An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist
The arsonist remembers the day it began.
He was mountain biking when he first considered burning down somebody's house. He had no prior experience with arson, he says. "Hell no," he exclaims, somewhat offended at the very idea. "I had never committed a crime, period."
And why would he? He says he is not the type.
For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click over to our Arsonist Archives.
He claims to be a management professional with an "advanced degree" and "healthy income" who works in downtown Phoenix. His confident demeanor and quote-perfect speech likewise suggest an ambitious and educated man. He is energetic (sometimes intense) and authoritative (sometimes pushy) with a tall, athletic build.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
He describes himself as a family man. He says he is worried that his family will discover his secret. Nobody knows about his "evening activities" except the three other people in his "core group," the group known by the cryptic acronym "CSP."
He says one member of CSP works at an "outdoor equipment store." Another, a female, works in health care. The third is employed by a "local government agency." And they all love to go mountain biking.
"My favorite thing is to get to a mountaintop and say, 'Thank you, God, for your creation,'" the arsonist says.
And some of his favorite mountaintops are along the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.
On the day it started, the arsonist says, he was biking with friends along the north side of Squaw Peak. They had taken a break to rest, to drink some Gatorade, when one of them pointed out new construction protruding from the edge of the suburbia-filled valley below.
It was a house. A mammoth, $1.3 million, 10,000-square-foot construction on North Arroya Grande Drive. Yet another new private residence that seemed to take a bite out of their Preserve, another builder encroaching on their bike trail.
The mountain bikers agreed it was horribly out of place and strikingly tacky. Local residents had dubbed it "the casino."
So the arsonist said: "I wish somebody would burn that down."
It was an offhand comment, he says. A joke, really.
But the only thing that was funny was that none of the other bike riders found it funny. Because, when they thought about it, burning down the mansion didn't seem like such a bad idea.
Later, one of the bike riders said something else about the house. A bit of a confession, as it turned out.
"You really want to burn it down?" the rider asked him. "Well, I can show you how."
The letter arrived January 12, the day after New Times published "Burn, Baby, Burn," a story exploring the frustrations of local environmentalists and their conflicting opinions about the Preserve arsons. At the time, an FBI task force had credited an unknown Phoenix serial arsonist with torching nine luxury homes under construction along the environmentally sensitive Preserve. All the arsons had occurred in the past 10 months, save one in 1998. Damage estimates had exceeded $5 million, and there was a $61,000 Silent Witness reward for information leading to the arsonist's arrest.
The letter came in a plain vanilla envelope, postmarked Phoenix. A 33-cent stamp showed a leaping deer, a one-cent stamp showed a bird on a branch -- appropriately environmental images. There was no return address.
The letter's headline declared "Thou Shall Not Desecrate God's Creation."
In the body text, the author described his attempt to call New Times the day before, taunting that we blew an interview opportunity. The author denied responsibility for the ninth Preserve fire that authorities had credited to the serial arsonist. The letter also said the group's female member was offended by KTAR radio talk-show host Preston Westmoreland's on-air criticism and assumption that the arsonist was male, so she lit up a house as retaliation on December 20. The note concluded with the CSP's usual epitaph: "In like a ghost -- out like a ghost. Happy hunting."
Overall, the author seemed irritated and cocky -- enjoying the media attention, yet frustrated at a perceived lack of respect. The author felt brushed off by the New Times editorial assistant, offended by the insults from Westmoreland and a derogatory editorial in the Arizona Republic. And, in each case, a retaliatory threat was hinted for not taking him seriously: New Times wouldn't get an interview, and the critics might inadvertently inspire the CSP to burn down another house.
When a news agency receives a communiqué about a high-profile crime such as this one, editors typically alert the authorities and publish the news immediately -- just as the Republic and KPNX-TV Channel 12 did when they received copies of a similar letter last month.
Only this letter was a potential bombshell. The author asked for an interview. If we gave the letter to the authorities, the publicity might crush an opportunity to acquire unprecedented insight into the mysteries surrounding the Preserve fires and the identity of the arsonist.
So the letter went into a locked drawer.
And on the cover of the January 18 issue, New Times printed a message intended for one reader: "To 'Thou Shalt Not': 602-407-1706."
As the paper filled news racks Thursday morning, dozens of curious readers phoned the number. All the callers asked the same two questions: Why was a phone number on the cover of the paper, and what did "To 'thou shalt not'" mean?
All the callers asked. All except one.
"'Thou shall not' -- I got your message," the man says.
His voice is calm and mild. He is in his early 30s, perhaps. And during our 10-minute interview he chuckles frequently, as if this is casual lunchtime conversation. Calling a reporter and admitting to serial arson does not seem to faze him in the slightest. Over the phone line, rumbling jets can be heard taking off, presumably from Sky Harbor International Airport.
The arsonist says he forgot to sign the New Times letter with his usual signature -- CSP. The acronym stands for Coalition to Save the Preserves, he explains. His four-person group is the CSP "North Mountain Preserve Unit."
"There are other groups forming," he says.
