Judge dismisses extortion counts in Luz del Mundo sex abuse case
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has thrown out several counts of extortion against the head of La Luz del Mundo church in a case where prosecutors say the leader used his base to groom underage victims for his sexual pleasure.
Citing insufficient evidence, Judge Stephen A. Marcus on Wednesday ruled to dismiss four counts of extortion against Naason Joaquin Garcia. He argued that the state attorney general’s office had failed to show that Garcia had threatened to disgrace his alleged victims if they didn’t perform sexual acts.
The judge also dismissed enhancements against Garcia for great bodily injury on counts of forcible rape of a minor and unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, saying that there lacked evidence that an injury had resulted from the sexual act.
But Marcus otherwise denied a motion by Garcia’s defense attorneys at Wednesday’s hearing in downtown L.A. to dismiss before trial the case against Garcia, a man known amongst his followers as the “apostle” of Jesus Christ. Garcia is being held on $90-million bail and has pleaded not guilty to counts that include human trafficking, forcible rape of a minor, and possession of child pornography since his arrest in June 2019.
Garcia’s attorneys argued in their motion that prosecutors have shown “virtually no evidence” that Garcia’s alleged victims had participated in sexual acts under pressure from the defendants, claiming that they’ve only pointed to an “unspoken and internalized fear.”
“What the government has consistently done from the beginning of this case,” said Alan Jackson, Garcia’s attorney, “was focus almost entirely on the belief system, the belief structure of LLDM [church], making relatively broad brushstroke allegations about the church.”
The judge held otherwise. Marcus said that Garcia, along with two co-defendants whom prosecutors claim helped prepare minors for the apostle’s pleasure, had exploited and manipulated his alleged victims “using religion as invisible handcuffs.”
“They used the fact that these girls were members of the church their entire life, and their families were members of the church,” he said. “They believed Garcia was the apostle of God, and they had to obey his wishes… Why else would these girls engage in sexual activities with Garcia?”
Jackson said he didn’t wish to comment on the ruling.
The complaint against Garcia, 51, and co-defendants Alondra Ocampo, 37, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, 25, details crimes that allegedly occurred between June 2015 and June 2019. Prosecutors have claimed that the alleged victims were told that if they went against Garcia’s desires as “the apostle” they were going against God.
The attorney general’s office refiled charges in late July after a previous case against the defendants was dismissed for violation of a right to a timely preliminary hearing.
Ocampo, who is being held without bail, pleaded guilty to four counts this month, according to prosecutors. These include three counts of contact with a minor for a sexual offense, involving three Jane Does, and one count of forcible sexual penetration, involving a fourth Jane Doe. The attorney general’s office said it could not immediately share more information on a possible plea deal.
Prosecutors have described Ocampo as someone who groomed girls who were later allegedly sexually assaulted by Garcia and coerced minors into pornographic photo shoots in hotel rooms in Whittier and El Monte.
In court papers, they allege that Garcia was served by an exclusive group of young girls within a larger group of congregants that assisted with household chores at his East L.A. home. Ocampo, they said, carried substantial influence at the Luz del Mundo church nearby and was in charge of the exclusive group typically composed of teenagers about 15 years old.
Ocampo’s group included four of the Jane Doe complaining witnesses in the case, prosecutors said. The group was known as “the dancers,” and its members would dance or perform skits for Garcia while in lingerie or partially nude.
In a statement following Wednesday’s hearing, La Luz del Mundo renewed its support for Garcia.
“We express our confidence in the integrity and honorability of the Apostle of Jesus Christ Naason Joaquin Garcia, knowing that justice and truth will prevail at all times,” it said.
Garcia succeeded his father in 2014 as the leader of La Luz Del Mundo, which is based in Guadalajara and claims millions of members. The case against him came as a result of a tip to a Justice Department website that was created to help people report abuse by clergy.
In February, a former member of La Luz del Mundo filed a federal civil lawsuit against the church, Garcia, and other high-ranking church members, seeking damages for human trafficking, racketeering, sexual battery and forced labor, among other charges.
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