Longform

An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist

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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.

The call

"'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?"

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."

The meeting

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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd