By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The arsonist remembers the day it began.
He was mountain biking when he first considered burning down somebody's house. He had no prior experience with arson, he says. "Hell no," he exclaims, somewhat offended at the very idea. "I had never committed a crime, period."
And why would he? He says he is not the type.
He claims to be a management professional with an "advanced degree" and "healthy income" who works in downtown Phoenix. His confident demeanor and quote-perfect speech likewise suggest an ambitious and educated man. He is energetic (sometimes intense) and authoritative (sometimes pushy) with a tall, athletic build.
He describes himself as a family man. He says he is worried that his family will discover his secret. Nobody knows about his "evening activities" except the three other people in his "core group," the group known by the cryptic acronym "CSP."
He says one member of CSP works at an "outdoor equipment store." Another, a female, works in health care. The third is employed by a "local government agency." And they all love to go mountain biking.
"My favorite thing is to get to a mountaintop and say, 'Thank you, God, for your creation,'" the arsonist says.
And some of his favorite mountaintops are along the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.
On the day it started, the arsonist says, he was biking with friends along the north side of Squaw Peak. They had taken a break to rest, to drink some Gatorade, when one of them pointed out new construction protruding from the edge of the suburbia-filled valley below.
It was a house. A mammoth, $1.3 million, 10,000-square-foot construction on North Arroya Grande Drive. Yet another new private residence that seemed to take a bite out of their Preserve, another builder encroaching on their bike trail.
The mountain bikers agreed it was horribly out of place and strikingly tacky. Local residents had dubbed it "the casino."
So the arsonist said: "I wish somebody would burn that down."
It was an offhand comment, he says. A joke, really.
But the only thing that was funny was that none of the other bike riders found it funny. Because, when they thought about it, burning down the mansion didn't seem like such a bad idea.
Later, one of the bike riders said something else about the house. A bit of a confession, as it turned out.
"You really want to burn it down?" the rider asked him. "Well, I can show you how."
The letter arrived January 12, the day after New Times published "Burn, Baby, Burn," a story exploring the frustrations of local environmentalists and their conflicting opinions about the Preserve arsons. At the time, an FBI task force had credited an unknown Phoenix serial arsonist with torching nine luxury homes under construction along the environmentally sensitive Preserve. All the arsons had occurred in the past 10 months, save one in 1998. Damage estimates had exceeded $5 million, and there was a $61,000 Silent Witness reward for information leading to the arsonist's arrest.
The letter came in a plain vanilla envelope, postmarked Phoenix. A 33-cent stamp showed a leaping deer, a one-cent stamp showed a bird on a branch -- appropriately environmental images. There was no return address.
The letter's headline declared "Thou Shall Not Desecrate God's Creation."
In the body text, the author described his attempt to call New Times the day before, taunting that we blew an interview opportunity. The author denied responsibility for the ninth Preserve fire that authorities had credited to the serial arsonist. The letter also said the group's female member was offended by KTAR radio talk-show host Preston Westmoreland's on-air criticism and assumption that the arsonist was male, so she lit up a house as retaliation on December 20. The note concluded with the CSP's usual epitaph: "In like a ghost -- out like a ghost. Happy hunting."
Overall, the author seemed irritated and cocky -- enjoying the media attention, yet frustrated at a perceived lack of respect. The author felt brushed off by the New Times editorial assistant, offended by the insults from Westmoreland and a derogatory editorial in the Arizona Republic. And, in each case, a retaliatory threat was hinted for not taking him seriously: New Times wouldn't get an interview, and the critics might inadvertently inspire the CSP to burn down another house.
When a news agency receives a communiqué about a high-profile crime such as this one, editors typically alert the authorities and publish the news immediately -- just as the Republic and KPNX-TV Channel 12 did when they received copies of a similar letter last month.
Only this letter was a potential bombshell. The author asked for an interview. If we gave the letter to the authorities, the publicity might crush an opportunity to acquire unprecedented insight into the mysteries surrounding the Preserve fires and the identity of the arsonist.
So the letter went into a locked drawer.
And on the cover of the January 18 issue, New Times printed a message intended for one reader: "To 'Thou Shalt Not': 602-407-1706."
As the paper filled news racks Thursday morning, dozens of curious readers phoned the number. All the callers asked the same two questions: Why was a phone number on the cover of the paper, and what did "To 'thou shalt not'" mean?