Friend in Need

Mark Sands pleads guilty to extortion and use of fire in connection with the Preserve arsons.
Hector Acuña

Last August, Warren Jerrems sat in the former recreation room of the Casa Rosa Care Center, a decrepit nursing home. Jerrems, an accountant, has several nursing homes as clients and was helping close the facility.

Jerrems had agreed to meet and discuss his incarcerated friend, Mark Sands. At the time, Sands was awaiting trial, accused of torching a series of houses under construction near the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. Jerrems helped elicit a confession from Sands during a hiking trip while secretly wearing a wire for investigators.

Last week, Sands pleaded guilty in federal court to eight counts of extortion affecting interstate commerce and one count of use of fire to commit a felony. He will be sentenced February 11 to 15 to 20 years in prison and an estimated $3.1 million in restitution. Sands must serve 85 percent of his sentence.

In media interviews, Jerrems has presented his decision to aid investigators as a reluctant and painful choice. Jerrems told the New York Times he hoped cooperating with investigators would help exonerate his friend. For an interview with the Arizona Republic, he teared up while saying, "In my heart, I didn't want to believe he was involved at all," and claimed he wanted to prove his friend's innocence.

In interviews with New Times, however, Jerrems admits he was reasonably convinced of his friend's involvement from his first meeting with investigators. The arson task force offered him the $85,000 Silent Witness reward to betray his friend, and Jerrems now says it's "bullshit" that he may not get the full reward.

At the nursing home, Jerrems even halted the interview to launch into a quid pro quo proposal.

"I don't want to tell you too much about what's going on with this," Jerrems said last August. "I'd be glad to tell you more later, if you're interested in the whole story. I don't mean just 10 minutes. If we could put together something where we write this thing -- you write it, I give you input on it, and we participate on this together -- then I'm interested in moving forward."

"I don't know how it'd work with the financials,"Jerrems added.

The word "financials" hung there a moment.

"This could be a television movie," Jerrems continued, "maybe even a feature film. There's just so many aspects -- the religious aspect, the environmental aspect. I've taken notes. I know the task force side. I know my side. I know Mark's side. I got the transcript from the moonlit midnight walk through the Grand Canyon -- that's the ending right there."

Three months later, Jerrems sits in another room. The setting for this interview, Marco Polo Supper Club in Scottsdale, is much improved. But Jerrems is not. He hangs his head and seems depressed. There are no requests for collaboration this time. Just plenty of remorse for Sands and himself.

"I don't know if I'm a good guy or a bad guy," he says.

Jerrems is a native Floridian who relocated to Phoenix five years ago. He met Sands at St. Anthony on the Desert Episcopal Church in 1997. Their families were social, spending Thanksgivings, Easters and Christmases together. And their young daughters were, and remain, close friends.

"I know Mark -- I thought I knew him -- pretty well," Jerrems says.

The men would jog the Preserve trails, Sands frequently guiding Jerrems to several of the sites where houses under construction were set aflame. Jerrems says Sands was always in control of their outings. Sands dominated conversations and planned their activities. Frequently, Sands would mention the fires, even during Christmas dinner. Sands wouldn't take sides in the discussions, Jerrems says, but enjoyed playing moderator, eager to hear what everybody else had to say.

"He was infatuated with [the fires]," says Jerrems. "He was obsessed."

Jerrems particularly remembers the publication of the New Times interview with the arsonist in January. It was a Wednesday night and their daughters were at choir practice. While their girls sang, Sands sat in the pews of the church reading the article. "He was really excited about it," Jerrems says. "He was like, 'Man, you gotta read this.'"

Jerrems read the story, but didn't think of his friend. Later, Jerrems says he read the story again, and he says it became a key factor in believing Sands was the arsonist. Now that Sands has admitted giving the interview, New Times can also confirm that Sands was the person interviewed in Patriots Square Park.

On April 20, Jerrems received a phone call from Sands' wife. "She said something terrible had happened," according to Jerrems. Sands had been arrested on a criminal damage charge for writing "CSP" -- for "Coalition to Save the Preserves," the arsonist's tag -- on a property sign.  

