Twelve leaders of a Southern California-based church have been arrested on charges of coercing dozens of mostly homeless people into forced labor, holding them captive and compelling them to panhandle hours every day to collect money for their overseers. The victims, all freed since a teenage girl escaped last year and alerted authorities, were also essentially robbed of their social welfare benefits while being held against their will, according to federal prosecutors.
Authorities said the church, whose stated purpose is to "restore" drug addicts to society, lured victims beginning in 2013 with promises of free food, shelter and monetary assistance to eventually return home. The indictment says that church leaders locked victims inside group homes with deadbolt locks, confiscated their ID papers to prevent them from leaving and stole their welfare benefits. The victims were required to adhere to a strict set of rules that prohibited them from reading anything other than the bible or discussing "things of the world."
Authorities said church leaders forced the victims to beg up to nine hours a day, six days a week, in some instances by telling them their children would be taken away if they left. "This is the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years," U.S. attorney Brewer said. "These cases are few and far between because many victims live in captivity and fear, powerless to report the crimes against them."
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