Man who set fire to LDS churches in St. George charged with three counts of arson

The man was arrested after a fiery crash in Zion National Park on suspicion of setting fires at three meetinghouses in St. George.

(National Parks Service) After allegedly burning several LDS churches in St. George, a man crashed his car in Zion National Park while trying to evade police.

The man who allegedly set fires to three churches belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Tuesday in St. George told officers he was acting in “righteous anger” and that he was a “type of deity,” according to court documents filed Wednesday.

Benjamin James Johnson, 36, was charged in 5th District Court with three counts of arson, failing to stop at the command of police and damaging a jail, third-degree felonies, spitting on an officer, a class A misdemeanor, and reckless driving, a class B misdemeanor.

Two of the arson counts are for damage of property exceeding $5,000 in value, a second-degree felony, and the third count alleges damage between $500 and $1,500, a class A misdemeanor.

Johnson referred to himself as “Joshua” during his interview with police officers and told officers he was a type of deity, according to court filings.

Police said during the interview Johnson admitted to setting three churches on fire and that he described his behavior as “righteous anger.” Johnson also spit on a detective and damaged property in the interview room, according to the documents.

Authorities say the St. George Fire Department first received a fire alarm call from a church at 1295 S. 3000 East around 4 a.m. Moments later, another fire was reported at another church close by at River Road and Rustic Drive, where a tree was set ablaze.

Police officers checked other churches in the area and saw smoke pouring from the building at 1762 S. River Road. An officer saw a silver minivan in the parking lot and a man exiting a church. The man sped off and attempted to evade police before his car went off the road at Canyon Junction bridge around 4:57 a.m. Tuesday.

St. George Police Department officers laid spikes down in Hurricane and Springdale as the man headed north on Interstate 15. The spikes punctured his tires and the van crashed and caught on fire in Zion National Park shortly afterward. He was taken into custody.

A spokesperson for the St. George City Police Department said the man who started the fires used to live close to the church at 1295 S. 3000 East but his current residence is in Arizona.