Shortly before Phoenix Fire Department investigators arrested Michael Marin for allegedly torching his plush Biltmore Estates mansion, he spoke about the fire he says almost stole his life.
"Here's the unvarnished version from the horse's mouth," Marin told New Times in the living room of his other home, a more humble place in Gilbert.
He spoke directly, measuring each word like the Wall Street trader and attorney he once was, maintaining eye contact even when he got weepy.
"One, you don't set fire to something that you're in and then go trap yourself upstairs to make a more dramatic exit," he said of the July 5 blaze. "The second thing, if you bore into my finances, this was the worst thing that could have happened to me. Not only did I not have any incentive personally, I totally had a counter-incentive. The Phoenix Fire Department people will figure out what they figure out."
Unfortunately for Marin, what arson investigators say they have figured out is this:
Michael J. Marin "committed arson of an occupied structure by starting multiple fires inside his home. Michael was the only person home at the time of this fire and escaped using a portable ladder from the second-story balcony while wearing a diving mask, buoyancy compensator, and breathing air from a scuba tank."
The report by fire Captain Jeff Peabody continues, "The scuba setup was in a ready state when he found it next to his portable ladder stored in his upstairs master bedroom closet. During my investigation, I discovered multiple and separate points of origin [of the fire], located both downstairs and upstairs."
Marin is facing a charge of committing arson of an occupied (by him) structure, the equivalent under Arizona law to that of second-degree murder.
If convicted, the Yale Law School-educated attorney, ex-Wall Street trader, high-level executive in Japan, artist and art collector, author, erstwhile philanthropist, small-plane pilot, devotee of the annual Burning Man Festival (irony noted) in Idaho, and, yes, scuba diver could be sent to prison for years.
No one was injured in the predawn two-alarm blaze that destroyed Marin's sprawling (10,766 square feet, counting the four-car garage and about 6,600 square feet of living space) and uniquely beautiful custom-made home, other than smoke inhalation Marin suffered during his self-described escape from the inferno.
The blaze at 71 Biltmore Estates already was raging wildly when Phoenix firefighters arrived and were forced to assume a defensive mode after learning that no one was in the house.
Marin's daring, Houdini-like getaway naturally caught the eye of area news media: Veteran firefighters told TV crews that morning they never had seen anyone don scuba equipment to flee to safety.
Many in the local news media knew Michael Marin's name from earlier stories.
Those pieces had included accounts of his two-month Mount Everest expedition, which culminated May 20 on the mountain's summit.
But Marin had also been in the news for his collection of 18 original etchings by Pablo Picasso, and for his failed attempt earlier this year to raffle his Biltmore home months after he'd bought it — ostensibly to help out a financially strapped crisis center.
Mike Marin is unique, as he is the first to admit.
A 50-year-old man of many personal and professional accomplishments, he is a proud father of four and grandfather of two (with a third on the way).
Marin refers to himself as a "careful thrill seeker" and claims to have survived close calls on mountains around the globe and in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
"I'm very calm under pressure, and I've certainly been tested in that way," Marin says.
But not even his spiel on the dating Web site Match.com, in which he described another brush with death, compares with his most current "test" — that of a firebug defendant who could be facing prison.
"As I was descending from the summit [of Alaska's Mount McKinley], a snow bridge collapsed and I fell into a deep crevasse," Marin wrote, along with a saccharine riff about seeking a soul mate.
Talk about a deep crevasse: In a span of three months, Michael Marin has traveled from atop the world — literally — to a cell at the Maricopa County jail, where he is being held in lieu of $200,000 bond.
It has been an improbable turn of events for Marin's family and friends, who spoke to New Times before the arrest.
"There's no doubt to me they'll find out the cause of that fire, and I assure you that Mike will be cleared of it," said Jana Bru, a longtime girlfriend and ex-business associate of Marin's who lives in Chandler.
One of his four children, 22-year-old Schuyler, chuckled at the very notion of his father as an arsonist.
"If he ever was going to do something like that, which he wouldn't do, he would have figured out how to be out of the country or whatever," said Schuyler, a U.S. Marine who served a tour of duty in Iraq.
"Can you really see him burning down his house with himself in it? It doesn't seem like a wise choice. My dad has my total respect, and he does not have that type of background."
At this point, the arson case against Michael Marin seems compelling.
The report by Captain Peabody alleges that Marin, the sole person in the Biltmore home on the night of the fire, placed an accelerant (probably gasoline or another petroleum distillate) inside the house and lit it.
When firefighters arrived at the scene a few minutes after Marin and a next-door neighbor made independent calls to 911, the house was ablaze. That fact alone, according to the report, immediately gave rise to suspicion.
Investigators always try to determine a motive and opportunity for committing a crime, and the Biltmore case — even before the allegedly damning lab results came in — was no exception.
Opportunity in Marin's case is easy: He was the only one at the house when the fire erupted.
Motive, however, is likely to prove more complex. Though, by Marin's description to New Times, he has been in financial quicksand for some time. He said shortly before his arrest that the stock market tumble, along with poor investments, had taken a huge chunk out of his portfolio.
Marin added that "feeding the kitty month after month" — staggering $17,000-plus interest-only payments on the Biltmore home to private moneylenders, plus a mortgage at the Gilbert residence — was eating him alive financially.
And looming over Marin like an ugly storm cloud was a $2.3 million balloon mortgage payment on the Biltmore home, due in the coming month.
If Marin doesn't pay up, his lenders could foreclose on the property or offer to renegotiate the terms for a higher interest-only rate than the 9 percent he already was paying.
