Longform

An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist

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The arsonist notes that Benson has not attempted to rebuild a third time. He says Benson can no longer find an insurance company to cover the construction. Mission accomplished.


As the minutes tick by and Patriots Square fills with professionals on their lunch break, it is difficult not to marvel at the brazen risk the arsonist is taking. We are surrounded by representatives of the law enforcement community. Uniformed police officers stroll through the park. Television news trucks squat outside the county court buildings. And, all the while, the Phoenix arsonist chats with a scribbling New Times reporter while dressed like the Unabomber turned gothic cross-trainer.

The arsonist says he is not the only CSP member taking this risk. He claims there are two other members in the park keeping an eye on the meeting, keeping an eye on him.

"A couple in the group gave me a hard time about meeting you. They think it's foolish to stick our neck out right now."

When asked if these members would care to join our conversation, the arsonist says no. He is the communications link, he says. It was his idea to leave notes, then mail letters, then meet with a reporter. If he is arrested -- if any of them are arrested -- the apprehended person will claim full responsibility for all the arsons.

"Can you spot who they are?" he teases.

Actually, several people in the park are staring at us. Then again, that's probably to be expected.

"Do you feel like you are being watched?" he asks.

Suddenly, the band One-Eyed Fiona kicks off its lunchtime set on the Patriots Square performance stage, and everybody's attention is diverted.

One-Eyed Fiona plays bouncy Celtic songs. The arsonist begins to groove. He nods his head and taps his black athletic shoes as he describes how the CSP has avoided capture.

"If you don't look or act suspicious, suspicion isn't drawn to you," he lectures. "One of our keys to success is how well we blend in. We don't stick out. If you're a couple out for a stroll on the Preserve, you're not suspicious. What do they expect? For us to carry a torch like an Olympic runner?"

Another key, he continues, is the dwindling sense of neighborhood community. Who knows what their neighbors look like? He says members of the CSP have walked away from starting a fire and said, "Hello, good evening, full moon tonight!" to local residents. One member even bumped into a police officer during a "reconnaissance mission" at a construction site. The member played it cool and chatted with the officer.

When the construction later burned down, the arsonist says, "the poor bastard never made the connection."

Or did he?

The night before our meeting, investigators released a sketch of an "investigational lead" in the Preserve fires. The person was allegedly seen at the site of one of the arsons. When asked about the drawing, the arsonist says, "Well, obviously it's not me." When pressed if he knows who it is, his answer is something shy of a firm denial. It's not that he's being evasive, exactly. He acts as if such leads are simply of little consequence or concern.

The carefree attitude is, perhaps, another reason the CSP has been successful. They are playing the campaign like it's a creative and elaborate high-stakes game rather than a straightforward crime. He brags they were able to penetrate two security fences at Benson's house without cutting them. He says they've fantasized about using ultralight gliders to do bombing runs. They once even considered setting fire to one of Jeff Groscost's alt-fuel vehicles.

And, he says, they toyed with the idea of burning structures where owners have already moved in.

Their game is evolving, in other words.

They are expanding their operations, setting fires more frequently, becoming more intimate with the media. And as they continue to raise the stakes, their benevolent Robin Hood idealism cannot hold up forever. Already one of their fires was close enough to an occupied neighboring home to warp its windows and blacken its exterior walls.

"There's a guy in our group with 'special training,'" the arsonist warns. "If anybody ever confronts him leaving a fire, they better get out of his way."

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd