Smoke and Mirrors

Arrest of alleged Preserve arsonist brings more questions than answers

Prior to the New Times interview, the Preserve arsonist was assumed to be a crazed fire addict. Some environmentalist radical. "Losers with matches," as the Arizona Republic memorably put it.

The interview revealed the arsonist to be everything you don't expect. The arsonist, who said he was one of four CSP members, was a Christian family man. An educated and media-savvy business professional. Somebody who's not a hard-core environmentalist, but an outdoor recreationist protecting his favorite Preserve trails.

When Sands was initially arrested on April 20 for writing "CSP" graffiti on a neighboring property owner's sign, no longer was the concept of a well-to-do suburbanite eco-arsonist so startling.

Mark Warren Sands
Mark Warren Sands

Perlstein says Sands' varied background of public positions, coupled with his community involvement in civic groups and homeowner associations, fits the profile of a frustrated activist.

"He's probably a little older than I would expect," says Perlstein. "[But] he would be typical of a person who probably truly believes in the environment, is very horrified and disgusted by what is happening, and used this because he felt powerless to effect change any other way."

Yet the arsonist interviewed by New Times was so confident, seemingly so careful and clever, that some wondered how the same individual could have made such an obvious blunder as to graffiti a property that was known to be under law enforcement surveillance.

After all, that wasn't how the arsonist was supposed to get caught. The arsonist himself promised his capture would never be so easy. "Traps only work when you walk into them," he wrote to New Times. "Don't bet on it. We enjoy watching all of the surveillance activity."

If Sands is proven to be the Preserve arsonist, the reason for his mistake may be linked to the coverage of another personality. A man with an equal amount of passion for the Preserve.

In early April, New Times published an exclusive interview with the owner of a vacant property on North Arroya Grande Drive.

His three-acre lot was near the site of two previous arson attacks. Notes that threatened any construction attempts on the property were purportedly left nearby by the CSP. After learning of the notes, the owner mounted a sign on his lot fence pledging to live in harmony with nature and essentially asking the CSP to allow him to build in peace.

Like the arsonist portrayed in the interview, the property owner was everything readers did not expect.

He was passionate about the environment, a seventh-generation Arizonan and retiree who could no longer actively enjoy desert recreation. He wanted to build a new home that was wheelchair accessible and near the Preserve so he could still, tangentially, experience the desert.

The property owner was also defiant, challenging the arsonist by proclaiming, "I'm not going to back down when somebody issues a threat to me. . . . That's my property, and I can build whatever goddamn thing I want on it."

One could not imagine a more righteous character.

And one could not imagine a more tempting target for a spin-controlling arsonist than the property owner's sign.

Besides the homeowner's interview, newspapers and TV were reporting on the work of a new serial arsonist, this one operating in central Phoenix. Arson experts say fire-starters can get jealous when someone else is in the media spotlight. On April 19, TV news reports covered the latest fire at a downtown landmark.

During the early morning hours of April 20, Mark Sands was spied by an arson task force surveillance team, red-marker-handed, writing on the Arroya Grande Drive property owner's sign. He was charged with felony criminal damage, thus launching the massive investigation that would lead to his 22-count indictment.

Sands told police that he was pretending to be a member of the CSP to reassure the owner that it was okay to build. Aside from the "CSP" tag, investigators said Sands wrote "Thnx" and "OK" on the sign -- presumably as responses to various phrases in the sign's message.

Then, last week, Sands left another message of sorts. The day before his indictment, and despite warnings by his attorney not to talk to the media, Sands left a message on a Channel 15 News reporter's voice mail saying he was "somewhat intrigued" by the reporter's questions.

So if Sands is proven to be the arsonist . . . if he is shown to be the same man who claimed a talk radio host's insults provoked a fire . . . the same man who met face-to-face with a journalist to respond to a story . . . then his most effective campaign tool may have also been his greatest weakness.

Rather than manipulating the media coverage -- as so many have claimed -- the media coverage may have manipulated him.

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

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What is the current status of this case?

Doris A. Gonzalez
Doris A. Gonzalez

Hello, Thanks for all the hard work you do to keep the scales of balance-balanced! I was wondering if you could tell me which news show did a program about Mark Sands, the convicted mountain preserve arsonist back in 2001. I wanted to see it again but I can't remember if it was Dateline, 20 20 or what. I tried to research it, but couldn't find it. Your newspaper was instrumental in helping to solve that crime so I though you might be able to tell me. Thanks so much.


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