Legal Proceedings Underway Against Perpetrators of St. Junípero Serra Statue Attacks

Felony Vandalism charges have been filed against five people, in connection with last month’s destruction of a statue in San Rafael, California.

A police vehicle is seen parked near a statue of Father Junípero Serra in front of the San Gabriel Mission in San Gabriel, California, on June 21, 2020.
A police vehicle is seen parked near a statue of Father Junípero Serra in front of the San Gabriel Mission in San Gabriel, California, on June 21, 2020. (photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP via Getty Images)

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Marin County prosecutors have filed felony vandalism charges against five people after a mob destroyed a statue of St. Junípero Serra at Mission San Rafael Arcángel last month. 

If convicted, the vandals could be sentenced to up to three years in prison and fined up to $50,000. Separately, the California Highway Patrol made an arrest in connection with the July 4 toppling of the Serra statue at Sacramento’s Capitol Park.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, whose archdiocese of San Francisco includes San Rafael, described the Marin County prosecutors’ decision as a “breakthrough moment for Catholics.” In a statement released Nov. 13, he said the “decision to prosecute on the charge of felony vandalism represents the first time that any of the lawbreakers attacking statues of St. Junípero Serra and other acts of vandalism on Catholic Church property across California will be held accountable for their actions in a court of law.”

Despite the recommendation of the San Rafael Police Department, Marin County prosecutors did not include additional charges of vandalizing a place of worship — a hate crime — for each of the suspects.

“Given that this was vandalism at a house of worship, the San Rafael Police Department understandably recommended that the perpetrators be charged with a hate crime,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “Indeed, to vandalize a house of worship to express one’s views is not a mere property crime: it is an attack on the identity and rights of a whole faith community.”

Since the death of George Floyd last May, mobs have destroyed buildings and monuments around the world. In California, statues of St. Junípero Serra, the Franciscan friar who founded the first nine of the state’s Spanish missions, have come under repeated attack. Many consider Serra to be one of the founding fathers of the United States, and he is honored by both the Church and the state. 

But his detractors accuse him of enslaving Native Americans and causing genocide. Since Serra’s canonization in 2015, vandals have decapitated and defaced his statues at Missions Santa Barbara and San Gabriel, and, in recent months, have torn down his statues at public parks in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. 

In Sacramento on July 4, vandals attempted to burn the likeness of St. Junípero Serra before pulling it down and dancing on the fallen statue. Cesar Aguirre was taken into custody in connection with the vandalism on Nov. 10.

According to his GoFundMe account, police raided his home on July 10 and seized belongings including his laptop and phone. In 2012, Aguirre, then 24, was convicted at a jury trial and sentenced to six months in jail for committing felony vandalism during the Oakland Occupy protests. The judge also ordered him to pay restitution. 


The San Rafael Vandalism

In San Rafael, in preparation for the Oct. 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day protest, a church maintenance worker covered the bronze statue in duct tape and boarded up windows. Media and police were on the scene when a few dozen protesters gathered in front of the statue, which stood on mission grounds just feet from the public sidewalk. Demonstrators’ signs included one with an image of St. Junípero Serra with a placard reading “St. Slavery” hanging around his neck and another with the words “Land back now.”

Protesters removed the protective duct tape and defaced the statue with red paint. Although some protesters attempted to block news cameras,video shows the vandals pounding the pedestal with rocks and pulling on ropes tied around the statue’s neck. The group erupts in cheers when the statue falls broken, leaving the feet still fixed to the damaged pedestal, across which the word “rape” is scrawled in red paint.

An organizer of the protest told KTVU FOX 2 News that she is pleased by the statue’s destruction, although she did not plan it. "You go to the city. You go to the board. It's all dragged out. We don't want to do that. We just want to get it done," Lucina Vidauri said. 

Police officers stood by during the vandalism but, when the protest dispersed, cited and released five women: Ines Shiam Gardilcic, Melissa Aguilar, Mayorgi Nadieska Delgadille, Victoria Eva Montano Pena, and Moira Van de Walker. Andrew Lester Mendle was later identified as another suspect, and all but Gardilcic are named in the criminal complaint. 

In explaining why the police did not stop the vandals from destroying the statue, Det. Lt. Dan Fink of the San Rafael Police Department told the Register that, before the protest, “representatives” from the mission asked for a “soft approach” from the police. Fink acknowledged it was “probably what we would have done anyways.”

Father Luello Palacpac, pastor of San Rafael, did not respond to requests for comment.

“It is private property so they — the church — obviously are the victims,” Fink said. “They knew, based on what we told them what was probably going to happen, although we weren’t sure. They just asked for a ‘soft approach.’ We didn’t know for sure [the protesters] were going to tear down the statue, we thought there would be some kind of vandalism to it, but we weren’t positive.”

Officers on the scene included a lieutenant and two sergeants.


Archbishop Cordileone’s Response

Maggie Gallagher, the executive director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, which was founded by Archbishop Cordileone, said the archbishop was not consulted ahead of time about police decisions not to protect the statue. 

“I spoke to the archbishop about whether he had agreed in advance that the civil authorities should not intervene to stop the crime,” Gallagher said. “He affirmed that he was not made aware of the issue prior to the incident and did not approve it.”

The day after the Oct. 12 protest, Archbishop Cordileone issued a statement calling for the prosecution of the vandals. 

“While the police have thankfully arrested five of the perpetrators, what happens next is crucial, for if these are treated as small property crimes, it misses the point: the symbols of our faith are now under attack not only on public property, but now on our own property and even inside of our churches,” he said. “We cannot allow a small unelected group of lawbreakers to decide what sacred symbols we Catholics or other believers may display and use to foster our faith. This must stop.”

When Mary Ann Hauser, a San Rafael parishioner, heard about the vandalism, she drove to the church with her husband and prayed at the site of the desecration. She was not the only one to make reparation. 

“The people were very upset about it,” she told the Register. “Very quickly, the day after it was torn down, they organized a rosary rally. We had it at five o’clock in the evening in front of the church where the statue had been. There were about a hundred people there.”

In a Nov. 13 archdiocesan statement, Father Palacpac said that the “traumatic experience” caused his parishioners to “enthusiastically support the archbishop’s call to prosecute those who first desecrated and then toppled the statue of St. Junípero Serra.” 

The weekend following the protest, Archbishop Cordileone conducted an exorcism at the site and offered Mass. “We had a very big turnout,” Hauser said. “In fact it was more than we were officially allowed in the church, so we had people who were outside the doors attending Mass.”

“We pray that God might purify this place of evil spirits, that he might purify the hearts of those who perpetrated this blasphemy, that he might envelop them in his love, that their hearts might be softened and turn toward him,” Archbishop Cordileone said to the faithful gathered for the exorcism.

“While a hate crime was not charged in this case, let us hope that this prosecution will nonetheless contribute to putting an end to attacks on all houses of worship,” he said.

Gallagher does not agree with Marin County’s decision not to charge the vandals with hate crimes, but is glad they are being charged with felonies. 

“The hate crime charge requires proving that the attack was motivated by religious hatred and the DA chose not to take on that burden,” she said. “But the main thing is that for the first time in years those who trespass on holy ground to make a political protest face a felony charge.”

“We need a more robust history of the Catholic co-founding of America,” Gallagher added. “It is a story of anti-slavery drive to treat Indians as bearers of rights that should be better known.”