La Luz del Mundo ‘apostle’ sentenced to nearly 17 years

Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of the La Luz del Mundo church, was sentenced on Wednesday to 16 years and eight months in prison for sexually abusing teenage members of his congregation.

Several of Garcia’s victims testified during Wednesday’s lengthy hearing, and the courtroom was filled with muffled sobs as the verdict was announced.

“I’ve been a judge for a long time,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Justice Ronald S. Coen, who presided over the sentencing. “I’m always amazed at what some people can do [in the name of] Religion.”

Before reading the verdict, Coen apologized to the victims. Many wanted the case to go to trial, but Garcia agreed to plead guilty on Friday. Coen said: “My hands are tied. Lawyers do what lawyers do.”

“But I just want to say to Jane Does that the world has heard you,” he said. “And for the family members who left you, too bad! Shame on you!”

Turning his attention to Garcia, he said, “And as for the defendant, you are a sexual predator.”

After three years of maintaining his innocence and branding his victims liars, Garcia abruptly pleaded Friday Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation with a minor and one count of indecent assault on a child.

He entered the plea three days before he was due to stand trial on charges of rape, manufacture of child pornography, conspiracy to traffic in human beings and other sex crimes.

In a lengthy statement released Wednesday afternoon, the church said it supported Garcia’s decision to plead guilty because he believed he could not get a fair trial. The appeal, the church said, would allow him “to minimize his sentence in order to regain his freedom.”

The church called him “the apostle of Jesus Christ” and said Garcia had “no choice but to accept with great pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family.”

Garcia, the statement said, “will continue to serve the Church. It is a path that God set before him for a reason, as he did for the apostle Paul.”

A crowd of news cameras waited at the Temple Street entrance of the Los Angeles courthouse Wednesday morning to await Garcia’s fate. The courtroom where the sentencing took place was so crowded that several dozen trial observers were ushered into an overflow room where audio but no video of the trial was shown.

At the beginning of the hearing, a prosecutor said the state planned to summon a psychiatrist to testify that “institutional treason is the worst kind of abuse”.

“It’s the hardest thing for victims to recover from because it’s done by people in positions of trust,” she said, comparing the case to similar scandals involving sex abuse by soccer coaches and team doctors.

Sochil Martin seen at a news conference in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday

Sochil Martin, who appeared at a press conference in downtown Los Angeles in 2020, said she was prepared from an early age to procure sex for Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of the La Luz del Mundo church.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Mr. Garcia was someone our victims looked up to. They trusted him. They thought he was basically God on earth. And we know he’s not God, not even close.”

To some of his defenders within the church, she said, “Anyone who still believes that this man is still God on earth is complicit and supporting a child molester.”

The audience in the overflow room listened in tense silence as the prosecutor listed multiple cases of sexual abuse, some of which reportedly happened at Garcia’s Los Angeles home.

As the testimony of the first victim was read out, a deputy in the overflow room passed out tissues to several attendees who were crying with their heads bowed in the front row.

One victim, identified only as Jane Doe 1, choked back tears and told the court she suffered “more trauma and pain” because of Garcia than she could ever endure. All she wanted, she said, was “to tell the world who this man really is.”

“I feel like this request allows him to escape the true consequences of his actions,” she said.

She continued, “All I ever knew was the church, it was my whole life.”

“I was always taught that we couldn’t refuse his wishes,” she said, describing how other church members convinced her that she was “lucky” to “receive his blessing.”

She said she effectively served as Garcia’s servant and sex slave, being forced to wash his clothes, scrub his toilet and perform a sex act with him every morning. The abuse continued every day for years, she said.

Jane Doe 2 told the court she wished prosecutors had brought the case to trial.

“I was willing to sacrifice my dignity once again to allow prosecutors to expose the child pornography,” she said. As a result of the abuse, she said she suffered from “constant” panic attacks and anxiety.

“We wanted to defend ourselves,” she said, “and get the evidence out there so that other victims” would feel “emboldened” to “speak up.”

Jane Doe 3 told the court she was one of thousands of children at church who worshiped Garcia.

