SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two members of a Southern California-based ministry that allegedly forced homeless people and drug addicts to panhandle, stole their welfare benefits and held them against their will pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges.
Jose Gaytan and Sonia Murillo entered pleas to conspiracy to commit forced labor and benefits fraud. They could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
“The most vulnerable among us are entitled to the protection of the law,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.
Gayton, 47, and Murillo, 51, operated group homes for Imperial Valley Ministries headquartered in the small desert community of El Centro. The ministry’s “express purpose is to ‘restore’ drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes and raise money to open churches in other cities to do the same,” the statement said.
The ministry became so successful that it established a network of about 30 affiliate churches across the country. Locations included Southern and Northern California cities; Charlotte, North Carolina, Brownsville, Texas, Phoenix; Las Vegas; Oklahoma City; St. Louis; Louisville, Kentucky; and Memphis, Tennessee.
The FBI raided the El Centro ministry in 2018. Gaytan and Murillo were among a dozen people charged in the case. Former ministry pastor Victor Gonzalez of Brownsville, his wife, Susan Christine Leyva, and eight others have pleaded not guilty to federal charges.
Authorities said those who were recruited for the ministry’s program were told they would receive free food and shelter and were falsely promised that they would be given resources to return home.
Instead, some were held against their will, their identification documents and food stamp benefit cards were seized and they were forced to peddle candy for change for up to 54 hours a week to raise money for the ministry, according to prosecutors.
Ministry members allegedly told people that they would not receive transportation home, that loved ones had rejected them and they must stay because only God loved them. Punishments included withholding food, and some were refused medical treatment, prosecutors alleged.
Mothers who were in the ministry program were falsely told that their children would be taken away by child welfare officials if they left, prosecutors said.
A list of 29 house rules cited in an indictment said participants were prohibited from discussing “things of the world” and reading anything but the Bible, forced to surrender all identification and personal belongings, avoid family contact for the first 30 days and relinquish all earnings.
“You can’t leave the house unless accompanied by someone and with the permission from the director — never by yourself,” the rules sheet read. “You can’t go to the front yard, unless told so by the counselor.”
Gaytan and Murillo admitted said that they were told to screw or nail windows shut and keep doors locked to prevent participants from leaving, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Gaytan and Murillo also said they obtained and used magnetic-striped benefit cards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, authorities said.