Man Charged With Setting Fire to Historic California Mission

The July 2020 blaze scorched the art-covered walls and hallowed roof of the church at a historic Spanish mission in Southern California.

The charred rooftop of the 215-year old church at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California, damaged by a July 11 fire, is visible from the trellis lining the entrance to the mission’s courtyard. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charged a 57-year-old man Tuesday with sparking a fire last summer that badly damaged the historic Mission San Gabriel church in Southern California.

Prosecutors say John David Corey broke into the 250-year-old Mission San Gabriel on July 11, 2020, and set off a fire in the church that began to swell after 4:20 a.m.

The early-morning blaze quickly grew to four alarms and left the mission’s church — itself 216 yeas old — with devastating damage to its art-covered walls, choir loft and roof.

A massive response from emergency officials that included 85 firefighters and 12 fire engine companies was able to quell the fire two hours later before it reached the church’s altar, the mission’s museum and the neighboring church rectory. One firefighter sustained minor injuries.

Across California and throughout the United States, people were devastated by news of the fire at the mission, which was founded in 1771 in what is now the city of San Gabriel, north of Los Angeles.

The mission is one of California’s most iconic landmarks and is part of a string of 21 Spanish missions established in the state’s colonial era.

Prosecutors have not released details on what tools or materials Corey may have used to break into the church and set the blaze.

Prosecutors say 57-year-old John David Corey broke into the 250-year-old Mission San Gabriel on July 11, 2020, and set a fire that badly damaged its historic church. (Courtesy of LA County District Attorney’s Office)

The San Gabriel Valley resident faces two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary and possession of flammable material, according to prosecutors.

Corey was already in custody on arson charges stemming from an unrelated fire when investigators deemed him a person of interest in the probe of the Mission San Gabriel blaze.

Prosecutors said Corey uses the moniker “Joker” as part of his persona and faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

LA County District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement the structural damage caused by the fire also harmed the community connected to the historic mission.

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

An arraignment date for Corey at Los Angeles Criminal Court has not been set.

The incident remains under investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies including the San Gabriel Fire and Police departments, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

San Gabriel Fire Department Chief Steve Wallace said in a statement he appreciates the multiagency collaboration on the investigation. 

“I’d like to thank our neighboring agencies for their support during the investigation,” Wallace said. “Their assistance during a challenging year has been instrumental in our investigation of the Mission San Gabriel fire.”

San Gabriel was the fourth colonial mission established by Spain to protect its interest in Alta California against the advances of Russian and British forces.

The mission played a role in founding what is today the nation’s second largest city, when a group of mission residents departed the compound to establish the city of Los Angeles in 1781.

Built between 1769 and 1823, California’s missions have shaped the state for centuries and have long been important spiritual nodes for Catholics in the region and beyond.

But for California’s Indigenous communities, Spain’s mission system also represents repression of language and culture, and enslavement under the colonial project of Spain and the Catholic Church.

So many Native people died from introduced diseases, malnutrition and being overworked that missionaries had to quickly bury the dead in unmarked graves, like the one under Mission San Gabriel. 

There were multiple rebellions at Mission San Gabriel, including one made famous by legendary Tongva medicine woman Toypurina over the church’s ban on Native ceremonies.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which owns the mission, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on charges filed Tuesday.

Previously, the Archdiocese has said Mission San Gabriel represents a cornerstone of the region’s Catholic tradition.

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