EL CENTRO, Calif. - At least a dozen people affiliated with an El Centro-based ministry now face federal charges. Investigators say they abused the very people they were supposed to be helping.
The U.S. Attorney's office today announced a variety of charges against members of Imperial Valley Ministries in connection with its faith-based drug rehabilitation homes.
Investigators say church leaders forced some participants to panhandle for nine-hours a day, six-days a week, and turn all the money over to the organization.
Leaders are also accused of holding rehab patients against their will, and coercing them into signing over all their welfare benefits to the church.
“Church leaders allegedly refused to allow a diabetic victim to obtain medicine, medical supplies and even food in response to low blood sugar,” explained Robert Brewer, U.S. Attorney.
IVM owns and operates three group homes in the El Centro area, however rehab participants were recruited from as far away as Texas.
Investigators say church leaders enticed people into the program with promises of free room and board, as well as with the means to return home when they finished the rehabilitation process. Instead, participants claim they were held against their will and often locked into their living quarters.
Right now a dozen church members face a list of federal charges including conspiracy, forced labor, and benefits fraud.
Six of those charged are from El Centro. The remainder are from Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego.
this all following an f-b-i raid in may 20-18 where agents confiscated $45,000 and took several computers and financial records as evidence.
We spoke to the lead pastor after the raid, and he detailed an upset parent.
“This lady, she wasn't happy because her daughter was in the women’s home. we tried to help her out as much as we could. We tried to help her out even to bring her son, and the mom was always in denial. She ended up leaving and when she got home all these accusations started popping up," said Victor Gonzalez, pastor.
Others listed on the indictment include Karen and Sergio Partida, who ran the home the 17-year-old allegedly escaped from.
El Centro police worked closely with the FBI to close this case. You can find images of what the FBI uncovered on their website.
Officers say they're also working with support groups and other charities to assist victims.
Tonight officers want potential victims to know help is available. They urge anyone connected to this case who needs assistance to contact ECPD at (760) 352-2111.