LOS ANGELES –
The leader of La Luz del Mundo church has been sentenced to 16 years and eight months in a California prison for sexually abusing three girls.
Naason Joaquin Garcia was sentenced Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court after pleading guilty to three felonies on the eve of a long-awaited trial.
Garcia, who is considered the “apostle” of Jesus Christ by his 5 million worldwide followers, had vigorously fought the charges until he abruptly pleaded guilty last week.
Prosecutors say he used his spiritual influence to have sex with several female followers. Garcia had faced trial Monday on 19 counts that included child rape allegations.
Judge Ronald Coen called Garcia a sexual predator.
“It never ceases to amaze me what people do in the name of religion and how many lives are ruined in the guise of a supreme being,” Coen said.
Coen denied requests by the victims to impose a stiffer sentence, saying his hands were tied by the plea agreement.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — One by one, several young women who said they had been sexually abused by the leader of Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo implored a judge Wednesday to sentence Naason Joaquin Garcia to the maximum for stealing their innocence and wrecking their lives.
They spoke of how their happiness at being accepted into one of Garcia’s inner circles quickly spun into an out-of-control nightmare of rape and other sexual abuse that they were told would lead to their salvation — or damnation if they refused.
“I worshipped my abuser,” said a woman identified as Jane Doe 4, who sobbed as she spoke about Garcia as a “monster.” “He used me over and over again like a sacrificial lamb taken to slaughter.”
Garcia, 53, faced a sentence of 16 years and eight months after pleading guilty Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15.
Garcia, who is considered the “apostle” of Jesus Christ by his 5 million worldwide followers, had vigorously fought charges that included child rape, until abruptly accepting a plea deal on the eve of trial.
The women he admitted to abusing and at least one other accuser were united in their criticism of the plea deal that was offered by prosecutors from the attorney general’s office.
They said they had looked forward to Garcia facing a trial in the hopes he’d be locked up for life. Now that option was gone and they pleaded with Judge Ronald Coen to impose at least a 20-year sentence, telling him that Garcia had made a mockery of the court and told his followers he only pleaded guilty because he wasn’t being treated fairly.
Patricia Fusco, supervising deputy attorney general, tearfully praised the victims for their bravery in standing up to Garcia and his faithful followers who have rallied around him and shamed the young women.
“They trusted him. They thought he was basically God on Earth,” Fusco said of the victims. “We know, of course, he’s not God. Not even close. … Anyone who still believes he’s God is complicit and they’re supporting a child molester.”
Garcia, dressed in orange jail scrubs and wearing a surgical mask pulled under his glasses, didn’t turn to face the women. He sat upright and looked straight ahead with this hands shackled at his waist.
Prosecutors said he used his spiritual sway to have sex with female followers and was aided by others in the church who groomed the women and facilitated the abuse.
The women said they were called angels or “angelistas,” and were told they were Garcia’s property.
They had only known life in the church — praying three times a day — and when they finally turned on Garcia they found themselves isolated and suffering in silence. Some of their own family members didn’t believe them.
“Being called an apostate was the worst of the worst and you would go to hell no matter what,” said Jane Doe 2, who wept throughout her statement.
Garcia had been scheduled to go on trial Monday on 19 counts that also included allegations of human trafficking to produce child pornography. A judge had thrown out four counts of extortion and sentencing enhancements for great bodily injury for lack of evidence.
Defense lawyers had said prosecutors were operating under a far-fetched legal theory that Garcia used spiritual coercion for sexual pleasure.
“It is a fantasy seemingly invented out of whole cloth,” defense attorney Alan Jackson wrote in a court filing.
But prosecutors said the victims were essentially brainwashed by Garcia and felt they would be ostracized by the insular church community if they didn’t submit to his desires. In denying a defense motion to dismiss the case, a judge said Garcia used religion as “invisible handcuffs” to exploit his victims.
Garcia’s grandfather founded the Guadalajara-based fundamentalist Christian church — known by its English name, The Light of the World — in 1926.
Garcia took over as “apostle” after his father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, died in 2014.
Flores was also the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.
The church has tried to cultivate a law-abiding, hard-working image in Mexico — where it counts about 1.8 million followers. Its male members favor suits and short hair, and female members wear veils that cover their hair and modest dresses. There are about 1 million U.S. members.