Editor's note: New Times' exclusive interview with the arsonist responsible for a string of fires on the edge of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve has sparked a firestorm of controversy over the paper's handling of the interview ("An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist," January 25).
Staff writer James Hibberd had two conversations with the man, including a face-to-face meeting in Patriots Square on January 19. The man agreed to be interviewed only if Hibberd promised he would meet the arsonist alone, would not photograph him and would not tape-record the conversation. Hibberd agreed, provided that everything the man said would be on the record and could be published. New Times' decision not to tip the authorities and set a trap for the man has been criticized by readers, talk-show callers and other local journalists. Others support the paper's journalistic values in keeping our word to a source once we have given it.
Still, the story has inspired many more readers than usual to write or e-mail New Times. In this special edition of Letters to the Editor, we've included many of them.
As a mountain biker, hiker and overall lover of Arizona's wonderful outdoor spaces, I am absolutely aghast after reading this interview. First, your "duty" to share the contact of a known (suspected) criminal with law enforcement agencies was seriously breached and will no doubt result in additional loss of private property or possibly much worse. In granting this interview, and the subsequent publishing of it, your publication is in effect sanctioning this group's behavior.
I mountain-bike extensively in the surrounding preserves. I am no stranger to the views of the endless sea of housing tract upon housing tract encroaching upon our beautiful desert lands. However, the means to bring about long-term, lasting change is not through public endangerment and the destruction of private property!
The cavalier attitude that this group exhibits and your organization's implied support is most unnerving. These efforts will only harm the legitimate processes under way to protect the many sensitive areas in need of preservation. I am personally involved with several of these projects and consistently have supported the efforts of others to pursue the preservation of land for future enjoyment.
But a militant and criminal approach cannot succeed. The rift that exists between anti-growth positions and the "status quo" will only be widened by these hostilities. Efforts to preserve land will be seen as spearheaded by "radicals" and "irresponsible" groups rather than the efforts of the masses that they truly are.
And finally, as a trail user, I am further ashamed that this group makes light of how it can "blend in" with the rest of us. My friends and I use the trails in a responsible, respectful and conscientious manner. We understand and do not make light of the delicate balance that is achieved among the many users of these public lands. To mock those of us who are using these lands in a responsible and respectful manner is basically an act of hypocrisy. These individuals claim that they enjoy mountain biking and are doing these acts of atrocity to preserve their rights to these areas. In truth, they are not even close to being mountain bikers or any other closely related trail users. They are nothing more than a group of reckless, irresponsible firebugs, enthralled with the prospect of capture and creating a newsworthy excuse for their actions.
I hereby put all legitimate trail users to the task: Let's help the authorities rid our preserves of this self-serving scum and bring the peace and enjoyment back to the mountain preserves.
So, the arsonists are mountain bicyclists. What a sensational image: wild-eyed zealots, Hells Angels sans motors, razing homes with impunity.
Your less discerning readers will leap to the conclusion that mountain bicyclists are wanton eco-terrorists who must be kept off trails and away from women and children.
The truth is that with so many people involved in the sport, you can probably find a murderer, a rapist and probably a child beater or two. A Gallup poll last year showed that 13.5 million people considered themselves "avid singletrack mountain bikers" in 1999.
If these criminals were hikers, I suspect it wouldn't have the same impact. (I'd wager a fair sum that the ELF eco-terrorists include hikers and backpackers -- and when they are captured, that fact will be buried, if it makes it into the news at all.)
I realize the writer had a story to tell, and what he said reflects what he was told, but I wish there had been a way to put it into perspective, to point out that there are thousands of mountain bikers in Arizona, and most of us are law-abiding, conscientious people who just happen to enjoy getting out on a trail on a bicycle.
Because now, those of us who already spend way too much time combating the ignorance and prejudice of those who want to keep trails to themselves will have another myth to debunk.
