EL CENTRO, Calif. (KYMA, KSWT, FOX 9) - One day after the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced a series of indictments against leaders of an Imperial Valley-based church and drug rehabilitation program, we’re learning more about its origins from court documents.
A dozen people, including Imperial Valley Ministries’ former pastor, now face federal charges in connection with the operation of its faith-based rehabilitation group homes.
Prosecutors say ministries held participants against their will, illegally took their welfare benefits, and forced them to panhandle nine-hours a day, seven days a week.
While many people in the Valley have seen ministry participants working the streets collecting donations, few know much about the organization itself.
Here’s what the indictment against church leaders reveals:
Imperial Valley Ministries was first founded in the 1970’s, and opened its first church in El Centro in the early ‘90’s.
Since its inception, IVM has opened some 30 affiliate churches throughout the U.S., and Mexico, including locations in:
- Los Angeles
- Las Vegas
- Brownsville, Texas
- Oklahoma City
- Louisville, Kentucky
- Columbus, Ohio
- Charlotte, North Carolina
Prosecutors say IVM leaders recruited participants for their rehabilitation program in many of those cities and transported them to group homes in and around El Centro.
IVM’s mission statement claims its goal is to “restore drug addicts and their families.” However, the indictment shows few participants were actually allowed to return home.
The ministry flyers tout “restoration homes” and “No charge homes for men and women with drug-related problems.” Yet investigators say the group homes became more like prisons with dead-bolted doors, strict rules, and little to no freedom for its residents.
In fact, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer says, “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
KYMA’S Ciara Encinas visited IVM’s main church today. She says it remains open, and members continue to support its mission.
They tell her they expect to release a statement on Tuesday’s indictments later this week.
Stay with KYMA and KSWT, and log on to KYMA.com for continuing coverage of this developing story.