Judge hikes bail for La Luz del Mundo leader to $90 million
A judge on Thursday set bail at $90 million for the leader of La Luz del Mundo church, all but ensuring that the religious leader, Naason Joaquin Garcia, will remain jailed as he awaits trial on charges of raping children and possessing child pornography, among other crimes.
The bail amount, set by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli, was staggering. Garcia’s attorneys had asked the judge to whittle down the $50-million bail imposed last year, when Garcia was first charged with sex crimes. Setting bail at $50 million was the functional equivalent of denying it, his attorneys argued, because no surety company could legally underwrite so large a bond.
Instead, Lomeli raised it by $40 million.
Citing testimony from an agent who investigated Garcia and messages retrieved from seized phones, Lomeli said he had seen evidence of “a systematic pattern of sexual assault of minors.”
Garcia, whose followers consider him the “apostle” of Jesus Christ, faces 22 felony counts that include raping a child, committing lewd acts on children, human trafficking and extortion. He was arrested and charged last year, but an appeals court dismissed the case in April after finding that prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office failed to hold a preliminary hearing in a timely manner.
State prosecutors filed charges again last week. Garcia’s attorneys, Caleb Mason and Alan Jackson, declined Thursday to waive the 10-day period in which prosecutors must show a judge there is enough evidence for the case to proceed. Lomeli scheduled the preliminary hearing to begin Tuesday morning; Amanda Plisner, a deputy attorney general, told the court she expects it to last seven to 10 days.
In arguing to lower Garcia’s $50-million bail, his attorneys called to the stand a bail agent, Morris Demayo, who testified that no surety company could legally underwrite a bond of more than $10 million. To get an exemption, the surety company would have to seek a special hearing with the state insurance department, Demayo testified, but no such hearings are being held during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Demayo told the judge the highest bond he has ever heard of being posted in Los Angeles County was $7 million. Moreover, the bail agent said that after running a background check and speaking to Garcia’s accountant and financial advisor, he concluded there was “no way” the church leader had enough assets to post even a $10-million bond.
Mason assailed the prosecution’s account of Garcia’s crimes and his ability to flee if released, saying they had presented to the court “a combination of hearsay and speculation” in seeking to keep him detained.
None of Garcia’s alleged victims was identified during the hearing, Mason protested, nor could their accounts be tested through cross-examination. He said that one of them — identified only as Jane Doe #4 — was offered immunity for her own criminal exposure because she is “an accomplice in this enterprise.”
His arguments weren’t successful. Before raising Garcia’s bail by $40 million, Lomeli said he found the charges against Garcia disturbing, the evidence that Garcia could flee convincing, and the likelihood high that Garcia, if convicted, would face a long stretch in prison.
The judge noted that Garcia is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, and the leader of an organization with churches and adherents around the world — including in some countries, such as Cuba, that don’t extradite fugitives to the United States.
Troy Holmes, a special agent for the California Department of Justice, testified that he found gold nuggets and what appeared to be fraudulent identification cards when he searched Garcia’s Los Angeles home.
Lomeli also noted that Garcia is alleged to have used his followers to procure and groom child victims. One of those alleged accomplices, Alondra Ocampo, had her bail reduced Thursday from $25 million to $10 million. Ocampo, like Garcia, was arrested last year.
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