2 Members of Imperial Valley Church Plead Guilty to Labor Trafficking Scheme

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Two former members of an Imperial County church that federal prosecutors allege was embroiled in a labor trafficking scheme in which church members forced homeless people to surrender their welfare benefits and panhandle for the church, pleaded guilty to labor trafficking and benefits fraud Thursday in a San Diego federal court.

Jose Gaytan, 47, and Sonia Murillo, 51, both of El Centro, admitted to assisting in the scheme to recruit homeless people in San Diego and other cities, then force them to participate in raising money on behalf of Imperial Valley Ministries, a non-denominational church headquartered in El Centro, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors say former church pastor Victor Gonzalez ordered his members to prevent victims from leaving church properties, including by screwing or nailing windows shut and keeping doors locked from the inside at homes the church operated. Gaytan and Murillo were also instructed to tell female victims that Child Protective Services would take their children if they left Imperial Valley Ministries, according to prosecutors, who said Murillo was punished by other members for letting church participants leave.

A grand jury indictment states the transients were forced to sign documents stating that they would not leave the homes unaccompanied and they would hand over all identification and personal items to church directors.

Other rules included no reading of anything other than the Bible, and no discussions of "things of the world,'' according to the indictment.

Court documents identify Gaytan and Murillo as home directors for two of the church's group homes in El Centro and Chula Vista. Both are scheduled to be sentenced on May 5.

Gaytan and Murillo were indicted last year along with 10 other defendants, including Gonzalez.

The remaining defendants are scheduled to return to court on Mar. 18.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says the church opened 30 affiliate churches in the U.S. and Mexico. The church's mission statement indicated its goal is "to restore drug addicts and their families.''

"The most vulnerable among us are entitled to the protection of the
law,'' U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said. "We encourage everyone to help
identify forced labor victims in all locations or situations where exploitation
is possible.''

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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