The former pastor of the Imperial Valley Ministries was among those arrested on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office

By Rachel DeSantis
September 11, 2019 11:15 AM
Imperial Valley Ministries
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Twelve leaders of a California-based church were arrested Tuesday on charges that they forced dozens of mostly homeless people into panhandling and handing over their welfare benefits under the guise of “restoring” them from drug addiction.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday that various leaders — including the former pastor — of the Imperial Valley Ministries (IMV), based in El Centro, California, have been charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud in connection with their wide-ranging alleged schemes.

IMV was founded in the ‘70s, and opened its first non-denominational church in El Centro in 1992, an empire that has since grown to include 30 other churches throughout the U.S. and Mexico, as well as three faith-based group homes.

Those homes billed themselves to potential victims as places where they could “restore” themselves, and receive free food and shelter as they received the resources they needed to turn their lives around and eventually make their way home, according to a federal indictment.

Once they came on board, officials said, victims were then forced to sign agreements promising to obey various rules, including no communication with anyone outside the church, confiscation of identification documents like licenses and passports, no talking about the outside world and a promise to give 30 percent of any income they were receiving to the church.

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

The arrested leaders stand accused of using sinister means to keep their victims in the homes, including locking them inside with deadbolts, and of using emotionally manipulative tactics to coerce them into staying, like threatening discipline and warning that victims would suffer “psychological, financial or reputational harm” if they did not panhandle on behalf of the church for hours a day, according to the indictment.

The indictment also alleges that a 17-year-old was injured when she managed to escape a home by breaking a window that had been nailed shut.

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Victor Gonzalez, the 40-year-old former pastor, allegedly refused to give victims their benefits cards, which he’d confiscated, when they asked to leave, instead using those cards to give money to people who were not eligible for welfare. He also allegedly told victims they were not allowed to take on any outside employment.

In one instance, a victim with diabetes allegedly had his or her medical needs denied, and another was allegedly grabbed by the wrists so as to be prevented from leaving.

In addition to Gonzalez, those arrested are Susan Christine Levya, 39; Jose “Joe” Anthony Diaz, 39; Mercedes Gonzalez, 37; Arnoldo Bugarin, 47; Azucena Torres, 43; Sergio Partida, 32; Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz, 29; Jose “Chito” Morales, 47; Jose Demara Flores, 52; Jose Gaytan, 47; and Sonia Murillo, 51.

Many are married couples who lived in the churches and group homes.

The victims are all now free, while those charged were arraigned in federal court in El Centro on Tuesday, officials said.

“This is the most significant prosecution in this district in many years,” Brewer said. “These cases are few and far between because many victims live in captivity and fear, powerless to report the crimes against them. My office wants victims to know that we are here to help you.”

IVM did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, while the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment further.