Jerrems picked up Sands from jail the next day. He says Sands was depressed and tired, just wanting to go home and get clean after undergoing hours of interrogation. Soon after, the arson task force phoned Jerrems.

The task force asked him for his assistance, he says. During their initial meeting, investigators wanted to make a copy of Jerrems' computer hard drive, which Sands occasionally used.

Jerrems says he did not tell his friend about their request. "That's when the lies started," Jerrems says. "I thought there was a possibility that Mark was involved in these actions. I wanted to find out what his involvement was. I didn't trust him when he said he wasn't involved."

Jerrems says the task force didn't offer much in the way of incentives. "Just to assist with finding out the truth and assist them with obtaining information about Mark," he says. But then, later in the interview, Jerrems concedes he was also promised the Silent Witness reward for his cooperation.

"For a seven- or eight-week period, I went out of my way to cultivate a very trusting relationship with Mark, more so than the relationship prior to his arrest," Jerrems continues. "Then I exploited that relationship and basically betrayed him."

Investigators told Jerrems they wanted Sands to answer four questions: Did Sands give the New Times interview? Did Sands write letters to the media and leave notes at arson sites? Did Sands act alone? Did Sands start the fires?

Before and after visiting Sands, Jerrems would meet investigators in a Taco Bell parking lot a few miles from his house. There investigators would give him bugging devices that could either transmit or record. One bug doubled as a slide-off replacement battery for his Nokia cell phone. Another was in his car. Another fit in the coin pocket of his jogging shorts. Yet another was in his water bottle.

At first, Jerrems says he was extremely nervous about recording his friend. But after the first time, he said it became easy. "[Sands] never suspected, he was very trusting," Jerrems says.

Yet Sands would not discuss the fires. "He would say, 'I can talk about it with my lawyer, my pastor and my spouse, but I can't go there with you,'" says Jerrems.

And for all their clever disguises, the bugs rarely worked. Conversations were often inaudible, masked by various environmental noises and friction against the microphones. Jerrems says the few lines of confession released by prosecutors from their Grand Canyon hike were "about all that was intelligible" from the conversation.

Jerrems says he was the one who planned the fateful hiking trip. Normally, Sands controlled their activities and conversations, but Jerrems says that this was his turn.

The men hiked the Bright Angel Trail, monitored by an assortment of undercover FBI agents and an overhead plane. It was a beautiful night, Jerrems recalls, with "a full spectrum of stars."

Jerrems devised a Q&A method for Sands. Jerrems would ask questions. Sands would drop rocks to indicate a "yes" answer. That way, Jerrems explained to Sands, he could later testify Sands had not said anything about the fires.

Sands dropped rocks for three of Jerrems' four questions, indicating "no" to the query of whether he had accomplices. After that, "it was like a floodgate opened," Jerrems says, and Sands spoke freely of his crimes.

Sands said troubling dreams drove him to commit the first fire, according to Jerrems, then it became a campaign. "He said he wanted to do another interview to apologize to the firefighters and his victims," says Jerrems.

Jerrems dropped off his friend, then went to his Taco Bell rendezvous. Jerrems says he practically threw his bugged backpack at the investigators, saying, "Take what you want."

Jerrems did not visit Sands again. A week later, Sands was arrested and indicted for the arsons.

"There's times I feel like a little shithead for what I did to Mark," Jerrems says.

Now, in a twist that Jerrems is calling "bullshit," Jerrems says he's being told by arson investigators that he may not receive the full amount of the reward money. Jerrems says he thought the reward was $85,000, the amount touted in media reports. The Silent Witness program has actually allocated $76,200 for the apprehension of the Preserve arsonist.

Jerrems says the amount he will receive is "much less," as he may have to split the money with other informants.

According to Silent Witness, potential reward candidates call and receive an ID number prior to the criminal's arrest. Many informants are holding ID numbers in the Preserve arson case, says Phoenix Police Detective Lisa Robinson of Silent Witness. She says award recipients are chosen by investigators. Investigators did not immediately return calls seeking comment, but Robinson says there have been no beneficiaries named in the Preserve arson case.  

"An arrest has been made," Robinson says, "but we're still sitting on all this money."

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