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By Jorge Casuso

November 2, 2020 -- (UPDATE) An Orange County man charged with setting an unmarked police car on fire during the May 31 riots in Santa Monica pleaded not guilty in federal court Monday.

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Nathan Wilson, 27, a resident of Irvine, is charged with malicious damage to property owned by an institution or organization receiving federal financial assistance, according to the complaint filed October 13 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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A witness who drove Wilson to Santa Monica that day told authorities they believed the suspect had set fire to the unmarked car, which was parked at the loading dock of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, according to authorities.

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Publicly available social media posts showed that the suspect "was wearing certain clothing and accessories, had an American flag bandanna over his face, and had a distinctive tattoo of a rifle on his left arm," according to an affidavit filed with the complaint.

The witness directed authorities to one of Wilson’s social media accounts, an Instagram account under the handle “yup_i_eat_crayons,” the affidavit alleges.

On the account Wilson had posted a “selfie” taken in Santa Monica on May 31 where he "appeared exactly like the person seen in other social media posts who stoked the fire that destroyed the police car," the affidavit said.

In early June, the FBI and the Santa Monica Police Department issued a wanted poster, but "after receiving tips and conducting investigations" were unable to identify the suspect, according to the affidavit.

The case finally broke when Wilson became the suspect in a fire set to the vehicle owned by his live-in partner following a domestic dispute in Irvine on September 28, the affidavit said.

Authorities "obtained information that linked Wilson" to the Santa Monica fire, and he was taken into custody on October 9 when SMPD officers, along with the Irvine Police Department and the FBI, executed a search warrant at the Irvine residence.

They found Wilson "hiding in a mattress box spring in the bedroom," according to the affidavit.

During the search, authorities "recovered items of clothing that appear to be the same seen on Wilson in the various photos taken near the destroyed police car."

If convicted of the malicious damage charge, Wilson faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison and a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years.

The unmarked police car Wilson allegedly set on fire was one of four vehicles, four structures and a dumpster burned in Santa Monica during the protests and looting May 31, according to fire officials.

Law enforcement made 438 arrests that Sunday and 41 on Monday for looting, violating curfew, burglary and assault ("Santa Monica Demonstration Turns Violent, Looters Ransack Stores," June 1, 2020).

Damage assessments found that 225 Santa Monica businesses had general damage, such as visible broken windows and doors, and 76 had "visible evidence of looting."

There was graffiti damage on 121 buildings, 48 had other "vandalization" and ten had fire or smoke damage.

The case against Wilson was investigated by the SAFE LA Task Force, which includes representatives of the FBI and the Santa Monica Police Department.

The Irvine Police Department and the Orange County Fire Authority provided substantial assistance, authorities said.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Sara B. Milstein of the Violent and Organized Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California.


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