California arsonist dubbed 'Joker' charged with starting fire to historic Roman Catholic church

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Suspect John David Corey, 57, also known as 'Joker', is accused of starting a fire at The San Gabriel Mission as it was undergoing renovations on July 11, 2020, to mark its upcoming 250th anniversary celebration

Suspect John David Corey, 57, also known as ‘Joker’, is accused of starting a fire at The San Gabriel Mission as it was undergoing renovations on July 11, 2020, to mark its upcoming 250th anniversary celebration

A man has been charged with setting fire to a historic Roman Catholic church in Southern California last summer, prosecutors announced on Tuesday.

Suspect John David Corey, 57, also known as ‘Joker’, is accused of starting a fire at The San Gabriel Mission on July 11, 2020 as it was undergoing renovations to mark its upcoming 250th anniversary celebration.

More than 85 firefighters, 12 engine companies, five truck companies, four rescue ambulances and five battalion chiefs were called to the blaze, according to the San Gabriel Fire Department.

No one was hurt in the fire, and response crews were able to stop the blaze before it reached the altar, museum and the adjacent rectory, the department said.

The fire ‘spread … to the roof and along the length of the roof and along the length of the church,’ the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said Tuesday, announcing the charges against Corey.

‘The loss to the mission was in the millions of dollars but the loss to the community is immeasurable,’ District Attorney George Gascón said, Fox News reported.

The suspected arsonist is described as being from the San Gabriel Valley region, and he was originally arrested and sentenced to three years behind bars in relation to a separate, more recent arson case in San Gabriel, according to the fire department.

‘It was during this separate incident that investigators deemed Mr. Corey a person of interest in the Mission San Gabriel case,’ the SGFD statement added. ‘

After a thorough investigation, investigators determined that Corey was responsible for the fire at the Mission San Gabriel.’ 

Charges against Corey include two felony counts of arson on an inhabited structure, first degree residential burglary and possession of flammable material. 

It was not immediately clear in the suspect has a legal representative.

A firefighter stands outside the San Gabriel Mission in the aftermath of a fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, Calif. The fire destroyed the rooftop and most of the interior of the nearly 250-year-old California church that was undergoing renovation

A firefighter stands outside the San Gabriel Mission in the aftermath of a fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, Calif. The fire destroyed the rooftop and most of the interior of the nearly 250-year-old California church that was undergoing renovation

The interior of the San Gabriel Mission is damaged following a morning fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, California. No one was hurt in the fire, and response crews were able to stop the blaze before it reached the altar, museum and the adjacent rectory

The interior of the San Gabriel Mission is damaged following a morning fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, California. No one was hurt in the fire, and response crews were able to stop the blaze before it reached the altar, museum and the adjacent rectory

The church was the fourth of a string of missions established across California by Serra during the era of Spanish colonization. 

The Franciscan priest has long been praised by the church for bringing Roman Catholicism to what is now the western United States, but critics highlight a darker side to his legacy. 

In converting Native Americans to Catholicism, they said he forced them to abandon their culture or face brutal punishment.

Depictions of Serra have been protested and vandalized over the years, and Pope Francis’ decision in 2015 to elevate him to sainthood reopened old wounds. 

More recently, protests focusing on the rights and historical struggle of Black and Indigenous people led activists to topple statues of Serra in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

Onlookers stand outside the San Gabriel Mission in the aftermath of a morning fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, California. More than 85 firefighters, 12 engine companies, five truck companies, four rescue ambulances and five battalion chiefs were called to the blaze, according to the San Gabriel Fire Department

Onlookers stand outside the San Gabriel Mission in the aftermath of a morning fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, California. More than 85 firefighters, 12 engine companies, five truck companies, four rescue ambulances and five battalion chiefs were called to the blaze, according to the San Gabriel Fire Department

Selena Quezada, left, is hugged by her mother Cathy in the aftermath of a morning fire at the San Gabriel Mission, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, California

Selena Quezada, left, is hugged by her mother Cathy in the aftermath of a morning fire at the San Gabriel Mission, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, California

In response, the San Gabriel Mission recently moved a bronze statue of Serra from the church entrance to its garden, away from public view, Terri Huerta, a spokeswoman for San Gabriel Mission, told the Los Angeles Times last year.

Police increased patrol and officials stepped security around the mission’s grounds about two weeks before the fire, she told the newspaper.

The interior wall of the church was redone a week before the first as well. 

Crews had just finished installing the pews as part of a larger renovation of the property to mark the anniversary of the founding of the mission in 1771, Huerta said. 

The church had been preparing to reopen following a four-month closure to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

The church, built of stone, brick and mortar, originally had a vaulted ceiling that was damaged by two earthquakes in the early 1800s, Huerta said last year. 

Franciscan fathers replaced the ceiling with a wood-paneled ceiling, and the roof was last repaired following damage caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

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