Prison - Photo courtesy of Grant Durr on Unsplash

The leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch was sentenced Wednesday to 16 years and eight months in prison for sex crimes involving three underage girls, despite emotional pleas from victims who asked a judge to reject his plea deal with prosecutors or sentence the defendant to a far longer prison term.

Naasón Joaquín Garcia — the leader of La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) — pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old. Each of the counts involved a separate minor, according to the California Attorney General’s Office, which handled the prosecution.

In addition to his prison time, Garcia is expected to be ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

During an emotionally gripping sentencing hearing, five young women and some of their family members pleaded with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen to set aside the plea agreement between Garcia and the Attorney General’s Office, saying they wanted the religious figure to face trial and more extensive incarceration.

One of the victims — identified in court only as Jane Doe 2 — told the judge that the women were ready to face Garcia in trial and were “deprived of that right,” and did not consent to “negotiating with this rapist.” She asked the judge to reconsider and give the 53-year-old defendant the “maximum sentence.”

Coen, however, apologized to the women and said, “My hands are tied” in terms of the sentence he could hand down. But he told them, “The world has heard you. I promise you that.”

The judge told Garcia, “You are a sexual predator.”

Coen noted that he had been a judge for a long time and said that he never ceases to be amazed by what some people do in the name of religion. He also singled out family members who have “abandoned” some of the victims, saying, “Shame on you!”

In a statement released after the lengthy sentencing hearing, Light of the World referred to Garcia as “the Apostle” and said a “decision has been made to accept an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office to minimize his prison sentence in order to regain his freedom.”

The statement alleged that Garcia had been “subjected to a prosecution in which evidence was suppressed, withheld, doctored and altered” and said the court ruled that the defense would not be permitted to use those materials at his trial.

Garcia “has had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family,” according to the church’s statement. “While he respects the law and the community, he does not believe that the trial he would receive under these conditions would be fair and just. He wishes to spare the church and his family from weeks of unfounded public accusations, including threats to their physical well-being.”

During the hearing, a statement was read in court on behalf of a victim identified as Jane Doe 1, who said Garcia abused his power “to take advantage of me sexually.”

“You deserve to stay in jail forever, but even then it would not be enough penalty,” she wrote, addressing the defendant directly in her statement in which she referred to the church leader as a “predator.”

She noted in her statement that a subsequent message on behalf of church leaders indicated that Garcia’s rights had been abused in court and that he reluctantly took the plea deal because he believed he wasn’t going to receive a fair trial.

She wrote that the victims’ only hope was the fair judicial system in the United States, which she said has “failed us.”

“He took my faith away. He took my purpose away,” said a woman who was identified in court as Jane Doe 3. “He used me, used my faith in God and my innocence.”

She said she’ll never forget the day Garcia was arrested in June 2019 and her mother woke her up to go to church to pray for him.

“It made me feel so little and I didn’t even have it in me to fight back,” she told the judge.

She told Garcia that he deserved “to live the rest of your life in a cell,” and urged the judge to reconsider the plea deal and “sentence him to the maximum amount of time.”

A fourth young woman said she wanted “to see him held fully accountable and to expose him for the monster he is,” and that the plea “robbed me of that opportunity.”

“We want to make sure that this man is put away for life,” she said, telling the judge at one point that Garcia had stolen her virginity and her faith. “How is this justice?”

A fifth young woman, who referred to herself as Jane Doe 5, said that Garcia had taken everything away from her, including her innocence, and said that the church has launched a smear campaign against her and the other victims.

“I would never have said yes to you in a million years,” she said, directly addressing the defendant. “You used me as your sex slave … When I wasn’t your sex slave, I was your personal one, too … I did it all because I still believed.”

Through a Spanish interpreter, the mother of one of the victims questioned why Garcia “did it to innocent little girls who loved him” and asked the judge to “take into account the years of pain he’s caused.”

The mother of another victim said Garcia had used their faith and desire for salvation “to trick us.”

The brother of one of the victims called Garcia a “monster,” and said he had taken advantage of his family’s trust.

The husband of one of the victims told Garcia that he hoped the defendant would one day feel remorse for his actions, saying that Garcia “used their faith” against the victims.

Garcia — who has been in custody since his June 3, 2019, arrest — had been set to go on trial this week, along with co-defendant Susana Oaxaca, 27, who pleaded guilty last Friday to assault likely to cause great bodily injury. Oaxaca was sentenced last week to one year of probation, along with time she had already served in jail and on house arrest and six months of psychiatric counseling, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 39, pleaded guilty in 2020 to three felony counts of contact with a minor for the purposes of committing a sexual offense and one count of forcible sexual penetration. She is still awaiting sentencing.

Supervising Deputy Attorney General Patricia Fusco told the judge Garcia was “someone that our victims looked up to” and trusted, and said they were “brave” for coming forward.

Addressing the victims, she said prosecutors understood this will impact them for the rest of their lives and that they’re hopeful Garcia’s guilty plea will help them move forward and empower them. She implored members of the church not to harass the victims — at least one of whom said she and her family have received death threats.

In a statement issued after the sentencing, California Attorney General Rob Bonta called Garcia’s sentencing a “critical step forward for justice.”

“While it will never undo the harm and trauma he caused as the leader of La Luz del Mundo, this sentence makes it crystal clear that abusers — no matter who they are — will be held accountable,” the attorney general said.

The three defendants were initially charged in June 2019, but a state appeals court panel ordered the case to be dismissed in April 2020 after finding that Garcia 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.

The Attorney General’s Office subsequently re-filed the case, which alleged that the crimes occurred in Southern California between June 2015 and June 2019.

Garcia was ordered in August 2020 to stand trial on 23 felony counts, including forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, unlawful sexual intercourse, lewd act on a child, extortion, conspiracy and possession of child pornography.

State prosecutors alleged in the complaint that Ocampo told a group of minor girls that they were going against God if they went against any desires or wishes of Garcia, whom the church called “the Apostle of Jesus Christ.”

The Guadalajara-based Pentecostal sect has branches in 50 nations and claims more than a million members worldwide.

In its statement released after the sentencing, the church said, “We publicly manifest our support for the Apostle of Jesus Christ; our confidence remains intact in the full knowledge of his integrity, his conduct and his work … The Apostle will continue ministering to the church.”

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