Suspect in custody for allegedly starting fires at 3 separate LDS churches

ST. GEORGE — Fire crews were busy early Tuesday morning responding to three fires reported back to back at three separate chapels of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Less than an hour later, a suspect was in custody following a 30-mile pursuit with police.

St. George Fire Department responds to structure fire reported at LDS chapel on South 3000 East, one of three reported in St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

The first structure fire was reported shortly before 4 a.m. at the LDS chapel located at 1295 S. 3000 East. St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said fire crews arrived to find flames coming from the windows located in the front of the structure where the chapel was located.

Crews entered the chapel and began fighting the blaze that was spreading through the front of the large room. Fire suppression efforts continued until the active flames were extinguished.

Meanwhile, a second fire was reported by a 911 caller who said flames were coming from a tree next to the LDS chapel located on the corner of River Road and Rustic Drive, less than 3 miles from where the first fire was reported, according to a statement released by the St. George Police Department Tuesday.

Stoker said fire crews from several nearby departments were called in to assist, including firefighters from Washington City, Hurricane and Santa Clara-Ivins.

LDS chapel on South River Road in St. George sustains damage when a tree catches fire in front of building, St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

After the second fire was reported, officers in St. George began checking on other churches in the surrounding areas, which is when an officer spotted a silver minivan in the parking lot of the LDS chapel on South River Road, just south of St. James Place and less than a mile from the chapel on Rustic Road.

The officer noticed smoke coming from the inside of the chapel and then observed a man leaving the church, but when the officer attempted to stop the minivan, the driver fled from the parking lot at a high rate of speed, the statement said.

As multiple departments were responding to the three separate scenes, officers followed the fleeing minivan onto northbound Interstate 15 where the suspect exited in Hurricane. Officers from multiple agencies responded to assist in the pursuit.

Photo shows scene in Springdale, Utah, following pursuit with suspect who allegedly started fires at three chapels in St. George, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

Several minutes later officers deployed spike strips, which punctured one of the front tires of the fleeing car.

With a damaged front tire, the vehicle was spiked a second time as the minivan continued into Springdale. The pursuit ended when the suspect crashed, and the vehicle caught on fire. The suspect, who has yet to be identified, was taken into custody at gunpoint.

In the meantime, firefighters were able to extinguish the fire at the River Road church fairly quickly, Stoker said, and crews remained at the chapel on 3000 East for several hours as the Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office and ATF agents arrived at the scene to assist in the investigation.

Stoker said they are conducting a multiagency investigation since the fires appeared to be intentionally set and involved churches. The multiagency investigation is designed to ensure that investigators are able to process the scenes from the beginning, which reduces the risk of contaminating the scene while the investigation is ongoing.

Photo of suspect vehicle that caught fire in Springdale, Utah, following pursuit with suspect who allegedly fled from authorities after starting fires at three LDS churches in St. George, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Britt Ballard, St. George News

Investigators are also in the process of determining if any other chapels or structures have been targeted by the alleged suspect.

Stoker said the windows on both sides of the chapel on South 3000 East appeared to have been broken out, as opposed to being blown out from the heat of the flames.

There were several small holes in some of the windows, he said, while in others there were larger holes, but all appeared to have possibly been broken out to allow oxygen into the chapel in an effort to cause the fire to spread more quickly.

Additionally, the chapel on 3000 East was not equipped with a fire suppression system, so the damage to the chapel was extensive, while the remainder of the building sustained smoke damage.

The fire at the chapel on South River Road sustained extensive water damage when the fire activated the sprinkler system, which doused a large area inside of the building. The fire at the chapel on Rustic Drive sustained damage to the landscaping. (see Ed. note)

Structure fire reported at LDS chapel on South 3000 East caused significant damage to the front of the building, St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

The suspect, who authorities are still working to identify, was transported to St. George Regional Hospital to be treated for minor injuries.

St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead also responded to all three scenes Tuesday with officers staged at each of the chapels that were taped off pending the investigation.

The St. George Police Department is also requesting anyone who may have witnessed any of the incidents, or who may have information that can assist in the investigation, to call the St. George Police Department’s Investigations Division at 435-627-4338.

The St. George Police Department, St. George Fire Department, Washington City Fire Department, Washington City Police Department, Hurricane Fire Department, Hurricane Police Department, Santa Clara-Ivins Fire and Rescue, the Springdale Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, AFT agents and the Utah State Fire Marshal responded and assisted with the incidents.

This is a developing story.

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article had the interior damage at Rustic Drive and the landscape damage at South River Road.

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

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