Tribune News Service
Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of La Luz del Mundo megachurch, pleaded not guilty Friday to multiple counts of sex abuse at an arraignment and bail review hearing in California.
The other detained co-defendants in the case, Alondra Ocampo, 36, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, also entered not guilty pleas in Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles.
Both of them are affiliated with La Luz del Mundo, and with Garcia and another defendant are alleged to have committed 26 felonies in L.A. County between 2015 and 2018, including human trafficking, production of child pornography and forcible rape of a minor. The other defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, is still at large.
Judge Teresa Sullivan decided not to make immediate changes to Garcia’s and Ocampo’s bail, which are set at $50 million and $25 million, respectively, saying that there appears to still be “ongoing investigation” into alleged criminal activity pertaining to the defendants. She reduced Oaxaca’s bail from $5 million to $150,000 and ordered her to remain under house arrest.
At the hearing, state Deputy Attorney General Amanda Plisner said that about 60 digital devices, including cellphones, had been seized in the criminal investigation and that prosecutors are still in the process of reviewing those devices. But based on the information they acquired so far, she said it appears the allegations against the defendants are “much broader in scope” than the original criminal complaint indicates.
“There is this ongoing, institutional, multigenerational abuse going on,” she said.
García, the church's self-proclaimed apostle, poses a threat to "hundreds of girls" if he gets released, Plisner said, arguing he be held without bail.
Since charges were filed in early June by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, church officials have mounted an aggressive and public defense of their leader — calling the allegations false. Many of Garcia’s followers continue to support their leader.
In a statement attached to a bail motion filed by Garcia’s attorneys, the church’s Council of Bishops reaffirmed “our complete moral support and belief in the innocence of the Apostle.”
The case will return to court July 15 for further bail review.
The organization — formed in Mexico in 1926 — has been the subject of controversy for years, as it has spread from Mexico into California and other places.
The church has proposed building a massive complex in Flowery Branch. It hasn't filed a formal application, but on its website and in preliminary documents with the city, has proposed a project calling for a hotel, retail, and multifamily and single-family homes. The project also would call for a school site, fellowship hall, administrative offices and cultural center/park.
Hall County records show the property owner as LDM Central Evangelical Ministries, and a March 2017 Facebook post links the property to La Luz del Mundo, translated as The Light of the World church, based in Guadalajara, Mexico.
LLDM has identified the project as “City of Light of the World” and as its “first effort to build cities where the values that distinguish human beings are cultivated, (people) live in an atmosphere of peace, equity, solidarity and above all, on the principles that human beings can achieve the harmony of living together by applying the statutes of healthy coexistence that the Lord Jesus Christ left to his apostles in teaching.”
The church is led by Garcia, who toured the Flowery Branch site, according to an English translation of the Facebook post, which was originally written in Spanish.
"This is very unfortunate, however we stand by the international leader of the church, Naason Joaquin as we know that he is a clean and good man," said Jack Freeman, a local leader of LDM, to The Times on Wednesday, June 5. "I have never witnessed anything other than respect and care from him. We are certain that this will come to pass and he will be found innocent on all allegations."
LDM Central USA Evangelical Ministries of Houston has filed draft paperwork with Flowery Branch laying out basic plans for the property at 5071 Hog Mountain Road, which is between Spout Springs and Capitola Farm roads. Capitola Farm Road connects Hog Mountain Road back to Spout Springs, cutting through Sterling on the Lake.
Times reporters Jeff Gill and Joshua Silavent contributed to this report.