Man sentenced for arson fire that destroyed sanctuary of Hacienda Heights church

7-19-13 SHIGASENTENCE01

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)

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Arson fires reported at neighboring car washes in South Whittier

SOUTH WHITTIER — In the second arson fire reported at a coin-operated car wish in two days, investigators ruled a fire that caused about $50,000 in damage to the lobby of a car wash early Wednesday was the work of an arsonist.
The fire was reported just after 3:10 a.m. at the Valley View Car Wash, 11806 Valley Blvd., at Leffingwell Road in an unincorporated county area just south of Whittier.
It caused an estimated $50,000 worth of damage to the lobby of the structure before firefighters extinguished the flames, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Bill Evans said.
Upon investigation, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials and deputies from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail concluded the fire had been intentionally set, the lieutenant said.
No information regarding a suspect was available, and Evans declined to discuss how the fire may have ignited, citing the ongoing investigation.
Deputies and fire officials responded to another arson fire about 4:10 a.m. Monday, just across the street at Classic Touch Auto Detailing, 14209 Leffingwell Road, officials said.
In that case, “A flammable substance was placed in front of a couple of security doors and ignited,” Evans said.
Firefighters put out the fire before it caused any damage, he added. No suspect description was available.
Due to the close proximity and time-frame in which the fires occurred, Evans said, investigators were looking into the possibility the same fire bug was responsible for both crimes.
Anyone with information can reach the Sheriff’s Norwalk Station at 562-863-8711.

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Preliminary hearing underway for man accused of lighting double-fatal fire at Pasadena boarding house

PASADENA — A preliminary hearing was underway Wednesday for a man accused of two counts of murder and other crimes for an arson fire that killed two fellow residents of a Pasadena boarding house, officials said.
Garth Allen Robbins, 50, appeared in Pasadena Superior Court in connection with the deadly, fast spreading, early-morning fire that broke out Nov. 1 at the building, 1385 El Sereno Ave., court officials said.
At the hearing, which officials said was expected to last more than a day, Judge Elaine Lu listened to a summary of the evidence from both the prosecution and defense in order to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to order Robbins to stand trial.
Killed in the fire were Cliff Juan Clark, 56, and Paul Richard Boyd, 75, according to Los Angeles District Attorney’s officials. Another resident, 65-year-old Perry Simons, was badly injured in the fire but survived.
Robbins pleaded not guilty last year to two counts of special circumstance murder, one count of arson causing great bodily injury, 15 counts of attempted murder and one count of arson of an inhabited structure.
There were a total of 19 people, including Robbins, living in the three-story building at the time of the fire, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials said.
The defendant used “a device designed to accelerate the fire” to ignite the fire, prosecutors said in a written statement, however further details were not released. A motive in the alleged fatal arson was also unclear.
The allegation of multiple murder makes Robbins eligible for the death penalty under California law, however prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek capital punishment in the case.
The children of Clark have filed a claim against Pasadena, alleging the city was previously aware of code violations and a lack of permits at the facility and should have shut it down prior the the fire.
According to county booking records, Robbins was being held without bail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles.

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Deputies pull unconscious man from burning Pico Rivera apartment; arson suspected

PICO RIVERA — Two deputies pulled an unconscious man from a smoke-filled apartment Wednesday during a fire officials said appeared to have been set intentionally.
The rescued man and the two deputies were all taken to a hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation following the incident, which took place about 1:30 a.m. at an apartment complex in the 8600 block of Whittier Boulevard, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Robert Smith said.
The deputies were released from the hospital later in the morning, while the 51-year-old man they pulled from the home remained hospitalized in serious but stable condition, Smith said.
Deputies Michael Calderon and George Madrid were the first on-scene, the lieutenant said.
“(They) saw thick black smoke inside the apartment and billowing out,” he said.
Neighbors were running from the fire, and one of them told the deputies that there was a man inside the burning apartment, Smith said.
“Basically disregarding their own safety, the deputies entered the unit and found an unconscious male on the ground,” the lieutenant said. “They scooped him up and they dragged him out to safety.”
Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, which remained confined to items inside the apartment and caused an estimated $1,000 worth of damage, Smith said.
The fire stemmed from flammable materials, “like papers and different things,” left on a burning stove range, the lieutenant said. It initially appeared to have been an intentional act, and investigators from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Unit were were summoned to the scene.
The injured man was alone in the apartment when the deputies arrived, Smith said. But whether he himself started the fire remained under investigation.

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Charges filed against serial arson suspect from South Pasadena

ALHAMBRA — Prosecutors Wednesday filed 18 counts of arson and attempted arson against a South Pasadena accused of torching brush and cars in Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles during a five-month arson spree that ended with his arrest over the weekend, officials said.
Javier Adolfo Viera, 35, was charged in Alhambra Superior Court, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Jane Robison.
Though investigators linked Viera to 26 fires, he was formally charged with 18 counts of arson, according to a felony complaint filed against him.
If convicted as charged, he could face up to 32 years in state prison, Robison said.
Following his arrest Sunday after a car fire in the 6100 block of Oak Hill in Los Angeles, Viera confessed to a series of arsons, officials said, saying that he never meant to hurt anyone and “needed help.”
The suspect told investigators he was frustrated by financial problems, and had taken to torching luxury cars out of jealousy, according to South Pasadena police Sgt. Robert Bartl.
Viera was being held in lieu of $2 million bail pending his scheduled arraingment, which was scheduled for May 6 in Alhambra Superior Court, according to court officials and booking records.

