeless people into forced labor


A group of leaders at a California church were arrested Tuesday and accused of holding homeless people captive and forcing them into unpaid labor.

Twelve people at Imperial Valley Ministries, an El Centro-based church that promises to “restore” drug addicts at its 30 locations nationwide, allegedly tricked their victims into the group homes run by the church “with offers of free food and shelter” and promised that they would receive help to get home, according to a Department of Justice indictment. The leaders then allegedly locked the victims inside the homes with deadbolt locks, took away their state and federal IDs and stole their welfare benefits.

Some victims were forced to panhandle for up to nine hours a day, six days a week, handing the money over directly to the church leaders. If not, they were threatened, warned that “their children would be taken away if they left,” according to the DOJ.

“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. These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity," U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement, calling it “the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years."

Several captives escaped on their own, including a 17-year-old who broke out through a window and a diabetic who was not allowed her medication.

All other victims have been freed now, officials said.

“Human trafficking robs victims of their most basic human rights,” FBI Special Agent-In-Charge Scott Brunner said in a statement. “Victims of human trafficking are often unseen by society, left pleading in silence."

The 12 leaders — 40-year-old Victor Gonzalez, 39-year-old Susan Christine Leyva, 39-year-old Jose Anthony Diaz, 37-year-old Mercedes Gonzalez, 47-year-old Arnoldo Bugarin, 43-year-old Azucena Torres, 32-year-old Sergio Partida, 29-year-old Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz, 47-year-old Jose Morales, 52-year-old Jose Demara Flores, 47-year-old Jose Gaytan and 51-year-old Sonia Murillo — were charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

If convicted, they could each face up to 20 years in prison.