Man pleads guilty to arson over Chase bank fire at protest in La Mesa

One of the two men accused of setting fire to a Chase bank in La Mesa following last year’s controversial protest outside the city’s police headquarters pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges of arson and burglary.

Ricky Bernard Cooper, 34, is set to be sentenced next month by El Cajon Superior Court for the May 30, 2020 fire that burned down the Chase bank branch on Spring Street. He also pleaded guilty to one count of burglary in connection with looting stores at La Mesa Springs shopping center.

Co-accused Alexander King, 20, still faces arson and burglary charges and is due to return to court in December.

Vandals smashed the glass doors of Chase Bank on Spring Street in La Mesa on May 30, 2020, before it burned to the ground.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

During Cooper’s arraignment, Assistant District Attorney David Vallero alleged that the defendant was one of several people who broke into the businesses in the mall and took items on the night of May 30. .

The prosecutor said Cooper also admitted to burning papers inside the bank, although he claimed they “didn’t catch”. Vallero alleged that several people started fires inside the bank, which burned to the ground.

The protests that took place at La Mesa on May 29 and 30 of last year were sparked by the Memorial Day murder in custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the controversial arrest of another black man, Amaurie Johnson, at La Mesa a few days ago. to protest.

Johnson’s arrest by La Mesa police officer Matthew Dages has been caught on camera and has proliferated on social media, sparking a wide backlash against the Police Department and federal lawsuits filed by Johnson against the city. Dages has since been charged with one count of filing a false police report for allegedly lying based on his contact with Johnson, and was sentenced in August to stand trial.

The May 30 protest began with protesters marching on Interstate 8 in the afternoon, before the group surrendered to the La Mesa police station. Although the protest began peacefully, the confrontation erupted in the late afternoon, with some protesters throwing objects and officers firing bean bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

A Heartland firefighter walks past the destroyed Chase Bank building on Spring Street in La Mesa on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

A Heartland firefighter walks past the destroyed Chase Bank building on Spring Street in La Mesa on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

(David Clary / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chase Bank was burnt down, along with a Union Bank and the Randall Lamb and Associates building on Palm Avenue.

In August, Zachary Alexander Karas, 29, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for bringing Molotov cocktails to the La Mesa protest. A federal jury found him guilty after a two-day trial in May for possession of an unregistered destructive device.

Union-Tribune editor-in-chief Alex Riggins contributed to this report.

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