LOS ANGELES (CNS) – The leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch is due in a Los Angeles courtroom today to face sentencing following a deal with prosecutors last week in which he agreed to plead guilty to three sex counts involving minors.
Naasón Joaquín Garcia, 53, faces more than 16 years in state prison and lifetime sex offender registration in connection with his guilty plea last Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old, according to the California Attorney General’s Office.
Each charge involved a separate minor, according to prosecutors.
The sentencing of the leader of the La Luz del Mundo — or Light of the World — will come one day after attorneys representing a woman suing the church objected to Garcia’s plea deal, which was reached just days before his criminal trial was set to begin in downtown Los Angeles.
Lawyers representing the woman, who has filed a lawsuit against La Luz del Mundo, repeatedly described the plea agreement as “dangerous.”
“Late last week, it was announced that this man who calls himself the apostle — Naasón Joaquín Garcia — made a plea arrangement that is a dangerous deal,” said attorney Mike Reck, who is among a team of lawyers representing Sochil Martin in a federal lawsuit against the church and its leaders in which she alleges she was recruited as a child to become a “sex slave” for the men.
Martin said she was shaken by the news of Garcia’s plea and echoed her attorneys’ statements about the plea deal.
“Unfortunately, there was a deal that was made, a very dangerous, dangerous deal, and it’s necessary that the people understand that there was no day in court. There was no trial. The people didn’t get to hear what this man represents in society and that’s what we need to understand,” she told reporters during an afternoon news conference.
Another attorney, Heather Brown, who said she was a prosecutor in a sexual assault unit for more than a decade, told reporters she has “never in my career seen a defendant, a case, or, more importantly, a plea deal that was more perilous than this one” and said court papers will be filed seeking to allow Martin to speak at the hearing even though she’s not one of the victims in the criminal case.
“This is a very dangerous plea deal,” Brown reiterated.
Brown called on the judge to instead impose a life prison sentence that the defendant has “earned with his actions.”
Garcia — who has been in custody since his June 3, 2019, arrest — had been set to go on trial this week, along with co-defendant Susana Oaxaca, 27, who pleaded guilty last Friday to assault likely to cause great bodily injury.
A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 39, pleaded guilty in 2020 to four counts.
In a statement released last week, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Garcia’s conviction “sends a clear message that sexual exploitation is never acceptable in California.”
“We will hold you accountable if you break the law,” Bonta added. “As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín Garcia used his power to take advantage of children. He relied on those around him to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault. Today’s conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations.”
The three were initially charged in June 2019, but a state appeals court panel ordered the case to be dismissed in April 2020 after finding that Garcia did not waive his right to a timely hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to require him to stand trial and that the hearing was not held within that time.
The Attorney General’s Office subsequently refiled the case, which alleged that the crimes occurred in Southern California between June 2015 and June 2019.
Garcia was ordered in August 2020 to stand trial on 23 felony counts, including forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, unlawful sexual intercourse, lewd act on a child, extortion, conspiracy and possession of child pornography.
State prosecutors alleged in the complaint that Ocampo told a group of minor girls that they were going against God if they went against any desires or wishes of Garcia, whom the church called “the Apostle of Jesus Christ.”
The Guadalajara-based Pentecostal sect has branches in 50 nations and claims more than a million members worldwide.
While the criminal case was pending, the church repeatedly insisted on Garcia’s innocence.
In a statement posted on Twitter following a court hearing last month, the church said it has “complete confidence that the time will come when the innocence” of Garcia “will be proven in a court of law.”
“Truth shines in the darkness and lies can never extinguish it,” the church said in the statement, in which it indicated that it was “surprised that the judge did not dismiss the case today.”
Copyright 2022, City News Service, Inc.