Your story on the arsonists was fascinating. I hope it revealed more information about the person or group and gets them caught -- fast. I don't know why they think they have the right to do this. I don't particularly like mountain bikers riding over my feet when I'm hiking on a narrow trail, but that doesn't mean I push them down when they try to pass me.
The Arizona Republic's coverage of your story was so hypocritical. That it quoted alleged ethicist Marianne Jennings, when she's never defended an underdog in her life, is just laughable.
At the same time, the really scary thing about this person or group is that they have the potential to murder someone. Last week, I began reading a crime novel about arson by Ridley Pearson, called Beyond Recognition (Hyperion, 1997). I came across this passage about the criminal arsonist in the novel: "So he's a planner," Daphne [the police psychologist] said, "which we already knew. He's voyeuristic, which works with what we know of arsonists. But what comes as a surprise are these Biblical references. The earlier use of poetry suggested an intellectual, college educated, well read; the use of Biblical references is typical of a different psychology, a more pathologically disturbed individual."
"The God squad," LaMoia [the police investigator] said, well aware of Daphne's aversion to such terms.
My point is, I think these people are more dangerous than you think. When someone gets killed, everything's going to change. Maybe you need to cooperate with the investigators before someone gets murdered. How would you feel about your scoop if that should happen?
I think you guys did the right thing in publishing the story. First, your job is not to catch crooks but to publish stories and news. Second, we'd all be out of business if we were precluded from giving criminals publicity.
The Seattle ABC affiliate, KOMO-TV, declared prior to the WTO demonstrations in 1999 that it would not cover any illegal activity. Of course, they couldn't keep their promise because the massive civil disobedience and police violence were impossible to ignore. But they showed how ridiculous such civic do-gooderism is when applied to the news.
Third, I thought the story was particularly important because it offers original insights into the mind(s) of a budding eco-terrorist group without glamorizing them or their agenda. In fact, I'll bet many readers will find them shallow, self-important thugs rather than glamorous, bike-toned growth-resistors.
More important, so-called eco-terrorism is on the rise in this country, and this piece gives us a glimpse of some of the methods and motives in play early in the trend. Your main risk here, I think, is the possibility that the interview is a hoax, but it sounds like you did your best to check it out and I think were right to run with it.
Knute Berger, former editor
You have arrived at your 15 minutes of fame, by playing a fool for the Preserve arsonist. I hope you can sleep at night knowing that another home was destroyed as a means of convincing you that these extremists are who they claim to be.
Are you allowing yourself to believe that you upheld some fabled creed or oath? Journalistic integrity is considered an oxymoron by the majority of your readership. Worst of all is the anonymity you provided this clown, as though he were someone who is "doing the right thing," but was afraid of repercussions.
Do you honestly believe that by betraying his confidence you would become less credible as a journalist? You just did!
Matt Rogers, firefighter
During all the media coverage of the arson fires, I happened to see Barry Goldwater on one of the history channels giving his 1964 nomination speech. It featured his oft-quoted phrase: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." It struck me as to how the people who are setting the fires seem to be astute followers of the late Goldwater. They feel that their extreme behavior is justified in the defense of the liberty of the land contained in the mountain preserves.
One man's meat is another man's poison. I guess it's all in where you take in the view. One of the fires really made me personally feel bad. The one set at the home at the end of Seventh Avenue -- the home that was being remodeled, not built. I used to drive north on Seventh Avenue and would look up and see that house and chuckle to myself as to how much it resembled the hat that Don Quixote wore. I was sorry to see that that landmark was torched. A rather "quixotic choice" considering that people had lived there for years.
Thanks for a great article. I was wondering when someone would "surface."
Today, New Times overstepped the boundaries of anything I could ever refer to, with any kind of journalistic ethics or decorum, as being the "right thing to do." This article is a self-serving, biased and sensationalized piece.
I realize journalists frequently hang their hat on their "First Amendment rights," and I respect that right, perceived or otherwise, for journalists as well as any other American citizen.
My sincere hope is that no citizen, police officer, firefighter, or even one of the arsonists, is injured during one of these arson fires that I am sure will continue or proliferate. New Times had the opportunity to assist the public in solving and stopping these crimes, and intentionally chose not to do so. That does not bode well for New Times portraying itself as being an asset or watchdog to the community.
I am disappointed and, in fact, I am disgusted that New Times would place a journalistic coup over the safety of members of the public. I am flabbergasted that your editorial or legal staff would agree to this article being published, without first assisting investigators in locating these dangerous criminals.
Yes, these arsonists are nothing more than criminals who hide behind the word "ecology." As if by using ecology as part of their foundational beliefs absolves them of all blame or responsibility for their actions. It absolves them of nothing: These people are criminals.
Shame on New Times for not living up to your civic duty.
I believe your choice to sit down with this arsonist was a very bad choice! And to try to use your status as journalists to hide your responsibility as good citizens is just lame!
I was shocked to hear that you did this. As I read into your story, I only got more angry. You could have gotten your story and then had police capture him before he got away. The only one you would have cheated would have been a criminal and not the public. But you only hurt the public and boosted this arsonist's ego.
I hope your readers boycott your paper! And I pray that this arsonist gets caught before he can hurt or kill someone. I suspect you would feel differently if you or one of your employees were victims of this madman. I hardly ever read your paper and can assure you that I will no longer. I know the law allows you to protect your source; I'm just curious why your conscience has allowed it.
Oh, my Gawd. I almost died laughing when I saw the headline in the Arizona Republic the day after your cover story on the eco-terrorist. These idiots must truly believe all of their own propaganda. For them to complain about journalistic lapses and "dubious" ethics is beyond ludicrous.
And what's up with those so-called journalistic professors? Who the hell are they to poo-poo your getting a scoop? If anything, we, the people, as well as the authorities, now know far more about these criminals than we did just last week. That's a bad thing?
Yeah, right, E.J. Montini. The arsonist risked everything just to meet with James Hibberd and feed him a load of crap. He could have done that with a phone call. Get real. The guy's ego practically mandated that the truth be told. That's how the criminal mind works. It's just another way to taunt the authorities. Playing the jilted lover who didn't get the scoop is not very professional of you.
Now as for the responsibility of any future potential lives lost, it rests solely on the individuals who commit the crime. Didn't you read the article? Even if the guy had been turned in, it's obvious that the group would have continued on unless the jailers managed to beat a confession out of him as to the identities of his cohorts. Hmmm, maybe I should rethink that, as in this county that's quite a possibility.
Now as for helping him spread his message, sorry, E.J. Anyone with half a brain and who has been keeping up with this story already knows what the message is. I still say that thanks to New Times, we know more about these people now than we did before.
I also have to admit that I lost all respect and admiration for this group when they did this interview. They came across as just another bunch of media whores who love to see their names in print (like me). If they ever get caught, they will have only themselves to blame. And of all the parties involved in this little game, it's the families of the perps who will eventually suffer the most. They have my sympathy.
Mark A. Hoffman
Thank you for your coverage of the arsonist(s). The public deserves to know that you, James Hibberd, are a man of low community responsibility and morals. Even though you were not obligated by law to report your contact, I guess the story comes first.
It is a sad day and age we live in when criminals call all of the shots and reporters like you aid them in their misguided causes. What about the smoke and chemicals that are released into the atmosphere as a result of the fires, or the amount of water wasted to control their handiwork? How sorry would they be if one of their fires burned the desert?
I live in a place where wild forest fires are feared greatly, and unfortunately, the fires we do have are usually human-caused. I've also been a victim of an arsonist. He thought he had good reasons, too.
Regardless, if there is another fire, it is my opinion that you, sir, should be charged as well. You had the chance to protect all of us from further harm, and put the story over doing the right thing.
Your family must be proud. Hopefully, you don't have any children who are learning by your example. I do, and my children agree that doing the right thing is hard. However, most worthwhile things in this life are.
