Former Santa Maria pastor and La Luz Del Mundo church leader Naasón Joaquín García, 50, was arrested June 3 and is being accused of rape, sex abuse, and sexual trafficking for the production of child pornography. He and three female codefendants, Alondra Ocampo (36), Azalea Rangel Melendez, and Susana Medina Oaxaca (24), are being charged with 26 felony counts involving three minors and one adult. The codefendants and victims are members or children of members of the international Pentecostal church, said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. It is alleged that García coerced victims into complying with his demands by leveraging his power as church leader. The alleged crimes took place between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles County. However, during a press conference on June 6, Becerra said that he believes there are many more victims.
Several chapters of the church have formed in Santa Barbara County, including one in Santa Maria, where García served as a pastor in the early 2000s, and a church in the City of Santa Barbara. García used to frequent the Santa Barbara church when he was the pastor in Santa Maria, but he hasn’t visited in about 10 years, said Ismael Mendez, the Santa Barbara chapter pastor.
In a sit-down interview with Mendez and his wife, Evelia Mendez, the church leaders expressed to the Independent their unfaltering commitment to García’s presumption of innocence. “We welcome an investigation” they said. “We pray for the investigators so that they may discover the truth.” Before the interview, Mendez led about 30 members in their Thursday service, in which they prayed for García and asserted his presumption of innocence. “I can tell you with my eyes closed that [García] is pure,” said Mendez, who knows García personally. García is always traveling and surrounded by many people, the couple said, and they questioned when he would have had time to commit these crimes.
Garica is currently being held on a $50 million bail, the highest amount ever imposed on an individual in L.A. County, according to Becerra. The bail amount is in part due to the seriousness of the allegations and also out of concern that his congregation would raise the money to bail him out. The church has at least seven million members in more than 50 countries, said Mendez. The great majority of the members share Mendez’s sentiment that García, who is regarded as the living apostle of God, is being wrongly accused. Mendez and his wife interpret the high bail as a sign of intolerance against the organization. “That bail amount isn’t even set that high for terrorists,” said Mendez.
This is not the first time the church has faced these types of allegations. Under Samuel Joaquín Flores, García’s father, the church and Flores were also accused of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Flores was never convicted of any of the charges. “We are not afraid,” said Mendez about the charges against García. This is not new, he said, and happened to the apostle Paul and even to García’s father.
The church responded to the allegations against García with a press release backing García: “The Church categorically rejects each and every allegation made against him,” it reads. Mendez and his wife added that García always instructed them to conduct themselves with high morals, family values, and ethics. “He taught us the church should be pure,” they said. “He instructed us to never be with young people alone or women alone and to treat everyone with respect. That is why we’re sure he is innocent.”
When asked by the Independent how abuse is handled within the church, Mendez and his wife responded in unison. “We immediately report to the authorities and encourage our members to report to authorities, even abuse between spouses,” they said. “Immoral things are not allowed in the church,” added Mendez. “If we serve God, we must be pure in all aspects.”
The complaint against García alleges that he took advantage of the devotion church members have to the church. “There are many people that depend on this church,” said Becerra, as he encouraged additional victims to come forward. While Becerra acknowledged defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, he added that an individual cannot be charged without evidence. “We have that evidence,” he said, “and we will act vigorously to prosecute the individuals.” The three female codefendants are alleged to have worked in tandem with García to commit the alleged crimes. Two of the women, Ocampo and Medina Oaxaca, are in custody but Rangel Melendez is still at large.
Becerra urges victims or anyone who may have information about the case to come forward and call (323) 765-2100 or submit an anonymous tip at oag.ca.gov/clergyabuse.
Those in custody are scheduled to be arraigned on Monday, June 10, in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The Mendez and Luz church quotations have been translated from English to Spanish