The head of a Mexico-based religious organization and two co-defendants pleaded not guilty Friday in downtown Los Angeles to charges of allegedly coercing children into performing sexual acts for the church's spiritual leader.
La Luz del Mundo leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, and his associates -- a fourth defendant remains at large -- face a 26-count felony complaint that alleges crimes including child rape, statutory rape, molestation, human trafficking, child pornography and extortion.
During a bail review hearing Friday, Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan declined to make any changes to Garcia and Alondra Ocampo's bail, previously set at $50 million and $25 million, respectively, but reduced Susana Medina Oaxaca's bail from $5 million to $150,000.
Deputy Attorney General Amanda Plisner recommended that the judge bar the possibility of bail for Garcia and his alleged assistant, Ocampo, citing flight risk and arguing they are a danger to the community. Sullivan said that while she was leaning towards granting Plisner's motion for Garcia, she asked the prosecutor to provide additional supporting evidence at another bail review hearing on July 15.
Plisner said her office had just begun searching the nearly 60 phones and digital devices seized from the defendants that she predicted would provide further evidence that a no-bail order was warranted.
In reducing Oaxaca's bail, the judge ordered that if released, the 24-year-old defendant must remain under house arrest, with electronic monitoring, and have no contact with anyone under the age of 18.
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.
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The state Attorney General's Office filed charges in early June against Garcia, Ocampo, 36, Oaxaca and the fourth defendant 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."
Along with the July 15 hearing, Sullivan scheduled a preliminary hearing-setting conference for Aug. 2.