Church leaders held homeless people captive, used them as forced labor, officials say

Leaders of a California-based ministry have been charged with holding homeless people against their will, using them as forced labor and stealing their welfare benefits, prosecutors said Tuesday. 

A dozen leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM) — including its former pastor — were arrested this week in El Centro, Calif., San Diego and Brownsville, Texas. They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud. 

The ministry, based in El Centro, has around 30 affiliate churches throughout the country. Prosecutors say the crimes date back to 2013, and span multiple group homes operated by the organization.

According to the indictment, the ministry lured dozens of victims — who were often homeless and sometimes as young as 17 years old — into its homes, telling them they’d receive free food and shelter. 

These victims were then kept in deadbolted rooms, stripped of their personal belongings and sometimes told they’d lose their children if they tried to leave. One victim, a teenager, was so desperate to escape that he broke through a window and ran to a neighboring home to call the police. 

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“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 Tuesday. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

The victims were constantly watched and not allowed to go anywhere alone, according to the charges. Some victims were even refused medical attention — including a diabetic who was denied the insulin and food he needed to regulate his blood sugar.

“Punishments for violations of home rules, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included the withholding of food,” the incident states. 

From there, many victims were put to work. Ministry leaders allegedly forced those staying in the home to panhandle on the street for up to nine hours a day, six days a week. The church would then use this money — as well as money stolen from the victims via food stamps and welfare checks — for its own gain. 

The accused leaders are scheduled for arraignments throughout the week, with some facing charges that could result in up to 20 years of jail time.  

Brewer said he wanted the case to serve as a warning to victims of trafficking and forced labor everywhere, many of whom are often hidden in plain sight. 

“I would like this case to send a message to the victims,” Brewer said. “That message being: We want to help you. You have to report these types of crime to law enforcement so that we can help you.”

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