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Man suspected of breaking into Costa Mesa church found hiding under a blanket (LA Times)

March 8, 2023

Officials at one Costa Mesa church were stunned Sunday to arrive at the property and see evidence of a burglary and even more stunned later, while making a report to police, when the suspect was found hiding at the scene.

Rev. Matt Hambrick, a pastor at Costa Mesa First United Methodist Church on 19th Street, said the chair of the church board came to the building at 7:30 a.m. Sunday and discovered a steel security gate had been broken open and the glass door of Hambrick’s second-floor office shattered.

The pastor’s two-room office was ransacked, and several items were missing. Video surveillance footage showed a lone individual had forced his way into the area at around 9 p.m. Saturday.

“It was just disheveled, a mess,” Hambrick said of the scene. “There was literally In-N-Out everywhere — they brought In-N-Out to the [burglary].”

Footage showed the suspect had also brought with him a blue plastic bucket, in which he built a fire, fueled by items taken from the church office. Hambrick said the man broke open a picture frame containing an engagement photo and burned the picture inside.

“You can see him [on camera] coming in and out with the bucket while it’s on fire,” the pastor said, indicating a spot outside where the plastic bucket melted into the brickwork. “He could have burned the whole place down.”

Hambrick, who’d arrived at the church at around 8 a.m., did a quick damage assessment of his office as he and other leaders made a report with Costa Mesa police officers before the 10 a.m. Sunday service.

That’s when things got weird, he said.

“There was a man down on my chair covered in a blanket,” he said. “I said, ‘Officer, there’s a man in here.’ He was trying to hide.”

CMPD officers detained the suspect — later identified as Nicolas Alexandro Briones, 27, of San Dimas — and booked him on charges of trespassing and obstruction of a peace officer. Church officials estimate he caused several thousand dollars of mostly structural damage.

Briones was cited and released on Tuesday shortly before noon and is scheduled to appear in court on April 4, according to an online inmate locator maintained by the sheriff’s department.

Hambrick and fellow pastor Brian Tipton on Tuesday afternoon were out at the site, which is undergoing construction. They both initially thought Costa Mesa First UMC had been politically targeted for its open stance on supporting the LGBTQ community.

While it was a relief to realize that was not likely the case, the incident got them thinking about mental health issues, the topic of a sermon Tipton recently delivered.

“Often, in church narrative, if you have some sort of mental health issue, you don’t have enough faith,” Tipton explained. “My sermon was about issues beyond faith, about literal dis-ease, mental health disease — it’s not that people need faith, they need support.”

Hambrick mentioned the incident in his own sermon on Sunday, saying church members prayed over Briones, who had not yet been identified.

“This is not an enemy, this is a person who needs help,” Hambrick explained. “We prayed for him individually on Sunday, and we continue to pray for him daily. These next steps in his life are going to be difficult.”