Man who set 3 Latter-day Saint churches on fire ordered to pay $1.13M in restitution

Sep 13, 2022, 1:30 PM

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A man who set fire to three meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last year has been ordered to pay more than $1.13 million in restitution.

Benjamin James Johnson, 37, pleaded guilty but mentally ill in May to two counts of arson, a second-degree felony, and failure to stop or respond at the request of police, a third-degree felony. In exchange for his plea, other charges in the case were dropped.

On Aug. 31 last year, emergency crews responded to a fire at a meetinghouse on 3000 East near 1200 South in St. George. Not long after, firefighters were called to a report of landscaping on fire at a church on south River Road and Rustic Drive.

At that point, St. George police sent officers to check on other churches in the area. At a Latter-day Saint stake center at 1762 S. River Road, an officer noticed smoke coming from the building. Shortly after, a man was seen running out of the church and getting into a minivan.

The man, later identified as Johnson, refused to pull over and led officers on a chase onto Interstate-15, through Hurricane, Springdale, and into Zion National Park. After crossing into the park, the chase came to an end just before 5 a.m. when the fleeing vehicle crashed at the Canyon Junction bridge and started a small fire.

Police: One in custody after 3 Latter-day Saint meetinghouses catch fire in St. George

Johnson “kept calling himself Joshua and told officers he was a type of deity,” according to a police booking affidavit. “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.”

Both the churches on 3000 East and 1700 South sustained heavy damage in the fires. A photo taken in one of the meetinghouses showed smoke damage throughout its chapel and what appeared to be holes in the wall.

Johnson was sentenced Thursday to a term of one to 15 years in prison, but his prison term was suspended and he was granted time served for the 320 days he spent in jail. He was also ordered to serve three years of probation.

As part of the sentencing, Johnson is required to obtain a mental health evaluation with recommendations for treatment or counseling. Johnson, who lived in St. George at the time of the incident but now lives in Missouri, was also ordered to take all medications recommended by his provider.

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Man who set 3 Latter-day Saint churches on fire ordered to pay $1.13M in restitution