You must be very proud of your "reporter." He had the chance to get the story and then turn this pyromaniac in, but he only did half the job. Even a priest is obligated to go to the police if there is imminent danger of a parishioner repeating a confessed felony. I hope James Hibberd wakes up each night in a cold sweat for the rest of his life, knowing he could have stopped him, after this psycho eventually causes someone to die.
The recent serial arson fires that have been set in Phoenix's Mountains Preserve are a wake-up call for the city as well as the entire state. People are so fervent to get their piece of the precious land that surrounds this Valley, yet no one seems to have the energy to counteract this need with growth control.
Where can we draw the line? How far will we let the boundaries of this city get? Indeed, desert land is abundant in this region of the country, but some of this land should be reserved and saved to enjoy for its aesthetic value, rather than its potential for residential or commercial building. What's wrong with setting land aside to do absolutely nothing with?
I think that the so-called arsonist should be referred to as an activist. He is doing what no one else has been able to do, and that is to bring attention to the growth problem that is evident here in the Valley. Some people may say that there are better ways for someone to bring attention to an issue such as this, but people have already tried those methods, and nothing is being done. It is the responsibility of Arizona lawmakers and leaders to resolve this issue and bring an end to the need for such action.
I applaud the actions of the serial arsonist and hope that he brings appropriate attention to the growth subject here in Phoenix, as well as all of Arizona. I hope houses continue to be torched until someone with the authority and the courage does something to curb the building and save our desert land.
James Hibberd and the Mountains Preserve arsonists don't realize there is no such thing as a criminal act that doesn't harm anybody. We have been perpetual victims of this type of thinking. My husband was badly injured in a hit-and-run accident. Little effort was made to find the driver, because my husband wasn't a child or an important person, and he wasn't killed. We were left with the trauma, the medical bills, and the loss of income.
Next, our luxury car was stolen. Because of its age, it wasn't covered by theft insurance, and it wasn't seriously searched for. Now we have car payments. Recently we became the victims of identity theft. The money we painstakingly saved to buy a new house was stripped from our bank account. The bank and the police weren't interested in investigating the crime. We were treated to a financial nightmare.
These days we live in constant fear and anger because crooks seem to be able to attack us at will and walk away unscathed. So it ticks us off that New Times had a chance to put one such criminal behind bars, and instead let him go free to continue victimizing and traumatizing honest citizens.
Tom and Bobbi Dugan
I think it is horrific that you interviewed a criminal. Giving publicity to an arsonist only encourages others to use unlawful means to get their point across.
Shame on you. I refuse to read the article. I have a moral standard to uphold, unlike you all at New Times. You are now in the same category as the National Enquirer. Anything for a story. The only story here is you glorifying arsonists.
Our elementary school playground was torched recently. Why don't you interview the "celebrity" who did that as well? How about in front of the kids?
I am so disappointed because of all the information you let out. We do not want these people caught. Yet you gave away everything -- the motive, the number of people involved, even what he told his co-workers the day he went to your interview. Because of you they will go down, way too soon. You had to realize all your details (we heard planes overhead when he phoned) would lead to their demise.
Shame on you for printing that. Desert land will continue to fall on your head. No one I know wants this to cease, but it will because of your thirst for a cover story. Shame, shame on all of you. What separates you from the Republic and those other media whores?
Oh, wait. I know you gave them away. I hope your meetings with the FBI make you feel good, better than our eroding environment. Maybe now you can get that coveted job with the Tribune or the Republic.
Name withheld by request
I just read your article. I am still shaking, so please forgive my typos. For the safety of my family for right now, I do not want to disclose my name or anything that can jeopardize my family. The one who hired the individuals to firebomb is still a free man for the moment, so please forgive me, but my family and I have already come close to death once. I do not want to ever come that close again.
The article is shocking people, so unfortunately when this is said and done these arsonists will still look like heroes because they did something so risky.
I want to give you the side of a burn victim, from an arson, who sustained first-, second-, third- and fourth-degree burns and is lucky to be alive. Please bear with me, I want the other side to be heard and I want this to stop before someone does get injured.
