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Suspect in church fires charged with multiple felony counts

Suspect in church fires charged with multiple felony counts
Volunteers clean up damage caused by a small fire inside the Church of the Angels in Pasadena earlier this month. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A 25-year-old man accused of setting fires at churches around Southern California was charged this week with multiple felony counts.

Christian Michael Garcia faces 20 felony counts: 13 counts of vandalism of religious property, three counts of arson of a structure, two counts of second-degree commercial burglary and one count each of attempted second-degree robbery and arson of property of another, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said in a statement Monday.

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He is also charged with two misdemeanor counts of vandalism under $400. Multiple counts include hate crime enhancements, authorities said.

Garcia was arrested last week by a special law enforcement team dubbed the House of Worship Task Force. Undercover officers caught Garcia as he was beginning to vandalize another church, authorities said in a news conference Monday.

“He was literally caught red-handed, and because of that this will be a strong prosecution and one we look forward to pursuing vigorously,” said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

Arson fires occurred at Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights early Thursday and the Church of the Angels in Pasadena on Jan. 13. The blaze at the Boyle Heights church was primarily contained to the first floor of the two-story structure. The small fire at the Episcopal church in Pasadena was lit in the sanctuary, with pews, prayer books and hymnals used as kindling.

Green spray paint was used to deface a statue of an angel outside the Pasadena church and to write the words "Jehovah Lives" and an Old Testament verse, 2 Kings 19:35, about the killing of Assyrians: "And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies."

The same verse was spray-painted at Ancient Church of the East Mar Shaleeta Parish, an Assyrian church in San Fernando, in a November 2016 incident that the Assyrian American Assn. of Southern California called a hate crime.

Police in February 2017 found similar graffiti at three West Covina churches: Christ Lutheran Church, St. Christopher Catholic Church and West Covina Christian Church.

Resurrection Church parishioners are unable to use the church because of the smoke damage.

“We prayed for his soul, because we know there’s something wrong there,” Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church said during the news conference. “Something’s got to be mental when someone does that much damage.”

The felony complaint charges Garcia with vandalism and arson fires between Nov. 25, 2016, and Jan. 25, 2018. Four churches in Pasadena and L.A. are named in the charging document. Garcia is also charged with vandalizing the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, Industry Station.

If convicted as charged, Garcia faces a possible maximum sentence of more than 23 years in state prison. His bail is set at $750,000.

The House of Worship Task Force, which includes investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department's Arson/Counter-Terrorism Section and Pasadena's fire and police departments, was established in 1996.

“This destruction has no place in Los Angeles,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Anyone who commits these sorts of hateful acts on our sacred places of worship will be found and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We have zero tolerance for arson and vandalism anywhere in Los Angeles, let alone in our sacred spaces.”

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