WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (ABC4) — A bus driver for the Granite School District has been accused of lighting a school bus on fire while driving 66 students, according to police reports, in an incident going back over a year.

West Valley Police Department booked Michael Austin Ford, 58, into the Salt Lake County Jail on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. He faces charges of first-degree felony aggravated arson, second-degree felony aggravated child abuse, and second-degree felony criminal mischief.

According to a booking affidavit, Ford was driving a bus in February 2022 with 66 students onboard just before 3 p.m. Surveillance video from the school bus reportedly shows smoke coming from underneath the bus dashboard, but Ford allegedly continued driving. Students on board began complaining of smoke and covering their faces with shirts. Others started coughing.

That’s when Ford reportedly stopped driving and evacuated the students from the bus. Ford reported the fire to the Granite School District Dispatch and extinguished the flames with a fire extinguisher. No students were reportedly harmed by the fire or smoke.

In April 2023, surveillance video from another school bus allegedly shows Ford with an object in hand, which police say was a “thumb-strike lighter.”

“When traffic stops, the suspect looks down and starts lighting electrical components under the dashboard on fire with the thumb strike lighter,” police reported in an affidavit. “The suspect continued the bus, looking down several times at smoke and intermittently visible flames.”

Moments later, an air line under the dashboard ruptured and extinguished most of the fire.

Police say there were four fires total related to Ford’s driving. According to a booking affidavit, all the fires were electrical and started under the dash area while being driven. Ford was allegedly the bus driver in each fire.

“Given the nature of the four bus fires with the same driver with them all starting in the same area of the bus, Ford lighting the dash area on fire while driving the bus [in April], it is reasonable to conclude that Ford is responsible for these fires,” West Valley Police investigators said.

Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said Ford was placed on leave after the April incident and was let go by the school district on June 5, 2023. Ford had been employed as a bus driver in various contract hourly, part-time and full-time positions since 1998. Horsley confirmed Ford had passed all appropriate background checks required by law.

The evidence from the April incident was used by Granite Police to arrest Ford on allegations of arson. That investigation was then turned over to the State Fire Marshall’s office for further investigation.

Investigators claim Ford has been involved in several fires over the last five years: four bus fires involving the Granite School District, two fires at his West Valley home, and a car fire in Bluffdale. He was also allegedly involved in a car fire in 2009, according to the booking affidavit.

“The suspect has a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of children, the public, and himself by attempting to light a school bus full of children on fire,” reads the booking affidavit.

Ford has been ordered to be held without bail pending a preliminary hearing.

The full statement from the Granite School District can be seen below:

Mr. Ford had been employed by Granite District as a bus driver in various contract hourly and part time and full time positions since 1998. He was hired after passing appropriate background checks as required by law. In April of 2023, Mr. Ford was placed on leave after evidence surfaced that he was involved with the tampering of a bus. That evidence was used by Granite District Police to arrest Mr. Ford on April 10, 2023 for arson. The investigation was then turned over to the State Fire Marshall’s office for further investigation. Mr. Ford was terminated by Granite District on June 5, 2023. As part of the ongoing investigation, Mr. Ford has been linked to a previous incident in February of 2022, when a bus he was driving with secondary students, started to have smoke in the dashboard area of the bus. The bus was pulled over in the neighborhood and students were able to evacuate through the regular doors. There were no injuries and the bus was repaired and returned to service. We are grateful for the efforts of Granite Police, West Valley Police and the State Fire Marshall to help investigate this matter. We have no additional comment to share at this time as this is an open and active investigation.

Granite School District

Charges are allegations only. All arrested persons are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.