ST. GEORGE, Utah — Police arrested a man whom they believe started fires at multiple Latter-day Saint churches after a vehicle chase in the early hours Tuesday.
Benjamin J. Johnson was taken into custody by St. George Police on suspicion of several counts including:
- Arson with damage of $5,000 and over
- Arson between $500 and $1,500
- Assault, propelled bodily substance, saliva at officers
- Evading by fleeing in a vehicle
- Reckless driving
- Damage to the jail
According to authorities, around 4:00 a.m. the St. George Fire Department got a fire alarm call from the church at 1295 South 3000 East. A short time later, dispatch received calls of a tree on fire at another church near at River Road and Rustic Drive.
Police officers started checking other nearby churches and noticed smoke coming from a building at 1762 South River Road. An officer spotted a white minivan parked at the church and saw a man exiting the building.
Officers said the suspect sped off and they started to chase. As the suspect fled on Interstate 15, officers ahead laid spike strips on the road, puncturing the suspect's tires.
After crossing into Zion National Park, police said, the suspect's van crashed and caught on fire, allowing officers to take him into custody. The man was taken to the hospital with minor injuries.
Investigators were trying to find out if more churches had been vandalized.
Police said the church at 3000 East did not have a sprinkler system and was heavily damaged, while the church at 1762 River Road sustained fire and water damage, and the church at Rustic Drive and River Road sustained fire damage to the landscaping.
A spokesperson for the Church released a statement regarding the incident.
“We are saddened by the intentional damage that has occurred at three of our meetinghouses in St. George. Our Church buildings are places of worship and community gathering where all are welcome. We’re fully cooperating with authorities as they conduct their investigation and inquiries about these incidents should be directed to them."
Police asked anyone with further information to contact the St. George Police Department.