A statue of the Virgin Mary was scorched and a historical painting damaged by a 24-year-old man who police say vandalized the San Luis Obispo Mission church Tuesday.
Daniel Pettigrew, a homeless man with a history of theft in the city, was arrested by the San Luis Obispo Police Department after police say he was caught in the act on surveillance video.
Pettigrew is believed to have slipped into the church after the 7 a.m. morning service and ripped a painting from the wall — letting it crash to the ground and damaging the frame.
A fire was set at the base of a statue of the Virgin Mary — badly damaging the figure in several places including the statue’s face — and leaving ashes scattered around it.
A painting depicting Our Lady of Refuge with the baby Jesus was also damaged — the paint’s surface scratched with erratic marks likely from a key. When the Rev. Russ Brown arrived to work at 9 a.m. Tuesday, an employee told him about the vandalism. As Brown made his way to the church to survey the damage, he saw someone trying to fish the change out of one of the Mission’s wishing wells using a stick and bubble gum.
Brown said it has happened before and usually upon being asked, people just leave. But when Brown asked this man to leave — he didn’t. Brown called the police but the man was gone when authorities arrived. Later, when reviewing security footage from inside the church, Brown said he saw the same man. Authorities found Pettigrew nearby and arrested him.
The church remains open to the public, free of charge, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.
People are encouraged to wander in, pray and spend as much time as they’d like inside.
“Something like this happening is rare — thanks be to God,” Brown said. “The Mission is a magnet for a lot of people — whatever the reasons for bringing them here — and for the most part they respect the sanctity of this place.”
The paintings damaged are of significant historical value to the church — dating to the 1800s. No estimate was available Wednesday on how much repairs to the damaged items would cost.
Pettigrew was booked into County Jail, where he was being held as of Monday night in lieu of $250,000 bail on suspicion of vandalism of a church and arson.
Brown said he stood by the charges and would not ask for them to be dropped.
“Arson is much too serious of a crime,” Brown said. “Hopefully it will get the message out that there are consequences.”