An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist

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

Nothing is ever written down, he says. No cell phone calls. They discuss their plans on mountain-biking excursions. Never anywhere else, never with anybody else. They decide who will participate and who will stay home. Staying home provides the occasional alibi for the three CSP members who have families.

"Each of us has had a hand in two or more," he says. "That's what binds us together. We all respect each other, and we have a mutual interest in being discreet."

They wait for a calm night -- no gusting wind that might spread the fire. Just before they leave, they have a prayer session. Out of one of these prayer sessions came the phrase "Thou Shall Not Desecrate God's Creation." Somebody said it on the spot, and it struck them as a perfect maxim. Only one member in the group is an actual "Bible thumper," he says, but they all pray together before torching houses.

A fence encloses a Preserve arson crime scene.
A fence encloses a Preserve arson crime scene.
A fence encloses a Preserve arson crime scene.
A fence encloses a Preserve arson crime scene.


For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click over to our Arsonist Archives.

"We pray for the safety of the firefighters," he says. "We don't pray for ourselves not to get caught -- that's God's will."

And then . . . then the arsonist is a bit uncomfortable discussing what comes next.

He relishes telling how they select the houses, how they evade capture, their close calls and mistakes and their feelings about sprawl. Most of all, he enjoys critiquing the media coverage. But as for the act itself, the Phoenix arsonist never says the word "arson."

The fires are "activities," or "what we do." The targets are not "homes," but rather "that one," or he references them by the street name.

So what does he feel when he lights an igniter?

The arsonist jokes: "Oh, shit, those houses go up pretty quick."

No, that's what you think. What do you feel?

He seems to struggle with this for a moment. He is defensive about the pyromaniac label and probably suspects the question is a trick.

"There's no thrill," he says quietly. "There's some gamesmanship there, but I don't take pride in being a criminal."

What if he met a homeowner whose dream house he burned to the ground? What would he say to that person?

"I'm sorry for the pain," he says. "It's not personal. We've burned your dream, but not your memories -- they're unoccupied houses."

The only exception, he notes, was the second time they burned a construction on North Arroya Grande Drive.

After they torched homeowner Lee Benson's first house in April, Benson hired a security guard to stand watch over the second construction. The guard was present every night until 5 a.m. The CSP waited through the fall, waited for the nights to grow longer. By October, the arsonist says, the CSP had an additional hour of darkness for stealthy sabotage after the guard went home. The house was burned at 5:30 a.m.

"That monstrosity stuck out like a sore thumb," he says. "We warned him not to come back. The second mansion fire was set to protest his stupidity. For God's sake, the guy owns a security company."

The North Arroya Grande Drive property has special significance to the arsonist. It's the construction that brought the CSP together, and it was his first fire. Investigators say the serial arsonist's first strike was in 1998, but the arsonist says it was not a group effort. One of their members set that fire on his own, he says. It was the same member who offered to show him how to burn Benson's house last spring.

The arsonist notes that Benson has not attempted to rebuild a third time. He says Benson can no longer find an insurance company to cover the construction. Mission accomplished.

As the minutes tick by and Patriots Square fills with professionals on their lunch break, it is difficult not to marvel at the brazen risk the arsonist is taking. We are surrounded by representatives of the law enforcement community. Uniformed police officers stroll through the park. Television news trucks squat outside the county court buildings. And, all the while, the Phoenix arsonist chats with a scribbling New Times reporter while dressed like the Unabomber turned gothic cross-trainer.

The arsonist says he is not the only CSP member taking this risk. He claims there are two other members in the park keeping an eye on the meeting, keeping an eye on him.

"A couple in the group gave me a hard time about meeting you. They think it's foolish to stick our neck out right now."

When asked if these members would care to join our conversation, the arsonist says no. He is the communications link, he says. It was his idea to leave notes, then mail letters, then meet with a reporter. If he is arrested -- if any of them are arrested -- the apprehended person will claim full responsibility for all the arsons.

"Can you spot who they are?" he teases.

Actually, several people in the park are staring at us. Then again, that's probably to be expected.

"Do you feel like you are being watched?" he asks.

Suddenly, the band One-Eyed Fiona kicks off its lunchtime set on the Patriots Square performance stage, and everybody's attention is diverted.

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