A dozen leaders of a Southern California church, including the former pastor, were arrested Tuesday for targeting homeless people in a labor-trafficking scheme in which victims were held against their will and forced to panhandle as long as nine hours a day.
U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer released details of the case after indictments were unsealed against Imperial Valley Ministries. The non-denominational church is headquartered in El Centro, California—115 miles east of San Diego—but has an estimated 30 churches across the country, including Chula Vista, south of San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Jose in California; in Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona, Brownsville, Texas and Mexico. Defendants were arrested in El Centro, San Diego and Brownsville.
The defendants are charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud on 31 identified victims. The church’s former pastor, Victor Gonzalez, and four others were arrested in Brownsville while six leaders were arrested in El Centro and one in San Diego, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The church’s current pastor has not been charged in the case.
IVM’s stated purpose, officials said, is to “restore” drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes and raise money to open churches in other cities to do the same.
Brewer described the…
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