The mysterious hit-and-run arsonist has violently reduced each house to a scorched effigy of suburban sprawl. And with the latest damage estimates surpassing $5 million, the FBI's anti-arsonist task force is decidedly unhappy.
The FBI's bouillabaisse is an impressive collaboration of law enforcement resources, including the Phoenix Police Department, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, Secret Service, U.S. Postal Service, IRS, INS and more. Yet there are still no suspects. No reported witnesses. The $61,000 bounty from area homeowners and arson investigators, the largest ever offered by the Silent Witness program for a Phoenix crime, remains unclaimed. And the best clues to the arsonist's intentions are the literal writings on the wall, messages the arsonist has left behind.
"Being from a law enforcement background, I can't understand why they can't catch this guy," says Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general. "I mean, one or two [houses] is something -- but nine? I just don't understand it. If I was in charge again, I'd be wondering what the hell is going on."
When asked what the hell is going on, Deputy Fire Chief Bob Khan says local investigators have "never had anything like this before, never seen anything like this before," and notes that the Phoenix Mountains Preserve covers 29,000 acres.
Most of the acres are virgin desert, some are developed, some are under construction. And, appropriately enough, the arsonist's repeated success and consistent targets make for an excellent conservationist point, which is this: There are enough luxury homes under construction on the environmentally sensitive Preserve that even a massive law enforcement task force aided by thousands of paranoid residents can't narrow the playing field enough to spot a serial firebug who leaves burning houses in his wake.
Nine times in his wake. Three hit in December alone. The arsonist even struck the same location twice, and wrote a now-famous message to brag about it: "U Build It We Burn It -- Again."
The meticulously executed attacks, impassioned ideological messages and comically baffled collection of law enforcement officials are almost enough to make you root for the arsonist.
And the big, bad, ugly truth is: Many do.
The arsonist's first presumed attack was in 1998. The second was last April. Nobody knows why the arsonist came out of apparent felonious hibernation last year to begin a 10-month-and-counting arson spree against sprawl targets. Nobody even knows whether environmental preservation is the arsonist's true motivation. Much of the evidence -- the choice of targets, public messages left at two of the crime sites and a letter of responsibility allegedly sent from the arsonist -- strongly suggests the arsonist is a determined environmentalist. But investigators note that the arsonist's attack cycle is accelerating, indicating the perpetrator may be an arson addict first, environmentalist second.
Regardless of the arsonist's priorities, most people assume he (she? they?) commits these crimes to protest sprawl -- and either cheer or vilify him for that reason. In a rather unsettling bit of law enforcement logic, Khan says the "trigger" for the FBI taking over the arsonist case last month was that the fires appeared to be "crimes used to activate social or political change."
While the arsonist's technique is certainly criminal, his apparent attempts at social change are purely populist. A nationwide October poll shows residents in some cities rank sprawl and crime as equal concerns. Throughout California alone there were nearly four dozen land-use measures on local ballots last year attempting to curb sprawl. Even traditionally conservative suburbanites are signing environmental petitions and nagging state representatives to, you know, do something about growth.
Arizona environmentalists are justifiably more frantic than most. In the 1990s, Arizona was the second-fastest-growing state in the country (Nevada was first), and the Valley is reportedly eating desert at the rate of an acre per hour -- an oft-quoted figure called "obscene" in one alleged arsonist communiqué.
Last year's statewide sprawl war produced an unprecedented growth-control proposal with real claws -- Proposition 202. So Arizona developers lightened their wallets and outspent opponents 5-1 to convince voters that Prop 202 was downright scary: "It goes too far," it will cost jobs, it will create "density" and an upward spurt that will turn Paradise Valley into Detroit.
The campaign worked. The first Phoenix growth-cap proposal ever to stand a chance at becoming law and initially supported in polls by a 4-1 margin was ballot-punched into oblivion. Same with a second ballot measure -- the somewhat conservationist Prop 100 that would have preserved 3 percent of the state's land-trust properties. Its narrow defeat seemed like an afterthought -- oh, yeah, that one, too.
But while some civic-minded citizens struggled through traditional routes for constructive change last year, a few members of the Radical Left fought sprawl on their own terms. An organization called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for anti-sprawl arsons in Indiana, Colorado and New York. Each target was an unfinished luxury home or homes encroaching on an environmentally sensitive area. The ELF said the Niwot, Colorado, fire in November was set specifically to protest voter rejection of an anti-sprawl amendment that developers spent $6 million to defeat. At the Long Island site, accompanying graffiti expressed sentiments such as "Burn the Rich," "Stop Urban Sprawl" and . . . "If You Build It We Will Burn It."
About that last message: Its similarity to the first message left by the Phoenix arsonist may be coincidental, or ELF members may have picked up the phrase from news reports. The ELF has denied responsibility for the Phoenix attacks, and ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh says he just learned of the Phoenix arsonist a few weeks ago.
His claim of ignorance is unfortunately plausible.
Until the Long Island firebombing propelled the ELF to page one of the New York Times last week, the national media were uninterested in the arsonist, perhaps because Phoenix media have covered the arsonist as a one-sided crime story. We've heard opinions from the fire department, police, city council members, frightened homeowners and luxury home contractors, all essentially saying: "Arson is bad, mm-kay?"
