Former Utah school bus driver accused of setting bus on fire with students onboard

Eric Levenson, CNN | 3/4/2024, 5:54 p.m.
A former school bus driver in Utah faces both federal and state arson charges for allegedly lighting his school bus …
Michael Austin Ford lit a fire under the dashboard of his school bus in April 2023 but continued driving "undeterred by both open flame and smoke billowing past his face," according to federal prosecutors. Mandatory Credit: United States District Court of Utah via CNN Newsource

A former school bus driver in Utah faces both federal and state arson charges for allegedly lighting his school bus on fire in two separate incidents, including at least once with students onboard.

Michael Austin Ford, 58, of West Valley City, was indicted by a federal grand jury last month on two charges of arson of a vehicle of an organization receiving federal funds, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah. He has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, according to the court docket.

One incident stems from February 2022 when the US Attorney’s office alleges he set a Granite School District bus on fire with 42 children inside and while driving in traffic. He used an ignition device to start the fire and continued to drive the bus while smoke blew past his face toward where the children sat in the back, according to the US Attorney’s Office, which said the incident was captured on video.

Over a year later, in April 2023, he again set a school bus on fire and continued driving in traffic as the smoke billowed past him, according to the office, which said this incident was also captured on video. A detention memo filed by prosecutors says video also shows him attempting to tamper with the surveillance system and covering up the camera above the driver’s seat.

Ford was arrested days later in April 2023 by Granite School Police and questioned about the fire but was released, according to the prosecutor’s office.

While the investigation was ongoing, his home and personal vehicle were severely damaged by fire in October 2023, the second time his home had serious fire damage, and he acknowledged two other personal vehicle fires, according to the memo. Further, Ford acknowledged to investigators his involvement in three other bus fires in which he was driving, dating back to around 2001 or 2002, 2016 and 2017, according to the memo.

Ford was arrested again on felony state charges in October 2023, according to a state docket report. Ford has been ordered detained ahead of his federal trial, set for April 29 in Salt Lake City, the prosecutor’s office said.

CNN has reached out to his federal public defender Benjamin Hamilton for comment.

Suspect was district bus driver for 25 years

The Granite School District said in a statement Ford was employed as a bus driver in part-time and full-time positions from 1998 until he was terminated in June 2023. “He was hired after passing appropriate background checks as required by law,” the district said.

The district said it “had suspicions” about the February 2022 fire and so officials worked with law enforcement and “installed additional camera systems on his bus.” After the April 2023 fire, the district said it obtained footage and evidence that indicated he was responsible for tampering with the bus and then placed him on leave.

In addition, Ford has been charged in state court with 10 counts of aggravated arson and a count each of aggravated child abuse, arson, obstruction of justice and misdemeanor property damage for the two bus fires, according to Utah district court filings.

His attorney in his state case, Jason Groth, did not respond to CNN’s call and email requesting comment.

According to a declaration of probable cause, onboard video surveillance of the February 2022 fire shows smoke coming from under the bus dashboard as Ford drove. Students reported smelling smoke, according to the declaration, which says they covered their faces and coughed. Finally, Ford stopped the bus, evacuated the students and put out the fire with a fire extinguisher, according to the declaration. One minor was treated for smoke inhalation.

In the bus fire on April 7, 2023, the declaration states onboard video shows Ford used a thumb-strike lighter to light electrical components under the dashboard on fire. He continued driving the bus and looked down several times at the smoke and flames before the fire was extinguished minutes later, the declaration states. The fire was determined to be “incendiary,” or had been deliberately set, the declaration says.

An area transportation manager for the school district said Ford had previously disabled the video surveillance system on his bus or had issues with the system several times, according to the declaration. Suspicious of those problems, bus shop staff altered the system so that it recorded even when manually turned off – a change that led to the video surveillance of the April 2023 fire, according to the declaration.

State prosecutors asked the court to deny bail and said Ford was a “clear danger” to the community and to himself. Prosecutors also noted several other fires may be related.

“Not only was he the cause of the two bus fires detailed in the probable cause statement, but two additional times he was the bus driver when fires started on buses,” the statement said. “All of the fires originated under the dash of the bus. An intentional fire set in a school bus full of minors presents an unacceptable risk to those minors and the community at large. Additionally, fires have occurred at two of Ford’s residences and one of his vehicles. The fires at Ford’s residence cannot be a mere coincidence.”