Los Angeles: The head of an evangelical megachurch based in Mexico that has about 5 million followers around the world pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual abuse of children on Friday, California state prosecutors announced.
According to a statement by the California attorney general, Garcia was the leader and self-appointed apostle of the Guadalajara-based La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) church. He entered a guilty plea in court three days before the scheduled trial.
Garcia, 53, was due to be sentenced next Wednesday. Prosecutors said that Garcia could spend up to 16 years in prison and eight months behind bars.
The conviction of Garcia caps an investigation that began in 2018. Garcia was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport the following year with Susana Medina, a co-defendant. She pleaded guilty to assault likely to cause great bodily injury, according to the attorney general.
Garcia pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors, and one count of a sexual act on a child. Prosecutors said that the charges stemmed from the abuse of three minor victims.
Alondra Ocampo was also an additional co-defendant and was also detained in 2019. She pleaded guilty to three felonies of contact with minors for the purpose of committing a sexual offense in 2020.
Garcia, Oaxaca, and Ocampo were all facing 36 felony charges in total, including charges for rape and human trafficking, as well as child pornography. Most of these charges were dropped by the defendants in exchange for their guilty pleas.
Prosecutors said that Azalea Rangel-Melendez, the fourth person charged in this investigation, is still at large.
La Luz del Mundo, Mexico’s largest evangelical church, dates back to the 1920s and has branches in 50 countries. It boasts approximately 5 million members.
Garcia was ordered to appear in court by a Los Angeles judge in August 2020. The church released a statement supporting Garcia, stating that the charges were based on “unsubstantiated anonym allegations” and “blatant hearsay.”
A spokesperson for La Luz del Mundo told Reuters that the church would issue a statement about the latest developments at a later time.