Terrorism experts say shrugging off the arguments of those who feel disenfranchised, rather than providing a forum for discussion, only serves to inflame a movement's radical fringe. And the reality is that many in the Valley are, quietly and sometimes guiltily, rooting for the arsonist because of the presumed ideology of his cause. Not everyone can muster sympathy for wealthy people seeking to build half-million-dollar houses on the Preserve -- their plans spoiled by a radical risking life in prison presumably to protect open space for the rest of us.
"I don't necessarily condone the act of arson, but I support the aim," says Randall Amster, the ASU Justice Studies instructor leading the Save Tempe Butte campaign. "You defeat the Citizens Growth Initiative, you find the Sierra Club falling asleep at the wheel, and nobody seems to be doing much. So in any kind of macro perspective, you can kind of see how frustration could mount to the point where they might see arson as a viable way."
Amster says he frequently talks to other environmentalists about the arsonist -- partly to hear their opinions, partly to play the environmentalist community version of Clue to try to figure out the arsonist's identity.
"Almost universally, most were clearly sympathetic with what the person is -- in theory -- trying to do. Not too many came out in support of the arson act, but in general people were, like, 'This is what it's starting to come to. We're running out of space, and if we don't put the brakes on, it will be too late in 10 or 20 years.' There was a 'the time is now' kind of quality."
One group, the Phoenix Anarchists Coalition, even debated whether to issue a public endorsement of the arsonist. Though the group fell short of the consensus required for such a statement, member Brian Tomasi went on record to say that the wealthy "think they can buy and sell whatever they want, regardless of the repercussions for the rest of us or the environment. And the arsonist is saying a very clear, 'No, that is not allowed.'"
At the conservative end of the environmental spectrum, Grant Woods worked with the Sierra Club and Governor Jane Hull to draft sprawl-control proposals. So, c'mon, honestly, isn't he quietly rooting for the arsonist, too?
"Not for this guy, but you can see why I'm sympathetic with the Sierra Club and other groups that want to preserve the environment," Woods says. "People are frustrated with sprawl, no question. If people want to pave over every square inch of the desert and mountains, then we will wreck this place. And ultimately the builders will leave and go someplace else, and the rest of us will probably be stuck here."
Listen to environmentalists of all stripes, and you will hear the word "frustration."
Gary R. Perlstein, a frequently published expert on terrorism and a Portland State University professor, says frustration is a terrorism precursor, and he is not surprised that "eco-terrorist" acts are occurring more frequently.
"When you're young, we basically promise change to you," he says. "We promise it to you in school, we promise it to you in politics. Especially with the Clinton-Gore administration, I think it was expected with Gore being environmentally oriented [that there would be more change]. You add to that the feeling that change is supposed to happen quickly -- which using computers teaches young people -- then frustration is built in. And, too often, frustration leads to aggression."
A second precursor is a growing movement. The more popular a cause, the wider the range of personalities involved, the wider the range of tactics that will be employed.
"Years ago the Sierra Club was considered a very radical organization," says Rosebraugh of the ELF. "Today the Sierra Club is one of the mainstream organizations in the country. And I think one of the reasons that occurred is that there are more radical organizations out there such as the ELF that have been an arrowhead pushing that social movement."
This argument also attempts to justify the seeming futility of arson attacks. Sure, a torched house will be rebuilt. But the memorable force of the action will remain in public consciousness when mainstream organizations push for other environmental causes.
Naturally, the Sierra Club wishes the ELF would get off its side.
"I disagree [that radicals help the movement] in a lot of ways," says Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club. "Maybe things would be different if things were reported differently, but we all end up being lumped together. Issues get lumped together and environmentalists get lumped together."
So which perception is correct? Perlstein says history shows a definitive answer.
"Historically, unfortunately, the radicals are correct," he says. "There has never been a major social change occur in the United States, and probably elsewhere, that hasn't had violence associated with it at the beginning."
To hear the ELF tell it, burning houses is not a violent or terrorist activity at all.
"We condemn all forms of terrorism," the ELF wrote in its claim of responsibility for the Long Island attack. "A common definition of terrorism is 'to reduce to a state of fear or terror.' We are costing them money. If change falls out of your pocket, you are not in a state of fear or terror. . . . We are non-violent."
The message goes on to say that targeted houses are searched for "all forms of life" and that citizens should donate generously to local volunteer firefighters. "Don't be mad at us," the message concluded, "be mad at urban sprawl."
In other words: Sure, we're burning down houses, but we're being awfully nice about it and have a darn good reason.
The argument places the definition of terrorism on the intent, not the effect. It's saying that because environmental arsonists have good intentions, nobody should be afraid. Those living near the Phoenix Mountains Preserve would likely disagree.
"This is a crime, and it's definitely a political issue, so it's definitely terrorism," says Perlstein. "By every definition of terrorism, it's terrorism."
Counters Rosebraugh: "A classic non-violent protest that is completely legal involving picketing in front of a retail store can easily instill fear in the store owner, the employees and the customers. But does that make it violence? No."
