By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Twelve leaders of a Southern California-based church have been arrested on charges of coercing dozens of mostly homeless people into forced labor, holding them captive and compelling them to panhandle hours a day to collect money for their overseers.
The victims, all freed since a teenage girl escaped last year and alerted authorities, were also essentially robbed of their social welfare benefits while being held against their will, according to federal prosecutors.
The defendants, including the former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, were taken into custody on Tuesday in El Centro, California, where the church is headquartered, as well as in San Diego and Brownsville, Texas, prosecutors said.
An indictment filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego and unsealed on Tuesday charged the church officials with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.
Not-guilty pleas were entered for all the defendants on Tuesday at their arraignments, Christopher Tenorio, the assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case, told Reuters on Wednesday. At least five are Mexican nationals, he said.
U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer called the case "the most significant labor trafficking prosecution" to emerge in California's southern district in many years.
"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," Brewer said in a statement. "These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity."
The case covers activities at the nondenominational church from 2013 to 2018, Tenorio said.
There was no immediate comment from the ministry, which prosecutors say has opened some 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico with a stated purpose to "restore" drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes.
A man answering the telephone for the ministry without giving his name told Reuters on Wednesday: "We're not doing any interviews, but we're going to post something in a couple of days on our website."
According to the indictment, victims were lured into joining the rehab facilities with offers of free food and shelter, and the false promise of the means to eventually return home.
Church leaders, the indictment says, kept victims confined inside the group homes at night behind locked doors secured with deadbolts, and windows nailed shut at some properties.
The operators also confiscated the victims' drivers licenses and other identification documents, and forced them to surrender their welfare benefits. Reading materials were restricted to the Bible, and victims were threatened with "discipline" for breaking any rules, including "not to discuss things of the world," prosecutors alleged.
In some instances, the indictment said, victims were coerced to remain and continue panhandling for the financial benefit of church leaders with threats that their children would be taken from them or that loved ones would reject them.
Withholding of food was another punishment victims allegedly faced. Some were denied medical attention, the indictment said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler)