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California

Citing new evidence, judge angrily denies bail for leader of La Luz del Mundo church

Naason Joaquin Garcia bail hearing in Los Angeles, USA - 15 Jul 2019
Naason Joaquin Garcia, right, leader of La Luz del Mundo church, and his defense attorney Ken Rosenfeld attend a bail review hearing at Los Angeles County Superior Court on July 15.
(AL SEIB/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/AL SEIB/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX)

The leader of La Luz del Mundo church remained impassive in a Los Angeles courtroom as a witness for prosecutors described a video that he alleged showed Naason Joaquin Garcia participating in a sexual threesome involving a minor.

State law enforcement officer and forensic examiner Steven Stover testified during a Superior Court hearing on Monday that the video, which he said was found on an iPad that officials had seized from Garcia, depicts the defendant having intercourse with a woman while she performs oral sex on an underage male.

Stover also said that he had found child pornography on an iPhone that had been taken from Garcia — a man church followers call the “apostle” of Jesus Christ. One video, he said, depicted four females “of a very young age” lying nude on a bed performing oral sex on each other.

On Tuesday, that was enough for Superior Court Judge David Fields to grant prosecutors’ request to deny the possibility of bail to Garcia. The religious leader had faced a $50-million bail, believed to be the highest ever imposed in L.A. County. He has pleaded not guilty to rape of a minor, among other sexual offenses.

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An amended criminal complaint against Garcia and his co-defendants — who are charged with crimes alleged to have occurred in L.A. County between 2015 and 2019 — describes how women allegedly helped procure and prepare young girls for his pleasure. Prosecutors have claimed that Garcia leveraged his status as the head of a church where girls are taught that they must do anything to please the apostle. Garcia’s defense team disputes that account.

In a visibly angry voice, Fields said that he believed there is enough evidence to sustain a conviction and that Garcia would pose a risk to the community if he were released on bail.

“This is a man who preyed on young girls,” he said. “Religion was used against these girls. They were told that if they didn’t comply [sexually], they were sinning.”

Referring to claims by Garcia’s defense attorneys that a witness for prosecutors had been working to frame the apostle, the judge said, “These images are not planted on his phone by a conspiracy against him.”

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In a news conference, Garcia’s lead attorney Ken Rosenfeld said his team would be appealing the decision. He said that Stover had inadequately relied on a Jane Doe witness to identify one of the people in the alleged threesome — who wore a mask — as an underage male.

“[It’s] a piece of evidence that may or may not be authentic … digital evidence is easy to fake,” said Rosenfeld. “The person is wearing a mask. It would take verification of knowing someone’s genitalia.”

Fields decided not to reduce the $25-million bail for co-defendant Alondra Ocampo, 36, whom Deputy Atty. Gen. Amanda Plisner has called “the groomer and recruiter” of all the young women allegedly sexually assaulted by Garcia. Another defendant, Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, had her bail reduced last month from $5 million to $150,000. A fourth defendant remains at large.

The attorney general’s office had filed an amended complaint on Monday with three new counts of possession of child pornography against Garcia. Plisner said that this case is distinct from other sex abuse cases because the parents of the alleged victims “actually facilitate their abuse because they believe it to be a blessing to those young women.”

Stover testified that he was still analyzing more than 100,000 images and videos on the phone that was confiscated from Garcia. He also said he was reviewing an iPhone belonging to co-defendant Oaxaca. According to Stover, one conversation between Oaxaca and another female touched on how “Mr. Garcia has special privileges and he is not subject to the same rules as other people.”

“The conversation goes back and forth where [they discuss how] certain girls are ready for certain things, whether it be providing a dance for Mr. Garcia or advancing to something past an erotic dance and performing sexual acts,” he said. “There’s conversation about what a certain girl would do if she was given the opportunity to be alone with Mr. Garcia.”

Troy Holmes, a special agent for the state’s Department of Justice, also testified on Monday that a search of Garcia’s home uncovered two fraudulent California driver’s licenses that had photos of Garcia but carried different names. He also said that a trust account that was opened for the benefit of Garcia had received $5 million over a week in June. That sum came from about 90 different transactions from individuals in about a dozen states, he said.

At Monday’s hearing, Garcia’s defense attorneys cited a brief that they had filed last Wednesday that said they had uncovered a sophisticated and financially motivated plot intended to extort and frame the apostle. Attorneys wrote that a witness for prosecutors falsely claimed Garcia raped her in order to help sell a documentary film she was making about him and the church.

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She “realized that the more salacious the allegations made against Mr. Garcia, the more successful her documentary project would become in the marketplace,” the brief stated.

The adult witness, whom defense investigators interviewed but was not named, allegedly coerced two female underage witnesses into engaging in child pornography as part of her plan, according to the brief. The attorneys said she admitted to taking pictures of the girls while they were partially clothed. She then allegedly sent them to Garcia without solicitation in order to extort him, they said.

But on Tuesday, the judge swept aside the attorneys’ allegations that there has been a conspiracy to frame the apostle.

“There’s just too much specific detail over a long period of time, several years, given by the Jane Does, for the court to believe that that this is all contrived and that somehow Garcia is being extorted,” Fields said.

In a press release sent after Tuesday’s hearing, the church wrote — in all capital letters — that the judge’s decision “in no way implies guilt, nor does it suggest defeat. His defense remains strong. We have complete trust in the integrity of the apostle of Jesus Christ.”


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