Pastor's friends go on defense

Three church leaders pleaded guilty to alien smuggling conspiracy

Son, parishioners testify

Sentencing due today

defendants could get up to five years

July 27, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Two months after three leaders of a Woodbine church pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to smuggle young aliens into the United States and forcing them to labor at menial jobs, their parishioners told a different story yesterday during a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court.

They said church leaders didn't mistreat the Estonian immigrants, who arrived in Maryland on student and religious visas. They testified the Estonians seemed to enjoy living with church organizers.

"They were a joyful bunch of kids," said Tom Goodling, a parishioner from Elkridge, referring to the Estonians. "I didn't see anything unusual at all."

That testimony contra- dicts statements by federal authorities, court records and the Estonians. Pastor Joyce E. Perdue, Associate Pastor Robert C. Hendricks and church administrator Elizabeth Brown are expected to be sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.

Perdue, 55, and the other church leaders went to Estonia and brought back a dozen teen-agers with fraudulent visas, court records show. The Estonians cleaned bookstores and apartments and received little Bible or religious education.

Defense attorneys contend that the teen-agers and church leaders lived in a communal setting and worked together as part of their Christian faith. But Garbis ruled in April that they could not use that defense, so the three church leaders pleaded guilty May 3 to conspiring to commit visa and immigration fraud.

Perdue, Hendricks and Brown will remain free on bond pending an appeal of Garbis' ruling. If that ruling is overturned, the church leaders will be granted a new trial.

"We'll wait and see what the judge does" today, said Richard D. Bennett, who represents Hendricks. "This was a Pentecostal community, where all the work [benefited] the community."

The defendants could be sentenced to a maximum five years in prison, but would expect to receive less under the plea agreement.

Perdue and her followers said they left for Estonia in the early 1990s to preach and deliver Bibles and medical supplies to people struggling to find religion in the small Baltic nation once controlled by the former Soviet Union.

In late 1996, they began recruiting Estonians to join them on their journey home to Maryland, court records show, and told the Estonians to falsely fill out their visa applications.

Twelve Estonians, ages 14 to 17, immigrated as students and religious workers for Word of Faith, which was first in Severn and later in a 10,000-square-foot Woodbine home.

Soon, the Estonians were put to work and attended little school, court records show.

Most of yesterday's testimony involved statements from the church leaders' friends and Perdue's son, Donald Perdue II.

Like others who testified, Donald Perdue referred to his mother, who sat quietly the entire afternoon at the defense table, as "Pastor Joyce."

"We were treated as part of the [same] family," said Donald, 20. "As I was Pastor Joyce's son, [the Estonians] were her sons and daughters."

But prosecutors argued that Perdue's son was treated differently from the Estonians, who said that Perdue threatened to send them home, withheld their meager pay if they disobeyed her and once forced them to stand by their beds until 4 a.m.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg asked Donald Perdue if his pay was withheld for breaking a perfume bottle. He thought it was, he testified.

Greenberg then asked if he had ever been forced to stand by his bed all night as punishment. He said no.

Others testified glowingly about Joyce Perdue's work and dedication to God.

"She loved God with all her heart," said Mary Elda Harrington of West Friendship, an active church member who at times spoke of Perdue in the past tense. "She wanted to walk in God's truth. She loves people, [she's] full of energy, kind, always had time for you."

At the beginning of the defense presentation, Hendricks played a video of the group's first trip to the Estonian capital Tallinn to minister and preach. The video shows Perdue and her followers preaching and singing in the streets, as well as in a church in an auditorium.

Perdue then described the plight of Russians living in a city they once controlled before the fall of the Soviet Union. The Estonian immigrants brought to the United States are all ethnic Russians.

"The Russian people are victims, too," she said. "Now they are the outcasts."

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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