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Hacienda Heights church arson suspect ordered to stand trial

POMONA – A judge Thursday ruled there is sufficient evidence to order a parolee accused of torching the sanctuary of a Hacienda Heights church sanctuary to stand trial for the alleged crime.
After listening to a summary of the evidence during a three-day preliminary hearing, Pomona Superior Court Judge Robert Martinez ordered Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights, back to to court for a hearing on May 2, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials said.
He’s accused of setting an April 16, 2011, fire that destroyed the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Catohlic Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road. Several other church-owned buildings were also destroyed in the blaze, which caused an estimated $6.5 million worth of damage.
A motive in the alleged arson has not been released. No one was hurt in the fire, though several church personnel who present on the church campus at the time.
Shiga is to be tried on all four charges with which he has been charged, which include aggravated arson, arson of a structure, possession of flammable material and second-degree burglary, officials said.
If convicted as charged, he faces a minimum sentence of 10 years to life in state prison.

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Azusa woman accused of torching American flag during argument

AZUSA — An Azusa woman is suspected of arson after she set her neighbors American flag ablaze following an argument late Wednesday, police said.
Nicole Mascarenas, 26, was booked on suspicion of arson following her arrest about 11:20 p.m. in the 700 block of East Hanks Street, Azusa police Sgt. Xavier Torres said in a written statement.
Mascarenas was involved in an argument with a resident, the sergeant said.
As she walked away from the residence, the resident saw that his American flag, which he has posted near his front fence, was on fire,” Torres said.
Police said the man then spotted Mascarenas trying to light a neighbor’s bush on fire with a cigarette lighter. The bush did not catch fire.
“She yelled to the resident that she had burned his flag and she fled the scene,” Torres said.
Officers, with the help of an El Monte Police Department helicopter, found Mascarenas hiding in the area, he added. She had a lighter with her.
According to county booking records, Mascarenas was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail pending a scheduled arraignment Monday in West Covina Superior Court.

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Azusa police: Three persons found dead inside burning home were shot

AZUSA – The three people found dead inside a burning home in the 500 block of North Dalton Avenue on Thursday had been shot, authorities said Friday.

The names of the man and two women were not released, but friends and neighbors identified them as two sisters and their brother. They all lived in the home and were facing eviction, according to a friend.

“(Thursday), they were supposed to move out,” family friend Nola Dewester said.

The victims were all believed to be in their 40s or 50s, according to Azusa police and Los Angeles County Coroner’s officials.

“It appears they were victims of gunshot wounds to the upper body,” Azusa police Lt. Mike Bertelsen said.

Coroner’s investigators said they planned autopsies to determine the victims’ exact causes of death.

While the circumstances and motive in the killings remained under investigation, “there are no outstanding suspects related to this crime,” Bertelsen said.

Police recovered 12 rifles, 10 handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and several “suspicious incendiary devices” from inside the home, Bertelsen said.

FULL STORY

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UPDATED: Officials: elderly man found dead inside burning West Covina home was stabbed to death; fire ruled arson

WEST COVINA — An autopsy has determined that an 82-year-old West Covina man found dead inside his burning house last week was stabbed to death.

Firefighters discovered the body of Ralph Simonian shortly after 11 a.m. Nov. 15 after responding to a fire at his home in the 900 block of Holiday Drive, investigators said. The fire was later determined to be arson.

Firefighters forced their way into the flaming home before finding Simonian unconscious in a room toward the rear of the house. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

But he did not die as a result of the fire, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Assistant Chief of Operations Ed Winter said.

“It was ruled as multiple stab wounds: homicide,” he said.

No suspects were in custody in connection with the killing, sheriff’s officials said in a written statement. Further details on the circumstances of the slaying were not released.

An investigation by the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail found the cause of the fire was arson, Sgt. Mike Costleigh said.

He referred further inquiries to sheriff’s homicide investigators, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Family members also could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The home was well-involved with flames when firefighters arrived and took about 30 minutes to extinguish the fire, officials said.

Neighbor Paramjiet Sandhu, 63, said he was stunned and baffled to learn Simonian, who neighbors knew as “Roy,” had been intentionally slain.
“I cannot imagine who would do that to him,” Sandhu said. “He was an extremely nice guy. He was such a sweet man.”

Sandhu said he’d lived next-door to Simonian for the past 24 years.

A retired owner of a manufacturing company, Simonian had been living alone in the home following the death of his wife, Stephanie, known to neighbors as “Stevie,” years back, Sandhu said.

“They were both very good people,” he said.

Ralph Simonian was a quiet man who largely kept to himself, he added. Despite his age, he remained very active and was often seen doing yardwork or driving his car, the neighbor said.

“It’s just very sad. We’re going to miss Roy. We really are,” Sandhu said.

“I hope he gets justice. I truly do.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.

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Man denies setting fatal Pasadena boarding house fire

PASADENA – A Pasadena man accused of setting fire to a boarding house pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to killing two fellow boarders and trying to kill the other tenants.
Garth Allen Robbins, 49, was charged with two counts of special circumstance murder, 15 counts of attempted murder, one count of arson causing great bodily injury and one count of arson of an inhabited structure, according to Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office.
Robbins was arraigned Tuesday at Pasadena Superior Court. His next court date is Dec. 4.
The criminal complaint alleges the arson was caused by a device designed to accelerate the fire.
Because prosecutors filed special circumstances of arson murder and multiple murders, Robison said Robbins will be held without bail. Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty.
Cliff Juan Clark, 56, and Paul Richard Boyd, 75, were killed when an explosive fire broke out in the boarding house at 1385 El Sereno Ave. about 2:30 a.m. Nov. 1.
A third resident, 65-year-old Perry Simons, was badly burned and remains hospitalized.
There were 19 people living at the boarding house when the fire occurred.
Authorities said the fire started in Robbins’ room art the front of the home. He was arrested Nov. 2.

- Staff report

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