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Ex-school bus driver accused of setting fire to buses, one filled with students

By 37ci3 Mar4,2024

A former school bus driver was ordered held without bail Friday while awaiting trial after being charged with torching two school buses in Utah, authorities said.

Michael Austin Ford, 58, of West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City, was ordered held without bail by Magistrate Judge Cecilia M. Romero. He said in the arrest warrant that Ford was a danger “to the entire community.”

The federal public defender assigned to the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Friday, an attorney filed a motion to reconsider Ford’s detention without bail.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah said Saturday that a federal grand jury indictment returned on Feb. 21 indicts two counts of burning a vehicle belonging to a federally funded organization.

Ford faces a parallel case in Salt Lake City District Court that includes charges of aggravated arson, aggravated child abuse and obstruction of justice. The association, which provides public defenders for state court defendants, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal prosecutors say he was working as a bus driver for the Salt Lake City Granite School District when he set fire to the buses on Feb. 24, 2022, and April 7, 2023, according to the indictment in the federal case.

There were 42 school children on board in the 2022 incident, federal prosecutors said in a filing last month that argued the defendant should be held without bail. State prosecutors said there were 66 children on the plane.

A district spokesperson told the NBC News affiliate Salt Lake City KSL He said that the students on the plane were studying at a nearby high school and that no one was injured.

In that fire, federal prosecutors said, the defendant continued to drive the car as flames grew under the dashboard and smoke spread into the cabin toward the children. They said that the security camera recorded the incident.

“Minutes after the defendant started the fire, he continued to drive the bus, undeterred by both the open flames and the smoke in his face,” federal prosecutors said in sentencing arguments last month.

“The defendant stops the bus only when the children are seen and heard on the video coughing, covering their faces and complaining about the smoke,” added the prosecutor.

Prior to the 2023 incident, federal prosecutors said the defendant tried to block the camera’s view by disrupting the video system on board the bus he was using. However, the district allowed records to be taken independently of the system, and officials were able to view footage of the incident. KSL referring to download files issued by public prosecutors.

State prosecutors alleged that Ford used a “thumb lighter” in the 2023 incident and claimed that both fires started under the car’s dashboard, KSL reported.

Federal prosecutors described the source of the two fires in which Ford was charged as an “incendiary device.”

In April 2023, Ford “was again operating a Granite School District bus in traffic when he was videotaped starting a fire on the bus,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement Saturday.

“Still, the Ford bus continued to drive with smoke in his face,” the office said.

Judge Romero expressed “concerns about his mental state” in his arrest warrant. He cited a “delayed response to extinguishing the bus fire” reported by prosecutors after the 2023 bus caught fire, as well as the fires involving his home and car.

In addition, prosecutors said in a custody filing that Ford “admitted to investigators that he was involved in three prior bus fires involving buses he drove. These fires occurred in 2017, 2016, and approximately 2001 or 2002.”

In 2017, a bus fire in the Granite School District made national headlines based on the power of video at the scene. District KSL said said that Ford was driving the car, but there were no children on board.

“For the 2017 incident, it appears to have been caused by a fire in the front of the bus, similar to the fires alleged in the Indictment,” federal prosecutors wrote in arrest warrants last month.

After being arrested three days after the 2023 fire, the police claimed it Ford has been linked to eight fires since 2009. Ford has not been charged in any other fires other than those on February 24, 2022 and April 7, 2023.

The district said it placed Ford on leave and ultimately terminated him because of the investigation prior to his arrest.

District spokesman Ben Horsley told KSL that Ford underwent “appropriate background checks as required by law” before being hired in 1998.

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By 37ci3

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