Charges of imprisoning dozens of mostly homeless people and forcing them to panhandle six days a week have been brought forward by the court, leading to the arrest of a number of leaders of a California-based church, AFP reported on Wednesday, September 11th.
The 12 defendants include Victor Gonzalez, the former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, a non-denominational church that has about 30 affiliate groups throughout the US and Mexico.
They were arrested on Tuesday, September 10th in California and Texas on charges of conspiracy, forced labour, document servitude, and benefits fraud.
According to the US Attorney Robert Brewer, 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, adding that victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom, and their dignity.
Authorities said the church―whose stated purpose is to "restore" drug addicts―lured victims beginning in 2013 with promises of free food, shelter, and monetary assistance to eventually return home.
According to the accusation, church leaders locked victims inside group homes with deadbolt locks, confiscated their ID papers to prevent them from leaving, and stole their welfare benefits. The victims were then asked to follow a strict set of rules that prohibited them from reading anything other than the Bible or from discussing "things of the world."
Authorities said church leaders forced the victims to beg up to nine hours a day, six days a week―in some instances by telling them their children would be taken away if they left.
Two of the victims managed to escape, the indictment stated. One was a 17-year-old who broke a window and ran to a neighbouring property to call police, and the second a woman suffering from diabetes who was allegedly refused medical care.
Later on, officials reported that all of the identified victims have been freed and are receiving assistance, according to AFP.