Ministry admits smuggling aliens

Church leaders forced Estonian students into cleaning jobs

May 04, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Three leaders of a Woodbine church admitted yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to illegally smuggling aliens into the United States on student and religious visas and then forcing them to clean apartments and bookstores.

The three organizers of the Word of Faith Outreach Organization, located in a large home in western Howard County, pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement to committing visa and immigration fraud and illegally bringing a dozen Estonians to Maryland.

The pastor, Joyce E. Perdue, 55, and Robert C. Hendricks, 37, the assistant pastor, likely face two years in prison. Administrator Elizabeth Brown, 40, could serve 18 months, defense attorneys said.

The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Defense attorneys had planned to argue that church leaders and the Estonian immigrants, most of them teen-agers, were living in a communal setting and worked as part of their religion. But U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis ruled last week they could not use that defense.

The defendants plan to appeal Garbis' decision after they are sentenced in July. If they win the appeal, the plea agreement would be dismissed and a trial scheduled.

"We are eager to argue those issues," said attorney John C. Fones, who represents Perdue.

Federal investigators and prosecutors said in court records that Word of Faith is something quite different from a religious community that works and prays together.

"This was not a typical smuggling case," said Barry Tang, assistant district director of investigations for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "This was more elaborate and sophisticated."

Court records reveal:

Beginning in late 1996, Perdue, Hendricks and Brown recruited teen-agers in Estonia, a former Soviet bloc country on the Baltic Sea, to study the Bible and work as religious employees for the Word of Faith.

Church leaders told the Estonians they would be laboring in other jobs and also told them to lie on visa applications.

Instead of studying, translating Bible studies or preparing religious material, the Estonians reported nightly to Perdue or Hendricks, who assigned them to clean bookstores and apartment complexes and install furniture.

Their work days were long -- from 6 a.m. to between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

If they didn't work, church organizers threatened to send them home. The Estonians were paid $10 to $50 a week for cleaning and $75 to $100 a week for installing furniture.

Perdue "continued to demand that Estonians work harder to pay the bills for the household," according to court records, and then bought a $500,000 home in Woodbine and took several trips, including a Mexican cruise.

Church organizers also forced the Estonians to change clothes before going to school, court records show, so nobody would suspect their labors.

Perdue, Hendricks and Brown tried to persuade "young Estonian mothers to give their babies" to the Word of Faith, court records show, and they tried to recruit more workers from Ukraine shortly before their church was raided by federal agents in August.

Some of the Estonians have returned home. Others are living with foster families.

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