Police: St. George LDS Church arson suspect claimed to be angry ‘diety’ after capture

This photograph of the crashed vehicle was released by the National Park Service. Photo Courtesy: NPS

ST. GEORGE, Utah, Sept. 1, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — More details have been released after a man allegedly set three fires at churches in St. George, later telling police he was “a type of deity.”

A probable cause statement from the 5th District Court of Washington County said Benjamin James Johnson, 36, is facing charges of:

  • Two counts of arson, property of another, damages exceed $5,000 in value, a second-degree felony
  • Failure to stop or respond at the command of police, a third-degree felony
  • Damage jails, a third-degree felony
  • Arson, damages between $500 and $1,500 in value, a class A misdemeanor
  • Propelling a bodily substance, a class A misdemeanor
  • Reckless driving, a class B misdemeanor

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the St. George Police Department received reports of two Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints buildings on fire, the statement said. The first was at 1295 S. 3000 East, the second, at 1762 S. River Road.

Patrol units responded to the area and began checking other church buildings in close proximity to the ones on fire.

One of the responding patrol officers arrived at the LDS church located at on River Road, the statement said.

“The officer observed an adult male running from the building, which was on fire, and get into a nearby parked vehicle,” the statement said. “The patrol officer attempted to stop the vehicle but it sped away from the area. Multiple patrol units, from multiple different law enforcement agencies, attempted to stop the vehicle but the suspect male continued to evade from police.”

Tire spikes were deployed at two different times, which caused the vehicle’s tires to deflate.

“The suspect vehicle was observed by officers traveling into oncoming lanes, during the evading, as it headed toward Zion National Park,” the statement said. “The suspect vehicle eventually crashed near a bridge near Zion National Park. Officers took the male driver into custody and transported him back to St. George, where he received a medical clearance.”

The suspect was then transported to the police department for questioning.

“While at the St. George Police Department, the male was identified as Benjamin James Johnson,” the statement said. “The male kept calling himself ‘Joshua’ and told officers he was a type of deity. While speaking with detectives, Benjamin admitted to setting ‘three’ churches on fire. Benjamin described his behavior as ‘righteous anger.’ During the interview, Benjamin spit on one detective and damaged some property in the interview room he was in.”

The third church that sustained damage was on River Road and Rustic Drive. The church at 1762 S. River Road had a  fire suppression system, and it sustained some fire and water damage, a police department statement said. The church at 1295. S. 3000 East, had no fire suppression system, and “sustained significant fire damage.” The church at River Road and Rustic Drive sustained landscape damage.

The two former churches sustained damages estimated to “well exceed $5,000 per building,” the statement said. The latter church sustained damages estimated to be under $1,500.

Johnson was on probation or parole at the times of the alleged crimes. He is being held without bail.

SGPD investigators would like to hear from anyone who knows of vandalization at additional locations. They ask anyone with information to call 435-627-4338.

The LDS Church released the following statement:

“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.”

Image: Google Maps

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