3 Woodbine missionaries gain their day in court

Plea in smuggling case was unwilling, they said

June 09, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

More than a year after they pleaded guilty and received prison sentences, three leaders of a Woodbine missionary group could stand trial for allegedly smuggling youngsters into the United States and forcing them to work in church-run businesses.

The leaders of the Word of Faith World Outreach Church argued on appeal that they pleaded guilty to violating immigration law only because they weren't permitted to present their main defense - namely, that they didn't believe work done for the church should be subject to U.S. immigration rules.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April that U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis should reconsider his decision to block that defense. After reviewing the case, Garbis ruled this weekthat Joyce E. Perdue, Robert C. Hendricks and Elizabeth Brown could withdraw their guilty pleas and go to trial, probably in October.

Federal investigators say the three church leaders brought young people from Estonia, promising them schooling and missionary training at the Howard County church.

Prosecutors say the church leaders planned to put the Estonians, whose ages ranged from 14 to 25, to work cleaning homes and installing office furniture, but told them to indicate on immigration papers that they would not work in the United States.

By August 1998, about a dozen teen-agers and young adults had come to the Maryland church using student and religious visas. Once in the United States, they were assigned jobs at two businesses tied to the church, Alpha Cleaning Services and Systems Installations, court records show.

Investigators said the young Estonians earned $10 to $100 a week for their work, while the two businesses made thousands of dollars each week that mainly benefited church leaders.

The church leaders argued that the earnings benefited the entire missionary, and that the immigrants' activities for the two businesses shouldn't have been considered work by Immigration and Naturalization Service investigators.

At her sentencing last summer, Perdue, the church's pastor, said she did not intend to harm or exploit anyone. "My heart is broken for the young people," Perdue said. "I am so deeply sorry."

The three church leaders pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit visa and immigration fraud. Perdue, 55, was sentenced to 27 months in the case. Hendricks, 38, the assistant pastor, received a two-year sentence, and Brown, 40, a church administrator, was sentenced to one year in prison. They remained free pending their appeal, and Perdue has continued delivering sermons on radio.

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