Just days before his long-awaited trial was set to start, La Luz del Mundo leader Naason Joaquin Garcia pleaded guilty Friday to sexually abusing girls from his congregation, a stunning reversal for a man who followers believe is an “apostle” appointed by God.
Originally facing 36 charges, Garcia at the last minute took a plea deal that called for him to admit to three counts, the state attorney general’s office announced Friday: two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old.
“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,” Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said in a news release issued late Friday afternoon.
Garcia, he said, abused his authority to “take advantage of children,” while relying on his underlings “to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault.”
“Today’s conviction can never undo the harm,” Bonta declared, “but it will help protect future generations.”
Garcia, 53, had publicly maintained his innocence for years. His unexpected plea change came during an unannounced hearing Friday, which was only disclosed after the fact in a news release.
Garcia’s lawyers didn’t immediately return requests for comment; a church spokesman had no immediate comment.
Garcia has been in jail for nearly three years awaiting trial, since state prosecutors charged him with abusing girls who belonged to his Mexico-based megachurch. They also alleged the church was involved in a lengthy cover-up of the sexual misconduct.
Despite the vast publicity and lurid charges, Garcia had maintained almost universal support within the church. When he was arrested, many of the faithful flocked to churches in the denomination’s hometown of Guadalajara, but also in Los Angeles and other cities.
They prayed, they talked to journalists, they protested their leader’s innocence. Said parishioner Robert Pelegreen at the time: “When David was going to fight Goliath, it looked like he was going to lose. God has his plan.”
After several delays, Garcia’s trial was supposed to start with jury selection Monday before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen. After Friday’s unexpected plea, he will instead face sentencing Wednesday.
The California attorney general’s office, which is handling the case, also had accused Garcia of coercing underlings to recruit young girls for him to sexually abuse. Three female church members also have been charged with various offenses. One remains on the run, while another has agreed to testify against Garcia, saying she herself was abused.
Church member Alondra Ocampo was expected to testify against him. She has pleaded guilty to four counts as part of a deal in 2020. She will be sentenced at a later date. She was accused of grooming teenage girls for Garcia’s sexual pleasure.
Her attorney previously told The Times that Ocampo herself suffered years of sexual abuse in the church when she was a minor.
Another codefendant, Susana Medina Oaxaca, who was Garcia’s former assistant, pleaded guilty Friday to a charge of assault likely to cause great bodily injury, Bonta’s office said.
Authorities have yet to locate the third woman, Azalea Rangel Melendez.
The alleged crimes committed by Garcia occurred between 2015 and 2019. The case against him came as a result of a tip in 2018 to a U.S. Justice Department website that was created to help people report abuse by clergy.
It is unclear what his guilty admission will mean for the megachurch with international reach, and whether it will force the kind of larger reckoning over abuse and decades-long cover-ups that has swept the Catholic Church.
Many news outlets in Mexico featured Garcia’s guilty plea on their homepages Friday evening, including the online website Animal Politico and newspaper El Universal.
Claudia Eunice Hernandez, a former member of the church who is in her early 30s and lives in Mexico City, said Garcia’s arrest in 2019 led some people to leave the church. She said she expects more will decide to leave because of the guilty plea.
But she also thinks many church members — including her 85-year-old grandmother — will continue to believe in Garcia’s innocence.
“I know how hard it is for them to see Naason like a normal person that also does bad things,” she said. “For them, he’s a saint that does everything well.”
Renee de la Torre is a researcher in Guadalajara for the Center of Research and Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology and has studied La Luz del Mundo. She said she does not think the plea deal will result “in a total crisis for the institution.”
She pointed to how the church has consistently held that Garcia was innocent and has spent the last few years trying to build a positive image of the institution, claiming its membership has stayed strong.
De la Torre said she believes the church will continue to present Garcia as a victim of a conspiracy and that many of its members will keep backing him.
“I wouldn’t doubt that they’ll continue with the same logic, because we’ve already seen it,” she said, pointing to sexual abuse allegations that Garcia’s father and grandfather, both of whom led the church, also faced.
Had it proceeded, the trial might have offered a rare glimpse into the insular world of La Luz del Mundo — Light of the World — which boasts more than 5 million members. It is Mexico’s largest evangelical church and has branches in 50 countries, including churches in East and West Los Angeles.
The church was founded in 1926 by Garcia’s grandfather, who was succeeded by Garcia’s father, Samuel Joaquin Flores. Flores died in 2014 and passed the mantle of apostle on to Garcia.
Both father and son have been accused of using the church’s young members as sexual servants, of leading lavish lifestyles on the backs of their followers and of intimidating church members into silence and submission.
While Flores was never charged with a crime, Garcia’s arrest and the subsequent charges against him made international headlines.
Garcia is said to have coerced girls in his congregation to engage in various sex acts over the years. They allegedly were told that if they went against Garcia’s desires they were going against God.
Held in jail on $90-million bail, Garcia faced charges ranging from human trafficking and rape to forcible oral copulation of a minor and possession of child pornography.
After Garcia’s guilty plea, the church’s normally active Facebook page was dormant.
The news of the impending plea deal garnered a mixed reaction from a Reddit group that has become a refuge for former church members, some of whom have said they were abused.
One commenter speculated about whether the terms of the plea deal might call for Garcia to out other alleged abusers in the church.
Another poster wrote, “In light of this disturbing news, we are calling on ALL the victims who are still out there who have been abused by this sick monster to please come forward.”
“We know there are many, many out there. And NOW is the time to stand up and fight.”
Times staff writers Jany and Ormseth reported from Los Angeles, Miller from Mexico City.