Home National News Arson last year at California mission results in charges against homeless man

Arson last year at California mission results in charges against homeless man

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Father John Molyneux, pastor at Mission San Gabriel in San Gabriel, Calif., speaks May 4, 2021, about last year's arson attack. John David Corey Jr. was charged that same day with two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, possession of flammable material, and first-degree residential burglary. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Angelus News)

LOS ANGELES — Authorities announced charges against a suspected arsonist who investigators believe ignited an overnight fire that gutted much of Mission San Gabriel last July.

Officials charged John David Corey Jr., 57, with two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, possession of flammable material and first-degree residential burglary.

Corey was arrested last year for another “unrelated” arson attack in the San Gabriel Valley that occurred days after the July 11, 2020, fire at the famed mission.

“It was during this separate incident that investigators deemed Mr. Corey a person of interest in the Mission San Gabriel case,” the San Gabriel Fire Department said in a statement. “After a thorough investigation, investigators determined that Corey was responsible for the fire at the Mission San Gabriel.”

Corey is homeless but had lived in an unincorporated area near San Gabriel, a police official told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Officials announced the break in the case at a May 4 news conference outside the mission, where restoration work is underway ahead of jubilee celebrations marking its 250th anniversary set to start in September.

The announcement caps a nine-month investigation by the Verdugo Fire Investigation Task Force, which also involved FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents.

John David Corey Jr. of San Gabriel, Calif., is seen in an undated police photo. He was charged May 4, 2021, with two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure, Mission San Gabriel, and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, possession of flammable material, and first-degree residential burglary. (CNS photo/San Gabriel Fire Department via Angelus News)

Officials declined to comment on the specifics of the case against Corey, such as whether he acted alone or how he managed to set the church on fire.

Throughout the investigation, authorities avoided commenting on the cause of the fire.

The blaze destroyed the mission church’s roof and damaged its walls and pews, while the 150,000 gallons of water used to extinguish the flames caused the sacristy and baptistry floors to sink, revealing previously unknown layers of brick and stone first used to build the mission.

Because the church had been undergoing renovation, much of the artwork in the sanctuary, including historic paintings and other devotional artifacts, had been removed prior to the fire.

Church officials hope to have a new roof installed by the end of the summer in time for the start of the jubilee celebration.

Denise Menchaca, a San Gabriel City Council member, said investigators took their time in announcing Corey’s arrest because of the overwhelming number of theories and “noise” surrounding the incident.

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in San Gabriel, Calif., caught fire before sunrise July 11, 2020. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Angelus News)

Menchaca, a parishioner at the mission, noted the fire broke out amid a wave of anti-racism demonstrations and protests that included attacks on public monuments and statues depicting controversial figures in U.S. history, including St. Junípero Serra, the mission’s founder.

“There were just so many theories out there, but at the end of the day, this was our parish,” said Menchaca, who was mayor at the time of the fire. “Whatever the noise was, this was a very painful experience.”

At the news conference, San Gabriel Mission pastor Father John Molyneux thanked fire and police officials and pledged “our continued cooperation with the district attorney’s office as we seek justice tempered with mercy.”

“Our community of faith at the mission is close-knit and has been rocked by this incident,” Father Molyneux said. “For many lifelong parishioners, this fire has been a little death. But we are resurrection people and look ahead to the future with a renewed sense of hope and purpose.”

The author, Pablo Kay, is editor-in-chief of Angelus, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.