Mexican megachurch leader pleads guilty to sex abuse in LA

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FILE – Naasón Joaquín García, leader of the La Luz del Mundo fundamentalist church based in Guadalajara, Mexico, appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court on June 5, 2019. Naasón Joaquín García, leader of Mexico’s La Luz del Mundo megachurch, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three girls on Friday, June 3, 2022, California prosecutors said. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, file)

AP

Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of Mexico’s megachurch La Luz del Mundo, who has been charged with child rape and other charges, admitted to sexually abusing three girls days before the trial, California prosecutors said.

García, 53, pleaded guilty Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court to two counts of violent oral copulation with a minor and one count of indecent assault on a 15-year-old child and human trafficking for the production of child pornography.

Garcia, leader of a church founded by his grandfather with 5 million followers worldwide, was considered the “apostle” of Jesus Christ who could lead worshipers to salvation. Prosecutors said he used his spiritual influence to have sex with several female followers.

“García used his power to take advantage of children,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. “He relied on his surroundings to nurture community members for sexual assault. Today’s sentencing can never undo the damage, but it will help protect future generations.”

The guilty plea was an abrupt turn of events due to the strong denials of his lawyers and the passionate support of the Guadalajara-based church, also known by its English name The Light of the World. The church and Garcia’s attorneys did not immediately comment on the guilty plea.

Garcia faces up to 16 years and eight months in prison at his sentencing on Wednesday. He remains incarcerated on $90 million bail.

Garcia was arrested in 2019 and charged alongside two female supporters accused of facilitating the abuse.

Garcia not only faced his accusers in court, but also the prospect of having to challenge one of his accomplices.

Alondra Ocampo, who pleaded guilty and admitted helping to locate his victims and being involved in the abuse, was ready to testify against him.

Attorney Fred Thiagarajah, representing the former church youth group leader, said Ocampo would have been the star witness who could corroborate the victims’ statements and provide context for the prosecutor’s case.

“She actively recruited and nursed girls for him,” Thiagarajah said. “She would target girls and put them in his inner fold. She was tasked with sexualizing these girls and facilitating their abuse.”

Ocampo told the girls that if they rejected the “apostle’s” desires and desires, they would turn against God, according to the indictment.

She encouraged girls to wear skimpy outfits and dance for Garcia, who then “gave them a speech about a king who has mistresses and explained that an apostle of God can never be judged for his actions,” according to the indictment .

Ocampo told three girls that Garcia would be happy to receive nude selfies from them, and she even orchestrated pornographic photo shoots where they touched each other, which she said would be sent to Garcia.

According to court documents, Garcia thanked the girls for the photos.

Another female co-defendant who was a member of the Church, Susana Medina Oaxaca, 27, pleaded guilty Friday to committing an assault likely to cause grievous bodily harm, a misdemeanor.

Attorney Pat Carey said Oaxaca faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted in court and that the guilty plea was in their best interests.

“It was also a relief to get out of a three-year trial instead of enduring a lengthy jury trial, 98% of which involved evidence unrelated to her,” Carey said in an email.

Garcia previously pleaded not guilty to 19 counts, including violent rape of a minor and unlawful sex. A judge had dropped four counts of racketeering and increased sentences for aggravated assault due to lack of evidence.

Ocampo, 39, was charged with many of the same charges as Garcia – plus additional charges. She pled guilty to three counts of contact with a minor for a sex offense and one count of violent sexual penetration with four accusers. She will serve four years in prison as part of the deal with prosecutors, Thiagarajah said.

Defense attorneys have said prosecutors are operating on a far-fetched legal theory that Garcia uses spiritual coercion for sexual pleasure.

“Prosecutors have repeated ad nauseam their novel theory that the majority of the crimes charged in this case were committed not because of physical restraint, physical violence, or fear of physical violence, but because the plaintiff witnesses had no choice but to comply because they were under the complete mental and spiritual slave of Mr. Garcia and the La Luz Del Mundo Church,” defense attorney Alan Jackson wrote in a court filing. “It’s a fantasy seemingly invented from a piece of cloth.”

Prosecutors said the victims were essentially brainwashed by Garcia and felt they would be ostracized by the island church community if they did not comply with his wishes. Denying a defense motion to dismiss the case, a judge said Garcia used religion as “invisible handcuffs” to exploit his victims.

Garcia’s grandfather founded the Guadalajara-based Fundamentalist Christian Church in 1926.

The church has attempted to maintain a law-abiding, hard-working image in Mexico, where it has about 1.8 million followers. Its male members prefer suits and short hair, and female members wear veils that cover their hair and modest dresses. There are about 1 million US members.

Garcia took over the office of “apostle” after his father, Samuel Joaquín Flores, died in 2014.

Flores was also the subject of allegations of child sexual abuse in 1997, but Mexican authorities have never filed criminal charges.

Ocampo said she was sexually abused by Flores, Thiagarajah said.

Ocampo faced a lot of pressure from the church community and her own family when she turned against Garcia, Thiagarajah said. Ocampo’s mother said she didn’t believe her and accused her of working for Satan.

“This church is a very dark institution,” Thiagarajah said. “The level of abuse this guy committed against women and children is staggering and has lasted for generations.”

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