Sept. 11 (UPI) -- Authorities arrested a dozen leaders of a California-based church accused of subjecting dozens of homeless people to forced labour and holding them against their will, prosecutors said.
Unsealed Tuesday, court documents state that 12 church leaders with Imperial Valley Ministries were arrested and charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.
"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."
According to the indictment, the church leaders allegedly locked homeless people inside group homes with deadbolt locks while confiscating their identification to prevent them from escaping its group homes, of which the church had three in El Centro, one in Calexico and one in Chula Vista.
The church leaders also allegedly stole the victims' welfare benefits and subjected them to harsh rules such as only being able to read one book, the Bible, and being prohibited from discussing "things of the world." If they did not adhere to the rules, they would be punished, prosecutors said.
The church recruited its victims from as far as Texas with the promises of food, housing and money to eventually return to their homes.
However, once in the group homes they were required to panhandle and give their earnings to the church, believing if they didn't "they would suffer serious psychological, financial or repetitional harm," according to the indictment.
The victims were also forced to hand over to church officials their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards they received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The leaders then allegedly gave the SNAP benefits to "ineligible persons" while instructing their victims not to seek outside employment.
Church leaders also allegedly prevented their captives from receiving needed medical attention. One instance in the indictment states that a diabetic victim with low blood sugar was refused medicine or food.
"This is the most significant labor trafficking 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."
All identified victims have been freed, the prosecutors said.