The head of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch that claims about 5 million followers worldwide pleaded guilty on Friday to felony counts of sexually abusing three children, California state prosecutors announced on Friday.
The guilty plea was entered in court by Nasson Joaquin Garcia, leader and self-styled apostle of the Guadalajara-based church La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World), three days before he was scheduled to go on trial, according to a statement from the California attorney general's office.
Sentencing for Garcia, 53, was scheduled for next Wednesday. He faces up to 16 years and eight months in prison, prosecutors said.
His conviction caps an investigation that began in 2018 leading to Garcia's arrest the following year at Los Angeles International Airport with a co-defendant, Susana Medina Oaxaca, who pleaded guilty on Friday to a charge of assault likely to cause great bodily harm, the attorney general's office said.
Garcia pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child. The charges stem from abuse of three underage victims, prosecutors said.
A second co-defendant, Alondra Ocampo, also arrested in 2019, pleaded guilty in 2020 to three felony counts of contact with a minor for purposes of committing a sexual offence and one count of forcible sexual penetration.
Garcia, Oaxaca and Ocampo had faced 36 felony offences in all, including charges of rape, human trafficking and child pornography. The majority of those counts were dropped in return for the defendants' guilty pleas.
A fourth individual charged in the investigation, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large, prosecutors said.
La Luz del Mundo is the largest evangelical church in Mexico, dating to the 1920s, with branches in 50 countries and boasting about 5 million members.
When a Los Angeles judge ordered Garcia to stand trial in August 2020, the church issued a statement defending their leader as wrongly accused, saying the charges against him stemmed from "unsubstantiated anonymous allegations" and "blatant hearsay."
A La Luz del Mundo spokesman reached by Reuters on Friday said the church would have a statement on the latest developments later in the day.