This is a curious case. And one that deserves scrutiny by intelligent citizens based on logic and common sense.
There is a possibility that the defendants are guilty – and just as good a possibility that the feds – in this case, the US Attorney’s Office – have created crimes – when truly – the defendants were doing good for society and ought to be thanked.
Reverend Victor Gonzalez – the pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, a Southern California ministry – is accused of “forcing” homeless people off the streets, giving them food and shelter – but forcing them to work and hand over their money and surrender welfare benefits including food stamps while his ministry was trying to help them get out of a life of being homeless and drug-addicted.
Not one media report on this case has sounded one note of possible innocence for Pastor Gonzalez. The media has to date merely parroted the indictment without bothering to investigate the possibility that this man and his co-workers might be innocent.
For all the good the mainstream media has been on this case to date – they might just as well be stenographers for the US Attorney’s office – rather than actual reporters.
You can Google that for yourself and find that this report is the first to even raise a question that this ministry might be a force for good and not an evil empire as the feds allege.
Pastor Gonzalez is in big trouble and has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude, and benefits fraud. He faces decades in prison and a huge fine if convicted. He was released on bail.
The nondenominational church – which bills itself as “missionaries to the drug addicts” providing “no charge homes for men and women with drug-related problems” – has affiliate churches in Los Angeles, San Jose, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, and Charlotte.
Federal investigators say the church leaders locked people – mainly homeless drug addicts – who agreed to participate in their program – inside dead-bolted group residences, confiscated identification documents – including driver’s licenses and immigration papers – and took their food assistance benefits.
They were fed by the ministry.
In order to recruit people for their ministry, homeless people were invited into vans with promises of food and shelter. The participants were allegedly given promises of being provided the resources through work and self-help to eventually leave the rut of living homeless, become drug-free and one day – with the help of God – to have a home of their own.
In order to live in one of the church homes, receiving shelter and food, and teachings said to be able to provide them with the skills and resources to quit drugs, and be “saved by Christ,” – residents had to sign an agreement that all of their personal belongings – including their identification – would be held by the ministry during their participation in the program.
They were not kidnapped and forced to live in the home. They could leave if they wanted but once the agreement was signed, participants were required to work – work or leave – at designated locations – handing out religious pamphlets and candy while asking for donations to fund the work being done by Imperial Valley Ministries.
All proceeds went to the church, authorities said.
Participants were required to obtain a certain amount to get lunch – and daily and weekly quotas had to be met.
At night, participants were locked inside the homes, sometimes against their will. The idea behind this is that drug addicts – when they are craving drugs – will forsake progress – even food and shelter – just to get a single fix.
So they locked the doors. This, the feds say is a crime.
Who knows how many users – forced to stay inside and sweat it out – were saved by those locked doors?
But the feds don’t see it that way.
Among the rules of the program is that participants were to have no contact with family members for the first 30 days and no discussing “things of the world.” They were asked to discuss the Bible and Christian teachings instead.
This too was reported as some kind of horrid condition –- as if all their talking of the world had done so much good for the homeless drug addict in the past.
The FBI investigation focused on Gonzalez’s tenure as pastor, beginning in 2013, and five group homes located in El Centro, Calexico and Chula Vista.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Tenorio is leading the prosecution. He said, “We encountered people who were exploited simply because they were down on their luck or simply because they were homeless and needed a place to sleep and eat.”
Many of the “victims” were not drug-addicted, prosecutors said.
All of them were homeless.
The prosecutor calls them exploited – when they left their homeless state and had shelter and food and had to work and live by rules that might have saved their lives.
The case was reportedly sparked by a 17-year-old girl in El Centro who escaped a group home by breaking a window and running to a neighbor’s home. Security was not that tight.
Another individual – a major victim – was allegedly told by a house leader that a toothbrush had to be earned, according to the indictment.
Food was withheld as punishment, authorities allege. But no one was ever said to have starved while there – or completely denied food.
The church leaders, the feds alleged, used “psychological coercion” to try to prevent people from leaving, including threats that their children would be taken away, [if they continued to use drugs] that their loved ones had rejected them [after all, they were homeless and hard to manage since they were on drugs] and [horrors] that “only God” loved them, according to the indictment.
One woman with diabetes escaped after church leaders allegedly withheld medicine, medical supplies and food from her.
The indictment is based on 31 identified ‘victims,’ and authorities have talked to many more, Tenorio said.
The church program became a venture “designed to keep as many people as possible for as long as possible,” allowing the organization to profit off them, Tenorio said. Officials say all known victims have been freed.
Rev. Gonzalez claimed in the past that his ministry helps drug addicts through a program that could be described as tough love, hard work, and Bible study.
His supporters say many lives were improved, participants got off drugs and off the street and, by eating regularly and working, improved their health, and that the US Attorney’s office has largely fabricated a case against a good organization that was actually helping people.
