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

Federal and state prosecutors alleged that anywhere between 42 and 66 children were on the bus during one of the incidents.

A former school bus driver was ordered held behind bars with no bail on Friday as he awaits trial after being accused of setting fire to two Utah school buses, one filled with children, authorities said.

Michael Austin Ford, 58, of West Valley City, a Salt Lake City suburb, was ordered detained without bail by Magistrate Judge Cecilia M. Romero. She said in the detention order that Ford was a danger "to the entire community."

A federal public defender assigned to the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Friday, the lawyer filed a motion asking that Ford's detention without bail be reconsidered.

He was charged in a federal grand jury indictment returned Feb. 21 with two counts of arson of a vehicle of an organization receiving federal funds, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Utah said Saturday.

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

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

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

A district spokesperson told NBC News affiliate KSL of Salt Lake City that the students on board attended a nearby secondary school and that none were injured.

In that blaze, federal prosecutors said, the defendant continued driving as flames grew under the dashboard and smoke wafted into the cabin toward the children. Security video captured the incident, they said.

"Minutes after the Defendant started the fire, he continues to drive the bus, undeterred by both open flame and smoke billowing past his face," federal prosecutors said in their detention arguments last month.

"The Defendant only stops the bus when children are seen and heard on video coughing, covering their faces, and complaining about smoke," prosecutors added.

Before the 2023 incident, federal prosecutors said, the defendant tampered with a video system on board a bus he used, attempting to block a camera's view. However, the district enabled the system to record regardless, and authorities were able to see imagery from that incident, too, according to KSL, which cites charging documents filed by state prosecutors.

State prosecutors alleged Ford used a "thumb-strike lighter" in that 2023 incident, and they claimed both fires originated under the vehicle's dashboard, KSL reported.

Federal prosecutors described the source of the two fires for which Ford is charged as an "incendiary device."

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in its statement Saturday that Ford "was again driving a Granite School District bus in traffic when he was captured on video igniting a fire on the bus" in April 2023.

"Again, Ford continued to drive the bus with smoke billowing past his face," the office said.

In her detainment order, judge Romero expressed "concerns regarding his mental state." She cited "the delayed response to putting out the bus fire" as well as fires connected to his home and vehicle, reported by prosecutors after the 2023 bus blaze.

Additionally, prosecutors said in the detainment filing that Ford "has acknowledged to investigators his involvement in three prior bus fires for busses he was driving. These fires occurred in 2017, 2016, and around 2001 or 2002."

In 2017, a Granite School District bus fire made national news headlines based on the strength of on-scene video. The district told KSL that Ford was driving the vehicle, but that no children were on board.

"For the 2017 incident, there appears to have been an origination of the fire in the front dash area of the bus, as is the case in the arsons alleged in the Indictment," federal prosecutors wrote in their detention filing last month.

After he was arrested three days following the 2023 fire, police alleged that Ford is connected to eight fires since 2009. Ford has not been charged in connection with any other fires besides those on Feb. 24, 2022 and April 7, 2023.

The district said it placed Ford on leave as he was being investigated before his arrest, and that it ultimately terminated him.

District spokesperson Ben Horsley told KSL that Ford had passed "appropriate background checks as required by law" before he was hired in 1998.

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