LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The head of a Mexico-based evangelical church that claims more than 1 million followers worldwide was ordered on Tuesday to remain in jail and stand trial on charges of rape, human trafficking and child pornography.
The ruling clears a major hurdle for the California attorney general's office in a case originally brought in June 2019 against Naason Joaquin Garcia, leader and self-styled apostle of the Guadalajara-based church La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World).
The decision capped a preliminary hearing that began Aug. 11, in which prosecutors had to show they had probable cause to bring their case against Garcia and two co-defendants to a jury.
"For the purposes of this hearing, I do find sufficient evidence that all the charges and enhancements in the complaint have been proven by the standard I have before me,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen said.
Garcia, 51, was ordered to remain in custody in lieu of $90 million bond. An arraignment was set for Sept. 1.
An appeals court dismissed the original criminal complaint in April on procedural grounds. But the attorney general's office filed a new complaint this month, charging Garcia and two co-defendants with 36 felony offences, 10 more than they previously faced, including additional rape counts.
No pleas have been entered to the newly filed case. Garcia and the others have maintained their innocence, as has the church, which in a statement issued on Tuesday said the charges stem from "unsubstantiated anonymous allegations" and "blatant hearsay."
One of Garcia's accusers, Sochil Martin, said through her attorney after Tuesday's ruling: "I am happy to see this process moving forward and that we are one step closer to justice."
According to prosecutors, five victims, some of them minors, have alleged that they were raped or otherwise sexually abused by Garcia. Prosecutors have also cited an "orgy" video in which Garcia is seen watching while a young boy has sex with a member of his own family.
An accused accomplice, Alondra Ocampo, remains jailed on $10 million bond, while a third defendant, Susana Medina Oaxaca, is free on bail. A fourth, Azalea Rangel Melendez, was still at large.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Norma Galeana and Cath Turner in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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