A judge sentenced man to 18 years to life in prison Friday for lighting an arson fire that destroyed the sanctuary of a Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights on April 16 of 2011.
A Pomona Superior Court jury earlier this month convicted Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights of five felony counts related to the arson fire that caused about $9 million worth of damage at St. John Vianney Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road.
Two priests sleeping in a rectory that also caught fire adjacent to the destroyed sanctuary narrowly escaped from the building, according to prosecutors and investigators.
“I never got the impression from Mr. Shiga that he was remorseful for his actions or their effect on a large community that cared deeply about that place,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose, who prosecuted the case.
She went on to request Judge Thomas Falls hand down the maximum sentences for the charges under the law, describing Shiga as a continuing threat to the public.
Falls agreed, imposing the maximum sentence of 18 years to life in prison.
Shiga was convicted of aggravated arson, arson of a structure, arson of an inhabited structure, possession of an incendiary device and burglary. The jury also found true special allegations that multiple structures were burned, the fire was likely to cause injury and that an accelerant was used in the arson.
Shiga is eligible to receive 15 percent credit for good behavior while incarcerated for eight years of his prison sentence. However he must serve 10 years in full, without reductions for good behavior, Rose explained. She estimated Shiga will first become eligible for a parole hearing in about 16 years.
Shiga previously underwent a mental evaluation which determined he was fit to stand trial, though officials said Shiga adamantly denied suffering from any form of mental illness, according to Los Angeles Archdiocese Canonical Auditor Marty Gallagher, a former FBI agent who worked alongside church officials and law enforcement officials during the investigation.
Against the judge’s advice, Shiga fired his defense attorney and chose to represent himself just before his trial began, officials said. But Falls said Shiga had shown he was aware of what was going on and even complimented him on his courtroom demeanor and knowledge.
When asked by Judge Falls if he had a statement to make prior to receiving his sentence Friday, Shiga responded that he did.
“It’s 9:17 a.m. July 19th. That’s about it,” he said.
Shiga, who was described by investigators as highly intelligent, “is fixated with numbers,” Rose said.
Among other tattoos not visible in the courtroom, Shiga had the number seven tattooed on top of his left hand, and the number nine tattooed on top of his right hand.
The significance of the numbers was unclear, other than they appeared to be his favorites, according to an investigator.
Shiga broke into the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church shortly after midnight on the week before Easter, Yoshino said.
He brought with him a backpack containing eight to ten rolls of toilet paper that had been soaked in flammable liquid, he said. The specific substance or substances used were not available.
He placed the fuel-soaked toilet paper rolls as “strategic” locations within the sanctuary, Yoshino said.
He opened up every other window in the sanctuary to help the fire spread faster, Rose said.
Using a sprayer similar to the type used for spraying weeds, Shiga then sprayed the ceiling and walls of the church with flammable liquid before using a tiki torch to set the structure ablaze, Rose said. The sanctuary was quickly engulfed with flames, which also spread to the occupied rectory next door where two priests were sleeping upstairs.
Following his arrest more than a year after the fire, Rose said investigators found Shiga had visited and photographed the church before the arson fire.
A break in the case came when a former school teacher of Shiga’s came forward to report a suspicious encounter with Shiga prior to the arson, Rose said.
Barbara Clark taught Shiga about 20 years ago when he attended St. Mark’s Lutheran School in Hacienda Heights, according to the prosecutor.
Her former pupil arrived at the campus about two weeks prior to the arson, where Clark was principal, Rose said. He spoke to her and asked many questions about St. John Vianney Church and the symbolism behind its statues and other items.
“It didn’t mean much to her at the time,” Rose said. But following the massive fire, Clark decided to report the encounter to authorities.
Witnesses shown photographic line-ups including Shiga then identified him as the arsonist, she said. He was arrested May 14, 2012.
Beyond a general grievance against the Catholic Church, of which Shiga was never a member, a definitive motive was not revealed through the trial, according to Sgt. Derek Yoshino of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail. Sheriff’s investigators, along with FBI agents, investigated the case.
“He indicated he wanted to make a statement against the Catholic Church,” Yoshino said. But the arsonist never elaborated.
“It was pretty general,” the sergeant said. “At this point, we’re left to assume what his actual motive was.”
Rose said while Shiga may have claimed to have complaints regarding the church in an attempt to justify the crimes, it was always about Shiga himself.
“I think he did it for the attention,” Rose said.
Even as he waited to be sentenced to prison, Shiga seemed to enjoy being the focus of attention. He appeared pleased to see reporters in the courtroom.
Sentencings normally are not carried out so quickly following a trial, Falls said. “The defendant requested a speedy sentencing.”
In addition to sentencing Shiga to prison, Falls ordered him to pay the church $8.9 million in restitution, though he acknowledged the convict would likely never be able to pay it.
St. John Vianney Church Rev. Msgr. Tim Nichols accepted the amount on behalf of the church.
Gallagher thanked the sheriff’s, FBI and district attorney’s office officials for their hard work in the case.
“Thank God there were no deaths,” he said. It’s a tragic event. It could have been horrendous.”
PHOTO of Gregory Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights during sentencing on Friday, July 19, 2013, in Pomona Superior Court. He was convicted of a massive $9 million arson that destroyed the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. (Staff photo by Walt Mancini)