Police: One in custody after 3 Latter-day Saint meetinghouses catch fire in St. George
ST. GEORGE — Officials with the St. George Police Department said one man has been taken into custody after three meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were damaged.
Police were dispatched to a meetinghouse on 1295 South 3000 East around 4 a.m. Tuesday after a fire alarm went off.
Crews with the St. George Fire Department responded and confirmed the building was on fire before requesting support from outside agencies.
Police then responded to reports of a tree on fire outside a meetinghouse on River Road and Rustic Drive before sending officers to check on other buildings in the area.
“Our main concern was: 1. the size of the buildings, and 2. with the suspicious fires, we didn’t know if we had any more that were going to ignite,” said Chief Robert Stoker with the St. George Fire Department.
“An officer located a silver minivan parked at the LDS Church at 1762 South River Rd. and observed smoke coming from the building,” police said in a press release.
Officers said they saw a man exit the meetinghouse and leave the area in a minivan at a high rate of speed.
St. George police initiated a pursuit that entered Interstate 15 and passed through Hurricane and Springdale.
Officers said the suspect’s vehicle was spiked twice before reaching Zion National Park.
“After crossing into Zion National Park, the vehicle crashed and started on fire,” police said.
The man exited the minivan and suffered minor injuries before being taken into custody, according to police.
“Investigators from the St. George Fire Department, St. George Police Department, Utah State Fire Marshal and (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) are investigating fires at three LDS churches, and are trying to determine if there are more churches that have been vandalized.”
Investigators said the series of fires could potentially add up to a hate crime.
“Targets three houses of worship, and so, it definitely could be. That’s why we brought in the ATF to help us investigate that,” said Sgt. Tyrell Bangerter with the St. George Police Department.
“You never want to have this happen to anybody’s home or business,” said Stoker.
The meetinghouse on 3000 East was not equipped with a fire suppression system and was heavily damaged in the fire, authorities said.
The 1762 South River Road meetinghouse sustained some water and fire damage while some landscaping at the meetinghouse at Rustic Drive and Rustic Road was damaged.
“It’s amazing how many people something like this will affect,” said Stoker.
Police identified the suspect Tuesday afternoon as Benjamin J. Johnson.
He was booked on suspicion of arson, assault, evading and reckless driving.
Crews from Washington City, Hurricane, Santa Clara/Ivins, Springdale, Dixie State University and Washington County assisted in the incidents.
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