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CrimeChurch held homeless people hostage, forced them to beg, feds say

23:45  11 september  2019
23:45  11 september  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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A church needed money, so members held homeless people captive and forced them to beg , prosecutors say . Twelve leaders of a California-based church were charged with luring in dozens of mostly homeless people , locking them in group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine

US attorney says church leaders held people 'captive'. Imperial Valley Ministries leaders recruited people by promising food and shelter, and instead forced them to beg for money for nine Victims said they were isolated and closely watched, Tenorio said . They were threatened with punishment

Twelve leaders of a California-based church were charged with luring in dozens of mostly homeless people, locking them in group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

Church held homeless people hostage, forced them to beg, feds say© Danielle Bonica For women without safe, affordable housing, the 'spiral' into criminalisation and incarceration can be fast, advocates say.

Twelve defendants, including former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries Victor Gonzalez, were charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday.

The nondenominational church, which has been around since the 1970s, is headquartered in El Centro, California,  and has approximately 30 affiliate churches throughout the USA and Mexico. The programs were meant to "restore" people struggling with drug addiction in faith-based rehabilitation group homes. Participants were enticed with offers of free food, shelter and the resources to eventually return home.

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Prosecutors said church members locked victims inside group homes with deadbolts and kept them hostage by taking their identification documents such as driver’s licenses “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

A group of California church leaders were arrested in a case involving homeless people who were allegedly held against their will and coerced to surrender their welfare benefits to the church .

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The alleged criminal activity began in 2013 around the time that Gonzalez became pastor, according to the indictment. Gonzalez allegedly told members that the church needed money and instructed them not to let participants leave.

Prosecutors said church members locked victims inside group homes with deadbolts and kept them hostage by taking their identification documents such as driver's licenses, passports, immigration papers, money and personal items. At some homes, the windows were nailed shut.

“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.”

California church leaders charged with forced labor of homeless, US attorney says

California church leaders charged with forced labor of homeless, US attorney says A dozen leaders of a California-based ministry have been indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of forced labor of mostly homeless people, a US attorney said. © CNNImperial Valley Ministries leaders recruited people by promising food and shelter, and instead forced them to beg for money for nine hours a day, six days a week and to give up their welfare benefits "for the financial benefit of the church leaders," prosecutors said in a news release Tuesday that announced the indictment had been unsealed.

Federal investigators began looking into the church , which was not registered as a nonprofit entity, in 2017 — after several people broke free and contacted the authorities. If they resisted or said they would leave, leaders threatened to take away their children, deny them transportation home and told

Prosecutors said church members locked victims inside group homes with deadbolts and kept them hostage by taking their identification Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg. This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Church held homeless people hostage , forced

Church leaders allegedly stole their food stamp and welfare benefits and coerced them into panhandling, the proceeds from which all going back to the church. In some cases, church officials allegedly told victims that their children would be taken away if they left or that their loved ones had rejected them and only God loved them.

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The indictment alleges church leaders required their victims to follow a strict set of rules, prohibited them from going unaccompanied, reading books other than the Bible or discussing "things of the world." If the rules were broken, the indictment says, there would be "discipline," which allegedly included  withholding of food.

Two people got out: a woman with diabetes who was allegedly refused medicine for her low blood sugar and a 17-year-old who broke a window and called the police from a neighboring property.

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Christian ministry leaders allegedly forced a group of homeless people to beg , kept them in locked group homes and threatened to take away their children if they left, prosecutors said .

Prosecutors said church members locked victims inside group homes with deadbolts and kept them hostage by taking their identification documents such “The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed

Officials said all known victims have been freed. The charges of forced labor, document servitude and violating the Food Stamp Act have a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“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.”

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Church held homeless people hostage, forced them to beg, feds say

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