Homeless Man Accused Of Setting 249-Year-Old San Gabriel Mission On Fire Pleads Not Guilty

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was founded in 1771 by Saint Junipero Serra.
SAN GABRIEL, CA -JULY22: Fire investigators continued looking into what started the July 11 blaze that gutted the Mission San Gabriel Archangel church.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On Thursday, a homeless man pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of setting a 249-year-old Catholic church on fire last year.

John David Corey Jr., 57, also known as “Joker,” denied igniting the blaze on July 11, 2020, which caused millions of dollars of damage to the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra. The four-alarm fire reportedly broke out shortly before 4:30 a.m. and burned for nearly two and a half hours. One firefighter was injured battling the blaze. The roof of the church building was destroyed, and the pews below were incinerated. First responders were able to save the alter, museum, and some paintings.

Prosecutors claim Corey broke into the church and set the structure on fire, which fire officials say began in the choir loft on the second floor before spreading.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charged Corey with two counts of arson of an inhabited structure, along with one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary, and possession of flammable material. Law enforcement said Corey is homeless and had lived in an unincorporated area near San Gabriel. He reportedly had been arrested on three previous occasions on suspicion of arson. An investigator said Corey is currently serving three years for a separate arson crime that occurred the day after the Mission fire.

“It was during this separate incident that investigators deemed Mr. Corey a person of interest in the Mission San Gabriel case,” according to a statement from the fire department after the case was filed. “After a thorough investigation, investigators determined that Corey was responsible for the fire at the Mission San Gabriel.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, the mission fire “came amid rising anger over California missions and other colonial monuments that for many serve as painful reminders of the nation’s racist history.”

Native American groups had entered into an “intersectional” partnership with Black Lives Matter allies to attempt to cancel Father Serra. Activists toppled statues of Serra across California and pressured elected officials to remove monuments in his honor.

Serra, the first saint canonized on U.S. soil, founded the California mission system in the late 18th century. Historians say the 21 missions along the state’s coast were set up to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, expand European territory, and colonize the land.

Saint Serra’s critics believe the missions were a form of institutional racial oppression that wiped out customs and culture. They say natives were forced to perform labor for the missions, thereby propping up a new system of white supremacy that kept them oppressed.

According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “fire investigators remained tight-lipped on the motive, on what tied Corey to the Mission fire and when they arrested him.” Sources told the L.A. Times last year that the defendant “was known at the mission and had a history of conflict with its staff … but an official did not cite Corey’s animosity toward the church as a motive for setting the fire.”

During a press conference earlier this month, San Marino Fire Capt. Jason Sutliff said Corey could face a maximum of 14 years in prison if convicted in the Mission fire case. The district attorney’s office, however, has not yet determined what sentence it will pursue. A hearing has been set for June 21. A judge set Corey’s bail at $250,000.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel will celebrate its 250th anniversary on September 8.

Related: The Catholic Statues And Sites Attacked By Activists, And How Elected Leaders Responded

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