Prosecutors are poring through dozens of digital devices as they build their case against the leader of La Luz del Mundo church, a man known by followers as “the apostle” of Jesus Christ and who has been charged with various counts of sex abuse, including forcible rape of a minor.
They allege that Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, has received numerous child pornography images and videos. But what they have discovered is just the “tip of the iceberg,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. Amanda Plisner.
At a Superior Court hearing Friday in downtown Los Angeles, Plisner cited an ongoing investigation in requesting that the possibility of posting bail not be made available to Garcia, currently detained in lieu of what’s believed to be the highest bail in L.A. County. As they uncover more evidence, she said, prosecutors expect the scope of the original accusation will swell.
Judge Teresa Sullivan called Plisner’s petition “well-founded” but decided not to make immediate changes to Garcia’s $50-million bail or that of his co-defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 36, who is being held in lieu of a $25-million bail. She did reduce the bail of a third defendant, Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, from $5 million to $150,000.
The case will return to court July 15 for further bail review. All three defendants have pleaded not guilty, and a fourth remains at large.
The 26-felony count complaint filed against Garcia and his co-defendants in early June describes how women allegedly helped procure and prepare young girls for the pleasure of the apostle. Its charges include human trafficking, production of child pornography and forcible rape of a minor, all of which are alleged to have occurred in L.A. County between 2015 and 2018.
Plisner said that Garcia leveraged his status as the head of a church that claims more than 5 million followers. Girls, she said, are taught that “there is nothing better in life than to do something to please defendant Garcia.”
“He used that position of power to take advantage of and exploit young women whose parents were unwilling to protect them,” she said, arguing that, if out of custody, he would pose a risk to hundreds of girls.
Garcia’s attorneys lashed back. Lead counsel Ken Rosenfeld told reporters that thousands of female church members are ready to testify for Garcia.
“That was four against 5 million,” he said, referring to the number of accusers. “This idea of a systemic breeding or systemic pattern of abuse is going to be contradicted.”
Plisner called Ocampo, a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills, “the groomer and recruiter” of all the young women allegedly sexually assaulted by Garcia. She said that Oaxaca was Garcia’s assistant. In a bail motion, Oaxaca’s attorney wrote that she works as an administrative assistant at her church in San Diego and is not a “direct perpetrator” in the case but rather “some sort of accessory.”
In court documents, Garcia’s attorneys argued that his bail was unconstitutional and had been set to ensure that Garcia could not meet it. They countered Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s assertion that Garcia could raise money among his followers to post bail and that he might flee the country, saying that the church does not permit its funds or assets to be spent to pay for criminal defense or bail.
The $50 million, they also said, showed discrimination against La Luz del Mundo.
“What is it about this religion that Mr. Becerra feels like it’s legally appropriate to treat it differently?” asked co-counsel Allen Sawyer. “If Mr. Garcia was Catholic, would the same arguments be made?”
Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School and former federal prosecutor, said the issue is not one of religious discrimination but, rather, whether the church’s followers are “willing to put up their money when there’s a high chance he is going to abscond.”
But Peter Johnson, a criminal law professor at UCLA, said that the idea that someone is popular enough to raise money should not play a central role in setting bail. Factors such as an individual’s flight risk or their threat to the community are what should be considered, he said.
Garcia’s bail motion also said that the prosecutors’ request to increase bail relied on claims that when authorities searched his residence, they discovered $200,000 worth of precious metals and cash, as well as two California driver’s licenses with his photo and different names.
Sawyer said that the metals were “gifts of appreciation” that Garcia had received over the years during his travels for the church. Attorneys wrote that, like other celebrities, he uses driver’s licenses with different names to check into hotels anonymously and that there is no evidence Garcia had used those licenses for fraudulent purposes. (According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, it is illegal for any individual to hold more than one active driver’s license.)
In court, Plisner described Garcia as living a lavish lifestyle. He would travel very often, if not primarily, on a private airplane. Garcia’s attorneys wrote that their client, who owns four properties in L.A. County, has a net worth that exceeds $3 million.
Sawyer would not provide the salary Garcia receives from the church, saying he has a “right to privacy.” Church spokesman Jack Freeman also declined, writing in an email that “the Apostle and the entire ministerial body of the church receive the necessary support to fulfill their ecclesiastical missions.”
Many of Garcia’s followers continue to support the apostle. In a statement attached to his bail motion, the church’s Council of Bishops reaffirmed “our complete moral support and belief in the innocence of the Apostle.”