Days before his trial was set to begin in downtown Los Angeles, the leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch pleaded guilty Friday to multiple sex-related charges involving minors, according to the state Attorney General's Office.
Naasón Joaquín García -- the 53-year-old leader of La Luz del Mundo, or Light of the World -- is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday. It was not immediately clear what sentence he is facing. According to the Attorney General's Office, García pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and a single count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old. Each charge involved a separate minor, prosecutors said.
“Today's conviction sends a clear message that sexual exploitation is never acceptable in California. We will hold you accountable if you break the law,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement.
"As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín García used his power to take advantage of children. He relied on those around him to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault. Today's conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations. I am incredibly grateful to our team at the California Department of Justice for their dedication to securing justice and fighting abuse on behalf of the people of California. We will always stand with Californians against injustice.''
A co-defendant in the case, Susana Oaxaca, 27, pleaded guilty Friday to of assault likely to cause great bodily injury and will also be sentenced Wednesday, according to the Attorney General's Office.
A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 39, pleaded guilty in 2020 to four counts and will be sentenced at a later date.
García had been set to go on trial next week, with jury selection scheduled to begin Monday.
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He was originally 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.
Oaxaca was charged with one felony count each of forcible oral copulation of a person under 18 and oral copulation of a person under 18.
The three defendants were initially charged in June 2019, but a state appeals court panel ordered the case to be dismissed in April 2020 on technical grounds. The appellate court panel found 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 refiled the case, which alleges that the crimes occurred in Southern California between June 2015 and June 2019.
Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen found sufficient evidence in August 2020 to allow the case against Garcia and Oaxaca to proceed to trial.
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 García, 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.
While the criminal case was pending, the church repeatedly insisted on García's innocence.
In a statement posted on Twitter following a court hearing last month, the church said it has “complete confidence that the time will come when the innocence” of Garcia “will be proven in a court of law.”
“Truth shines in the darkness and lies can never extinguish it,'' the church said in the statement, in which it indicated that it was “surprised that the judge did not dismiss the case today.”