The "terrorism" label may be debatable, but there is no doubt environmental arsonists are seriously flirting with physical violence. After all, it's all fun and games until a firefighter hosing down a cooling house accidentally steps through a charred floorboard and falls into an undiscovered basement, a thousand-degree BBQ pit full of unseen collapsing walls and asphyxiating blackness -- "a widowmaker," as firefighters call it.
Even those who agree in theory with the ELF say hit-and-run arson involves too many unpredictable variables, too many things that could go wrong, and, by all logic, eventually will.
"I have never said [accidents] are not a possibility," says Rosebraugh. "But I do think that the people involved in the Earth Liberation Front take the utmost precautions to ensure that no one gets hurt, and their record so far has spoken for itself: There have been no injuries abroad or in Europe."
Perlstein says he fears that domestic protest groups will begin attacking human targets. In Europe, where animal activists use more extreme tactics than their North American counterparts, some activists have mailed razor blades and letter bombs to those who support vivisection.
There is also a political danger in the Left using more extremist techniques. Amster, despite his years of frustration fighting to preserve open space and admitted sympathy for environmental arsonists, points out that escalating tactics may up the ante for everybody at the ideological table.
"If you admit the possibility that you can use arson for your principles, then you have to admit the possibility that other people could use it for their principles," he says. "And what would other groups decide to burn down if they used that tactic? You might have the Fascist Right burning down art galleries or synagogues."
When asked about Amster's argument, Rosebraugh says that the righteousness of the environmental cause validates the method, that the ends justify the means.
"We are already seeing signs of massive species extinction in both plants and non-human animals, and humans becoming sicker and sicker due to environmental reasons," he says. "I feel this is quite different from the Fascist Right burning down a synagogue. . . . That action . . . would only be of benefit to humans, and more specifically to white humans. It is a selfish act versus an act by the ELF that is designed to ensure life on the planet for all can continue."
So we race toward a conclusion, flying toward an endpoint, wondering where this discussion is going to end up. We've learned that if we strip away the knee-jerk moralizing and shrug off the plight of irked homeowners, there is a historical value in a popular movement having a violent fringe.
It is a dark-hearted "macro perspective" where we coldly realize that, yes, a continued eco-terrorist campaign will eventually cause physical harm, and, yes, since many lives are lost because of our increasingly toxic environment, a few well-publicized acts of destruction could theoretically accelerate environmental legislation to save lives and improve quality of life for everybody.
But that's not where this can end up. Surely not. As the man says, there's just gotta be a better way. There must be additional higher arguments that put the act of torching houses firmly back into its neat mental slot labeled "bad."
And, of course, there are. Blowing stuff up is the lowest common denominator protest. A tacky option for those who feel ineffectual, who cannot use their public life for significant change. Maximum publicity for minimum effort. Whereas the only reason you can still walk directly from Mill Avenue to "A" Mountain is because of the legal and massive public effort put forth by the Save Tempe Butte movement. It's been frustrating, and protesters may still lose, but they've effectively influenced public opinion. And influencing public opinion is what this battle is really all about.
Of course, that's just another macro perspective. But if you want the ultimate in environmental terrorism macro perspectives, go to Prescott and speak with a cabinetmaker named Mark Davis.
Davis is a former Earth First! monkeywrencher. In a 1989 sting operation, the FBI arrested five Earth First! members for attempting to cut down a power-line tower as a supposed dress rehearsal for sabotaging the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
As the operation's leader, Davis was sentenced to six years in a minimum-security prison. He served four. And while locked up, Davis says he charged himself with a new environmental mission.
"I decided to spend most of that time trying to figure out how we got ourselves into this mess," he says, "and what a possible way out might be."
So Davis read books about history. He read about biology. He read about sociology, psychology and sociobiology. He sat in his cell and read and read and then, in 1995, Davis was released. He was free once again, and he had found a peace, of sorts. After years of studying, Davis had come to a conclusion.
"The primary mission of all organisms is to survive and thrive," he says. "So when you consider the environment our species evolved in, they wanted to get fed, they wanted shelter and they wanted to get laid -- those are all short-term objectives. The animals that were successful bred, and those who didn't died. So we're literally wired for short-term thinking. And now we've created technologies in pursuit of our short-term gain that have long-term consequences. There is only a small core of people who can see such consequences, the people who actually think about such things. And if you spend a year or two doing that, you're going to discover we are in the throes of an incredible destruction. And most of us can't see that, because it's inconvenient to fulfilling our short-term needs."
In other words . . .
"We're stripping the world of pretty much everything we can take and will continue to do so, and I don't think there is any way to stop it."
Whatever we do, Davis concluded, is just "mitigating the damage." He says the term "environmentalist" doesn't mean anything to him anymore.
Wait, what about the Phoenix arsonist and the ELF?
What about young activists, just like his former self, missionaries who flout the law and put their freedom on the line for a better world?
Doesn't he feel anything when he hears about a righteous destructive act of environmentalist defiance against wealthy corporate interests?
"Yeah," he says. "I hope the FBI doesn't think I did it."
For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click over to our Arsonist Archives.