LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The leader of a Mexico-based church that claims over 1 million followers worldwide was ordered on Thursday to remain held on $90 million bail, nearly double the original bail, on newly expanded charges of rape, human trafficking and child pornography.
The ruling virtually assures that Naason Joaquin Garcia, 51, the head and self-styled apostle of the Guadalajara-based evangelical church La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World), will remain in custody as he awaits trial.
The decision to raise Garcia’s bond from $50 million came four months after the original charges against him were ordered dismissed by an appeals court on grounds that Garcia was denied his right to a speedy preliminary hearing in the high-profile case. He has remained incarcerated during subsequent legal proceedings.
Last Thursday the California attorney general’s office filed a new criminal complaint charging Garcia and two co-defendants with 36 felony offenses, 10 more than they previously faced, including additional rape counts.
No pleas have been entered to the newly filed case. Garcia and the others have maintained their innocence, as has the church in a statement released after the latest charges were brought.
Garcia is also the subject of a U.S. federal investigation, three people with knowledge of the matter, two of whom are in law enforcement, told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to prosecutors, five victims, some of them minors, have made statements to investigators that they were raped or otherwise sexually abused by Garcia. Prosecutors have also cited an “orgy” video in which Garcia is seen watching while a young boy has sex with a member of his own family.
CASH AND GOLD
Prosecutors at the two-day bond hearing said the exceptionally high bail sought for Garcia reflected concerns that he would flee to Mexico using church funds.
Patricia Fusco, supervising deputy for the attorney general’s office, told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli that Garcia was believed to have had $500,000 cash in U.S. currency, as well as thousands of euros and bars of gold stashed at his residence.
While bail for Garcia was increased, Lomeli lowered bond for an accused accomplice, Alondra Ocampo, from $25 million to $10 million. A third defendant in the case, Susana Medina Oaxaca, remained free on bail, while a fourth, Azalea Rangel Melendez, was still at large.
La Luz del Mundo is the largest evangelical church in Mexico, dating to the 1920s. It has branches in 50 countries and boasts more than 5 million members.
(Reporting by Norma Galeana in Los Angeles; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Stephen Coates and Leslie Adler)