By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
At this point, the arson case against Michael Marin seems compelling.
The report by Captain Peabody alleges that Marin, the sole person in the Biltmore home on the night of the fire, placed an accelerant (probably gasoline or another petroleum distillate) inside the house and lit it.
When firefighters arrived at the scene a few minutes after Marin and a next-door neighbor made independent calls to 911, the house was ablaze. That fact alone, according to the report, immediately gave rise to suspicion.
Investigators always try to determine a motive and opportunity for committing a crime, and the Biltmore case — even before the allegedly damning lab results came in — was no exception.
Opportunity in Marin's case is easy: He was the only one at the house when the fire erupted.
Motive, however, is likely to prove more complex. Though, by Marin's description to New Times, he has been in financial quicksand for some time. He said shortly before his arrest that the stock market tumble, along with poor investments, had taken a huge chunk out of his portfolio.
Marin added that "feeding the kitty month after month" — staggering $17,000-plus interest-only payments on the Biltmore home to private moneylenders, plus a mortgage at the Gilbert residence — was eating him alive financially.
And looming over Marin like an ugly storm cloud was a $2.3 million balloon mortgage payment on the Biltmore home, due in the coming month.
If Marin doesn't pay up, his lenders could foreclose on the property or offer to renegotiate the terms for a higher interest-only rate than the 9 percent he already was paying.
But Marin told investigators last month that he has less than $100,000 in liquid assets. That's not a lot for someone who purchased original Picasso etchings a decade ago and, more important, bought the Biltmore house for $2.55 million on September 4, 2008.
Whatever his net worth, Marin clearly was running out of money — and fast — at the time of the fire.
"To hammer that point home about my finances," Marin told New Times, "the biggest thing in front of me was the one-year, interest-only balloon payment. I had a $2.3 million bill to pay. So I refinance or sell or I am totally screwed. If I were to burn it, that's slitting my own throat. I lose everything."
But Marin insisted that, at the time of the fire, he wasn't planning to sell. Refinancing or just walking away from the home — taking a $450,000 hit (down payment and what he'd already paid in interest) and trying to pull himself together financially — seemed his immediate options.
Scott Gould, a veteran Valley moneylender who structured the Biltmore deal on behalf of a group of private lenders, says it is common to renegotiate terms with financially strapped borrowers.
"We wouldn't have wanted to kick him out," Gould says shortly before Marin's arrest. "We had gotten his monthly [interest] payment on time since September. There was no reason not to work with him."
As for the State Farm insurance policy on the house, land, and contents, the lender, not Marin, stood to collect more than $2 million for the damage to the structure and the home's "built-ins" — entertainment centers, wall cabinets, and other pre-existing items.
Michael Marin could have collected up to $1 million in insurance for the contents. But surprisingly, he didn't have nearly that much of value at 71 Biltmore Estates when it burned.
He told New Times that he had moved over a computer, furniture, a new bed, some of his own artwork, and other odds and ends.
Fire investigators found the odds and ends in packing boxes lined up on the ground floor near the home's spiral staircase. Telling to investigators, several of those boxes were filled with junk items whose price tags — usually $3.99 or less — were still attached.
The investigators also found 28 charred Valley phone books in the rubble, all of them in two piles near the packing boxes. The arson report suggests that Marin had attempted to use the phone books as kindling.
What wasn't at 71 Biltmore Estates when it went up in flames also piqued the curiosity of investigators.
Safely back at Mike Marin's home in Gilbert were his beloved blue-and-gold macaw Sunshine and a pretty cat he has been caring for. Also in Gilbert were his precious works of art, including the Picassos and a beautiful rubbing from the ancient Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat.
A defense attorney could pose this question: If Marin was committing arson, why wouldn't he at least burn a valuable piece of art for the insurance?
Michael Marin welcomes a reporter into his Gilbert home, in an anonymous subdivision near Guadalupe Road. It is August 8, less than two weeks before investigators will arrest him here.
Marin is a small man of Western European descent, with thinning light-brown hair and a face surprisingly unlined, considering all the mountaineering he's done. He's trim, with calf muscles as large as a middle linebacker's, from the constant climbing.
He tends to speak softly, and his wardrobe is understated — blue polo shirts, shorts, and sandals — but the tales he tells are florid and sweeping.