"I understand local TV — if it bleeds, it leads," Marin says. "But this was a feel-good story with a nice hook: a major-league mountain climber working closely with a charity by putting up his house in the Biltmore for $25."

Marin did get plenty of local publicity before and after he left for his Everest adventure last March, but he sought more.

"We needed national exposure to sell tickets, and Inside Edition expressed great interest in our story," he says. "They test-interviewed me in Nepal, and it went really well. The beautiful house was the hook, of course, and the Crisis Center didn't have to do anything but sit back and count the tickets."

New Times photo illustration; photo by Jamie Peachey; Model: Gary Moyer
71 Biltmore Estates Drive on the morning of July 5.
Phoenix Fire Department
71 Biltmore Estates Drive on the morning of July 5.

Marin claims he was staying at the Biltmore home "about 25 percent" of the time in the weeks and months before he left the States for Nepal. He hosted a memorable Super Bowl party there during that stretch, says his son, Schuyler.

But a neighbor later told investigators that he never knew anyone was living there after Greg Bensen lost the house to foreclosure in the spring of 2008.

Though the raffle seemed good to go, the Arizona Department of Gaming had expressed serious reservations to the Children's Crisis Center as early as March 24.

Christine Scarpati, who is the center's chief executive officer, wrote in a June 15 letter to the state agency that she had tried to answer those concerns but didn't get an official response until late April.

"During this time," Scarpati wrote to Gaming Deputy Director Rudy Casillas, "we lost the opportunity of national exposure as two of the major networks were geared up and ready to follow Mr. Marin as he summited Mount Everest, which would have ensured the success of the [raffle]."

She reiterated that her board of directors and the center's lawyers believed the raffle would have been legal.

But Casillas concluded that the raffle was illegal in that "the Child Crisis Center, Michael Marin, and the person who wins the home could all potentially knowingly benefit from gambling."

Marin says he got the bad news as he moved ever closer to the summit of Everest, where he had planned to make his best pitch for the home raffle.

"My first thought was, could I have been so wrong?" he says. "But I wasn't. The government was absolutely wrong on the law and on the public policy. There had been a buzz about our raffle, and the reason we didn't sell enough tickets was that we got the rug pulled out from under us. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I went about trying to keep myself alive on Everest."

In late May, the Children's Crisis Center did conduct a raffle of the mere 3,600 or so tickets sold, totaling about $90,000. Apparently, the center split the proceeds with the winner, a Peoria man. Christine Scarpati did not return a call from New Times for confirmation.

Michael Marin wrote in a blog on May 20: "I reached the summit of Everest at dawn, just as the very first rays from the rising sun were bathing the highest point on Earth with a golden glow and casting the shadow of a perfect pyramid on the high Himalayas."

He returned safely to the States, where more temporal matters, such as how the hell he was going to pay for the Biltmore house, awaited.

Marin says he knew he was going to have to do "one of two things: refinance or sell. The mortgage eats you alive. I could have lost a lot of sleep over it. The fire was the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me financially because it took away those two options. You can't refinance a piece of ash, and if you think there was going to be any insurance payout anytime in the next year, you're kidding yourself."

But Marin didn't put his home up for sale in the aftermath of the raffle disaster. To the contrary, he says, "There was a tipping point, and I started to spend more time there. It went to about 60 percent there and 40 percent in Gilbert. Finally — in June, I guess — I made my decision that I might as well live [in Biltmore Estates], and I started to move over there, piece by piece. I was up to my ears in packing boxes."

Marin says he moved over many of those boxes on the July 4 weekend. He says he spent the afternoon before the July 5 fire at Jana Bru's home in Chandler (she confirms this) eating pizza and hanging out.

He says he later drove across the Valley, alone, to the Biltmore house and watched a little television before retiring to the master bedroom on the second floor. He says he'd planned to hike nearby Camelback Mountain, as usual, the following morning.

Condensed but in context, here is what Mike Marin says happened next:

"The next thing I know is getting awakened by some faint, electronic beeping — beep, beep, beep — that I hear through my earplugs. That's what wakes me up. I immediately smell smoke. I hit the button to turn on the light above the bed. Smoke is pouring in from every crack.

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