Utah school bus driver accused of lighting school buses on fire — once with kids on board

The former Granite School District driver is implicated in at least four school bus fires.

(Granite School District) A Granite School District bus engulfed in flames on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. A former Granite School District driver is now implicated in at least four school bus fires, including this blaze.

A former Granite School District bus driver was charged Thursday with multiple counts of aggravated arson after prosecutors say he set fire to at least two school buses he drove, including one last year that had children on board.

Investigators suspect Michael Austin Ford, 58, started school bus fires on Feb. 24, 2022, and April 7, 2023, according to charging documents. He was also driving when two other buses ignited, the documents state, including one “dramatic display” that partially engulfed a school bus in 2017 but caused no injures, The Associated Press reported. The fires all originated from beneath each bus’s dashboard.

Children were only on board during the February 2022 fire. Salt Lake County prosecutors wrote that surveillance video from inside the bus showed Ford continuing to drive as smoke rose from the dashboard and children covered their faces, coughing.

Ford eventually stopped the bus, evacuated the students and used an extinguisher to douse the fire, the documents state. One child was treated for smoke inhalation.

Longtime driver was under ‘significant suspicion’

Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said Thursday that Ford was under “significant suspicion” after so many fires, but that officials “did not have sufficient evidence to prove that he had done anything wrong or criminal.”

Charging documents state that Ford had repeatedly disabled bus surveillance systems or had “issues with the system.” That, coupled with the fires, led the district to alter the equipment to keep recording after it had been turned off. Horsley said they also adjusted camera angles to better capture Ford’s actions.

That’s how cameras recorded Ford using a lighter to ignite electrical components beneath his bus’s dashboard on April 7, according to the charging documents.

Ford had been working with the school district since 1998. He was placed on leave in April, and the district fired him in June, Horsley said.

He said the district didn’t have enough evidence to discipline or terminate Ford earlier. He noted that outside of the 2017 fire, none produced any “meaningful flames,” and that wires smoking on a bus were not “necessarily uncommon” due to mechanical issues or overheating.

“Just like in a criminal case, you can’t charge somebody with a crime without evidence. We can’t terminate somebody without evidence. We were very suspicious,” he said, “and we were taking steps to gather that evidence.”

Driver also faces child abuse, obstructing justice charges

Ford is facing 10 first-degree felony counts of aggravated arson and one second-degree felony count each of aggravated child abuse, arson and obstructing justice.

“Mr. Ford endangered the lives of not only the children on the bus, but also the other drivers on the road,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a statement. “These charges reflect the severity of the risk that was created by Mr. Ford.”

Fires have also broken out at two of Ford’s homes and in one of his personal vehicles, the charging documents state.

“The fires at Ford’s residence cannot be a mere coincidence,” prosecutors wrote. “Ford poses an unacceptable risk to the community.”

Ford was arrested Oct. 30 and remains in the Salt Lake County jail without the option to post bail, according to jail records. His initial court appearance is scheduled for Monday.