A state appeals court panel Tuesday ordered a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to dismiss the case against the leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch, who was charged last year with rape and other sexual acts against children in Southern California.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal found in its 33-page ruling that Naason Joaquin Garcia — the 50-year-old leader of La Luz del Mundo or The Light of the World — did not waive his right to a timely hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to require him to stand trial and that the hearing was not held within that time.
Garcia, who remained jailed without bail as of late Tuesday afternoon, is scheduled to appear Wednesday before Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli.
The California Attorney General’s office, which filed the case against Garcia last year, said it was reviewing the court’s decision.
Garcia was arrested last June by Los Angeles Airport police. He was ordered held without bail last July, with a judge noting then that information provided by the alleged victims was “very detailed” and concluding that there was a “risk of flight” by Garcia, who was initially jailed in lieu of $25 million bail and then $50 million bail.
The 17 counts filed against Garcia include forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation, unlawful sexual intercourse, extortion, conspiracy and possession of child pornography.
The California Attorney General’s Office initially filed 14 counts against him and Garcia agreed to a delay in his preliminary hearing, but three more charges were subsequently added without Garcia waiving his right to a speedy preliminary hearing. The appellate court panel found that a court would have to find good cause for a continuance if the defendant did not waive his right to a timely preliminary hearing.
“Here, Garcia had a statutory right to a preliminary hearing within 10 court days of his arraignment and plea on the amended complaint. Because Garcia did not personally waive that right and the preliminary hearing was not held within that 10-day period, he was entitled to dismissal of the amended complaint…,” the appellate court panel found in its ruling.
Two Los Angeles Superior Court judges had rejected the defense’s bid for the amended complaint against Garcia to be dismissed, prompting his attorneys to ask the appellate court to intervene.
Attorneys for Sochil Martin, a Los Angeles woman who sued the church and its leaders in February, released a statement saying that the appellate ruling “does not judge Naason Joaquin Garcia for his guilt or innocence, but addresses a procedural technicality.”
“The criminal prosecution of Naason Garcia is only one small step among many in bringing down a corrupt organization that has exploited its members for generations,” the statement alleges.
The federal lawsuit filed by Martin, who’s in her early 30s, alleges that she was raised within the church as “property” of Garcia and spent decades “enslaved, trafficked and sexually abused by church hierarchy.”
It was not immediately clear whether the appellate court’s decision would affect the case against three his three female co-defendants.
Alondra Ocampo, 37, is charged with 21 counts, including forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, human trafficking for production of child pornography and production/distribution of child pornography.
Susana Medina Oaxaca, 25, is charged with one count each of forcible oral copulation of a person under 18 and oral copulation of a person under 18.
Azalea Rangel Melendez, who is still being sought by authorities, is charged with one count each of forcible rape and forcible oral copulation.
The state Attorney General’s Office alleges that the crimes occurred in Southern California between June 2015 and June 2019.
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,” the complaint alleges.
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.
Ashley Valdez, a representative of the evangelical 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 previously.
The Guadalajara-based Pentecostal sect has branches in 50 countries and claims more than 1 million members worldwide.
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