WHO TORCHED GARY RAPER'S HOUSE?FLAGSTAFF ARSONIST INFLAMES ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATE

No one remembers exactly when the first message--DEVELOPERS BEWARE"--appeared. It was scrawled in big, blue brush strokes on a palisade fence bordering the new subdivision on Highway 180 north of Flagstaff.

The second message--FINAL WARNING"--appeared after the Super Bowl, on the night of January 30, and it was documented because it coincided with a bigger piece of vandalism. Someone had doused a three-bedroom house that was under construction with gasoline and burned it to the ground.

The only other apparent clues at the crime scene were footprints in the snow that led police to an empty, red gasoline can discarded 100 yards up the road.

Without the painted missives, it might have seemed just another nasty juvenile misdeed. But being Flagstaff, the crime touched more than a few raw nerves. Longtime natives assume those danged environmentalists did it; the enviros say it sounds more like pesky good old boys trying to make the tree huggers look bad.

If the message implied that the blaze was an antidevelopment statement, no group or individual claimed responsibility. And if it was, in fact, intended as a noble act of eco-sabotage, it missed its mark.

The field where the house burned had been at the center of a debate a few years back, when a developer was denied a rezoning petition to build a motel there. The current residential subdivision had been under way for nearly two years, and hardly constituted a pristine wilderness area, as there are hundreds of houses right across the street from it.

Nor was the homeowner any sort of rapacious land despoiler--though his name is Raper, Gary Raper. He owns a laundromat in town and drives a truck for a living, and he'd scraped together some money to build the house on speculation.

"I've lived here 30 years, and I'm not some fat, chain-smoking developer in a leased Cadillac and a polyester suit, either," he says. The police are clueless. "We have not received one phone call in reference to the case," says detective Rex Gilliland.

(Gilliland's superior, Lieutenant Bob White, assures New Times that police reports on the incident contain no interesting information. Nonetheless, despite a formal request under the Arizona Public Records Law, he just didn't know when he'd be able to turn over the entire report. He was concerned with the amount of time it would take to redact--or black out all the uninteresting stuff. "I can get to it when I get to it," White says.)

Raper, the victim, understandably took the fire personally. First, he had insurance adjusters wondering if he'd set the fire himself. Then his contractor's insurance policy was canceled. So he put up his own sign on the fence: "Kiss my big ass you rat S.O.B. It's going back up."

The police quietly removed Raper's sign, fearing it might provoke further terrorist action. "Went right on my property and tore it down, but left his up for a month, the thug that threatened everyone," Raper complains. "I have a right to free speech in this country."

Locals have exercised that right freely in the local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Sun. On February 18, an editorial beneath the headline "Eco-terrorists kill their cause" rattled and roiled. "Environmentalists' who are so misguided that they resort to violence or destruction are a big reason many Americans aren't more sympathetic to environmental concerns," it read. "Acts of terrorism carried out under the cloak of darkness and anonymity tell us all we need to know about the terrorist: that the person is a gutless criminal who does not deserve to roam free in society."

One Sasha Davis wrote a rebutting letter to the editor. "Perhaps the time has come to move from protest to resistance," Davis wrote. "Since money is the only thing these 'developers' understand, this person has succeeded in kicking them where they live. . . . Viva la Revolution!"

Davis' name does not appear in the telephone book, on voter rolls or anywhere else, for that matter. The police have checked. "I wonder if it's one of those names out of The Monkey Wrench Gang?" says Lieutenant White, referring to the Edward Abbey novel that coined the phrase. "There always seem to be overtones to that, especially in this part of the country."

After Davis' war whoop, the letters flew, usually identifying their object of scorn by spelling it out between quotation marks--environmentalist," "developer"--until, finally, a former Flagstaff city planner named Charlie Scully wrote: "Before people go off automatically assuming the fire was set by 'eco-terrorists' and that anyone with an environmental agenda would support such an act, consider the terrible irony that the dastardly deed may very likely have been committed as a desperate, last-ditch effort by prodevelopment extremists in an attempt to influence the [imminent city] election by creating an antienvironmentalist backlash. Of course, I am only speculating."

Scully, who now owns a retail store specializing in environmentally correct products, later told New Times, "If there had been anyone who was purposely trying to do this as a strategic move and making a symbolic statement against development, they'd have to be a little bit out of touch. Of course, our society produces far too many confused people on all sides of the issue."

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