Prosecutors: Mexico church might harass victims, witnesses

Prosecutors in a case against the leader of Mexico-based megachurch La Luz del Mundo and two followers charged with child rape and human trafficking said they have "significant concerns" the church's followers could harass or intimidate victims and potential witnesses.

Naasón Joaquín García, 50, and his co-defendants returned to Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday. They face a 26-count felony complaint that alleges crimes including child rape, statutory rape, molestation, human trafficking, child pornography and extortion. The charges detail allegations involving three girls and one woman between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles County.

Deputy Attorney General Amanda Plisner asked Judge Francis Bennett Monday to bar the defense attorneys from working closely and sharing information with members of the church. She said the attorney general's office also is worried the church may try to identify the victims.

Allen Sawyer, who represents Joaquín García, called the request "inappropriate" and overly broad, noting that some members of the church who are lawyers have been helping him understand its complexities.

Bennett ordered the parties to compromise and return to court June 21 for an arraignment and bail review.

"It's important that we resolve this issue in a timely fashion," Bennett said.

Joaquín García, the church's self-proclaimed apostle, remains in custody on $50 million bail, believed to be the highest ever set in the county.

He and a follower of the church, Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, were arrested June 3 after their chartered flight from Mexico landed at Los Angeles International Airport. A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 36, was arrested in Los Angeles County and a fourth, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large.

Joaquín García — who was a minister in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California before becoming the church's leader — coerced the victims into performing sex acts by telling them that refusing would be going against God, authorities said. He allegedly forced the victims, who were members of the church, to sexually touch themselves and each other. One of his co-defendants also allegedly took nude photographs of the victims and sent the pictures to Joaquín García.

Joaquín García's attorneys and worshippers say he will be exonerated and remains the church's leader.

The fundamentalist Christian church, whose name translates to The Light of the World, was founded in 1926 by Joaquín García's grandfather. His father also led the church and was the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.

The church now claims 5 million members in more than 50 countries.