New Times' exclusive interview with the Preserves arsonist generates passionate response

Firing Line

Editor's note: New Times' exclusive interview with the arsonist responsible for a string of fires on the edge of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve has sparked a firestorm of controversy over the paper's handling of the interview ("An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist," January 25).

Staff writer James Hibberd had two conversations with the man, including a face-to-face meeting in Patriots Square on January 19. The man agreed to be interviewed only if Hibberd promised he would meet the arsonist alone, would not photograph him and would not tape-record the conversation. Hibberd agreed, provided that everything the man said would be on the record and could be published. New Times' decision not to tip the authorities and set a trap for the man has been criticized by readers, talk-show callers and other local journalists. Others support the paper's journalistic values in keeping our word to a source once we have given it.

This is one of the pieces of mail that arrived at New Times in response to the interview.
This is one of the pieces of mail that arrived at New Times in response to the interview.

Still, the story has inspired many more readers than usual to write or e-mail New Times. In this special edition of Letters to the Editor, we've included many of them.

As a mountain biker, hiker and overall lover of Arizona's wonderful outdoor spaces, I am absolutely aghast after reading this interview. First, your "duty" to share the contact of a known (suspected) criminal with law enforcement agencies was seriously breached and will no doubt result in additional loss of private property or possibly much worse. In granting this interview, and the subsequent publishing of it, your publication is in effect sanctioning this group's behavior.

I mountain-bike extensively in the surrounding preserves. I am no stranger to the views of the endless sea of housing tract upon housing tract encroaching upon our beautiful desert lands. However, the means to bring about long-term, lasting change is not through public endangerment and the destruction of private property!

The cavalier attitude that this group exhibits and your organization's implied support is most unnerving. These efforts will only harm the legitimate processes under way to protect the many sensitive areas in need of preservation. I am personally involved with several of these projects and consistently have supported the efforts of others to pursue the preservation of land for future enjoyment.

But a militant and criminal approach cannot succeed. The rift that exists between anti-growth positions and the "status quo" will only be widened by these hostilities. Efforts to preserve land will be seen as spearheaded by "radicals" and "irresponsible" groups rather than the efforts of the masses that they truly are.

And finally, as a trail user, I am further ashamed that this group makes light of how it can "blend in" with the rest of us. My friends and I use the trails in a responsible, respectful and conscientious manner. We understand and do not make light of the delicate balance that is achieved among the many users of these public lands. To mock those of us who are using these lands in a responsible and respectful manner is basically an act of hypocrisy. These individuals claim that they enjoy mountain biking and are doing these acts of atrocity to preserve their rights to these areas. In truth, they are not even close to being mountain bikers or any other closely related trail users. They are nothing more than a group of reckless, irresponsible firebugs, enthralled with the prospect of capture and creating a newsworthy excuse for their actions.

I hereby put all legitimate trail users to the task: Let's help the authorities rid our preserves of this self-serving scum and bring the peace and enjoyment back to the mountain preserves.

Scott Anthony

So, the arsonists are mountain bicyclists. What a sensational image: wild-eyed zealots, Hells Angels sans motors, razing homes with impunity.

Your less discerning readers will leap to the conclusion that mountain bicyclists are wanton eco-terrorists who must be kept off trails and away from women and children.

The truth is that with so many people involved in the sport, you can probably find a murderer, a rapist and probably a child beater or two. A Gallup poll last year showed that 13.5 million people considered themselves "avid singletrack mountain bikers" in 1999.

If these criminals were hikers, I suspect it wouldn't have the same impact. (I'd wager a fair sum that the ELF eco-terrorists include hikers and backpackers -- and when they are captured, that fact will be buried, if it makes it into the news at all.)

I realize the writer had a story to tell, and what he said reflects what he was told, but I wish there had been a way to put it into perspective, to point out that there are thousands of mountain bikers in Arizona, and most of us are law-abiding, conscientious people who just happen to enjoy getting out on a trail on a bicycle.

Because now, those of us who already spend way too much time combating the ignorance and prejudice of those who want to keep trails to themselves will have another myth to debunk.

Mark Flint

Your story on the arsonists was fascinating. I hope it revealed more information about the person or group and gets them caught -- fast. I don't know why they think they have the right to do this. I don't particularly like mountain bikers riding over my feet when I'm hiking on a narrow trail, but that doesn't mean I push them down when they try to pass me.

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