Religion

California attorney general seeks potential victims in La Luz del Mundo sexual abuse case

Following the arrest this week of the leader of La Luz del Mundo church on sexual abuse and charges, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Thursday said that Naason Joaquin Garcia's unprecedented $50-million bail amount was merited.

At a news conference in Sacramento, the state's top prosecutor said Garcia's high bail reflects prosecutors' fear that the charismatic religious leader could flee if his Mexico-based church's followers – who number in the millions, by some estimates – try to raise money to spring him. Becerra said he believed Garcia's bail might be the highest imposed on someone in Los Angeles County.

He urged other potential victims to come forward.

"We have a great apprehension that Mr. Garcia will raise the money to get a bond to bail himself out," Becerra said. "We have provided the court information to back up the credible fear we have."

Louis Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney based in Century City, said that bail generally does not rise above $1 million or $2 million, and even that is not common and usually involves homicide cases. He called Garcia's bail figure "extraordinarily high."

"That's definitely the judge sending a message to the defense that you're going to have a pretty steep hill to climb on this one," Shapiro said.

Judges can set bail higher than the usual amount if they feel a defendant is likely to be a flight risk. In order to bail out of jail, Shapiro said, Garcia would have to provide 8% of the $50-million, or $4 million. The bail bondsman who handled his released could allow him to pay part of that amount over time.

Garcia, the international president of the largest evangelical church in Mexico, was arrested on Monday at Los Angeles International Airport on human trafficking, child porn, rape and other charges.

The arrest sparked emergency prayer services throughout the church's congregations, which call Garcia an "apostle" appointed by God to direct La Luz del Mundo.

During the news conference, Becerra asked for possible victims or others who might have relevant information to come forward.

"I know this is not easy, some of these folks depended on this religious organization, this church, for much of their support," he said. "No law of California, no law of humankind and certainly no law of God would permit to occur what Naason Joaquin Garcia is alleged to have committed in this case against young girls and others."

Garcia and co-defendants Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca – all of whom are affiliated with La Luz del Mundo – are alleged to have committed 26 felonies, including human trafficking, production of child pornography and forcible rape of a minor, in Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2018.

Ocampo is being held on a bail of $25 million and Oaxaca on $5 million. Melendez is currently at large.

Becerra said the case reached his office as a result of a tip to a Justice Department website that was created last year to help people report clergy abuse. The website allows survivors of abuse to submit confidential complaints.

The four victims in the case are three minors and one adult – all from the L.A. County area, Becerra said. They were either members of the organization or children of members.

"It would be hard to believe that, based on the information we're collecting, that it's only these four individuals," Becerra said. "There is a pattern here."

Eliezer Gutierrez, a spokesman for La Luz del Mundo who leads one of its churches in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, said he was shocked when he heard the charges against Garcia, who as a teenager led a church youth group Gutierrez had belonged to.

"I have seen his dedication, his constant work," he said, referring to the dozens of speeches Garcia has given around the world to spread the church's message. "When we heard these accusations, our first thoughts were that these accusations veer from the man that we know."

The church of La Luz del Mundo was founded in 1926 by Garcia's grandfather in Mexico. Samuel Joaquin Flores, Garcia's father and predecessor, who died in 2014, was previously the subject of child sex abuse allegations that he adamantly denied. He never faced charges.

According to the criminal complaint filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, in August of 2017 Ocampo told a group of girls in that if they resisted the desires of "the Apostle," they were going against God.

In one incident outlined in the criminal complaint, Ocampo allegedly called a girl who was under 16 to Garcia's home and directed her to serve him coffee in his office while he was nude.

When she entered his office, Garcia allegedly put his arms around the girl, kissed her on the lips and touched her in intimate locations, the complaint said.

Officials from the organization, which has churches in East and West L.A., Orange County and Palm Springs, have defended Garcia. In a statement released the week, the church rejected all allegations made against Garcia, saying that "the Apostle of Jesus Christ has always adhered to the law and demonstrated full respect to governmental institutions and the dignity of all persons."

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