Longform

An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist

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"We're expanding our efforts," the arsonist explains. "Six to eight months ago there was nothing there. Now all these houses are going up. There must be 15 houses under construction, so the pickings are ripe. It's private land, but as far as we're concerned, it's Preserve."

"The timing," the arsonist stresses, "was not coincidental."

There is a pause.

He waits for me to figure it out.

During our Wednesday phone interview, the arsonist explicitly said, "Our group is the 'North Mountains Preserve Unit.' There are other groups forming." Then last night, the CSP struck in an entirely different Preserve, reportedly for the first time -- the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Other groups forming . . .

You . . . mean . . . you set the fire . . . because . . .

"We discussed the meeting with you today and thought it would be a good-faith effort to establish our credibility."

I cannot think of anything to say to this.

So I ask questions instead.


The CSP scouts for new targets during bike rides through the Preserve.

The members look for construction sites along the edge, where builders have recently poured concrete onto virgin desert. They choose luxury houses at an advanced stage of development, ones with accessible routes of "egress and outgress" that are a certain distance from occupied homes. They decide where they will place a small igniter, usually in an inside room facing the desert so the fire has maximum "time to percolate" before being spotted by neighbors.

Nothing is ever written down, he says. No cell phone calls. They discuss their plans on mountain-biking excursions. Never anywhere else, never with anybody else. They decide who will participate and who will stay home. Staying home provides the occasional alibi for the three CSP members who have families.

"Each of us has had a hand in two or more," he says. "That's what binds us together. We all respect each other, and we have a mutual interest in being discreet."

They wait for a calm night -- no gusting wind that might spread the fire. Just before they leave, they have a prayer session. Out of one of these prayer sessions came the phrase "Thou Shall Not Desecrate God's Creation." Somebody said it on the spot, and it struck them as a perfect maxim. Only one member in the group is an actual "Bible thumper," he says, but they all pray together before torching houses.

"We pray for the safety of the firefighters," he says. "We don't pray for ourselves not to get caught -- that's God's will."

And then . . . then the arsonist is a bit uncomfortable discussing what comes next.

He relishes telling how they select the houses, how they evade capture, their close calls and mistakes and their feelings about sprawl. Most of all, he enjoys critiquing the media coverage. But as for the act itself, the Phoenix arsonist never says the word "arson."

The fires are "activities," or "what we do." The targets are not "homes," but rather "that one," or he references them by the street name.

So what does he feel when he lights an igniter?

The arsonist jokes: "Oh, shit, those houses go up pretty quick."

No, that's what you think. What do you feel?

He seems to struggle with this for a moment. He is defensive about the pyromaniac label and probably suspects the question is a trick.

"There's no thrill," he says quietly. "There's some gamesmanship there, but I don't take pride in being a criminal."

What if he met a homeowner whose dream house he burned to the ground? What would he say to that person?

"I'm sorry for the pain," he says. "It's not personal. We've burned your dream, but not your memories -- they're unoccupied houses."

The only exception, he notes, was the second time they burned a construction on North Arroya Grande Drive.

After they torched homeowner Lee Benson's first house in April, Benson hired a security guard to stand watch over the second construction. The guard was present every night until 5 a.m. The CSP waited through the fall, waited for the nights to grow longer. By October, the arsonist says, the CSP had an additional hour of darkness for stealthy sabotage after the guard went home. The house was burned at 5:30 a.m.

"That monstrosity stuck out like a sore thumb," he says. "We warned him not to come back. The second mansion fire was set to protest his stupidity. For God's sake, the guy owns a security company."

The North Arroya Grande Drive property has special significance to the arsonist. It's the construction that brought the CSP together, and it was his first fire. Investigators say the serial arsonist's first strike was in 1998, but the arsonist says it was not a group effort. One of their members set that fire on his own, he says. It was the same member who offered to show him how to burn Benson's house last spring.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd