Three Maryland residents charged with smuggling aliens into the country and committing visa fraud were indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday, U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia said.
The alleged smuggling ring was in operation for two years before authorities broke it up in August, according to law enforcement officials.
Joyce Perdue, 54, Robert Hendricks, 37, and Elizabeth Brown, 40, all of Woodbine, are charged with inducing at least 13 Estonians to apply for visas to work for their ministry, the Word of Faith World Outreach Organization.
Perdue directed the ministry. Hendricks served as assistant pastor and Brown was an administrator and music minister.
According to the indictments, the Estonians, ranging in age from 15 to 21, were forced to clean bookstores, apartment complexes and install furniture, Battaglia said.
A source close to the investigation said the immigrants lived in an upscale home -- some in the attic -- in Howard County.
"The kids had no idea what they were getting into," the source said.
The aliens, who worked for two companies associated with a company headed by Perdue, were paid nominal wages and were provided room and board at her home, the prosecutor said.
Perdue denied the charges last night, claiming a disgruntled relative told Immigration and Naturalization Service agents that her ministry made "slaves" of the children.
"We are innocent. We have not done anything wrong," she said.
From 1992 to 1997, Perdue, Hendricks and Brown served as missionaries in Estonia, taking along food, clothing and other humanitarian aid, Perdue said.
When they returned to Maryland, the three sponsored some of the Bible study students from their mission to come to the United States. She said the students, many of them orphans, wanted to continue religious studies and learn English. "These kids came to us," she said.
Once in Maryland, Perdue said, she allowed the Estonians to work part time, in addition to pursuing their religious and language studies. The younger Estonians attended school in Howard County, she said.
"The students could work part time. We weren't hiding anything. Those kids are our family," she said.
Some of the youths have returned to Estonia. Some are in INS youth facilities or foster homes and others have been released on their own recognizance.
Pub Date: 12/19/98