Police describe dramatic pursuit, arrest of St. George man suspected in 3 LDS chapel fires

ST. GEORGE — The man suspected of setting fire to three chapels of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been identified by authorities following his arrest Tuesday.

Chapel on South 3000 East where the first of three fires was reported in St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Shortly after 5:30 a.m., 36-year-old Benjamin J. Johnson, of St. George, was arrested in Springdale near the entrance to Zion National Park. He had led police on a 40-mile pursuit starting in St. George before crashing into a barrier near the Canyon Junction Bridge, causing his vehicle to catch fire.

Johnson was booked into Purgatory Correctional Facility facing multiple charges, including two second-degree felony counts of arson with more than $5,000 in damage, along with one count each of third-degree felony evading and damaging a jail. The suspect also faces one misdemeanor count of arson, reckless driving and propelling a bodily substance at a police officer.

The circumstances leading to his arrest began when the first of three fires was reported at a Latter-day Saint chapel. The blaze was reported a few minutes after 4 a.m., and firefighters arrived to find flames shooting out of broken windows toward the front of the building.

While crews were tending to the first fire, additional fires were allegedly set at two other chapels, the first of which was on the corner of River Road and Rustic Road, while the third was on River Road just south of St. James Place. Johnson was reportedly spotted at the third chapel by a police officer just as he was leaving the building. When the officer noticed smoke coming from the front of the chapel, he followed the suspect, who pulled away from the church at a high rate of speed.

The pursuit continued along River Road and then progressed north on Interstate 15 into Hurricane, where a set of spike strips were deployed in an effort to stop the fleeing suspect.

Scene minutes after pursuit ends with a suspect in custody and a minivan catching fire in Springdale, Utah, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

The first set of spikes narrowly missed the front tire of the fleeing minivan. By now, the suspect was being followed by multiple police units as he continued driving to Springdale, where a second set of spike strips was deployed.

The minivan ran over the spikes, puncturing the front passenger’s side tire, which quickly deflated as the man continued driving on the metal rim at a high rate of speed, sending a shower of sparks into the air as the metal struck the asphalt, Springdale Police Officer Britt Ballard said.

Additional deputies from the Kane County Sheriff’s Office joined the pursuit at the county line as it continued for a few more miles. The chase finally stalled when the driver failed to negotiate a hair-pin curve near the entrance to the park, Ballard said, and the vehicle struck two large boulders located next to the bridge at more than 60 mph. The impact sent the large rocks tumbling down a steep embankment with the minivan in tow.

The vehicle crashed near the bottom of the ravine and was found perched on top of one of the large rocks with smoke coming from what was left of the shredded tire that had overheated and caught fire. The suspect was then taken into custody by several officers at gunpoint.

The tire fire spread through the vehicle quickly, Ballard said, adding that the minivan was fully engulfed within minutes of the crash and was ultimately destroyed by the blaze that then spread to the brush nearby before it was extinguished by a Hurricane Valley Fire District crew.

Police officers in Springdale assisting at the scene near the Canyon Junction Bridge where a car caught fire following a pursuit, Springdale, Utah, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Britt Ballard, St. George News

Ballard said the large boulders near the bridge were situated in a way as to deter visitors from parking there, so the impact also caused damage to one of the large concrete girders designed to support the bridge.

“That block was massive,” Ballard said, referring to the concrete girder. “So the impact had to have been significant to have caused that much damage.”

Once the vehicle was pulled from the embankment and towed from the scene, structural engineers were also called in to inspect the bridge and the concrete support block, which appeared to have been cracked when the minivan impacted the boulders.

At 5:37 a.m., a little more than an hour after the first fire was reported, the suspect was arrested and transported to the hospital in St. George by ambulance. He was treated for minor injuries and then released into police custody before being transported to jail.

The incident is part of a joint investigation by the St. George Fire Department, the St. George Police Department, the Utah Fire Marshals Office and the lead agency — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Ed. Note: A new Utah law generally prohibits the release of arrest booking photos until after a conviction is obtained. 

This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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