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A judge has provided a window into the amount of damage a man did last year when he set fire to three Latter-day Saint meetinghouses in southern Utah.

Judge John Walton has ordered Benjamin James Johnson, 37, to pay restitution in the amount of $1,131,586.90 after Johnson pleaded guilty to arson in connection with fires at three churches in St. George, Utah, on Aug. 31, 2021.

Walton suspended a prison sentence of one to 15 years and gave Johnson credit for 320 days he served in jail. Johnson now lives in Missouri, where he will be on probation for three years.

Man arrested in St. George church fires claimed 'righteous anger,' police say

It’s unclear whether Johnson can pay the restitution. A call to the Washington County prosecutor for the case was not immediately returned on Wednesday afternoon. Walton also ordered Johnson to make his best efforts to obtain a GED or high school diploma within 18 months.

The sentence was part of an arrangement in which Johnson pleaded guilty to two counts of arson, a second-degree felony and failure to stop or respond at the request of police, a third-degree felony.

Other charges, including misdemeanor arson, felony damage to a jail and misdemeanor reckless driving, were dropped as part of the plea agreement made in May.

Emergency crews responded to a fire at a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Firefighters then were called to a report of landscaping on fire at a second church.

St. George police then checked on other church buildings in the area and one officer noticed smoke coming from a third church. The officer observed man run out of the church and get into a minivan, according to KSL.

Two of the churches were badly damaged, officials said.

Two weeks ago, ChurchBeat reported that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spoken out against increasing attacks on churches after I reached out for comment about arson at the Orem Utah Temple site.

“In recent years there has been an unfortunate worldwide increase of violence, vandalism and desecration of religious sites and buildings, including shootings, arson, graffiti, damage to facilities, and more,” church spokesman Doug Andersen said. “This has also affected chapels and temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Such sites are places of gathering and sacred worship, and should be places of peace and safety. We are grateful for the efforts of local and federal law enforcement officials to investigate such instances and prosecute those who engage in those actions.”

Johnson led officers on a 40-mile chase onto I-15 and into Zion National Park. The chase ended when the vehicle crashed at the Canyon Junction bridge and started a small fire. Police arrested Johnson, who “kept calling himself Joshua and told officers he was a type of deity,” according to a police booking affidavit, KSL reported.

Walton ordered Johnson to obtain a mental health evaluation with recommendations for treatment or counseling and to take all medications recommended by his provider.

My recent stories

Latter-day Saints just made the largest humanitarian donation in church history (Sept. 14)

Latter-day Saint leaders join interfaith coalition letter supporting LGBTQ rights in Florida (Sept. 13)

About the church

Elder David A. Bednar did a live Q&A session on Instagram for the first time.

Elder Ulisses Soares spoke in Kazakhstan at the seventh Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions and called on all people “to elevate the common good above our own interests.”

A new study shows that serving a Latter-day Saint mission among immigrants changes returned missionaries’ views of immigrations. Meanwhile, polarizing views on the issue rise as border arrests rise.

The First Presidency released a rendering, location and groundbreaking information for the Heber Valley Utah Temple and for the Teton River Idaho Temple.

Want to know what RootsTech 2023 will look like? Organizers are talking about online and in-person events. Learn more here.

The Church News has published a new video with President Dallin H. Oaks titled “Teachings of Women.”

Some University of Oregon fans repeated a foul-mouthed chant of religious bigotry toward Latter-day Saints during the BYU-Oregon football game last Saturday. Oregon’s interim president said the chant “angers me. It disgusts me.” The chants came after a former Oregon player now playing for BYU honored a past UO teammate who died this summer by carrying a flag onto the field bearing Oregon colors and the player’s number. And a high school quarterback who is a Latter-day Saint and is considering playing for Oregon or BYU said he left the game early after hearing the chants.

Pat McAfee and Aaron Rodgers can’t stop talking about Latter-day Saints.

What I’m reading

When I was a boy growing up just outside Boston, one of my greatest thrills was playing on a Wilbur Wood League team with the son of Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee. I’m still heartsick that his signature eventually faded from my baseball mitt, but I love reading about the ongoing hijinks of a man who was known by the nickname “Spaceman.” He’s 75 and still pitching and recently had a heart attack on the field.

Great summary of Harvard law professor Noah Feldman’s talk at BYU about what he learned from Abraham Lincoln when the Constitution was “broken.”

“I see you”: How “The Chosen” is spotlighting the key role of women in Jesus’ ministry.

Excellent piece on a new study that raises the question: Is the media failing people of faith?

Great piece on how Becky Hammon, the former Team USA basketball star who became an assistant coach in the NBA and just won the WNBA title in her first year as a head coach. It’s a terrific look at how she manages others’ expectations and frustrations as a woman coaching both men and women.

I have some family experience with the struggle some members have navigating their faith and being LGBTQ, but I was disappointed that NPR let one source’s characterization of the church’s position stand without rebuttal in its story on America’s declining Christian majority. NPR should have left it out or given the church a chance to respond. However, I found the graphics from the Pew Research Center included with the story to be important and compelling enough to share a link to the story.