The arsonist says the CSP has no "direct connection" to the radical environmentalist group Earth Liberation Front, which recently claimed credit for sprawl protest fires in New York and Colorado. The arsonist considers the ELF "kindred spirits," however, whose recent headline-making has been "kind of fun to watch."
He says he called New Times because we correctly described the group's frustration with sprawl, and he chides a recent Republic editorial that dismissed the arsonist as "a loser with matches." The December 28 editorial also accused the arsonist of "arrogance," "ignorance," being "deluded" and being "jealous of those people who have succeeded financially."
Of those descriptions, "arrogant" might fit. The man repeatedly boasts about his group and its ability to elude capture, noting that spotting law enforcement surveillance is easy because "one of us has special training."
"Those who want to niche us as firebugs who enjoy the thrill of watching things burn were sadly mistaken," he says. "There's also a presumption there's only one of us. Because how could you do this if people were working in concert, right?"
"Well, there has to be trust, doesn't there? And that's part of what we are establishing . . . right now . . . with this."
The arsonist offers a face-to-face interview.
He says to be at Patriots Square park at 11 a.m. in two days -- Friday. No tape recorders. No photographers. Come alone, sit anywhere and read a copy of "Burn, Baby, Burn."
"And we'll see what happens."
Patriots Square park is in downtown Phoenix at Central and Washington, directly across from the Maricopa County Superior Court building. There are a couple fast-food vendors, swirls of grass and brick.
Underneath Patriots Square there is a parking garage. At quarter past 11, a man quickly emerges from the garage stairwell and makes a beeline toward me. He is wearing a disguise, one that's almost comically dramatic: black athletic shoes, shiny black track pants, puffy black jacket zipped to his chin, large black Fly sunglasses and a black ski cap.
"Are you alone?" he asks. "Did you bring any recording equipment with you?"
Once reassured, the arsonist takes a seat.
He says he told co-workers he was going to the gym. The track pants appear to be pulled over a pair of slacks.
"Did you see the paper this morning?" he asks.
The CSP burned a 5,000-square-foot house in Scottsdale the night before. It was the first CSP arson of 2001, and apparently its debut fire in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The arsonist says it was dedicated to the memory of the late Geoffrey Platts, the Scottsdale author and environmentalist. He denies participating in the attack.
"Call Rural/Metro and ask if there were any notes left behind," he says. "They left two notes that haven't been reported yet. Or maybe the investigators didn't find them. If they didn't, they're idiots." (See sidebar, "Authenticating the Arsonist")
The arsonist claims the CSP's activist cells are multiplying, that the fire was set by an offshoot group called the CSP "McDowell Sonoran Preserve Unit." Scottsdale authorities, the arsonist says, better prepare for more fires. He adds that the CSP's first Scottsdale arson was actually in November, but the group was never given credit.
"We're expanding our efforts," the arsonist explains. "Six to eight months ago there was nothing there. Now all these houses are going up. There must be 15 houses under construction, so the pickings are ripe. It's private land, but as far as we're concerned, it's Preserve."
"The timing," the arsonist stresses, "was not coincidental."
There is a pause.
He waits for me to figure it out.
During our Wednesday phone interview, the arsonist explicitly said, "Our group is the 'North Mountains Preserve Unit.' There are other groups forming." Then last night, the CSP struck in an entirely different Preserve, reportedly for the first time -- the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Other groups forming . . .
You . . . mean . . . you set the fire . . . because . . .
"We discussed the meeting with you today and thought it would be a good-faith effort to establish our credibility."
I cannot think of anything to say to this.
So I ask questions instead.
The CSP scouts for new targets during bike rides through the Preserve.
The members look for construction sites along the edge, where builders have recently poured concrete onto virgin desert. They choose luxury houses at an advanced stage of development, ones with accessible routes of "egress and outgress" that are a certain distance from occupied homes. They decide where they will place a small igniter, usually in an inside room facing the desert so the fire has maximum "time to percolate" before being spotted by neighbors.
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.
"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.
One-Eyed Fiona plays bouncy Celtic songs. The arsonist begins to groove. He nods his head and taps his black athletic shoes as he describes how the CSP has avoided capture.
"If you don't look or act suspicious, suspicion isn't drawn to you," he lectures. "One of our keys to success is how well we blend in. We don't stick out. If you're a couple out for a stroll on the Preserve, you're not suspicious. What do they expect? For us to carry a torch like an Olympic runner?"
Another key, he continues, is the dwindling sense of neighborhood community. Who knows what their neighbors look like? He says members of the CSP have walked away from starting a fire and said, "Hello, good evening, full moon tonight!" to local residents. One member even bumped into a police officer during a "reconnaissance mission" at a construction site. The member played it cool and chatted with the officer.
When the construction later burned down, the arsonist says, "the poor bastard never made the connection."
Or did he?
The night before our meeting, investigators released a sketch of an "investigational lead" in the Preserve fires. The person was allegedly seen at the site of one of the arsons. When asked about the drawing, the arsonist says, "Well, obviously it's not me." When pressed if he knows who it is, his answer is something shy of a firm denial. It's not that he's being evasive, exactly. He acts as if such leads are simply of little consequence or concern.
