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Former students allege human labor trafficking at Olivet University in Anza

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A group of former students is suing Olivet University in Anza, alleging they were victims of human labor trafficking and forced to work, without pay, after coming overseas to attend the private Christian college on full scholarships.

The four former students — Dawin Liranzo Galan, Roland Broccko, Minerva Ruiz and Rebecca Singh — traveled from Spain, Venezuela and India to the U.S. on student visas obtained through Olivet so they could attend the school in 2017 and early 2018. But when they arrived in the high desert town, they were told they had to work to pay off their debt, according to the lawsuit.

“They arrived hoping to fulfill their dreams. What they experienced was a nightmare,” states the lawsuit filed in Riverside County Superior Court in September and amended on Feb. 7. “Though they may have had distinct journeys to the United States, they all would share one thing in common — they would become victims of human trafficking at the hands of Olivet University and others as described herein.”

Named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit is David Jang, a Korean Christian pastor and professor who in 2004 founded Olivet University in the Bay Area for ministry-bound students. In 2014, the university purchased its 1,000-acre property in Anza, situated in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Temecula, and established its headquarters there.

Olivet University student Phoebe Sun, 36, of Yunnan, China, practices making videos for TikTok as a way to spread Christianity through different platforms on Tuesday Dec. 13 2022. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

Students at Olivet Academy play basketball after school on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2022. Olivet Academy is a K-12 program located on campus at Olivet University. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

A student enters Olivet University’s Information Technology Center on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2022. This building serves as a computer lab and study area. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

Remnants of snow litter ground in front of the Olivet University Student Union on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2022. Renovations are being done to this building to add more amenities for future students. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

A monument sign at Olivet University’s 1,000-acre campus in Anza. (Photo by Joe Nelson/SCNG)

Dr. Nate Tran, chairman of Olivet University’s Board of Trustees in 2022, speaks to Olivet’s president, Matthias Gebhardt, on Tuesday Dec 13. 2022. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

An Olivet University student uses one of the many computers available in the Information Technology Center on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2022. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

An Olivet University student edits a video on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2022. Students pursuing visual arts at Olivet are able to use many forms of media to spread Christianity. (Photo by Angel Pena, Contributing photographer)

Olivet University monument sign outside its entrance gate in Anza. (Photo by Joe Nelson/SCNG)



In addition to Jang, the new complaint names the university, President Matthias Gebhardt and five others as defendants. The others — Jasmine Park, Andrew Lin, Rachel Cheung, Nathanael “Ginturn” Tran and Stephanie Choi Gebhardt, who is Matthias Gebhardt’s wife — were all employees at the university or served on its Board of Trustees at the time the plaintiffs attended the school, according to the lawsuit.

The suit is the latest in a series of troubles for the embattled university in recent years, including criminal convictions in New York and a federal investigation into money laundering, human labor trafficking and fraud that remains ongoing. Additionally, the university was accused last year of more than a dozen violations of state education regulations.

Babysitting, housework, kitchen duty

After arriving at Olivet, the plaintiffs allege they were forced to perform a variety of jobs, including unloading furniture, gardening, housekeeping, laundry, working in the campus kitchen, and babysitting the children of Olivet employees, including the Gebhardts’ children.

They worked about five hours a day, typically during the hours of 1 to 7 p.m., and were required to maintain hourly time sheets, three of which were included as exhibits in the lawsuit. The students were never paid, and, if they missed a meal due to their required work, they did not receive that meal, the lawsuit alleges.

The students, according to the suit, were not allowed to leave the gated campus without permission and a signed form from an Olivet employee. They had to explain why they were leaving, where they intended to go, who they were going with, and for how long. And if they wanted to ride in a university van to attend weekly shopping trips to Temecula, they had to pay for the ride, the lawsuit alleges.

Additionally, a staff member told Singh she needed to turn in her passport, school certificates and all other personal documents after she arrived at Olivet, and that they would be returned once she graduated, according to the lawsuit.

Matthias Gebhardt, the university president, did not respond to an email requesting comment. His attorney, Nathan Marcusen, could not be reached for comment.

Work detail

Ruiz was forced to clean Jang’s residence, which was located off campus at a nearby location, the lawsuit alleges. Galan and Broccko had to work at Lin’s off-campus residence as well, feeding his dogs and llamas and cleaning up their feces daily and sometimes on weekends, the suit alleges.

On one occasion, when Ruiz was working at Jang’s house with other students, according to the lawsuit, Jang “referenced that there was not enough food on campus” and gave Ruiz $40 in an envelope to buy something to eat. He told her his future goal was for each student to get $100 monthly.

When Singh complained about having to work, Cheung told her that her work would allow the university to grow and that it was to “glorify the kingdom of God,” the lawsuit states.

The former students were told by Olivet leaders that if they didn’t work, they had to pay. Stephanie Choi Gebhardt, according to the lawsuit, told Ruiz her nearly $18,000 scholarship “covered nothing” and asked her if her family could pay money. When Ruiz told her no, Choi Gebhardt told Ruiz she would then need to work on campus to pay for everything, according to the lawsuit.

“Here, the defendants engaged in forced labor and debt bonding towards the plaintiffs — requiring them to work to pay off their ‘debts’ in order to attend Olivet even though they were promised fully paid tuition, room and board, and other expenses,” according to the lawsuit.

When Olivet prepared the plaintiffs’ student visas, the lawsuit alleges, it declared under penalty of perjury that the cost for them to attend and live at Olivet would not be funded by any on-campus employment.

