The U.S. Attorney has issued indictments charging a dozen leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries
The indictments were announced at a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Imperial. United States Attorney Southern District of California Robert S. Brewer , Jr. said that the former pastor of the El Centro based church was arrested in El Centro as were 11 others in El Centro , San Diego and Brownsville , Texas. The local defendants are scheduled to arraigned Wednesday in El Centro before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro. The indictment alleges that Imperial Valley Ministries subjected dozens of mostly homeless people to forced labor , coercing them to surrender welfare benefits and compelling them to panhandle up to 9 hours a day , six days a week , all to the benefit of church leaders. According to the indictment the church leaders locked victims inside group homes in El Centro , Calexico and Chula Vista , where they confiscated identification documents such as driver's licenses , passports , immigration papers and identification cards , in order to prevent victims from escaping. The allegedly stole victim's welfare benefits and required strict adherence to rules such as " you are not to discuss things of the world" . Windows were nailed shut at some group home locations , leading a desperate 17-year old victim to break out a window , escape , and run to a neighboring property to call police.
The church headquarters on Broadway in El Centro was raided by the FBI several months ago and boxes of material were taken from the building. El Centro Police participated in a multi-agency sweep of church properties Tuesday morning as 6 of the defendants were arrested. Former pastor Arnoldo Bugarin , 47 , of El Centro 43-year old Azucena Torres ( aka Susana Bugarin ) , 32-year old Sergio Partida , 29-year old Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz ( aka Karen Partida ) 47-year old Jose Gaytan and 51-year old Sonia Murrillo were all arrested in El Centro. Jose Moreales , 47 , of San Diego , 52-year old Jose Demara Flores , Victor Gonzales , 40 , Susana Christine Gonzales , 39 , Jose Anthony Diaz , 39 , and 37-year old Mercedes Gonzales , all of of Brownsville , Texas were also arrested.
The non-denominational church is said to have recruited victims outside of the Imperial Valley by telling them they would be fed and given shelter and a promise that they would be given resources to eventually return home. Many victims , including many who did not require drug rehabilitation services , claimed they were later held at IVM properties against their will. All of the victims are now free according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Tenorio who will prosecute the case with assistance from the Department of Civil Justice Civil Rights Division's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit. The charges include Conspiracy , Forced Labor , Document Servitude and Benefits Fraud. Scott Brunner , FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Diego Imperial County office praised the work and cooperation of the FBI , Imperial County District Attorney's Office , El Centro and Brawley Police Departments , Imperial County Sheriff's Office , U.S. Marshall's Service, U.S. Border Patrol and Imperial County Social Services Department in working on the investigation.