SANTA MONICA, CA — An Irvine man is in federal custody on charges alleging he set fire to a Santa Monica Police Department car during the civil unrest that accompanied widespread protests in late May.
Nathan Wilson, 27, is linked to the May 31 fire that destroyed the unmarked Santa Monica Police car when a witness told law enforcement they had driven Wilson to Santa Monica on that day, and they believed he had set fire to a police car. He has been charged in a federal criminal complaint with malicious damage to property owned by an institution or organization receiving federal financial assistance, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says.
The FBI and Santa Monica Police had asked the public’s help to locate him in June, offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
Social media posts show a man setting fire to the parked police car wearing an American flag bandana over his face with a rifle tattoo on his left arm.
The witness directed authorities to Wilson’s Instagram account, where he posted a “selfie” taken in Santa Monica on May 31. Wilson appeared “exactly like the person seen in other social media posts who stoked the fire that destroyed the police car,” the affidavit alleges.
Commenters to the post asked if the burning vehicle behind him was a police car, to which Wilson answered “yes.”
In early June, the FBI and the Santa Monica Police Department issued a wanted poster seeking Wilson. After receiving tips and conducting investigations, law enforcement could not identify the perpetrator who caused the fire that destroyed the police car.
According to the affidavit, that all changed when Wilson became a suspect in another vehicle arson, this time in Irvine on September 28.
According to police, a domestic dispute that culminated with the vehicle fire in a vehicle owned by Wilson’s live-in partner, led authorities to information that linked Wilson to the May 31 Santa Monica car fire.
Wilson was taken into custody on Friday when Santa Monica Police officers, in conjunction with the Irvine Police Department and the FBI, executed a search warrant at his Irvine home.
Police discovered Wilson hiding inside a mattress box spring in his bedroom.
As they searched his home, authorities recovered clothing items that appear to be the same seen on Wilson in the various photos taken near the destroyed police car, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reported.
After Wilson was taken into custody by Santa Monica Police officers, the federal criminal complaint was signed by a United States magistrate judge late Friday.
Wilson was expected to make his initial appearance at the United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.
If convicted of the malicious damage offense, as alleged, Wilson would face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison and a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years.
This matter was investigated by the SAFE LA Task Force, which includes the FBI and the Santa Monica Police Department representatives. The Irvine Police Department and the Orange County Fire Authority provided substantial assistance.
An independent, third-party will investigate how authorities in Santa Monica responded on May 31 during an eruption of civil unrest that included looting and fires, city officials announced last week.
“The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office announced the selection of OIR Group to lead an after-action review for the events of May 31, 2020,” officials said in a news release.
Following the Aug. 25 Santa Monica City Council meeting, the staff moved to “retain an individual or entity with the required professional expertise to prepare an independent after action report and evaluation regarding the events leading to, during, and following May 31, 2020.”
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– Patch Editors Ashley Ludwig and Nicole Charky contributed to this report.