A former fourth-generation member of La Luz Del Mundo, the Mexico-based megachurch steeped in a child sex abuse scandal, announced Thursday she is suing the organization and the so-called apostle at its helm.
Sochil Martin, a Los Angeles-area native, said she was forced into repeated sexual abuse beginning at the age of 9 at the hands of members including Naasón Joaquín García — the church leader who last year pleaded not guilty to felony charges of child rape and human trafficking. He remains jailed in L.A. as he awaits trial.
Martin, 33, alleges García, 50, and his co-conspirators have victimized hundreds, if not thousands, of children.
The federal lawsuit states he and the church are guilty of not just abuse and the forced, unpaid labor of its members but violations of the RICO Act as a criminal enterprise. It appears to be the first civil litigation of its kind against the church.
Defendants named in the suit include high-ranking church officials such as family members of García and his wife.
Meanwhile, attorneys for García have alleged he is being discriminated against because of his race and religion. Ken Rosenfeld, one of his lawyers, previously defended the megachurch as "not a cult."
KTLA reached out to Rosenfeld by phone but he could not be reached for comment.
La Luz Del Mundo, which claims it has more than 5 million members in 58 countries, has previously stood firmly behind García since he was charged last June. The church plans to hold a news conference Friday.
When asked whether La Luz members still believe in García's innocence, a church representative wrote in an email to KTLA that La Luz "is not a judicial institution and therefore, cannot legally determine an individual’s guilt."
"The responsibility corresponds to the judicial system in place, which... will determine the sentence of guilt or innocence," the email reads. "The members of the church trust in the integrity and honorability of the Apostle of Jesus Christ."
The church representative denied that members are told to stop communication with ex-believers but did not explicitly deny allegations that members work for no pay.
"As a registered nonprofit organization, the Light of the World Church respects every individual's willful decision to volunteer," the email reads.
García's image currently appears prominently on the church's website; the words "Apostle of Jesus Christ" are written below a photo of his face.
"I was born in the inner circle of La Luz Del Mundo and raised to be the property of the apostle, Samuel Joaquin, and his son after, Naasón," Martin told reporters Thursday. "I come forward today because it has to stop."
Prosecutors in the criminal case against García have voiced concerns about current members harassing and intimidating those who have left the church or alleged abuse. It's a sentiment Martin echoed as she said La Luz practices a systemic form of abuse that's gone on for decades.
The church was established in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico in 1926, according to its website. The lawsuit states it has more than 50 locations throughout California, where García lived on-and-off as he led U.S. efforts on expansion.
Martin was born in 1986 in Monterey Park. She was raised in the La Luz Del Mundo church in East L.A., and for more than 20 years, she suffered escalating abuse including rape and severe beatings, according to the lawsuit.
She said young girls were taught "to dance for and touch the apostles" before being forced into "more horrific sexual acts." Her mother and aunt, who raised her, allegedly went through the same pattern of abuse as children.
"And they can never say, 'no'," she said. "Their parents, community and parishioners teach them that God wants this."
At the age of 13, Martin underwent one ritual in which she had to kneel for hours before a minister named Jose Hernandez, a cousin of García, according to the lawsuit.
"As was the custom, Ms. Martin knelt before the minister for hours, not eating or speaking. Her knees bled and legs shook as she waited..." the lawsuit states. "She listened as she was told by Hernandez that she was nothing and humiliated before other members in the temple."
The criminal charges against García include allegations he and other high-ranking church officials justified the abuse as the will of God. They include counts of child pornography, extortion and human trafficking.
According to the lawsuit, church teachings restrict women from wearing make-up or being alone with a man unless given permission by a minister, among other prohibitions.
The everyday lives of members, and children in particular, are allegedly heavily dictated by the church. "LDM ministers direct members to the books, movies and music that they should consume ... (Ministers) warn against developing social relationships with the outside world," the lawsuit states.
Members are coerced into working — from building its houses of worship to compiling the "propaganda" it publishes online — for no pay, Martin said.
When she was accepted into New York University’s film school at the age of 18, according to the lawsuit, Martin's family and García hid that from her. She was told to stay close to L.A. and study communications at Cal State University Northridge instead.
After just a year of study, she went on to produce propaganda for the church while part of its communications team, the lawsuit states.
Some of that exploitation happens in the Los Angeles area and affects thousands, Martin said. The criminal case against García involves allegations of sexual abuse that occurred within L.A. County.
"Even the treasured family heirlooms of members are melted down to paint the house of the apostles," Martin said.
In the lawsuit, she alleges members in Southern California were encouraged to donate gold heirlooms and jewelry that were then melted and used to paint García's home in L.A.
Meanwhile, García and his close relatives live a lavish lifestyle that includes designer clothing, luxury cars, "extravagant dinners for his friends" costing more than $150,000 and multiple million-dollar properties such as a $2.7 million beach-front mansion in Palos Verdes, according to the lawsuit.
Earlier this week, La Luz Del Mundo opened a church in Phoenix, Arizona — a silver, dome-shaped temple that took more than a decade to construct, according to the Arizona Republic. A church spokesperson told the newspaper it took so long because of financial stresses from the 2008 recession.
Former members like Martin have recalled an atmosphere that could be described as cult-like. A Reddit group for ex-believers holds more than 1,400 members and features posts on García's court dates alongside the grievances of those who say they've been shamed and shunned by loved ones still in the church.
More than a dozen former members who spoke with the Los Angeles Times last year gave reasons for leaving such as not being accepted because they are gay or not being able to date people outside the faith.
For Martin, making the decision to leave wasn't easy.
"The brainwashing of that religious institution [is] all I knew my entire life," she said, her voice choking. "So it’s very difficult to just wake up one day and say, 'Oh, you know, it's just a lie.'"
But she said that's exactly what she thought when church officials allegedly tried bribing her after she and her husband left the organization on Oct. 13, 2016.
Within weeks, three high-ranking officials approached her with the offer of half a million pesos to stay silent about the inner workings of La Luz, according to the lawsuit. She refused the payment and has since cooperated with law enforcement.
"It will never stop unless we make it stop," she said.
Some ex-members attended the Thursday news conference where Martin discussed the allegations, including her brother, she said. She hopes coming forward publicly will encourage others to take a stand.
"There are countless more of you like me," Martin said. "I hope you see yourself in me and decide that you do not have to be silent anymore — that you can speak up and say 'stop,' that you will tell the world what has happened to you."
"Your story can help bring down this corrupt organization," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.