Man accused of setting fire to San Gabriel Mission had conflicts with staff, sources say

Andrew J. Campa, Richard Winton, James Queally
·4 min read
San Gabriel, CA, Tuesday, May 4, 2021 - ATF canine, Blue, assigned to the LAFD arson/counter terrorism section, naps as authorities announce the arrest of John David Corey, 57, who is charged with felony arson of Mission San Gabriel church. Blue's handler, Investigator Gus Gaeta said the pup was involved in seeking evidence inside the church, but could not divulge what he found. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Authorities announce an arrest in the San Gabriel Mission fire Tuesday. K9 Blue, who helped find evidence in the fire, naps on the lawn. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Last summer, an early morning fire ripped through the San Gabriel Mission, causing severe damage to the roof and interior of the landmark 249-year-old adobe-and-wood structure.

The losses to one of the region's oldest buildings stunned Catholics and many others, but the exact circumstances remained a mystery.

Then Tuesday, a 57-year-old man who has two previous fire-related convictions was charged with setting the blaze.

John David Corey was known at the mission and had a history of conflict with its staff, according to law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Corey believed that the Catholic Church did not hold people accountable for "bad acts," according to one official.

But the official did not explicitly link Corey’s animosity toward the church to a motive for setting the fire, which was started with an accelerant. Other sources familiar with the investigation also said it was unclear what drove Corey to start the blaze.

Corey faces two felony counts of arson on an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary and possession of flammable material, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón said in a news release Tuesday.

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

The day after the July 11 mission fire, Corey attempted to set a fire at Carl's Shoe Repair on West Las Tunas Drive in San Gabriel, according to court records.

When San Gabriel police detectives arrested him the following day, they found an incendiary device on him, said a source with knowledge of the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Court documents listed Corey as a transient who would be unable to pay any fines.

A police mug shot of John David Corey.
John David Corey, 57, is charged with felony arson in the San Gabriel Mission fire (Police file photo)

It was that arrest that led investigators to link Corey to the mission fire, Capt. Jason Sutliff of the San Marino Fire Department said at a news conference at the mission Tuesday.

Since being convicted of attempted arson and sentenced to three years in prison in the shoe repair incident, Corey has remained in a Los Angeles County jail.

He will be arraigned May 18, said Sutliff, who is also lead investigator on the Verdugo Fire Investigation Task Force.

In another fire-related case, Corey pleaded no contest in August 2016 to unlawfully setting a fire and was sentenced to three years in County Jail.

Corey also has been convicted twice of vandalism and three times for drug-related offenses, according to court records.

The mission fire began before dawn and eventually become a four-alarm event involving 80 firefighters from seven cities. Parts of the roof began caving in, and responders had to exit the structure about 15 minutes after entering. It took them about 2½ hours to extinguish the blaze.

No one was injured, and a preliminary investigation showed no immediate sign of arson.

The altar, bell tower and several religious artifacts were spared, but the roof was destroyed, as were many 107-year-old pews that had recently been refurbished.

Restoration of the mission will include removing steel beams, in place since the 1990s as part of an earthquake retrofit, that were warped during the fire.

A temporary roof of wood and a waterproof membrane was installed in November.

Construction of the permanent roof is ahead of schedule and should be completed by the end of August, San Gabriel Mission Pastor John Molyneux said Tuesday — in time for the mission’s 250th anniversary on Sept. 8 and jubilee mass on Sept. 11, to be held outdoors on the grounds.

A price tag for the repairs is still being assessed, Molyneaux said. He hopes most of the bills will be covered by insurance.

While nearly every damaged pew has already been restored, Molyneux was uncertain when the mission would be opened again for services, even as state health officials have lifted mandatory attendance limits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reopening might not happen until summer 2022, Molyneux said.

“I feel good that there is some kind of closure,” said San Gabriel Valley regional auxiliary bishop David G. O’Connell of the investigation, “and I feel good to also see the roof will be finished by August.”

For days after the fire, grief-stricken parishioners cried, prayed and reminisced in the mission parking lot.

“The San Gabriel Mission is one of those places that was a gathering place for people of all faiths here in San Gabriel,” said Denise Menchaca, a parishioner who was mayor at the time and is still on the City Council.

Menchaca said the timing of the fire was particularly difficult, with the pandemic limiting in-person gatherings and some parishioners' feelings still raw from the police killing of George Floyd.

“This was like our Notre Dame burning,” Menchaca said, referencing the 2019 fire at the famed Paris cathedral.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.