ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4) – A 36-year-old man is in custody after police say he set fire to multiple churches before leading authorities on a high-speed chase that came to a fiery end in Zion National Park on Tuesday.
At around 4 a.m. Tuesday morning, St. George Police say a fire alarm notification was activated at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse at 1295 S 3000 E. St. George Fire crews confirmed the building was ablaze and called in assistance from nearby fire agencies. A short time later, authorities say they received a call of a tree on fire at another nearby LDS Church on River Road and Rustic Drive. St. George Police say they began checking on other churches within the area for similar problems.
One officer located a silver minivan parked at the LDS Church at 1762 S River Road and saw smoke rising from the building. A man, now identified as 36-year-old Benjamin James Johnson, was seen leaving the church, fleeing the area in the minivan at a high rate of speed. Officers tried to stop the vehicle, which fled. St. George Police say officers followed the van northbound on I-15 and requested assistance from neighboring agencies. The chase continued through Hurricane and toward Springdale. Officers spiked the vehicle twice before reaching Zion National Park.
Once reaching the park, the vehicle crashed and started on fire. Authorities were able to take the unidentified man into custody. Zion National Park officials shared the below video from the scene.
Authorities are now investigating fires at three LDS churches in St. George and are trying to determine if more churches have been vandalized. The church located on 3000 East was not equipped with a fire suppression system and sustained significant fire damage. The church on River Road suffered some fire and water damage while the location on Rustic Drive and River Road sustained fire damage to the landscaping.
St. George Police say Johnson kept calling himself “Joshua” while at the police department, saying he was a type of deity. While speaking with detectives, Johnson admitted to setting three churches on fire and described his behavior as “righteous anger,” according to arresting documents. Officers have also accused Johnson of spitting on a detective and damaging some property in the interview room.
Johnson, arresting documents show, was arrested on two felony counts of arson causing damages exceeding $5,000 in value, a misdemeanor count of arson causing between $500 and $1,500 in damages, and one count each of propelling a bodily substance, failure to stop for police, reckless driving, and damaging jails.