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Leader of La Luz del Mundo megachurch pleads not guilty to sex abuse counts

Leila Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

LOS ANGELES -- Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of La Luz del Mundo megachurch, pleaded not guilty Friday to multiple counts of sex abuse at an arraignment and bail review hearing.

The other detained co-defendants in the case, Alondra Ocampo, 36, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, also entered not guilty pleas in Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles.

Both of them are affiliated with La Luz del Mundo and with Garcia and another defendant are alleged to have committed 26 felonies in L.A. County between 2015 and 2018, including human trafficking, production of child pornography and forcible rape of a minor. The other defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, is still at large.

Judge Teresa Sullivan decided not to make immediate changes to Garcia's and Ocampo's bail, which are set at $50 million and $25 million, respectively, saying that there appears to still be "ongoing investigation" into alleged criminal activity pertaining to the defendants. She reduced Oaxaca's bail from $5 million to $150,000 and ordered her to remain under house arrest.

At the hearing, state Deputy Attorney General Amanda Plisner said that about 60 digital devices, including cellphones, had been seized in the criminal investigation and that prosecutors are still in the process of reviewing those devices. But based on the information they acquired so far, she said it appears the allegations against the defendants are "much broader in scope" than the original criminal complaint indicates.

"There is this ongoing, institutional, multigenerational abuse going on," she said.

Since charges were filed in early June by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, church officials have mounted an aggressive and public defense of their leader -- calling the allegations false. Many of Garcia's followers continue to support their leader.

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In a statement attached to a bail motion filed by Garcia's attorneys, the church's Council of Bishops reaffirmed "our complete moral support and belief in the innocence of the Apostle."

The case will return to court July 15 for further bail review.

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