California authorities link suspect known as 'Joker' to alleged torching of historic mission

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A suspect has been charged with setting fire last summer to a historic Roman Catholic mission in Southern California, prosecutors said Tuesday.

The San Gabriel Mission was undergoing renovations for its upcoming 250th anniversary when a fire broke out July 11, damaging the roof and interior of the church.

The blaze drew more than 85 firefighters, 12 engine companies, 5 truck companies, 4 rescue ambulances, and 5 battalion chiefs, according to the San Gabriel Fire Department. Crews were able to stop the blaze before it reached the altar, museum and the adjacent rectory, the department said. 

The interior of the San Gabriel Mission is damaged following a morning fire, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in San Gabriel, Calif. (Associated Press)

John David Corey, 57, also known as Joker, is accused of “starting the fire which spread … to the roof and along the length of the church,” the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said Tuesday in a statement.

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

Corey, described as being from the San Gabriel Valley region, was originally arrested and sentenced to three years behind bars for a separate arson case in San Gabriel that occurred after the mission fire, according to a statement by the San Gabriel 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.”

Corey faces multiple charges, which include two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure, first-degree residential burglary, and possession of flammable material.

It was not immediately clear whether he has an attorney.

The church – located about 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles – was the fourth in a series of missions across California that Father Junipero Serra founded during the Spanish colonization era. While many credit Serra with spreading Roman Catholicism along the West Coast, he has long been a symbol of oppression among Indigenous activists.

Activists in California toppled Serra’s statues during racial injustice protests last summer. 

The public outcry against Serra last year was part of the investigation into the fire. However, officials didn’t immediately announce any connection.

The church building will resume indoor services May 22, according to its website. 

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