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California Pastor Sentenced for Stealing $100K in SNAP Benefits; Other Charges Dismissed

A San Diego pastor who pleaded guilty to bilking homeless people out of almost $100,000 in SNAP benefits received his sentence Friday.

Last August, Victor Gonzalez, Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM) pastor, and three others pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit benefits fraud. The other three were Gonzalez’s wife, Susan Christine Gonzalez, plus Jose “Joe” Diaz and Mercedes Gonzales (Mercy Diaz).

The indictment said leaders confiscated participants’ government paperwork and identification, locked them inside group “restoration” homes to prevent them from escaping, and used their government benefits for personal financial gain.

They also claimed IVM leaders forced them to work by panhandling on the church’s behalf for up to 54 hours a week.

However, Gonzalez’s attorney, Robert Rexrode, characterized IVM’s program as an aggressive drug treatment program where strict rules were necessary and imposed. He said the fundraising IVM participants participated in was not the involuntary servitude prosecutors alleged.

In court, Gonzalez said he was once a drug addict who completed the IVM program himself and viewed the church as “a safe place where I wasn’t doing drugs.” He participated in fundraising for the church and never considered it punishment.

Rexrode told Judge Cynthia Bashant that Gonzalez merely implemented the rules in place when he participated in the program.

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He also said that while IVM improperly used program participants’ welfare benefits, they did not use them to enrich the Gonzalezes but to purchase food for people in the program as intended.

A sentencing memorandum from Susan Gonzalez’s attorney admitted that using participants’ pooled SNAP benefits violates the law but said Susan did not question the process as it was the same practice that occurred when she was in IVM.

Following the Gonzalezes’ guilty pleas, the court dismissed additional counts of forced labor, document servitude, and other alleged crimes.

Gonzalez will serve six months in prison for benefits fraud. Susan, along with Joe and Mercy Diaz, received time-served sentences, according to court documents.

Joe and Mercy Diaz were also required to pay a $2,000 fine.

In addition, Bashant ordered all four to undergo three years of supervision following completion of their sentences.

Gonzalez is ordered to self-surrender and begin his sentence by noon on Feb. 22, 2023.

Main photo: Victor Gonzalez

Jessica Eturralde

Jessica Eturralde is a military wife of 18 years and mother of three who serves as a freelance writer, TV host, and filmmaker. Bylines include Yahoo, Huffington Post, OC16TV.