The former pastor of an Imperial County church that federal prosecutors say forced homeless people to surrender their welfare benefits and panhandle pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to commit benefits fraud.
Victor Gonzalez, who headed Imperial Valley Ministries, pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court on Monday along with three co-defendants to taking part in a labor trafficking scheme to recruit homeless people in San Diego and other cities, then force them to participate in raising money on behalf of the El Centro-based church.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the church operated around 30 affiliate churches in the United States and Mexico. Its mission statement indicated its goal was “to restore drug addicts and their families.”
According to Gonzalez’s plea agreement, those who joined IVM were kept confined in “homes” against their will and were required to hand over all identification and personal items to church directors. Church rules included no contact with family members for 30 days after joining.
IVM participants were prohibited from seeking employment outside of daily panhandling for the church, the plea agreement states, with those who did not meet certain quotas or those who refused to panhandle subject to expulsion.
The defendants also unlawfully took and distributed benefits the victims received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, according to the plea agreement, which states that Gonzalez lived for free in a home in El Centro, received a weekly salary, and “other financial benefits such as occasional $1,000 ‘blessings’ from IVM.”
Gonzalez’s wife, Susan Christine Gonzalez, also pleaded guilty on Monday. Court documents state she worked as a “home director,” a person who managed IVM’s homes and was responsible for ensuring participants performed their required tasks.
Two others, husband and wife Jose Diaz and Mercedes Gonzales, also pleaded guilty. They were also identified as home directors in a 2019 indictment charging a dozen defendants in total.
City News Service contributed to this article.