‘Escape’ from Olivet

The lawsuit alleges that Galan, Broccko and Singh each hatched plans to “escape” from the university.

Galan told university officials in June 2017 that a relative of his in New York was ill and he had to leave immediately. “He then escaped from Olivet and fled to New York,” according to the suit.

That same month, the suit alleges, Broccko enlisted the help of Olivet employee Juan Pablo Segura to flee the university. Segura purchased an airplane ticket for Broccko, then told Olivet staff the two were going on summer vacation. Segura drove Broccko to an airport in San Diego and Broccko flew to New York, where he stayed with Galan, according to the lawsuit.

Singh’s plan to leave the university was initiated by a 911 call in March 2018, when she told a Riverside County sheriff’s dispatcher she had not been allowed to leave the the university for months, was staying in a camper on campus, and that there were “300 Asian men and women” also residing on campus who lived in buildings five or six to a room, according to a dispatch report provided by Olivet.

Singh also told the dispatcher she was supposed to be paid for work, but never was, according to the dispatch report.

A deputy responded to the campus, and, at 1:16 a.m., noted there were “no negative sounds of distress” in the area. The deputy was unable to contact Singh, according to the report.

The lawsuit claims Singh “escaped” with “secret assistance from an Olivet employee.” The plaintiffs’ attorney, Darren Harris, said she subsequently flew to Boston to stay with her sister and registered at another university to continue her studies.

Olivet, however, maintains Singh was allowed to leave voluntarily after she made the 911 call.

According to the 911 dispatch report, the deputy spoke to a female leaving the location who stated Olivet already knew about Singh and that she was getting a ride to the airport at 2 a.m. The university said Segura drove Singh to Los Angeles International.

“Contrary to Rebecca Singh’s false allegations that she had ‘escaped’ from the Anza campus with the aid of an Olivet employee, the university was always aware of her departure and had even arranged for her transportation at the time,” Olivet said in a statement.

Court hearing

During a hearing Feb. 7 at the Southwest Justice Center in French Valley, Judge Rachel Marquez granted Harris’ request to file the amended lawsuit, add Singh as a plaintiff and dismiss Broccko’s wife, Nogleidys Broccko, as a plaintiff. Harris said Broccko’s wife decided she no longer wanted to participate in the lawsuit.

At the hearing, Marquez sustained Olivet’s demurrer, claiming the initial complaint filed in September “lacked factual content sufficient to plead a claim for relief.” Olivet called the allegations “a bizarre and appalling fiction,” “complete fabrication” and “scurrilous.”

Olivet now has 30 days to respond to the allegations in the amended complaint.

Common thread

In a statement, Olivet said the accusations in the lawsuit are contradicted by a preponderance of statements from other students who enrolled during the same time period.

“There is one common thread connecting the claimants: all have been seeking permanent visas to reside in the United States, an important motivating factor behind this lawsuit,” the statement said.

Also, according to Olivet, all the original claimants in the lawsuit were not regular students at the university, but rather English as a  Second Language students who attended the college for at most three to six months before transferring.

Olivet countersues

In response to the lawsuit, Olivet countersued the plaintiffs, alleging they deceived and defrauded the university when they gave assurances in their applications and application essays that they intended to pursue an education for the purpose of entering missions or ministry work.

Olivet alleges that none of the former students truly intended to pursue missions or ministry work, and instead applied to the university as a means of entering the United States for other purposes.

“After completing only two quarters of study or less, each of the cross-complaint defendants left Olivet University and did not return,” according to the cross-complaint.

Harris countered in a legal filing that Olivet failed to provide sufficient facts supporting its claims, other than what was written in the student applications and essays.

“However, even a cursory reading of these statements illustrates that none of the plaintiffs made any representation of any kind or promise to actually pursue missions or ministry work,” Harris wrote.

A hearing on the cross-complaint and Harris’ response is scheduled for April 4, Harris said.

Past troubles

The federal investigation into money laundering, human labor trafficking and fraud at Olivet, triggered in part by Singh’s 911 call in 2018, remains ongoing, said Richard Beam, a spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

In February 2020, Olivet pleaded guilty in New York to a misdemeanor count of conspiracy and a felony count of falsifying business records in a scheme to fraudulently obtain $35 million from lenders. The university was ordered to pay $1.25 million in forfeiture over two years.

Olivet met all the conditions of its plea agreement, and, as a result, the charge of falsifying business records was reduced to a misdemeanor in February 2022, according to a spokesperson at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Lin, a defendant in the former students’ lawsuit, also pleaded guilty in February 2020 to one felony count of a scheme to defraud but averted jail time. He was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and agreed not to serve in an executive or managerial capacity at Olivet during that time, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Lin stepped down from Olivet’s Board of Trustees in 2020 and has not been involved with the university since, Gebhardt said in December 2022.

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In April 2021, special agents with Homeland Security Investigations and Riverside County sheriff’s and district attorney’s investigators served a search warrant at Olivet. The warrant remains under seal, and the government has not disclosed any additional information since the raid.

In March 2023, state Attorney General Rob Bonta, on behalf of the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, filed an accusation against Olivet alleging 14 violations of state education regulations discovered during unannounced site visits to Olivet’s main campus in Anza in November 2022 and a satellite campus in Mill Valley, near San Francisco, in January 2023.

An accusation initiates a hearing to determine whether an institution’s approval to operate should be revoked, suspended, limited or conditioned, a Department of Consumer Affairs spokesperson said.

A hearing on the accusation is scheduled before an administrative law judge on April 23, DCA spokesperson Monica Vargas said.

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