Man pleads not guilty to setting fire that gutted San Gabriel Mission

Gutted interior of San Gabriel Mission
The interior of the historic San Gabriel Mission was gutted by an arson fire in July 2020.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

A man pleaded not guilty Thursday to setting the fire last year that caused millions of dollars in damage to the San Gabriel Mission.

John David Corey, 57, is charged with breaking in and setting a pre-dawn blaze July 11 that engulfed the rooftop and most of the interior of the historic mission as it was undergoing renovations to mark its upcoming 250th anniversary celebration.

No one was hurt in the blaze. Prosecutors said the flames caused millions of dollars in damage, but firefighters managed to save the altar and historic paintings.

Corey entered pleas in Los Angeles to two 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.


The San Gabriel Mission gets a temporary roof for the rainy season, with restoration to be completed by next November. The investigation continues into the fire that heavily damaged the historic adobe church.

The church was the fourth in a string of Roman Catholic missions established across California by Junipero Serra — the 18th century Franciscan priest canonized by Pope Francis in 2015 — during the era of Spanish colonization.

While many credit Serra with spreading Catholicism along the U.S. West Coast, he has long been a symbol of oppression among Indigenous activists.

Authorities haven’t released a motive for the arson, although Corey has a history of arson-related arrests in the San Gabriel area. He was known at the mission and had a history of conflict with its staff, sources told The Times last year, but an official did not cite Corey’s animosity toward the church as a motive for setting the fire.