In Hermosa Provincia, a lower-class neighborhood in Guadalajara where the Evangelical Church is based, hundreds of parishioners made their way to the towering temple on Wednesday to pray for Garcia on the morning of sentencing.

And they continued to pray and sing hymns while Garcia’s hearing was more than 1,500 miles away.

A church member’s voice boomed outside the open doors of the Guadalajara Church.

“We are with you, apostles of God!” he said.

Media cameras in front of a temple building

Members of the media gather for a press conference in front of the La Luz del Mundo Temple in East Los Angeles in 2019.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Dozens of followers sat on the sidewalk in front of the church and on lawn chairs they had brought with them. They got on their knees to pray for Garcia. Some sobbed.

“This will be a spiritual nudge for us to be closer to God,” said Leticia Mendez, 62, who was sitting on a red lounge chair.

Of Garcia, she said, “The only thing he taught us is to love God, love ourselves, love our marriages, love our children, love our homes.”

Supporters in Hermosa Provincia and elsewhere remain adamant that Garcia is innocent and that his decision to plead guilty on Friday was a strategic decision to avoid an unfair trial.

“He was appointed by God, and God cannot be wrong,” said Jemima Chavez Ubaldo, 37, a resident whose family has been members of the Church for generations.

Followers of La Luz del Mundo consider Garcia an “apostle” of Jesus Christ. Founded in 1926 by Garcia’s grandfather, La Luz del Mundo is now Mexico’s largest evangelical church and has millions of members around the world, including many in Los Angeles.

Garcia, 53, rose to the helm of the Church after the death of his father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, in 2014.

Sign with photo of Naason Joaquin Garcia

Support sign for leader Naason Joaquin Garcia in Guadalajara.

(Alejandra Leyva / For the Time)

He had been in jail on $90 million bail since his arrest three years ago when he got off a private jet at Los Angeles International Airport. Even as his case went to court and investigators described lewd allegations of girls being raped and photographed in sexual positions, Garcia has maintained the support of church officials and many parishioners.

They see their spiritual leader as the victim of a vast conspiracy hatched by abusive prosecutors and lying, bitter ex-churchmen. They have rejected Garcia’s guilty plea – an admission that he did in fact sexually abuse three underage members of his church – as a result of a rigged justice system.

Silem Garcia Peña, a church spokesman, claimed Garcia was denied an opportunity to defend himself and did not receive a fair trial.

“We will wait for you,” he wrote in Spanish on Twitter the day Garcia pleaded guilty.

On a Reddit page started by former La Luz del Mundo members, a commenter posted cellphone video of a church service where La Luz del Mundo officials reportedly told their community that their leader “was forced to hear the plea.” – to accept the deal”.

By pleading guilty, Garcia admitted to a much narrower range of criminal conduct than then-California Atty. General Xavier Becerra had trumpeted the indictment in 2019. Garcia had faced five accusers between 2015 and 2019 and allegedly committed crimes.

In his plea, Garcia admitted to sexually abusing three girls between 2017 and 2018. He did not admit to the more serious charges of rape and conspiracy.

The California attorney general’s office prosecuting the case made Garcia’s pleading public after he submitted it during an unannounced hearing on Friday.

Naason Joaquin Garcia listens to testimonies from victims

Naason Joaquin Garcia, right, former leader of the La Luz del Mundo church, listens to victims testimony June 8.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

After news of Garcia’s plea broke, the Reddit page created by former parishioners lit up criticizing prosecutors for giving Garcia a deal to serve fewer years behind bars than if he had been convicted in court.

Three women – Alondra Ocampo, Susana Medina Oaxaca and Azalea Rangel Melendez – had been accused of abetting Garcia’s crimes. Prosecutors claimed they got his victims to accept the abuse and discouraged them from reporting it.

Ocampo pleaded guilty to three counts of sexually assaulting a minor and one count of violent sexual penetration. She had agreed to testify against Garcia in court.

Oaxaca last week pleaded guilty to an assault that would likely result in serious bodily harm. Rangel remains a fugitive.

Ormseth and Jany reported from Los Angeles, Miller from Guadalajara. La Luz del Mundo ‘apostle’ sentenced to nearly 17 years

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