Jail time for leaders of church

Pastor sentenced to 27 months in alien smuggling case

Youths forced to work

Estonians entered U.S. under student, religious visas

July 28, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

After making emotional appeals for mercy while acknowledging responsibility for illegally bringing a dozen young people to the United States and forcing them to work at menial jobs, three leaders of a Woodbine church were sentenced to prison terms yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The events leading to yesterday's action began in 1992, when organizers of the Word of Faith World Outreach church left Maryland for Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea.

After delivering Bibles and preaching for several years, church leaders returned with young Estonians under religious and student visas. They put the Estonians to work, cleaning bookstores, apartments and installing office furniture.

Three church leaders pleaded guilty in May to charges of conspiring to commit visa and immigration fraud.

Yesterday, Pastor Joyce E. Perdue, 55, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and reimburse the Estonian immigrants $67,494 for their labors. Assistant Pastor Robert C. Hendricks, 38, was sentenced to two years in prison, and church administrator Elizabeth Brown, 40, received a one-year prison term.

After listening to the emotional appeals, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said he was dismayed that nobody in the church stepped forward to stop the exploitation of the Estonians. "I do find [that] there was lying, cheating and theft" by church leaders, Garbis said. "There may have been great motives, but it wasn't done honestly."

Defense attorneys are appealing an earlier ruling by Garbis that limited their ability to use religion and their clients' definition of work as a defense.

If they win that argument, the church leaders, who are free on bond pending the appeal, will be granted a new trial.

Yesterday, church leaders spoke in court for the first time.

Brown apologized for the defendants' actions and said things "had gotten out of control. We are very sorry," she said, standing at the defense table. "We did this with the best of" intentions.

"Clearly there was too much to bite off at one time," she added. "Things got out of hand."

She then praised Perdue, saying the pastor had taught her to live her life "as an open book" before God.

Hendricks also accepted blame and went a step further, trying to absolve Perdue and other church administrators of misdeeds. He said he led them astray. "I believe the other defendants acted on my research," he said.

He also praised Perdue, calling the pastor a "visionary."

"She has been like a mother to me," Hendricks said. "She has always been a completely honest person."

Then it was Perdue's turn. At times, she turned to courtroom spectators -- her parishioners, federal agents and one of the Estonian youths -- and apologized between tears.

"I take absolute responsibility for anything that has come out of this," she said. "I will accept any prison sentence given. I was dishonest. I feel like I should be the one held accountable."

For a half-hour, she tried to explain that the church never intended to harm anyone or exploit young immigrants.

"My heart is broken for the young people," she said. "I am so deeply sorry."

Perdue, Hendricks and Brown began recruiting Estonians to join them in the United States in late 1996, court records show.

By August 1998, a dozen Estonians, teen-agers and young adults, had come to the United States on student and religious visas. They had been promised intense Bible study and religious training by church leaders. Instead, they were forced to clean "roach-infested apartments," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg.

That summer, agents with the Immigration and Naturalization Service received a tip and questioned an Estonian girl laboring at a bookstore. The agents then raided the church's plush home on Iron Rail Court in Woodbine in western Howard County.

Authorities had a mountain of evidence that showed church leaders established several businesses that made thousands of dollars yet paid the Estonians $10 to $100 a week depending on their jobs, which ranged from cleaning bookstores to installing office furniture.

"The benefit of the [Estonians' labors] was for Joyce Perdue, not the church," said Greenberg. "They came here to go to school, do religious work and ended up doing work benefiting the defendants. They worked their fingers to the bone."

Among the spectators was Rita Rastas, one of the Estonians living temporarily with a family in Perry Hall. "I really didn't care if [Perdue] went to prison or not," Rastas said. "She's going to have a new experience."

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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