An Irvine man pleaded not guilty Monday to setting fire to a Santa Monica police car during civil unrest that accompanied widespread protests in late May.

Nathan Wilson, 27, is facing a federal charge of malicious damage to property owned by an institution or organization receiving federal financial assistance, which carries a sentence of between five and 20 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Trial was tentatively set for Dec. 29.

Wilson was allegedly linked to the May 31 fire that destroyed the unmarked police car when a witness told law enforcement they had driven him to Santa Monica on that day and they believed he had set fire to a patrol car as the city was filled with demonstrators marching to protest George Floyd’s in-custody Memorial Day death in Minneapolis.

Publicly available social media posts show that the person who set fire to the patrol car parked at the loading dock of the Santa Monica Civic Center was wearing certain clothing and accessories, had an American flag bandana over his face, and had a distinctive tattoo of a rifle on his left arm, according to an affidavit in the case filed in Los Angeles federal court.

The witness directed authorities to one of Wilson’s social media accounts — an Instagram account under the handle “yup_i_eat_crayons” — where Wilson had posted a “selfie” taken in Santa Monica on May 31, the affidavit alleges. In the photo, Wilson appeared exactly like the person seen in other social media posts who stoked the fire that destroyed the police car, according to the document.

In early June, the FBI and Santa Monica police issued a wanted poster for the person in the photo. After receiving tips and conducting investigations, law enforcement was not able to identify the perpetrator who caused the fire that destroyed the police car, but that changed when Wilson became a suspect in a Sept. 28 vehicle arson that occurred in Irvine, according to the affidavit.

Following a domestic dispute that culminated with a fire in a vehicle owned by Wilson’s live-in partner, authorities obtained information that allegedly linked him to the May 31 fire in Santa Monica.

Wilson was taken into custody on Oct. 13 when Santa Monica police officers, in conjunction with the Irvine Police Department and the FBI, executed a search warrant and found Wilson hiding in a mattress box spring in his bedroom. During that search, authorities said they recovered items of clothing that appear to be the same seen on Wilson in the various photos taken near the destroyed police car.

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