Arson suspect in custody after fire crews and police respond to West Valley City blaze


 

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah, Oct. 7, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — Crews were called to a structure fire near 5200 W. Hunter Drive on Tuesday night, and police also responded to the scene on a report of possible arson.

Battalion Chief Scott Hall, with the West Valley City Fire Department, said firefighters were dispatched at about 10:30 p.m. and arrived a few minutes later to find smoke and flames coming from the back of the house.

They attacked the fire from the exterior on the back side and were then able to get into the house to check for occupants, Hall said. No one was in the home.

The fire had spread into part of the house, but crews got it extinguished quickly.

Hall estimated $50,000 in damage to the home’s exterior.

A second alarm was called because it looked like “a fair amount of fire” was coming from the back of the house, he said, and it wasn’t immediately known that no one was inside. Crews got a quick stop on the fire, though, and the second-alarm units were canceled.

There were no injuries to fire crews or civilians.

While firefighters were battling the blaze, a second, related scene was playing out across the street.

West Valley City Police officers had been dispatched after witnesses reported seeing a possible suspect run from the fire.

“When we arrived, there were several witnesses who pointed to behind the LDS church across the street and said the suspect had run over behind the church,” Police Lt. Bill Merritt told reporters at the scene.

“So while the fire department worked on getting the fire out, our officers went over there and did, in fact, find the suspect,” he said.

Merritt said the suspect was cornered behind the building near the air-conditioning unit, and when the officers converged to take him into custody, the man was not cooperative.

“They discovered that he had a box cutter in his hand, and he wasn’t making a whole lot of sense,” Merritt said.

The man refused to drop the box cutter despite the officers’ repeated commands, so one of the officers deployed a Taser, which was effective, but not enough to get the man to comply fully. A second Taser was deployed, and the officers were able to move in and get the man to the ground and handcuffed.

West Valley City fire crews battled a house fire Tuesday night, Oct. 6, 2020, while WVC police took into custody an arson suspect they say was hiding across the street behind a church building. Photo: Gephardt Daily/Monico Garza/SLCScanner

“He right now is facing several different charges,” Merritt said. “We’re trying to complete the investigation to figure out what more there may be, but we’re looking, obviously, at aggravated arson, as well as resisting arrest.”

Merritt then revealed that the home the man is suspected of setting on fire belongs to the man’s father or grandfather.

“We believe it’s his grandfather. There may have been a dispute earlier, so there’s no reason to believe that there’s any danger to the public,” he said.

Witnesses saw the man running from the fire, and “he made some comments that led them to believe he started the fire,” Merritt continued.

Possible evidence, including a lighter and other materials that looked as though they had been charred, was recovered where the man was found, so the investigation will look into whether those items belong to him, Merritt said.

Merritt said medical personnel were called to the scene as a standard procedure because a Taser had been deployed.

“All things considered, this is the best outcome we could have had,” he said. “I can testify right now that the Taser saved his life.”

Under the circumstances, with the man’s behavior — “He continued to be aggressive and wouldn’t drop the box cutter” — pepper spray would not have been effective, Merritt said. He emphasized that the Taser enabled the officers to de-escalate the situation and bring the suspect under control without resorting to gunfire.

Merritt also stated that some of the officers on scene were already aware of the suspect and his mental health issues, and he said those issues were definitely a factor Tuesday night.

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