By BRIAN MELLEY
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The leader of the Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo was sentenced Wednesday to more than 16 years in a California prison for sexually abusing young female followers who said he made them his sex slaves.
Naasón Joaquín García, 53, abruptly pleaded guilty last week in Los Angeles Superior Court to three felonies on the eve of a long-awaited trial.
Prosecutors said García, who is considered the “apostle” of Jesus Christ by his 5 million worldwide followers, used his spiritual sway to have sex with girls and young women who were told it would lead to their salvation — or damnation if they refused.
“I never cease to be amazed at what people do in the name of religion and how many lives are ruined in the guise of a supreme being,” said Judge Ronald Coen, who called García a sexual predator.
The sentence came after nearly three hours of emotional statements by five young women García was charged with sexually abusing. They had once been his most devoted servants. But in court they called him “evil” and a “monster,” “disgusting human waste” and the “antichrist.”
“I worshipped my abuser,” said a woman identified as Jane Doe 4 and said she was his niece. “He used me over and over again like a sacrificial lamb taken to slaughter.”
García, dressed in orange jail scrubs and wearing a surgical mask pulled under his glasses, didn’t turn to face the women. He sat upright and looked straight ahead with this hands shackled at his waist as he followed along with the proceedings listening through ear phones to a Spanish interpreter.
García pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15. In exchange, prosecutors dropped 16 counts that included allegations of raping children and women, as well as human trafficking to produce child pornography.
The victims objected to the plea deal, saying they only learned about it at the last minute and were not consulted. They implored Coen to impose a stiffer sentence but he said his hands were tied by the agreement.
“The world has heard you,” he told the weeping Jane Does and their supporters. “I promise you that.”
The church, which is also known as the Light of the World, said in a statement that García pleaded guilty because he didn’t think he could get a fair trial after prosecutors withheld or doctored evidence. The agreement would allow him to be freed sooner.
“The Apostle of Jesus Christ has had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family,” the church said. It repeated its support for him.
García’s grandfather founded the Guadalajara-based fundamentalist Christian church in 1926. García took over as “apostle” after his father, Samuel Joaquín Flores, died in 2014.
Flores was also the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.
Patricia Fusco, supervising deputy attorney general, tearfully praised the victims for their bravery in standing up to García and his followers who have rallied around him and shamed the young women. She said their courage had saved others’ lives.
“They trusted him. They thought he was basically God on Earth,” Fusco said of the victims. “We know, of course, he’s not God. Not even close. … Anyone who still believes he’s God is complicit and they’re supporting a child molester.”
García was aided by others in the church who groomed his victims and facilitated the abuse. Two women who have pleaded guilty to related charges were not sentenced Wednesday.
The victims spoke of how their delight at being invited into a secret inner circle with García quickly spun into an out-of-control nightmare of rape and other sexual abuse that they described at times in graphic detail.
They said they were called angels and told they were García’s property and that his wishes were godly commands and they should serve the Lord without question. Bible verses were twisted to make them comply.
But they were also told they would damned if they spoke out — and so would anybody they told.
The women had been born into the church and it was the only life they had known. They prayed three times a day and sang songs to García.
Defense lawyers had said prosecutors were operating under a far-fetched legal theory that García used spiritual coercion for sexual pleasure.
“It is a fantasy seemingly invented out of whole cloth,” defense attorney Alan Jackson wrote in a court filing.
But prosecutors said the victims were essentially brainwashed by García and felt they would be ostracized by the insular church community if they didn’t submit to his desires. In denying a defense motion to dismiss the case, a judge said García used religion as “invisible handcuffs” to exploit his victims.
When some of his followers finally turned on him, they found themselves isolated and suffering in silence. Some of their own family members didn’t believe them.
“Being called an apostate was the worst of the worst and you would go to hell no matter what,” said Jane Doe 2, who cried throughout her statement.
They were humiliated and shamed, called sluts and whores, they said. Their families were threatened.
One woman said she had suicidal thoughts and another said she tried to kill herself several times. They all said García had ruined their lives.
On the day Garcia was apprehended three years ago, Jane Doe 3 said her mother took her to church to join other worshippers who were crying and praying for him.
“I knew those tears were not for me. It broke me to stand there,” she said as she wept. “I couldn’t help but feel betrayed.”