Man charged with arson in San Gabriel Mission fire

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A 57-year-old man has been charged with arson in a fire that tore through the historic San Gabriel Mission last summer.

John David Corey faces two felony counts of arson on an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary and possession of flammable material, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced in a news release Tuesday.

“The loss to the mission was in the millions of dollars,” Gascón said, “but the loss to the community is immeasurable.”

The fire caused severe damage to the roof and interior of the landmark 249-year-old structure.

Corey was arrested two days after the mission fire by San Gabriel police detectives in connection with a separate attempted fire in the city. He was found with an incendiary device, said a source with knowledge of the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

A police mug shot of John David Corey.

John David Corey, 57, is charged with felony arson in the San Gabriel Mission fire

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It was that arrest that led investigators to link Corey to the mission fire, Capt. Jason Sutliff of the San Marino Fire Department said at a news conference at the mission Tuesday.

Since being convicted of attempted arson and sentenced to three years in prison in the second incident, Corey has remained in Los Angeles County jail.

He will be arraigned May 18, said Sutliff, who is also lead investigator on the Verdugo Fire Investigation Task Force.

Corey was known at the mission and had a “history of conflict” with its staff, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Corey did not believe the Catholic Church held people accountable for “bad acts,” according to the official.

But the official did not explicitly link Corey’s animosity toward the church to a motive for setting the fire, which was started with an accelerant.

In another fire-related case, Corey pleaded no contest in August 2016 to unlawfully setting a fire and was sentenced to three years in County Jail.

Corey also has been convicted twice of vandalism and three times for drug-related offenses.

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The mission fire was reported before dawn on July 11 and eventually become a four-alarm event that involved 80 firefighters from seven cities. Responders had to exit the adobe-and-wood structure only about 15 minutes after entering as parts of the roof began to cave in, but they extinguished the blaze in about 2½ hours. No firefighters were injured.

Preliminary investigations did not indicate arson.

Although the altar, bell tower and several religious artifacts were spared, the roof was destroyed, as were many of the 107-year-old pews that had just been refurbished.

Restoration of the mission will include the removal of steel beams, inserted in the 1990s as part of an earthquake retrofit, that were warped during the fire.

A temporary roof of wood and a waterproof membrane was installed in late November.

For days after the fire, grief-stricken parishioners stopped by the mission parking lot to cry, pray and reminisce.

“The San Gabriel Mission is one of those places that was a gathering place for people of all faiths here in San Gabriel,” said Denise Menchaca, a parishioner who was mayor at the time and is still on the City Council.

Menchaca said the timing of the fire made dealing with the shock and grief it caused particularly difficult, with the pandemic limiting in-person gatherings and some parishioners’ feelings still raw about the police killing of George Floyd.

“This was like our Notre Dame burning,” Menchaca said, referencing the 2019 fire at the Paris cathedral.

The alleged arson is one of a few that have targeted Catholic churches over the last decade, including fires at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights in 2018 and St. John Vianney in Hacienda Heights in 2011.

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