Trending Topics

Man charged after setting fire to Calif. preschool, strip mall

San Bernardino County authorities said the man had set fire to the school while students, staff were inside


A 36-year-old New Mexico man was charged this week with trying to set fire to a San Bernardino County church preschool and a strip mall on the same day. A photo from his criminal indictment shows the church on fire.

U.S. District Court/TNS

By Nathan Solis
Los Angeles Times

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. — A 36-year-old man was charged this week with trying to set fire to a San Bernardino County church preschool and a strip mall on the same day.

Jonathan Barajas Nava, from Albuquerque, was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury in the Central District of California in connection with the crime, federal prosecutors announced Wednesday. He was charged with two counts of attempted destruction of property by means of fire.

The series of events began shortly after 1:30 p.m. on April 24 in the city of Yucaipa, prosecutors said.

Multiple 911 callers said that a man walked up to the entrance of the Retreat Church and Yucaipa Christian Pre-School with a gas can, doused the entrance with a liquid and then lit it on fire, authorities said.

There were 48 children and 14 staff members inside the building at the time, but nobody was injured, according to the indictment.

A neighbor who watched the suspect set the fire ran toward the church entrance, pulled away the gas can and a door mat that was on fire and tried to stomp out the flames until firefighters arrived, according to court documents.

Neighbors reported the suspect was driving a pickup truck with a loud muffler and wearing a hooded sweater when he set the fire, according to the documents.

Shortly before 5 p.m. on the same day, a 911 caller said they saw a fire at a strip mall about a mile away from the church. The strip mall includes 11 business suites, including an optometry center, cosmetic retail store, hair salon and a physical therapy office, according to court documents.

The fire was set along a wall at the optometry center near a row of gas meters. San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies who arrived on the scene after the fire was put out noticed a strong gasoline odor in the air along with burn marks on the sidewalk and wall, authorities said.

Deputies also found a black gas can spout near the gas meters, according to court documents.

Investigators determined that the fire at the church and the strip mall were both set with an ignitable liquid, like gasoline, and then a lighter, authorities said.

Shortly before 6 p.m., a 911 caller reported a driver in a pickup truck was stuck on top of a chain-linked fence and revving their engine. The driver got out of the truck and jumped on the fence, but went back into the truck when a sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene a few minutes later, according to court records.

The deputy told the driver to get out of the truck, but he did not appear to hear the command, authorities said. As the deputy approached the vehicle, the truck suddenly burst into flames and the deputy heard the driver scream. The motorist was later identified as Barajas Nava.

The deputy opened the truck door and Nava fell to the ground.

One of his legs was on fire, according to court documents, and he rolled around on the ground to put out the fire. The deputy handcuffed Barajas Nava, who appeared disoriented and unable to respond to any questions asked of him.

By this time, the truck was fully engulfed in flames. The deputy pulled Nava away from the fire and called firefighters to the scene, authorities said. The deputy also removed some items from the truck, including a black beanie.

Nava was treated at the scene.

Investigators learned that Nava was on probation stemming from a July 2022 incident in which he pleaded guilty to setting a church on fire in Albuquerque, according to court documents.

Police officers found Nava’s driver’s license near the scene of the New Mexico church fire and located him about an hour after the fire was first reported, according to authorities. Police found him roughly a mile away from the church standing outside a vehicle that matched the description of a vehicle spotted near the crime scene.

When deputies found Nava, he was trying to set fire to a gas pump and drove away as police approached him, authorities said. He led police on a high-speed pursuit and attempted to crash into multiple police vehicles, authorities said.

He eventually crashed, ran away, grabbed an officer’s gun and punched another officer while he was placed under arrest, according to court documents.

Nava was in violation of his five-year probation term at the time of his arrest in San Bernardino County on April 24, authorities said.

Nava is set to appear in court on Tuesday in Riverside in connection with the Yucaipa incidents.

©2024 Los Angeles Times.
Visit at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.