We were lying in bed one night and heard a crash, waking to being engulfed in fire. My one child ran out of the room screaming, my husband picked up the other child who was still sleeping and threw him into the hallway to safety.
For whatever reason, I tripped and fell (I honestly don't remember, it happened so fast) but lay there on the floor with my eyes closed, feeling the heat from the fire engulfing my body, lying there praying that the person, if they were still there, would stop and not throw anymore. I can't describe how hot the heat from the flame actually was against my skin. I can only say I do not want anyone else to ever have to feel it. I later asked my husband what he saw when he came back into the room and saw me lying on the floor; he said the flames on my body were blue.
My husband put the flames out on my body, helped me to my feet and ran back outside. I remember running (the adrenaline was working) outside and just screaming as loud as I could to try to get help, but the smoke had gotten into my lungs and I didn't think anyone had heard me. Someone did and called 911.
I gathered my children close back to me and my husband came back to the house and asked if I was okay. I said no I was on fire. I yelled at him to get my purse (it had my insurance card). He ran in the house, got my purse and came back out and said he couldn't get his set of keys to my car. I held up mine that were in my hand. We loaded the children into the car and he drove like a madman to get me to the hospital. I remember just as we turned the corner, I saw an ambulance. We never stopped.
After that I closed my eyes and just continued to scream. The pain was the worst I have ever experienced. He ran I think three red lights that night, tried to flash down the police to no avail, missed the exit for the hospital, but he got me there. He ran inside to get help, but it hurt so bad and I couldn't stand sitting in the car so I tried to walk into the hospital. I was screaming, he was screaming, my babies were screaming and crying. I made it just to the door so they could see me screaming and crying and then they whisked me to a trauma room in the wheelchair while I continued to scream and cry and my precious babies terrified and half asleep stood there watching this all take place.
The nurses asked them to leave while a flurry of doctors and other hospital personnel came in to see what had happened. They kept asking me what I needed. I remember screaming, "PRAY, PRAY, PRAY . . ."
After my family was ushered out, I did not see my family for a month. They finally contacted my pastor, who is like a father to me, and I remember hearing his voice, opening my eyes for a second, him saying "I am here" and closing my eyes. After that, it gets real fuzzy for a while. I later found out they transported me to the burn center with a police escort and had me listed under an alias.
I remember going in and out for a long time, the pain (the pain never stopped), the throwing up from the medication being so strong, the nurses having to redo my IVs all of the time because my veins would rupture, the pain and screaming when they removed the dead skin with something that looked like a hand-held cheese slicer with a handle that looked like an ancient razor blade (heavy metal), the surgeries, the crying, not wanting to sleep for not knowing if I was going to wake up again and not wanting to leave my children motherless, the questions trying to catch the arsonists. These are things that are so fresh and vivid in my mind that it still hurts.
I am not a woman scorned, I am a mother whose children's lives have been endangered and threatened by stupidity.
I am still trying to recover. My physical body is healing very well. I still have one surgery to undergo, I now have arthritis, ugly scars, but all of my body parts are intact (at one time they thought they would have to amputate).
The arsonists in my case have been caught and are currently in prison, and I am in the process of trying to get some legislation going to help law enforcement catch arsonists.
My children still have nightmares; my youngest child sustained a second-degree burn, but it has healed. We still live in fear for our safety. My husband still has nightmares and a tough time talking about this, but we are trying to work through this as a family and with God's grace.
I want people to see what the other side to this is, the pictures of my injuries. I want the people of our community to band together and prevent this from continuing. There are other ways to make a statement and accomplish things without being a terrorist. If these arsonists are truly educated, they would see this.
They are not God and need to stop acting as such. Someone is going to get hurt. My prayers are with the law enforcement officials to catch these individuals without anyone getting injured.
