Court date delayed for religious leader accused of sex crimes

The leader of a Mexico-based church that claims to have a worldwide membership of more than a million people appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom Monday, but did not enter a plea on more than a dozen criminal charges, including forcible rape of a minor and extortion.

Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, is charged with one count each of forcible rape of a minor, committing a lewd act on a child, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, unlawful sexual intercourse and extortion, along with two counts of forcible rape, oral copulation of a person under 18 and conspiracy
and three counts of forcible oral copulation.

He and two his two of his three co-defendants -- the other remains at large -- were ordered to return for arraignment and a bail review hearing on June 21.

Garcia, Alondra Ocampo, 36, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, stood inside a glass-walled custody area in the courtroom as the court heard arguments about a request for cameras to cover the hearing and a protective order requested by the state Attorney General's Office.

A new defense attorney representing Garcia, Allen Sawyer, argued that media coverage would impair his client's ability to get a fair trial.

Sawyer accused California Attorney General Xavier Becerra of having ``blasted the presumption of innocence'' during an ``unprecedented press conference'' last week in which Becerra called Garcia "demented" and "sick."
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Francis Bennett ultimately allowed the cameras, though his ruling applied to this hearing alone, and denied a request for the defendants to appear in civilian rather than jail clothes, an option typically granted at trial.

Deputy Attorney General Amanda Plisner then asked the court to rule on a protective order requiring the defense teams not to disclose facts relayed as part of discovery materials to anyone associated or affiliated with La Luz del Mundo, the church led by Garcia and founded by his grandfather
decades ago.

The case ``involves the sexual abuse of multiple young women (who have an) ultimate right to privacy,'' Plisner told the court.

The prosecutor said there were concerns about harassment of the parties involved given "the tight-knit nature of the community."

Sawyer, who said he has worked cases involving the Catholic Church, said the request amounted to a gag order and would require him to apply a "faith test" to any experts or other individuals helping in Garcia's defense.

"(It's a) large church ... it's 5 million people," Sawyer said.

"It's not appropriate that I do a faith check of anybody associated with the defense.''

Plisner countered the protective order was necessary because the defense team includes people the attorney general's office office believes are witnesses in the case and might play a role in deterring other witnesses. She said individuals had told her office that church members would do ``just about
anything to protect or please defendant Garcia'' based on a "spiritual oath" they had taken.

Sawyer still disagreed.

"This is a preemptive, broad attempt to target a faith,'' the defense attorney told the court.

Ocampo's attorney, Ryan Rodriguez, said he had already signed the protective order after working out his issues in an informal conversation with Plisner.

The judge instructed Plisner, Sawyer and Oaxaca's lawyer, Pat Carey, to work together on language acceptable to both sides so that discovery materials could be turned over.

The state Attorney General's Office filed charges last Tuesday against Garcia, Ocampo, Oaxaca and a 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.

At a news conference Friday, Garcia's then-attorney, Kenneth Rosenfeld, told reporters, ``I am here because of false charges filed against Mr. Joaquin. This is not who this man is. This is not this man's character. This is a high-tech hit job, what happened here. We will not rest, we will not stop until every allegation is systematically, methodically proved to be false that is leveled against the apostle."

Garcia -- who was arrested a week ago at Los Angeles International Airport -- is being held in lieu of $50 million bail.

Ocampo is jailed in lieu of $25 million bail and Oaxaca is being held in lieu of $5 million bail.

Ocampo is charged with 21 counts, including forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, human trafficking for production of child pornography and production/distribution of child pornography, while Oaxaca is charged with one count each of forcible oral copulation of a person
under 18 and oral copulation of a person under 18.

The fourth defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large and is charged with one count each of forcible rape and forcible oral copulation.

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."

Church members gathered at the East Los Angeles congregation last Wednesday morning to participate in a 24-hour prayer period for Garcia.

"We have prayers for 24 hours as a way to ask God to manifest the innocence of the apostle of the Lord," Valdez said.

A church member told reporters he questions the charges.

"I have known him (Garcia) for a long time,'' the man said. "I have only seen him act decent and clean with a lot of respect."

CNS contributed this report