Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of the La Luz del Mundo church, was sentenced Wednesday to 16 years and eight months in prison for sexually abusing juvenile members of his congregation.
Several of Garcia’s victims tested during the lengthy hearing Wednesday, and the courtroom was filled with muffled sobs as the sentence was handed down.
“I’ve been a judge for a long time,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen, who presided over the sentencing. “I’ll never cease to be amazed at what some people do [in the name of] religion.”
Before reading the award, Coen apologized to the victims. Many had wanted the case to go to trial, but Garcia agreed to plead guilty Friday. Coen said: “My hands are tied. Lawyers do what lawyers do.”
“But I just want to tell the Jane Does that the world has heard you,” he said. “And for those family members that have abandoned you, shame! Shame on you!”
Turning his attention to Garcia, he said, “And as to the defendant, you are a sexual predator.”
After maintaining his innocence for three years and branding his victims liars, Garcia abruptly pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation on a minor and one count of committing a lewd act on a child.
He entered the plea three days before he was scheduled to stand trial on charges of rape, producing child pornography, conspiring to commit human trafficking and other sex crimes.
In a lengthy statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the church said it supported Garcia’s decision to plead guilty because he believed he could not get a fair trial. The plea, the church said, would allow him to “minimize his prison sentence in order to regain his freedom.”
Calling him “the Apostle of Jesus Christ,” the church said Garcia “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.”
Garcia, the statement said, “will continue ministering to the church. This is a path that God has placed in front of him for a reason, as he did for Apostle Paul.”
A crowd of news cameras waited at the Los Angeles courthouse’s Temple Street entrance Wednesday morning in anticipation of Garcia’s fate. The courtroom where the sentencing took place was so packed that several dozen trial watchers were shepherded to an overflow room, with audio, but no video, of the proceeding.
As the hearing started, a prosecutor said the state had intended to call a psychiatrist at trial who was going to testify that “institutional betrayal is the worst type of abuse.”
“It is the hardest for victims to recover from because it is done by people in positions of trust,” she said, likening the case to similar sex abuse scandals by football coaches and team doctors.
“Mr. Garcia was someone that our victims looked up to. They trusted him. They thought he was basically God on Earth. And we know that he’s not God, not even close.”
Addressing some of his defenders within the church, she said, “Anyone who still believes that this man is still God on Earth is complicit and supporting a child molester.”
The audience in the overflow room listened in abduction silence as the prosecutor listed several cases of sexual abuse, some of which reportedly happened in Garcia’s Los Angeles home.
As the first victim’s impact statement was read, a deputy in the overflow room passed out tissues to several attendees who wept in the front row, their heads bowed.
Choking back tears, a victim identified only as Jane Doe 1, told the court that, because of Garcia, she had suffered “more trauma and pain” than she could ever endure. All she wanted, she said, was to “tell the world who this man really is.”
“I feel that this plea allows him to escape the true consequences” of his actions, she said.
She continued: “All I’ve ever known was the church, it was my whole life.”
“I’d always been taught that we couldn’t refuse his desires,” she said, describing how other church members convinced her she was “lucky” to “receive his blessing.”
She said she effectively served as Garcia’s servant and sex slave, forced to wash his clothes, scrub his toilet and perform a sex act on him every morning. The abuse went on every day for years, she said.
Jane Doe 2 told the court she wished prosecutors had taken the case to trial.
”I was willing to sacrifice my dignity once more to allow prosecutors to show the child porn” of how he raped her, she said. As a result of the abuse, she said she suffers from “constant” panic attacks and anxiety.
“We wanted to defend ourselves,” she said, “and to have the evidence out in the public so that other victims” would feel emboldened to “speak up.”
Jane Doe 3 told the court she was one of thousands of kids in the church who revered Garcia.
In Hermosa Provincia, a lower-class neighborhood in Guadalajara where the evangelical church is based, hundreds of congregants made their way to the towering temple Wednesday to pray for Garcia the morning of the sentencing.
And they continued to pray and sing hymns as Garcia’s hearing progressed more than 1,500 miles away.
A church member’s voice boomed outside the Guadalajara church’s open doors.
“We’re with you, apostle of God!” he said.
Dozens of followers sat on the pavement outside the church and on lawn chairs they brought with them. They got on their knees to pray for Garcia. Some sobbed.
“This is going to be a spiritual push for us to be closer to God,” said Leticia Mendez, 62, who sat on a red lawn chair.
Of Garcia, she said, “The only thing he’s taught us is to love God, ourselves, our marriages, our children and our home.”
Devotees in Hermosa Provincia and elsewhere firmly hold that Garcia is innocent and that his decision to plead guilty Friday was a strategic decision to avoid an unfair trial.
“He was appointed by God, and God can’t be wrong,” said Jemima Chavez Ubaldo, 37, a resident whose family has belonged to the church for generations.
Followers of La Luz del Mundo consider Garcia an “apostle” of Jesus Christ. Founded by Garcia’s grandfather in 1926, La Luz del Mundo is today Mexico’s largest evangelical church and claims millions of congregants around the world, including many in Los Angeles.
Garcia, 53, ascended to the head of the church after the death in 2014 of his father, Samuel Joaquin Flores.
He had been in jail on $90-million bail since his arrest three years ago as he stepped off a private jet at Los Angeles International Airport. Even as his case proceeded through the courts and investigators described prurient allegations of girls being raped and photographed in sexual positions, Garcia has maintained the support of church officials and many congregants.
They see their spiritual leader as the victim of a vast conspiracy hatched by overreaching prosecutors and lying, embittered ex-parishioners. They have dismissed Garcia’s guilty plea — an admission that he did in fact sexually abuse three underage members of his church — as the outcome of a rigged justice system.
Silem Garcia Peña, a spokesman for the church, claimed that Garcia had been denied the chance to present a defense and would not have received a fair trial.
“We will wait for you,” he wrote in Spanish on Twitter the day Garcia pleaded guilty.
On a Reddit page started by former La Luz del Mundo members, one commenter posted a cellphone video from a church service during which La Luz del Mundo officials reportedly told their congregation that their leader was “forced to take the plea deal.”
In pleading guilty, Garcia admitted to a much narrower scope of criminal conduct than what then-California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra had trumpeted in announcing the charges in 2019. Garcia had faced five accusers and allegedly committed crimes between 2015 and 2019.
In his plea, Garcia acknowledged sexually abusing three girls between 2017 and 2018. He did not admit to the more serious rape and conspiracy charges.
The California attorney general’s office, which prosecuted the case, made Garcia’s plea public after he entered it during an unannounced hearing Friday.
After news broke of Garcia’s plea, the Reddit page created by former parishioners lit up with criticism of prosecutors for giving Garcia a deal to spend fewer years behind bars than if he had been convicted at trial.
Three women — Alondra Ocampo, Susana Medina Oaxaca and Azalea Rangel Melendez — had been accused of facilitating Garcia’s crimes. Prosecutors alleged they groomed his victims to acquiesce to the abuse and discouraged them from reporting it.
Ocampo pleaded guilty to three counts of contact with a minor for sexual offense and one count of forcible sexual penetration. She had been prepared to testify against Garcia at trial.
Oaxaca pleaded guilty last week to one count of assault likely to cause great bodily injury. Rangel remains a fugitive.
Ormseth and Jany reported from Los Angeles, Miller from Guadalajara.