Disturbing details were alleged Monday — over the repeated objections of defense attorneys — in the case against the spiritual head of a Mexico-based religious organization charged with rape and other sexual acts against children, as prosecutors sought to deny him bail.
La Luz del Mundo leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, and two associates — a fourth defendant remains at large — are facing a 26-count felony complaint that alleges crimes including child rape, statutory rape, molestation, human trafficking, child pornography and extortion. Prosecutors filed an amended complaint Monday charging Garcia with three new counts of possession of child pornography.
Garcia is currently in custody in lieu of $50 million bail and co-defendant Alondra Ocampo, 36, is being held on $25 million bail. Co-defendant Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, was released last month after her bail was reduced from $5 million to $150,000 and she posted bond.
During Monday’s bail review hearing, Garcia’s defense attorney Kenneth Rosenfeld asked Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Fields to allow Garcia to be released on house arrest “under the watchful eye of Robert Dick.” Dick, a bounty hunter, ensured defendant Casey Anthony’s appearances during her murder trial in Florida after the death of her 2-year-old daughter. Anthony was acquitted.
Deputy Attorney General Amanda Plisner argued that Garcia and Ocampo pose a serious public safety risk and should be held without bail.
“No bail is the only way to assure the safety of the community,” Plisner said, telling the court that fake driver’s licenses were found at Garcia’s home during a June 3 search and raised a concern that the defendant could flee to Mexico. Garcia is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Rosenfeld asked to call witnesses to refute what he said was a “completely false characterization of this 100-year-old religion” by the state Attorney General’s Office.
“The Light of the World is a legitimate religion. It is Pentecostal in nature,” Rosenfield told the court, seeking to combat a narrative of institutionalized grooming of children to perform sexual acts for the church’s leader and concerns that church members would do anything to assist Garcia because they believe him to be a god.
Fields said he didn’t need to hear from witnesses about the church’s history and nature. The judge also denied a request to present testimony about a Static-99, an actuarial assessment of risk posed by accused sex offenders, saying he had sufficient understanding of the assessment from court documents. Rosenfeld said Garcia was assessed as “low risk.”
Two prosecution witnesses testified about digital evidence found on an iPhone and iPad alleged to belong to Garcia, over the repeated objections of defense attorneys who argued they had no opportunity to review the digital evidence or challenge its source.
“This is a conspiracy,” Rosenfeld told the court, alleging that one of the complaining Jane Doe witnesses approached two girls and asked them to send naked pictures to Garcia to frame him.
Allen Sawyer, another defense attorney for Garcia, called the testimony “pure speculation.”
The judge overruled them time and again, often cutting off their remarks.
Special Task Force Agent Steven Stover said a review of an iPhone believed to belong to Garcia “found videos depicting girls … four girls … engaged in oral copulation on each other.”
The more than 100,000 digital images on the phone include collages set to a love song of “very young” girls — some naked, some in lingerie and some clothed — “expressing their love for a certain individual,” Stover testified.
Plisner said the images of child pornography captured from the digital devices could not legally be transmitted to the defense for review, but were available for them to see in the setting of a forensic laboratory.
Text messages allegedly sent between one of the alleged Jane Doe victims and someone purporting to be Garcia talked about “planning large sex parties,” detailed “scenarios for sexual fantasies” and discussed which girls were “ready for certain things” and who needed to be brought along more slowly.
Oaxaca’s attorney, Pat Carey objected, telling the judge, “(this) feels like we’re doing the preliminary hearing … we’ve gone astray,” but was again overruled.
Stover also testified about two videos showing a young man wearing a mask over his face as a woman performs oral sex on him. In one video, the defendant allegedly stands in the corner masturbating before coming up behind the woman and penetrating her.
The witness alleged that the woman in the video was co-defendant Azalea Rangel Melendez, who remains at large.
More than 50 phones and digital devices have been seized from the defendants, according to prosecutors.
Special Agent Troy Holmes testified that “quite a lot of money” in various currencies was found in a search of Garcia’s home, along with a large plastic container of gold nuggets. Holmes said Wells Fargo reported that $5 million was transferred in roughly 90 separate contributions to an account set up in Garcia’s name and referencing his defense.
Holmes alleged other text messages to Garcia talked about training a girl to “be a good little whore.”
On cross-examination, Holmes said he was told the messages were sent to and from Mexico, prompting the defense to note that Garcia was in custody at the time of the messages.
Rosenfeld said Garcia has a large staff that sends email, texts and other communications on his behalf and implied that other individuals have access to his phone password.
At one point in Holmes’ testimony, as the prosecutor began to ask about bestiality, the defense called for a sidebar and the judge deemed the discussion to be too prejudicial to continue.
Garcia is the leader of Guadalara-based La Luz del Mundo, which claims more than a million members worldwide and has about 40 locations in Southern California. The evangelical church was founded by Garcia’s grandfather decades ago.
The state Attorney General’s Office filed charges in early June in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that the crimes were committed in Southern California between June 2015 and April 2018.
Ashley Valdez, a spokesman for the church, vehemently denied the allegations against the man viewed by followers as an apostle of Jesus Christ.
“The church categorically rejects each and every allegation made against him,” Valdez said.
State prosecutors allege that Garcia and his co-defendants coerced the victims into performing sexual acts by warning them that defying “the Apostle” is akin to defying God.
The criminal complaint alleges, among other acts, that Ocampo directed minors to perform “flirty” dances for Garcia “wearing as little clothing as possible.” Ocampo also allegedly ordered various minors to “take off their clothing and touch each other sexually.”
The complaint also alleges that Garcia kissed and groped a 15-year-old girl in his office, and that he and Ocampo forcibly raped an underage girl. Garcia, Ocampo and Oaxaca also allegedly performed sex acts on an underage girl, according to the complaint.
Ocampo also allegedly instructed three underage girls to take nude photos of themselves to send to Garcia, telling them to “take photos without their underwear and with their legs open.”
No further witnesses are expected in the bail hearing. Arguments are scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
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