El Centro church accused of labor trafficking more like 'a cult,' says former parishioner

ABC News 10 KGTV, California/September 11, 2019

By: Derek Staahl

El Centro -- A man who sought treatment from Imperial Valley Ministries says the church felt more like "a cult."

The man, who asked not to be identified, said church staff took his identification and welfare benefits and pressured other participants to panhandle for hours, echoing allegations in a newly unsealed federal indictment.

Federal prosecutors have accused a dozen church leaders with luring vulnerable people with the promise of shelter and meals and forcing them to work.

The man said he and his wife were homeless in 2015 when they came across a church recruiter outside a Tucson Walgreens. He said they entered the IVM program to receive substance abuse treatment but quickly became disturbed by what they saw.

In an indictment unsealed Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged a dozen church leaders with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

Prosecutors said the church officials, including former Pastor Victor Gonzalez, compelled mostly homeless people to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, for the financial benefit of the church leaders. The indictment also accuses the church leaders of holding participants in locked group homes against their will and coercing them to surrender welfare benefits.

“These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity," said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer in a statement Tuesday.

The man said he and his wife spent about five days at the El Centro facility. Church staff only agreed to let them leave when they threatened to call 911, he said.

"They did a lot of bad things to all these good people. It's not right," he said.

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