You are here

Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, March 2, 2020

Two Former Church Members Admit Forced Labor Conspiracy

Assistant U. S. Attorney Christopher P. Tenorio (619) 546-8413    

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – February 27, 2020

SAN DIEGO – Jose Gaytan and Sonia Murillo, defendants affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries, pleaded guilty to labor trafficking charges in federal court today, admitting that they participated in a forced labor conspiracy.

Gaytan and Murillo were previously indicted with ten other defendants on charges they held program participants against their will, coerced participants to surrender welfare benefits, and compelled participants to panhandle for the financial benefit of the church leaders.

Both Gaytan and Murillo admitted to conspiring with the other defendants to benefit financially from the forced labor conspiracy. In particular, both Gaytan and Murillo admitted defendant Victor Gonzalez, the former pastor of IVM, instructed all directors in charge of IVM properties to screw or nail windows shut and keep doors locked from the inside in order to prevent IVM participants from leaving. Gaytan added that Gonzalez and another IVM leader told him it was necessary to continue recruiting participants into IVM and prevent participants from leaving in order to increase fundraising proceeds for the benefit of IVM.

Murillo implicated additional defendants who punished her for allowing IVM participants to leave. Both Gaytan and Murillo added that various co-defendants had directed them to falsely instruct female participants that Child Protective Services would take their children, or fail to return them, if they left IVM.

IVM operated a non-denominational church headquartered in El Centro, and had opened approximately 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico, including Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Jose, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Brownsville, Texas. IVM’s express purpose is to “restore” drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes and raise money to open churches in other cities to do the same.

In addition to their church and main office, IVM owns and operates two women’s group homes and a men’s group home in the El Centro area. IVM also operated homes in Calexico and Chula Vista. Many participants were recruited from outside of El Centro, including San Diego, and as far away as Texas. IVM members allegedly induced participants to accompany them to receive free food and shelter with the false promise that they would be provided resources to return home. Many participants, including those who did not require rehabilitation services, claimed they were later held at IVM properties against their will.

The indictment alleges that all of the defendants confiscated identification documents in order to prevent IVM participants from leaving IVM and to maintain their labor. IVM leaders checked in participants at the IVM group homes, where they were required to sign agreements to adhere to rules, including never leaving the house unaccompanied, and turning over all identifications and personal items.

Both Gaytan and Murillo admitted they helped enforce the IVM rules by checking in new IVM participants, obtaining and using their Electronic Benefits Transaction cards obtained through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and requiring participants to panhandle on behalf of IVM. Gaytan and Murillo also pleaded guilty to a separate offense of Benefits Fraud based upon their unauthorized acquisition of SNAP benefits from others, in violation of Food Stamp Regulations.

Gaytan entered his guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Lopez and Murillo entered her guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge F.A. Gossett. Both are scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz on May 5, 2020.

“The most vulnerable among us are entitled to the protection of the law,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “We encourage everyone to help identify forced labor victims in all locations or situations where exploitation is possible.” Mr. Brewer added that his office would be hosting a forum on forced labor on April 23, 2020, to bring together law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations, and community organizations that may encounter potential victims of forced labor, all in an effort to increase the identification of victims and prosecute those who exploit them.

Brewer praised FBI agents and prosecutor Chris Tenorio for excellent work on this important case.

DEFENDANTS                                            Case Number 19CR3255-BTM                                     

Jose Gaytan                                                    Age: 47                                   El Centro, CA

Sonia Murillo                                                  Age: 51                                   El Centro, CA

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Conspiracy to Commit Forced Labor and Benefits Fraud – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371

Maximum penalty: five years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine

Food Stamp Act (Benefits Fraud) – Title 7, U.S.C., Section 2024(b)

Maximum penalty: 20 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine (If the benefits were $5,000 or more)

AGENCY

Federal Bureau of Investigation

*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.

*This case is the result of the ongoing efforts of the Violent Crime and Human Trafficking (VCHT) Section. Formed in 2019, by U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer, the VCHT is tasked with leading collaborations between federal and local law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of cases involving violent crimes, firearms and gang cases; sex trafficking and child exploitation; civil rights, and labor trafficking. The VCHT Section oversees the Southern District of California Coordinators for Project Safe Neighborhoods, Human Trafficking, and Project Safe Childhood. The VCHT Section also provides federal prosecutors to the downtown San Diego Violent Crimes Task Force-Gang Group, the North County Gang Task Force, and the East County Gang Task Force.

Topic(s): 
Human Trafficking
Press Release Number: 
CAS20-0227-Gaytan/Murillo
Updated March 2, 2020