CNN reported this week that a dozen leaders of the Imperial Valley Ministries in California were indicted on charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud, primarily targeting the homeless population.
According to prosecutors, the leaders lured in the homeless with promises of food and shelter but ultimately forced them to work nine hours per day, six days per week begging for money. They also confiscated the victims’ welfare benefits “for the financial benefit of the church leaders.”
"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," US Attorney Robert Brewer said in a news release. "These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity."
The ministry “operates nondenominational churches and group homes in the United States and Mexico,” CNN reported, and prosecutors allege that the leaders locked people inside those group homes with no way to leave.
One individual was a 17-year-old girl who eventually escaped the group home by kicking out a window and going to the police.
"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," Assistant US District Attorney Chris Tenorio said.
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