Smoke and Mirrors
The charges sounded more fitting for a mob kingpin than an alleged eco-arsonist.
U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton solemnly drove home the severity of the 22 federal counts being levied against Mark Warren Sands, the Phoenix marketing consultant accused of being the Phoenix Mountains Preserve arsonist.
Seven counts of extortion affecting interstate commerce. Seven counts of use of fire to commit a federal felony. Eight counts of arson of a property used in interstate commerce.
All told, Sands faces 300 years in prison and about $5.5 million in fines should he be convicted on all counts.
The hardball lineup of charges for a series of property crimes seemed indicative of the arson task force's frustration at the elusiveness of the Coalition to Save the Preserves -- the group credited with burning 11 Valley houses under construction near environmentally sensitive recreational areas.
Charlton, who announced Sands' arrest last week, spent more time explaining the charges against Sands than he did answering any of the reporters' questions shouted at him inside a downtown conference room.
The questions followed a round of back-slapping by various agency heads. Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt said his department has spent more than $1 million during the investigation, and that the commitment and teamwork exhibited by the arson task force would serve as a model for future investigations. City Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten thanked her constituents who endured the fires.
Everybody had somebody to thank, but nobody would answer the most pressing questions. No insight was given as to what evidence links Sands to the actual arsons. No input on whether he acted alone, other than a terse reminder that the investigation is ongoing.
Once the questions became repetitive, U.S. Attorney's officials announced that Sands was due in federal court. The room cleared, and the pressure faded. Momentarily.
Now their real challenge begins.
The federal government has less than two months to prepare for Sands' trial.
For the assistant U.S. attorneys handling the case, they must prove that Sands is indeed the arsonist and that he purposefully attempted to use arson and other intimidation methods, such as letters to homeowners and the media, to "effect social change."
The federal extortion charges relate to Sands' alleged interference with interstate commerce, meaning the out-of-state businesses that provided the materials to construct the homes that were burned. By issuing threats through CSP communiqués and burning houses, that commerce was effectively halted and/or delayed, the government alleges.
The letters left at the fire sites warning homeowners not to rebuild fit under the federal statute governing domestic terrorism. In short, the statute says that anyone who tries to effect social or political change by committing a crime can be charged under federal law.
"It doesn't have to be called domestic terrorism," says Ed Hall, spokesman for the FBI's Phoenix division. "If someone is trying to effect social change, it would give us jurisdiction."
Gary R. Perlstein, an internationally known eco-terrorism expert and professor at Portland State University in Oregon, says it should be expected that federal authorities would throw the book at Sands.
For one, it sends a message to the public that prosecutors are being as harsh as possible. Second, such weighty charges often encourage a plea bargain in return for information such as whether a defendant committed the crimes alone, or with others.
Regardless of the outcome of the Sands case, Perlstein, who has been following the Phoenix arsons, says there's a fair chance of continued CSP activity.
"Even if the man is given 200 years with no possibility of parole, there's going to be somebody that is so devoutly religious to an environmental cause that they're not going to be deterred," he says.
Sands, who turned 50 on June 20, said little when he appeared in federal court last week. He stood in a purple tee shirt and green jogging shorts, his hands and feet shackled.
Looking deflated, he calmly answered "Yes, sir" to questions.
Sands has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial is slated to start August 7.
One of the federal grand jury's 22 counts against Mark Sands states Sands is the same person interviewed by New Times ("An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist," James Hibberd, January 25).
New Times has argued that the man interviewed by the paper is a confidential source and, over the past few weeks, has refused to answer reporters' questions about whether Sands is the same man.
Comparisons between Sands and the New Times interview, however, are fair and inevitable.
Sands has been charged with eight of the 11 Valley arsons that fire officials have attributed to the CSP campaign in the Valley. The arsonist interviewed by New Times claimed the first CSP arson in January 1998 was committed by somebody else, and that the December 30 fire was a "copycat." Sands was not charged in connection with either of those fires.
However, the arsonist also said he did not directly participate in the last Valley CSP fire on January 18 -- the night before the interview -- and Sands is charged with that crime.
More interesting than any comparative details from the interview -- those dropped hints that may or may not have been used to misdirect investigators -- is the personality of the arsonist and how it has quietly shaped public reaction to Sands' arrest.
Prior to the New Times interview, the Preserve arsonist was assumed to be a crazed fire addict. Some environmentalist radical. "Losers with matches," as the Arizona Republic memorably put it.
The interview revealed the arsonist to be everything you don't expect. The arsonist, who said he was one of four CSP members, was a Christian family man. An educated and media-savvy business professional. Somebody who's not a hard-core environmentalist, but an outdoor recreationist protecting his favorite Preserve trails.
When Sands was initially arrested on April 20 for writing "CSP" graffiti on a neighboring property owner's sign, no longer was the concept of a well-to-do suburbanite eco-arsonist so startling.
Perlstein says Sands' varied background of public positions, coupled with his community involvement in civic groups and homeowner associations, fits the profile of a frustrated activist.
"He's probably a little older than I would expect," says Perlstein. "[But] he would be typical of a person who probably truly believes in the environment, is very horrified and disgusted by what is happening, and used this because he felt powerless to effect change any other way."
Yet the arsonist interviewed by New Times was so confident, seemingly so careful and clever, that some wondered how the same individual could have made such an obvious blunder as to graffiti a property that was known to be under law enforcement surveillance.
After all, that wasn't how the arsonist was supposed to get caught. The arsonist himself promised his capture would never be so easy. "Traps only work when you walk into them," he wrote to New Times. "Don't bet on it. We enjoy watching all of the surveillance activity."
If Sands is proven to be the Preserve arsonist, the reason for his mistake may be linked to the coverage of another personality. A man with an equal amount of passion for the Preserve.
In early April, New Times published an exclusive interview with the owner of a vacant property on North Arroya Grande Drive.
His three-acre lot was near the site of two previous arson attacks. Notes that threatened any construction attempts on the property were purportedly left nearby by the CSP. After learning of the notes, the owner mounted a sign on his lot fence pledging to live in harmony with nature and essentially asking the CSP to allow him to build in peace.
Like the arsonist portrayed in the interview, the property owner was everything readers did not expect.
He was passionate about the environment, a seventh-generation Arizonan and retiree who could no longer actively enjoy desert recreation. He wanted to build a new home that was wheelchair accessible and near the Preserve so he could still, tangentially, experience the desert.
The property owner was also defiant, challenging the arsonist by proclaiming, "I'm not going to back down when somebody issues a threat to me. . . . That's my property, and I can build whatever goddamn thing I want on it."
One could not imagine a more righteous character.
And one could not imagine a more tempting target for a spin-controlling arsonist than the property owner's sign.
Besides the homeowner's interview, newspapers and TV were reporting on the work of a new serial arsonist, this one operating in central Phoenix. Arson experts say fire-starters can get jealous when someone else is in the media spotlight. On April 19, TV news reports covered the latest fire at a downtown landmark.
During the early morning hours of April 20, Mark Sands was spied by an arson task force surveillance team, red-marker-handed, writing on the Arroya Grande Drive property owner's sign. He was charged with felony criminal damage, thus launching the massive investigation that would lead to his 22-count indictment.
Sands told police that he was pretending to be a member of the CSP to reassure the owner that it was okay to build. Aside from the "CSP" tag, investigators said Sands wrote "Thnx" and "OK" on the sign -- presumably as responses to various phrases in the sign's message.
Then, last week, Sands left another message of sorts. The day before his indictment, and despite warnings by his attorney not to talk to the media, Sands left a message on a Channel 15 News reporter's voice mail saying he was "somewhat intrigued" by the reporter's questions.
So if Sands is proven to be the arsonist . . . if he is shown to be the same man who claimed a talk radio host's insults provoked a fire . . . the same man who met face-to-face with a journalist to respond to a story . . . then his most effective campaign tool may have also been his greatest weakness.
Rather than manipulating the media coverage -- as so many have claimed -- the media coverage may have manipulated him.
For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click 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.