Name withheld by request
Kudos to you on your fair and well-written articles on the arsonist over the course of the past few weeks. As a former journalist, I'm delighted to see a writer and his/her editor have some guts and a backbone and say, "This is what we do. If you don't like it, you don't understand the role of the media!"
I applaud you for the articles you wrote on the arsonist. Unlike the Republic and broadcast media, they were balanced and fair. I think journalists often forget these aspects when presenting stories. Please keep to your guns and protect your source(s). It's a sad day when the media keep valuable information from the public because the authorities take over. I don't consider that free press.
Name withheld by request
Hey! Anybody know a tall, athletic male, who is a management professional, with a degree (maybe advanced), makes good money, works in downtown Phoenix, is into mountain biking or hiking, is against growth, is a Christian, may have a family, and two weeks ago told co-workers he was going to the gym at lunchtime? If so, he is probably the arsonist interviewed by New Times in downtown Phoenix.
Anybody know a female, who works in health care, is into mountain biking or hiking, is against growth, is a Christian, may have a family, and listens to KTAR talk-show host Preston Westmoreland? She could be the female member of the preserves arsonists.
Hey! Anybody know a guy who works at an outdoor equipment store, is into mountain biking or hiking, is against growth, is a Christian, may have a family, and may have special training in the military, police, or fire departments?
Know a guy who works for a government agency, is into mountain biking or hiking, is against growth, is a Christian, may have a family, and may have special training in the military, police, or fire departments?
If you know either of these guys, they may be one of the other male members of the preserves arsonists.
The article didn't say where the arsonists live, but I'm guessing all of the above people live in Phoenix, possibly close to one of the Phoenix mountain parks. And since they hang out together, they may live close to each other.
The New Times article said these arsonists were smart, but with all the information they gave away about themselves, I would disagree with that.
Once again New Times has (pleasantly) surprised us with coverage of the Valley arsonist(s) which is fair and balanced to a degree that is uncharacteristic of media in this country. Too often, news stories focus on and sensationalize small-scale individual acts of "violence" (such as property destruction) while ignoring the wholesale systematic violence that is business as usual for governments and multinational corporations: irreversible environmental raping, slave-mongering in Third World sweatshops, and, most abhorrent, war profiteering.
When governments systematically limit their accountability to the people they claim to represent, and when the mainstream media continually fail in their self-proclaimed role as watchdogs over government and industry for the people, it is inevitable that some people will engage in direct action to call attention to injustice. Didn't a similar situation cause the founders of our country to engage in a direct action destructive to property called the Boston Tea Party?
When law is enforced more severely against those who commit "crimes" for their political beliefs than it is against those who commit crimes for financial gain, a value judgment is implicit that regards the pursuit of money to be more desirable and justified than aspirations for political change. Alternative media that seek to fulfill a role of social conscience must never abandon a critical view of the policies and actions of the status quo.
So, in conclusion, thanks for the good work; keep it up, for there is still so much work to be done.
Phoenix Anarchist Coalition (PAC)
James Hibberd feels that it is okay to hide behind his reporter status to interview and then let loose an arsonist, but I don't think he would feel this way if these fires burned his home to the ground. I believe that there is more than property being destroyed here. These are people's lives and dreams and hard work going up in smoke! I feel that Hibberd should be held responsible for any future fires that result from him not taking the proper action and stopping this madman from continuing on this rampage.
The editorial writers should not be so eager to criticize that "alternative" newspaper New Times on ethical grounds. After all, the Arizona Republic stole the Best of Phoenix and The Rep concepts from New Times and even markets the free Rep stuffer next to the entirely free New Times. Does the Republic ever take a position both on and off its editorial pages with even some semblance of candor and disclosure that would ever run counter to the financial interests of its ownership even if it were in the best interests of the community? Hardly! Notwithstanding the fact that New Times has a liberal bias that is annoying on occasion, it does provide a counterpoint to the self-serving, pompous drivel the Republic exudes.
I hope you checked your hand for all your fingers after you shook his hand because I think you interviewed the devil himself.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.