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Court drops rape, other charges against megachurch leader

LOS ANGELES (AP) – The criminal case against a Mexican megachurch leader on rape and human trafficking charges was dismissed Tuesday by a California appeals court on procedural grounds.

Naasón Joaquín García, the self-proclaimed Apostle La Luz del Mundo, has been in custody since June following his arrest on charges involving three girls and one woman between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles County. He has denied wrongdoing.

While being held without bail in Los Angeles, García has remained the spiritual leader of La Luz del Mundo, who is Spanish for “The Light Of The World.”

; Guadalajara, Mexico-based evangelical Christian church was founded by his grandfather and claims 5 million followers worldwide.

It was not clear when he would be released.

The Attorney General’s Office said it reviewed the court’s ruling and did not answer any further questions.

Garcia’s attorney, Alan Jackson, said he and his client are “proud” of the decision.

“In their eagerness to secure a conviction at all costs, the Attorney General has sought to abolish Mr. Garcia’s freedom without due process by locking him without bail because of unsafe charges by unnamed prosecutors and by denying him his day in court,” Jackson said in a statement.

The Court of Appeals’ ruling states that the Los Angeles County Superior Court must reject the 29 counts of crimes committing crimes ranging from human trafficking and child pornography production to forced rape by a minor.

The Court of Appeal ruled that because Garcia’s preliminary hearing was not timely held and he did not waive his right to one, the complaint filed against him must be dismissed.

In June, García was arrested on 26 bills and revoked his right to a quick preliminary hearing – a common feature. The following month, he was arraigned on an amended complaint that included three more charges of possession of child pornography. At that time, he did not waive the deadlines for a preliminary hearing.

His hearing was postponed several times – in some cases because prosecutors had not provided evidence to the defense – because he remained without bail, prompting his lawyers to appeal.

The Supreme Court ruled that a preliminary hearing on a changed complaint for a detained defendant must be held within ten days of the second arrest – unless the defendant waives the 10-day period or if there is “good cause” for the delay.

The appeal only mentioned the dismissal of Garcia’s case and not his co-defendants, Susana Medina Oaxaca and Alondra Ocampo. A fourth defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large.

It was not immediately clear if the co-defendants’ cases would also be discarded.

In February, a woman in Southern California filed a federal lawsuit towards the church and García. In it, she said García, 50, and his father sexually abused her for 18 years, beginning when she was 12, and manipulating the Bible to convince her that the abuse was in fact a gift from God.

The dismissal is the latest in a series of mistakes about this high-profile case for the Prosecutor’s Office.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra himself appealed to additional victims to come forward – a defense lawyer for the move said it could trouble a jury pool.

“It would be hard to believe that based on the information we collect that it is just these four individuals,” Becerra said in June, repeatedly García “sick” and “demented.”

Prosecutors Amanda Plisner and Diana Callaghan also said several times in court that they expected to file additional charges based on more victims as the case continued to be investigated. But in the end, they only added three bills of possession of child pornography to the original complaint.

Plisner and Callaghan were also sanctioned by a Superior Court judge in September, who said they had violated a court decision for failing to provide defense counsel’s evidence. The judge later lifted the sanctions and overturns $ 10,000 in fines she had imposed.

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