A is for Artist (A is also for Arsonist)

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He's that kooky kid in high school, the slightly delicate man-child that the boys thought might be gay and the girls knew wasn't. Martinez was, and is, sensitive. "I hear things other people can't hear, I see things other people can't see; it's always been like that for me," he says, cracking his neck before tacking on his familiar coda of "does that make sense?" He often asks that question during conversation. It's one he asks internally after almost every thought, checking himself for symptoms, wary of the tricks his mind has played on him in the past and might yet again.

Where he doesn't want to go is back to the racing thoughts and delusions that wrecked his mind when he was 24, destroying his world and his trust in himself. His artistic genius was fueled by increasingly psychotic thoughts as his work became more and more introspective, an attempt to shock the world and rid himself of the demons within. Instead of exorcising them through his art, he let them push him to the brink of madness and beyond.

The beauty Martinez created from his suffering made him the darling of the art scene in Phoenix. "He had so much potential," artist Martin Moreno says of his former protégé. "He was on his way to becoming great, an important artist."

But despite accolades from his peers for his work then, "I never want to go back to that place again," Martinez vows. "I won't."

Going back would mean returning to a career destroyed and opportunities lost, to a financial fortune squandered during manic highs, to a sense of identity destroyed one evening in December 1996 when Martinez finally became famous, not as an artist, but as an arsonist.

He is determined to stay healthy, even as he continues to wonder why he was afflicted in the first place: "I feel like I'm tainted, like Hester Prynne, only this big 'A' on my chest isn't for Adultery, it's for Arson."

Martinez's story begins in the barrio he was born into, the place he would come back to in his madness armed with a book of matches, an ax, and jugs of paint thinner. It's "Nuestro Barrio," just south of Buckeye Road, where his father was a slumlord. His mother had eight children by another man, her first husband, before having Jacob.

The planes that fly low over his old neighborhood are loud enough to drown out conversation, roaring and casting missile-like shadows over Nuestro Barrio's empty streets. It's been a while since he's been back here.

Martinez drives slowly, pausing at a stop sign to watch a tiny frizzy-headed toddler teeter across her yard on uncertain legs, a sagging diaper white against her brown skin. She smiles as she grips the gate of her house with one hand for balance. Martinez waits until he's sure she won't stagger out into the street. The neighborhood's other children are in a school built underground because of noise pollution.

Martinez stops for a moment at the house he grew up in with his mother and eight half-brothers and half-sisters. It's a run-down, two-bedroom structure, similar to others on this block of sagging fences and junk-filled lawns. "My father used to own all the homes on this street," Martinez says flatly.

His father was Leonard Burgmair, a Jew who fled Germany during World War II, made a small fortune in real estate and later gambling in Las Vegas. Martinez was his only son. Burgmair left him everything.

He dropped dead of a heart attack in front of Martinez when Martinez was 5 years old. "That's one of the first things I remember, my first real memory," he says.

Martinez's mother, Petra, admits that life was a constant struggle for her large family. She met Burgmair, whom she never married, when she did his laundry. Jacob was born when she was 38 years old and Burgmair was 52. "Jacob's father was an alcoholic and used to treat us all very poorly, always yelling and abusing us," she says. "Jacob never knew him, never loved him. His death didn't affect him much." She pauses, then adds, "I thought when he got sick, it was the German coming out in him."

Burgmair left his young son with a trust fund, more than $350,000 and the deed to the family home. He left Martinez's mother with just $40,000, which was soon gone. A heavy burden at the age of 5, Martinez's pending inheritance was something he grew up knowing wasn't a secret in the family. Instead of providing him with security, it was more of a curse. "My family just waited for me to grow up and turn 18 to see what I would do with the money," he says. He ended up giving much of it to them, and squandering the rest, in fits of furious spending during his stay at the mental hospital. "Some of the medication they put me on made me really manic," he says. "I gave a lot of money to my family, and I bought everything I could think of." Including, he says, a Jeep Cherokee. "I just called up the dealer and he delivered it to the State Hospital a few hours later."

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Susy Buchanan