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Man pleads guilty to arson for Chase bank fire during La Mesa protest

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

Ricky Bernard Cooper, 34, is set to be sentenced next month in 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 a burglary count in connection with looting stores at the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center.

Co-defendant Alexander King, 20, still faces charges that include arson and burglary and is due back in court in December.

Vandals broke the glass doors of the 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)

At Cooper’s arraignment, Deputy District Attorney David Vallero alleged the defendant was one of several people who broke into businesses at the shopping center and took items on the night of May 30.

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

Protests that took place in La Mesa on May 29 and May 30 of last year were sparked by the Memorial Day in-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the controversial arrest of another Black man, Amaurie Johnson, in La Mesa a few days prior to the protest.

Johnson’s arrest by La Mesa police officer Matthew Dages was captured on video and proliferated over social media, prompting extensive backlash against the police department and a federal lawsuit filed by Johnson against the city. Dages has since been charged with a felony count of filing a false police report for allegedly lying about the basis of his contact with Johnson, and was ordered in August to stand trial.

The May 30 protest began with demonstrators marching on Interstate 8 in the afternoon, before the group moved to the La Mesa police station. Though the protest began peacefully, confrontation broke out in the late afternoon, with some protesters throwing objects and officers firing beanbag rounds 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)

The Chase bank was set on fire, 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 months in federal prison for bringing Molotov cocktails to the La Mesa protest. A federal jury convicted him after a two-day trial in May on a charge of possession of an unregistered destructive device.

Union-Tribune staff writer Alex Riggins contributed to this report.



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