The carefree attitude is, perhaps, another reason the CSP has been successful. They are playing the campaign like it's a creative and elaborate high-stakes game rather than a straightforward crime. He brags they were able to penetrate two security fences at Benson's house without cutting them. He says they've fantasized about using ultralight gliders to do bombing runs. They once even considered setting fire to one of Jeff Groscost's alt-fuel vehicles.
And, he says, they toyed with the idea of burning structures where owners have already moved in.
Their game is evolving, in other words.
They are expanding their operations, setting fires more frequently, becoming more intimate with the media. And as they continue to raise the stakes, their benevolent Robin Hood idealism cannot hold up forever. Already one of their fires was close enough to an occupied neighboring home to warp its windows and blacken its exterior walls.
The CSP's primary objective is to influence public opinion through high-publicity actions that eventually result in strict growth control. When asked how long the campaign will continue, the arsonist turns rhetorical.
"How long does it take to have meaningful growth control?" he asks. "How long until Asleep-at-the-Wheel [Governor Jane] Hull does something of substance and not just give lip service? How long does it take until Go-Go-Skippy [Rimsza] forgets he's a real estate man?"
So the arsons will never stop?
"We're hoping to stimulate conversation and awareness, and we're doing that," he says. "We know when to stop. If we have 25 or 30 fires, we're going to make a mistake or get caught."
If the CSP is concerned about growth control, its choice of urban targets is curious. Constructions on the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are an optical illusion of violation. The Preserve is an urban park set aside specifically for the same residents whose houses are being burned. To a hiker or mountain biker, the houses appear to be built on free-range desert, given that the Preserve is not enclosed -- a fence would restrict the movement of wildlife. But houses are not built on the Preserve itself; they are built on the surrounding land already voted into private ownership.
Targeting houses near the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, as the CSP did in the January 18 arson, is a bit more logical. The new houses are built on private property, but there is a current battle to save 16,600 acres of nearby state land trust property from development.
In reality, none of the targets in either Preserve addresses the popular environmentalist concern about the acre-an-hour spread of the Valley's waistline.
So why has the CSP exerted so much concentrated fury on neighborhoods near the North Phoenix Mountains Preserve?
"Because they're encroaching on hiking and biking trails," he says. "Because they're an obnoxious reminder that there is no growth plan."
That answer is crucial to distinguishing the CSP from groups such as the Earth Liberation Front.
The ELF is made up of broadband environmentalists who want to save the world from itself. The CSP, the arsonist says, has only one member who is a devout environmentalist. The arsonist admits he had never even heard of the fight to preserve Tempe Butte, presumably because the Butte has no mountain-bike trails. The ELF has declared war on any business profiting from the exploitation of the natural environment, while the CSP's campaign is more personal -- this is where they live and play.
The arsonist argues that the CSP is less reckless than the ELF. CSP has not burned occupied buildings, for one. Plus, his group does not wish to encourage the growth of untrained and independent cells. "We don't want to have copycat teenagers playing with matches," he says.
As for the nearly identical phrase ("U Build It We Burn It") found at a CSP arson site and, later, an ELF target, the arsonist shrugged, "If they're going to use our phrase, they should give us credit for it."
Fine, but why is the CSP resorting to blunt-force arson in the first place? Why not devote their public lives to making a traditional difference like so many struggling activists in the Valley?
At this question, the arsonist shows a sudden flash of anger.
"That presumes that one or more of us is not already doing that!" he says, brandishing his index finger.
Then, like a flipped switch, he is mellow and once again grooving to the Celtic band.
"I'm known for public advocacy in other areas," he says vaguely. "We anguish over having to take these steps. We do everything we can to minimize the risk to adjacent property owners and to firefighters. But at one fire, I stayed behind and observed [the firefighters]. There's nobody going inside. They're just doing mop-up. Firefighters are in more danger breathing the polluted air."
There's no thrill in lighting these fires, he insists; the whole business is "scary." He worries constantly about jeopardizing the future of his family. He can, and will, stop once the goals are accomplished.
If they are accomplished.
So again, I ask the question he never really answered: What does he feel when he lights up a house?
Once again, he pauses.
"Fear of being observed," he says finally. "And then, anticipation of the media coverage."
Fear and anticipation.
The arsonist may not be a pyromaniac, after all. But there are other ways setting fires can be addictive. The risk. The attention. Outwitting the police. Flirting with the media. All are common qualities in those who commit serial crimes for any reason. If the arsonist has a sin, other than the obvious, it is the apparent pride he takes in his work.
Like now. Sitting in Patriots Square. Risking capture. Anticipating the media coverage. And having a swell time doing it.
As our conversation winds down, the arsonist says the other CSP members are glaring at him to finish. Our interview lasted more than 90 minutes.
As he rises to leave, he suddenly leans forward and shakes my hand. Fairly firm grip. His breath and clothes smell like nothing at all. He says goodbye and quickly strolls away, head down, slipping into the parking garage door and disappearing from sight.
In like a ghost. Out like a ghost. Another publicity mission accomplished.
For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click over to our Arsonist Archives.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.