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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

23-year-old pleads guilty to setting Spokane Catholic school on fire last year

The hallway in St. Charles Catholic School is shown on March 30, 2021, after an arson fire occurred 12 days prior.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A 23-year-old man pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court to “maliciously damaging” the St. Charles Catholic School in Spokane last year by setting fire to the building.

Rio A. Mirabal faces five to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to the arson charge in front of U.S. District Court Senior Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson. Peterson is scheduled to sentence Mirabal on Dec. 6.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Ohms said a Spokane police officer stopped in the parking lot of the school, 4515 N. Alberta St., around 1:30 a.m. March 18, 2021, and saw a fire through the windows. Ohms said the officer reported the fire, heard a “boom” come from inside the church and saw the fire spread to the roof.

A second officer arrived and started tapping on windows to alert anyone inside, Ohms said. He said a priest, identified in a previous Spokesman-Review story as the Rev. Esteban Soler, who resided at the school emerged and indicated no one else was in the building when he went to bed.

Soler escaped unharmed. The Spokane Fire Department extinguished the fire.

“We’re grateful for the quick reaction of the Spokane Fire Department, Spokane Police, and the individuals who reported the fire,” U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington Vanessa Waldref said in a statement Wednesday. “While the damage was extensive, it could have been even worse. We are also grateful to the members of the community, who came together to identify Mr. Mirabal as the person who started the fire. This is an excellent example of the community and law enforcement working together to keep our community safe and strong.”

Ohms said the fire damaged the area surrounding a nurse’s station, the doors to the gymnasium, the Parish office, the secretary’s office, the principal’s office and the priest’s residence. The fire also reached the attic and spread above the entire southwest portion of the complex.

Ohms said the investigation revealed the glass on an entry door to the church was broken and removed. Investigators found several candles that had been knocked over onto the floor and two wine bottles on the floor.

Surveillance video for the church and school showed a white male, later identified as Mirabal, with a hammer walking in the church immediately before the fire, Ohms said. He was wearing black clothing and dark shoes with white soles.

Ohms said Mirabal entered a room behind the pulpit and pulled three bottles of Communion wine from it. He lit a candle and moved between the offices and the gymnasium. Mirabal then entered numerous rooms, and smoke started coming out of the doors minutes after Mirabal exited each room.

Documentation from prior law enforcement contacts with Mirabal revealed he was wearing shoes consistent with the shoes shown in the security videos, Ohms said. Fingerprints on the wine bottles matched Mirabal’s fingerprints.

Mirabal was arrested about a week after the fire.

Police identified Mirabal through a tip from a community member after police released surveillance footage of the man. Mirabal has two prior misdemeanor convictions and does not have a permanent address.

On Wednesday, Mirabal, who wore yellow Spokane County Jail inmate clothes, said he was hospitalized for schizophrenia in 2019 and 2020.

He said he was provided medication for the disorder, “but I didn’t take them.” Mirabal said he has been taking medication for schizophrenia in jail.

Mirabal’s attorney, Virginia Rockwood, said the difference in talking to her client when medicated and not medicated is “night and day.”