An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist

He is smart. He is professional. He is everything you don't expect.

All the callers asked. All except one.

The call

"'Thou shall not' -- I got your message," the man says.

A fire set by the serial arsonist burns near the Mountains Preserve.
A fire set by the serial arsonist burns near the Mountains Preserve.
This is a photo reproduction of the letter from the arsonist who contacted New Times. It contains previously unpublished phrases matching other CSP communiqués. Read the letter
This is a photo reproduction of the letter from the arsonist who contacted New Times. It contains previously unpublished phrases matching other CSP communiqués.

Read the letter

His voice is calm and mild. He is in his early 30s, perhaps. And during our 10-minute interview he chuckles frequently, as if this is casual lunchtime conversation. Calling a reporter and admitting to serial arson does not seem to faze him in the slightest. Over the phone line, rumbling jets can be heard taking off, presumably from Sky Harbor International Airport.

The arsonist says he forgot to sign the New Times letter with his usual signature -- CSP. The acronym stands for Coalition to Save the Preserves, he explains. His four-person group is the CSP "North Mountain Preserve Unit."

"There are other groups forming," he says.

The arsonist says the CSP has no "direct connection" to the radical environmentalist group Earth Liberation Front, which recently claimed credit for sprawl protest fires in New York and Colorado. The arsonist considers the ELF "kindred spirits," however, whose recent headline-making has been "kind of fun to watch."

He says he called New Times because we correctly described the group's frustration with sprawl, and he chides a recent Republiceditorial that dismissed the arsonist as "a loser with matches." The December 28 editorial also accused the arsonist of "arrogance," "ignorance," being "deluded" and being "jealous of those people who have succeeded financially."

Of those descriptions, "arrogant" might fit. The man repeatedly boasts about his group and its ability to elude capture, noting that spotting law enforcement surveillance is easy because "one of us has special training."

"Those who want to niche us as firebugs who enjoy the thrill of watching things burn were sadly mistaken," he says. "There's also a presumption there's only one of us. Because how could you do this if people were working in concert, right?"

Right.

"Well, there has to be trust, doesn't there? And that's part of what we are establishing . . . right now . . . with this."

The arsonist offers a face-to-face interview.

He says to be at Patriots Square park at 11 a.m. in two days -- Friday. No tape recorders. No photographers. Come alone, sit anywhere and read a copy of "Burn, Baby, Burn."

"And we'll see what happens."

The meeting

Patriots Square park is in downtown Phoenix at Central and Washington, directly across from the Maricopa County Superior Court building. There are a couple fast-food vendors, swirls of grass and brick.

Underneath Patriots Square there is a parking garage. At quarter past 11, a man quickly emerges from the garage stairwell and makes a beeline toward me. He is wearing a disguise, one that's almost comically dramatic: black athletic shoes, shiny black track pants, puffy black jacket zipped to his chin, large black Fly sunglasses and a black ski cap.

"Are you alone?" he asks. "Did you bring any recording equipment with you?"

Once reassured, the arsonist takes a seat.

He says he told co-workers he was going to the gym. The track pants appear to be pulled over a pair of slacks.

"Did you see the paper this morning?" he asks.

The CSP burned a 5,000-square-foot house in Scottsdale the night before. It was the first CSP arson of 2001, and apparently its debut fire in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The arsonist says it was dedicated to the memory of the late Geoffrey Platts, the Scottsdale author and environmentalist. He denies participating in the attack.

"Call Rural/Metro and ask if there were any notes left behind," he says. "They left two notes that haven't been reported yet. Or maybe the investigators didn't find them. If they didn't, they're idiots." (See sidebar, "Authenticating the Arsonist")

The arsonist claims the CSP's activist cells are multiplying, that the fire was set by an offshoot group called the CSP "McDowell Sonoran Preserve Unit." Scottsdale authorities, the arsonist says, better prepare for more fires. He adds that the CSP's first Scottsdale arson was actually in November, but the group was never given credit.

"We're expanding our efforts," the arsonist explains. "Six to eight months ago there was nothing there. Now all these houses are going up. There must be 15 houses under construction, so the pickings are ripe. It's private land, but as far as we're concerned, it's Preserve."

"The timing," the arsonist stresses, "was not coincidental."

There is a pause.

He waits for me to figure it out.

During our Wednesday phone interview, the arsonist explicitly said, "Our group is the 'North Mountains Preserve Unit.' There are other groups forming." Then last night, the CSP struck in an entirely different Preserve, reportedly for the first time -- the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Other groups forming . . .

You . . . mean . . . you set the fire . . . because . . .

"We discussed the meeting with you today and thought it would be a good-faith effort to establish our credibility."

I cannot think of anything to say to this.

So I ask questions instead.


The CSP scouts for new targets during bike rides through the Preserve.

The members look for construction sites along the edge, where builders have recently poured concrete onto virgin desert. They choose luxury houses at an advanced stage of development, ones with accessible routes of "egress and outgress" that are a certain distance from occupied homes. They decide where they will place a small igniter, usually in an inside room facing the desert so the fire has maximum "time to percolate" before being spotted by neighbors.

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