Mission San Gabriel Arcángel | After Nine Month Investigation, Fire is Deemed Arson

The culprit shares the same name as a person listed as having been charged with over three dozen mostly petty property crimes in the San Gabriel valley area over the last 38 years

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Renovations underway at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel after a devastating fire last July

John David Corey Jr., 57, of San Gabriel, was arrested Tuesday for setting the fire which destroyed the roof and caused other damage to the church at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel during a July 11, 2020 early morning fire. Corey is already serving a three-year sentence for a separate arson that took place three days after the Mission fire.

Corey is charged with breaking into the historic mission and starting the fire which spread to the roof and along the length of the church. Corey, who has the same name as a person listed as having been charged with over three dozen mostly petty property crimes in the San Gabriel valley area over the last 38 years, including several involving setting fires, is set to be arraigned in LA Court on May 18 on five felony counts, including two for arson of an inhabited structure and one each for arson during a state of emergency, possession of a flammable liquid and residential burglary.

At a press conference outside the church Tuesday, Capt. Jason Sutcliff of the San Gabriel Fire Department who was part of the two-hour fire fight and the lead investigator of the case for the 12-agency Verdugo Investigation Task Force, said if convicted on all charges, Corey could face “up to approximately” 14 years in state prison.

“The loss to the mission was in the millions of dollars but the loss to the community is immeasurable,” LA District Attorney George Gascón said in a press release.

The fire took place a time when a number of acts of vandalism, including the toppling or defacing of statues of the recently canonized Fr. Junipero Serra, who founded 9 of the 21 California missions, were taking place across California.

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Renovations underway at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel after a devastating fire last July

Although several police, fire, political and church officials spoke at or attended the press conference, none would address specifics about Corey’s case or his motives. Those questions were referred to the LA District Attorney’s press office. A spokesperson there also provided no information, saying they did not have a copy of the complaint, even though it was their office that filed it.

The case remains under investigation by the San Gabriel Fire Department. SGFD Fire Chief Steven Wallace said it is possible additional charges could be filed.

The roof is currently being reconstructed and the Mission hopes to have that and some additional improvements completed in time for the Sept. 11 celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mission’s founding in 1791.

The investigation took an unusually long time. But Sutcliff said “at the end of day, it was boots on the ground, a team effort, [and] solid detective work that brought this case together during a pandemic.

Father John Molyneux, pastor of the San Gabriel Mission, expressed gratitude on behalf of the Mission San Gabriel community and the LA Archdiocese to the first responders and investigators. He thanked Christopher Eakman of the San Gabriel Fire Department, saying his “clear thinking saved some invaluable artwork and artifacts from smoke damage” and pledged the Mission’s ongoing cooperation with the DA “as we seek justice tempered with mercy.”

The Mission community, especially many life-long parishioners, have been “wracked” by the fire, he said. “But we are resurrection people, and we look ahead to the future with a renewed sense of hope and purpose.”

 

 

Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle. He and his wife Karin, an arts administrator from El Sereno, live in South Pasadena.