While the alleged victims have been “freed”, it is not clear how many have returned to active drug use and are homeless again.
It is not known what financial incentives the feds offered any of the victim-witnesses in return for their testimony.
“I don’t think I did anything bad,” Gonzalez told the Imperial Valley Press. “Whatever the accusations are, we didn’t do any of that.”
Gonzalez evidently did not get rich off the alleged scheme either. He has qualified for a federal public defender.
In addition to Pastor Gonzalez, the other church leaders who face charges are:
• Arnoldo Bugarin, 47, of El Centro
• Jose Gaytan, 47, of El Centro
• Sonia Murillo, 51, of El Centro
• Sergio Partida, 32, El Centro
• Ana Karen Roes-Ortiz, aka Karen Partida, 29, of El Centro
• Azucena Torres, aka Susana Bugarin, 43, of El Centro
• Jose “Chito” Morales, 47, of San Diego
• Jose “Joe” Anthony Diaz, 39, of Brownsville
• Jose Demara Flores, aka Joe Flores, 52, of Brownsville
• Mercedes Gonzales, aka Mercy Diaz, 37, of Brownsville
• Victor Gonzalez, 40, of Brownsville
• Susan Christine Leyva, 39, of Brownsville
If convicted as charged, they could each face a maximum sentence of 65 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $1 million.
Meantime, there are those who say they were helped by this unconventional ministry.
Nicole Russ wrote a review on Google: “This is an amazing place and I got my kids back by God thank IVM for saving my life and my children u are a big blessing to me and my family.”
Melody Rymer wrote, “My daughter was saved by the beautiful people of Imperial Valley Ministries!”
Andrew Gullett wrote, “It helped my wife and I to realize there is more to this life than what we were doing. God is the ultimate Head of household, and my life changed. Thank you, Pastor Panda. We will always love you. Thank you and God Bless you. Andrew and Christina”.
Jaclyn Voerg wrote, “They have a dedication to the drug addict that pushes them to fight for their recovery. They fight for those that are too weak to fight for themselves.”
Joe Alamillo wrote, “I was at IVM for some time and it really changed my life. Jesus my Lord and Savior used this church to transform my life. Thank you Lord and to all the directors and staff may the Lord continue to bless and guide you as you put your hands to the plow…..
jinxs L wrote, “This ministries save my life when I was in the hands of the SANTIAN.”
Not everyone was supportive, however.
David Sendejas wrote, “I am not one to talk down on God’s work, but this so-called ministry is nothing but a pyramid scheme that uses religion and God as a front to gain money, while you are there they make you “fundraise” day in and day out and fundraising for them is basically panhandling/selling flyers, it is mandatory to make what they call “goal” ($100) a day. So you figure there is about 30 males 10 females $100 each a day $4000 a day straight in pastor’s pocket, the famous line is “we are from a Christian based recovery home and we are collecting donations to help keep doors open and keep helping people”, do the math does it really take that much to help? Of course not.. They really only care about that “goal/$100″ being met and if it’s not you get disciplined”.
The next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22.
While the federal system is completely cocked against defendants – and these ones are poor to boot, it remains to be seen if this ministry was a net gain or loss to the community.
Are the “victims” better off on the street and on drugs than in the group homes forced to stay off drugs and forced to panhandle for the church?
These are reasonable questions –- which no one in the media has seen fit to question – I think because of our knee jerk belief in the integrity of prosecutors.
Did the ministry do some tough things, even selfish things to these homeless, largely drug-addicted and likely often mentally disturbed individuals? Probably yes.
They told one woman she had to earn a toothbrush – like everywhere else in the world.
They made people go outdoors and work by day instead of spending their days chasing drugs.
Maybe their motives were not entirely pure. Maybe they kept food stamps and welfare benefits to help pay to provide the food to feed the participants.
Maybe they abused some people and helped others.
The letter of the law and the heavy advantages of the prosecution will almost certainly ensure that there will be convictions – probably through plea bargains. They may also turn church members against each other – with promises of lighter sentences in return for testifying and possibly fabricating against the main target – Pastor Gonzalez.
I think it will be interesting to watch this case. I think it will be more interesting – if it were possible – to probe what was in the heart of this man and his helpers.
Were they genuinely trying to help out some pretty hard and downtrodden people?
Was “Christ in their hearts”? or were they looking to satiate ego, power and wealth.
As for the wealth – they did not get that.
At the end of the day, did they help people stop using drugs? That could be part of the defense. If they have a track record of saving people, that would be a defense that a jury might like to hear.
And, at the end of the day – if these church people relied on Jesus – and not on their selfish worldly ambitions – this is the time for Jesus to intervene. If He does exist and it is true – as is promised in every religion – that no harm, no true harm, can ever befall an honest and faithful man, they have nothing to worry about.
Jesus will provide.
Of course, it is too easy to remark that look what happened to Him – He was crucified – but then rose again.