LOS ANGELES — Citing insufficient evidence, a judge on Wednesday threw out extortion charges against the leader of a Mexican megachurch but left in place accusations of child rape and human trafficking.
The California attorney general’s office failed to show that Naasón Joaquín García, the self-proclaimed apostle of La Luz del Mundo, extorted sex acts from alleged victims by threatening to disgrace them, Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus ruled, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Garcia has pleaded not guilty to dozens of felony counts, including rape of a minor.
The judge also rejected sentencing enhancements that the acts caused great bodily injury, citing a lack of evidence, the Times said.
“Today’s decision demonstrates, as we have always said, that the Apostle is innocent and his innocence will be judicially proven through the course of the trial,” a church statement said.
However, the judge refused to dismiss the case entirely.
Garcia and two co-defendants were exploitive, “using religion as invisible handcuffs,” the judge said, according to the Times.
“They used the fact that these girls were members of the church their entire life, and their families were members of the church,” he said. “They believed Garcia was the apostle of God, and they had to obey his wishes … Why else would these girls engage in sexual activities with Garcia?”
Garcia was arrested last year and remains jailed on $90 million bail.
Garcia is the spiritual leader of La Luz del Mundo, which is Spanish for “The Light Of The World.” The Guadalajara, Mexico-based evangelical Christian church was founded by his grandfather and claims 5 million followers worldwide.
Also charged were Susana Medina Oaxaca and Alondra Ocampo.
Prosecutors contend the three committed sex crimes and also produced child pornography involving five women and girls who were church group members. The crimes took place between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles County, authorities said.
Ocampo pleaded guilty this month to three counts of contact with a minor for a sexual offense and one count of forcible sexual penetration involving four alleged victims, the Times said.