Man pleads not guilty to arson, hate crime at California mosque

CALIFORNIA - A 23-year-old man suspected of setting a fire at a Southern California mosque in a hate attack following the massacre of 14 people by a Muslim couple pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, officials said.

Carl James Dial pleaded not guilty to charges of arson, burglary and committing a hate crime in connection with Friday's fire in the entrance of Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley, the Riverside County District Attorney's Office said.

Authorities said the fire caused no injuries. But it charred the building's stucco front entrance, leaving it with chunks of plaster torn out and littered with debris.

The local Desert Sun newspaper reported on Wednesday that Dial's parents are seeking a lawyer to take the case, which they said was complex, pro bono.

The blaze heightened concerns about an anti-Islamic backlash in the wake of the Dec. 2 massacre of 14 people by U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, at a holiday party in San Bernardino, about 75 miles (121 km) northwest of Coachella.

The FBI has said it is treating the shooting as an act of terrorism, citing the couple's declaration that they were acting on behalf of the Islamic State militant group.

On his Facebook page, Dial made a number of references to Islamic State, such as on Oct. 31 when he wrote that he was watching execution videos by the militant group.

He also overlayed his profile picture with the French flag, as have many Facebook users in response to Islamic State's coordinated series of shootings and suicide bombings in Paris that killed 130 people last month.

The district attorney's office said Dial was set next to appear in court on Dec. 28 for a conference. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 11 years and four months in prison, the office said.

He remains held in the Indio Jail on bail of $150,000, the district attorney's office said.

President Barack Obama will travel on Friday to San Bernardino, the White House said on Wednesday.