Utah school bus driver arrested, accused of lighting multiple buses on fire

Oct 31, 2023, 10:13 AM | Updated: 6:24 pm

WEST VALLEY CITY — A school bus driver for the Granite School District has been arrested and accused of lighting multiple buses on fire over the past few years, including at least one while dozens of children were on board.

Michael Austin Ford, 58, was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on Monday for investigation of aggravated arson, aggravated child abuse and criminal mischief.

Ford has been connected to at least eight fires over the past several years, according to a police booking affidavit.

“The suspect clearly has a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of children, the public and himself by attempting to light a school bus full of children on fire. The suspect has nothing left to lose due to setting his house/vehicle on fire within the last week and the prior incidents,” the affidavit alleges.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Ford was driving a Granite School District bus with 66 children on board, when “onboard video surveillance shows smoke coming under the bus dash, (and Ford) continues to drive the bus while smoke is emitting from the dash,” according to the affidavit.

About a minute later, “multiple students are seen covering their faces with their shirts and coughing.” Ford then stopped the bus and the students got out, police say. About a minute later, Ford used a fire extinguisher to put the fire out.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley says the bus was near the secondary school the students attended when it was stopped and evacuated. No students were injured and the fire was extinguished quickly.

On April 7 of this year, surveillance video on a school bus captured Ford holding an object that “was later identified as a thumb-strike lighter. When traffic stops, the suspect looks down and starts lighting the electrical components under the dashboard on fire with the thumb-strike lighter. The suspect continued driving the bus, looking down several times at smoke and intermittently visible flames,” the arrest report states.

Several minutes later, Ford extinguished the fire. But the suspicions of district administrators were raised after that incident and the Utah state fire marshal was contacted to launch an investigation.

“Through further investigation, (the investigating officer) has learned that Michael Ford … was involved in a total of eight fires. Four bus fires involving Granite School District (buses), two fires at his residence located in West Valley City, one vehicle fire in Bluffdale, and one additional vehicle fire in 2009,” according to the affidavit.

Police say the four bus fires were all reported to be electrical in the dash area and started while the buses were being driven by Ford.

On Jan. 27, 2017, a Granite School District bus became partially engulfed in flames in the Holladay area. No students were on board. At the time, the cause of the fire was thought to be mechanical. Unified police on Tuesday confirmed that Ford was also driving that bus.

“Given the nature of the four bus fires with the same driver with them all starting in the same area of the bus, Michael Ford lighting the dash area on fire while driving the bus on April 7, it is reasonable to conclude that Michael Ford is responsible for these fires,” police said.

Ford’s employment with the district was terminated a few months ago, according to Horsley. He had been a bus driver, both full time and part time, since 1998.

“He was hired after passing appropriate background checks as required by law. In April of 2023, Mr. Ford was placed on leave after evidence surfaced that he was involved with the tampering of a bus. That evidence was used by Granite District police to arrest Mr. Ford on April 10, 2023 for arson. The investigation was then turned over to the State Fire Marshall’s office for further investigation,” the district said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “We are grateful for the efforts of Granite police, West Valley police and the State Fire Marshall to help investigate this matter. We have no additional comment to share at this time as this is an open and active investigation.”

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Utah school bus driver arrested, accused of lighting multiple buses on fire