A disgraced leader of a Mexican megachurch was sentenced Wednesday to almost 17 years imprisonment for sexually abusing three young girls.
Naason Joaquin Garcia, leader and self-described apostle of the Guadalajara church La Luz del Mundo ("Light of the World"), pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors.
Garcia, 53, pleaded guilty to his charges three days before Garcia was due to stand trial for 23 felonies of sex crime against children. This includes multiple charges of rape and conspiracy to engage in child trafficking.
Attorney General Rob Bonta stated Friday that Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of La Luz del Mundo used his power to exploit children. He relied on his congregants to sexually assault him. While today's conviction will not undo the damage, it will help to protect future generations.
Many of his accusers were identified only as Jane Doe in court and are now young adults. They decried Garcia's plea deal as being too permissive, claiming that they weren't consulted in the agreement Garcia made with the California attorney general.
All five victims made victim-impact statements during Wednesday's hearing. They said that they felt denied the opportunity to confront Garcia. Garcia sat behind his accusers, as each one cried out at Garcia.
First victim claimed she was forced to perform daily sexual acts for many years because she had to clean his toilet and wash his clothes.
Jane Doe No. Three cried as she addressed him. You are nothing more than a predator or abuser.
Jane Doe No. 4. She identified herself as Garcia's niece and said that Garcia would make her give thanks every time he raped. He was the reason she had "everything." "Naason, this church have destroyed my life."
Garcia claimed that Garcia had stolen her innocence, and that Garcia believed that he was God.
She said, "He made me his property. I was his property."
Garcia's grandfather founded La Luz del Mundo in 1920s Mexico. It is the largest evangelical church with millions of members across many countries.
Another accuser of Garcia told the court he was trying to avoid accountability by claiming through his church that he had acquiesced under duress to a plea agreement and was wrongly accused.
Garcia has been publicly supported by the church. The church issued a Twitter statement reiterating support and saying that it "remains indestructible with full knowledge of his integrity. His conduct. and his work."
Noticias Telemundo was informed Wednesday by one of his followers that "his honour is not in question" because many have defended his leadership.
Patricia Fortuny is a Mexican anthropologist, who studied La Luz del Mundo. She told the Los Angeles Times that the church will not "lose its popularity from any day to another" and that Garcia could be portrayed as "a victim that was destroyed by the unjust World."
"Your honor, the abuser thinks that your courtroom is a joke," he said. The accuser stated that even after accepting the plea deal, he was still sending messages to the church claiming he is innocent.
Ronald Cohen, Superior Court Judge, pronounced the sentence that prosecutors had recommended. He sentenced Garcia to 16 years and 8 months in prison. Cohen wanted to assure victims that "the world has heard you." Garcia will also be registered as a serial sex offender for the rest of his life.
Garcia was dressed in orange jail garb and made no statements during the proceedings. He was taken away in handcuffs at the end of the hearing.
Prosecutors dismissed most of the charges against him in exchange for his guilty plea. This was in spite of the fact that the original case stemmed from the allegations of five victims, which date back to mid-2015 through early 2018.
His sentencing ends an investigation that began in 2018 and led to his arrest at Los Angeles International Airport the next year.
Separate plea agreements were reached by two other church associates who were also charged with Garcia. Susana Medina Oaxaca, a church associate charged with Garcia, pleaded guilty to the charge of assault likely to cause severe bodily harm. She was sentenced last Friday to one year probation and six months of psychiatric counselling.
Alondra Ocampo was also an additional co-defendant and was also arrested in 2019. She pleaded guilty to three felonies of contact with minors for the purpose of committing a sexual offense in 2020. Ocampo has not been sentenced. He had previously been charged with multiple counts of human trafficking as well as other charges.
Prosecutors said that Azalea Rangel-Melendez, the fourth suspect in the investigation, is still at large.