The top leaders of California based Imperial Valley Ministries were arrested and hauled into court on Tuesday for arraignments. Some were captured in El Centro and San Diego, others were taken into custody in Brownsville, Texas.
A federal grand jury indicted at least 12 individuals so far, accused of forcing homeless people to beg on the streets for money and stealing what little they had in the way of government benefits. Luring them in with promises of food and a place to sleep, the homeless people were worked like slaves, six days a week for nine solid hours each day.
“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 reports.
At night, they were locked inside, Brewer adds. The indictment asserts that church leaders imprisoned group home victims with “deadbolt locks only they had keys to.” They also “confiscated IDs such as driver’s licenses, immigration papers and passports to prevent victims from escaping.”
According to a press release published by the prosecutors, they were even forced to give up their welfare benefits “for the financial benefit of the church leaders.” As Brewer explains, “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
A 17-year-old girl managed to escape by breaking out of a window, and went to the police. As noted by Assistant US District Attorney Chris Tenorio, “dozens of victims have alleged the same thing — once they were inside the group homes, the IVM had become a venture designed to keep as many as people as possible for as long as possible.”
Tenorio also said, “they were threatened with punishment for violating house rules, and they weren’t allowed to go anywhere unattended.” The evil church leaders promised to have their children taken away from them if they left.
Tenorio described how “the accused church leaders took victims’ benefits, such as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards that allowed the holder to buy food. They then gave them to people not eligible for the benefits.”
Victims couldn’t even get the most basic and necessary medical attention, Scott Brunner, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office relates. “That included a diabetic who was refused insulin and even the food needed to control blood sugar levels.”
The unsealed indictment lists charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud. Nondenominational churches associated with the ministry operate group homes, both in the U.S. and in Mexico.
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