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

A man accused of setting fires at three meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in St. George on Tuesday described his behavior to police as "righteous anger."

Benjamin James Johnson, 36, was booked into jail for investigation of three counts of arson, failing to stop at the command of police, reckless driving, damaging a jail and spitting on an officer.

Starting about 4 a.m. Tuesday, emergency crews responded to a fire at a meetinghouse on 3000 East in the 1200 South block. 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 I-15, through Hurricane, Springdale and into Zion National Park, according to police. 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.

Johnson was taken to a hospital in St. George to be checked for minor injuries before being taken to the St. George Police Department for questioning.

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," the affidavit states.

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Police have requested that Johnson be held without bail pending trial, noting that his "mental health was concerning to officers and detectives during his detainment."

No formal criminal charges have been filed against Johnson as of Wednesday morning.

According to state court records, Johnson has previously lived in Richfield and St. George and has no other significant criminal history in Utah.

Both the churches on 3000 East and 1700 South will likely remain inoperable for a long time due to heavy damage, according to the fire department.

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