But Marin told investigators last month that he has less than $100,000 in liquid assets. That's not a lot for someone who purchased original Picasso etchings a decade ago and, more important, bought the Biltmore house for $2.55 million on September 4, 2008.
Whatever his net worth, Marin clearly was running out of money — and fast — at the time of the fire.
"To hammer that point home about my finances," Marin told New Times, "the biggest thing in front of me was the one-year, interest-only balloon payment. I had a $2.3 million bill to pay. So I refinance or sell or I am totally screwed. If I were to burn it, that's slitting my own throat. I lose everything."
But Marin insisted that, at the time of the fire, he wasn't planning to sell. Refinancing or just walking away from the home — taking a $450,000 hit (down payment and what he'd already paid in interest) and trying to pull himself together financially — seemed his immediate options.
Scott Gould, a veteran Valley moneylender who structured the Biltmore deal on behalf of a group of private lenders, says it is common to renegotiate terms with financially strapped borrowers.
"We wouldn't have wanted to kick him out," Gould says shortly before Marin's arrest. "We had gotten his monthly [interest] payment on time since September. There was no reason not to work with him."
As for the State Farm insurance policy on the house, land, and contents, the lender, not Marin, stood to collect more than $2 million for the damage to the structure and the home's "built-ins" — entertainment centers, wall cabinets, and other pre-existing items.
Michael Marin could have collected up to $1 million in insurance for the contents. But surprisingly, he didn't have nearly that much of value at 71 Biltmore Estates when it burned.
He told New Times that he had moved over a computer, furniture, a new bed, some of his own artwork, and other odds and ends.
Fire investigators found the odds and ends in packing boxes lined up on the ground floor near the home's spiral staircase. Telling to investigators, several of those boxes were filled with junk items whose price tags — usually $3.99 or less — were still attached.
The investigators also found 28 charred Valley phone books in the rubble, all of them in two piles near the packing boxes. The arson report suggests that Marin had attempted to use the phone books as kindling.
What wasn't at 71 Biltmore Estates when it went up in flames also piqued the curiosity of investigators.
Safely back at Mike Marin's home in Gilbert were his beloved blue-and-gold macaw Sunshine and a pretty cat he has been caring for. Also in Gilbert were his precious works of art, including the Picassos and a beautiful rubbing from the ancient Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat.
A defense attorney could pose this question: If Marin was committing arson, why wouldn't he at least burn a valuable piece of art for the insurance?
Michael Marin welcomes a reporter into his Gilbert home, in an anonymous subdivision near Guadalupe Road. It is August 8, less than two weeks before investigators will arrest him here.
Marin is a small man of Western European descent, with thinning light-brown hair and a face surprisingly unlined, considering all the mountaineering he's done. He's trim, with calf muscles as large as a middle linebacker's, from the constant climbing.
He tends to speak softly, and his wardrobe is understated — blue polo shirts, shorts, and sandals — but the tales he tells are florid and sweeping.
Before entertaining questions, Marin hammers some rivets into a section of a Mongolian ger (a collapsible tent-like structure) he's been building. He says he's going to attend the Burning Man Festival in Nevada for the seventh year in a row and plans to fly there in his Cessna 310, a six-seater.
He says he takes on the persona of a major airline pilot at the popular festival, donning a uniform with epaulettes and insignias for kicks. He spends some of his time giving festival attendees free rides in his plane, saying with a wink that whether the folks choose to join the mythical "Mile High Club" in the six-seat craft is a private matter.
Marin leads the way to his garage, cluttered with bicycles, exercise and climbing equipment, tools, a mannequin, and, improbably, the guts of a half-finished Glasair plane. He says he's been building the slick, pre-molded composite kit plane from scratch.
Finally, Marin steps back into his unlighted living room and plops down on a couch next to a piano, greeting his cat as she jumps onto his lap.
Within eyesight are pieces of his artwork (a marriage of sculpture and painting) and mementos of his many years living in Japan. But conspicuous by their absence are Marin's Picassos, which he says usually hang on the wall a few feet away in the dining room.
"The nuts came out of the woodwork after the fire," Marin says by way of explanation. "All those ugly calls and comments. I felt like I had to put them [the Picasso prints] in a safe place."
Books of all stripes are on several shelves. The titles include Nietzsche For Beginners, Excuses Begone!, Dating For Dummies, World of Macaws, and Lowering Your Handicap.
"Where do I start?" Marin asks.
Born into a large middle-class family (his father George was a U.S. Navy lifer), Marin was raised on beautiful Whidbey Island near Seattle.
His parents were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Marin dutifully went on his two-year mission in 1978.
He was sent to Japan, a baby-faced 19-year-old who, years later, would sell derivative securities to the Japanese for a living. (He says he no longer considers himself of the Mormon faith.)
After returning home from his mission, Marin graduated from Brigham Young University with honors. He then enrolled at Yale Law School, where he excelled academically and was an editor of the Yale Law Review.
Marin's then-wife Tammy gave birth to the second of their four children while he was in law school. Soon after that, he was a fledgling attorney at a large New York firm specializing in transactional law.
"I had an art, music, and literature background," he says, "but here I was on Wall Street developing cold-blooded, reptilian trading instincts."
From the mid-1980s until the late-1990s, his ride included stints as head of the legal department for Salomon Brothers in Asia (after the 1991 bond-trading scandal), head of derivative finance for Lehman Brothers in Asia, and a director of Merrill Lynch in Tokyo.
During that time, he self-published a book, Fluctuations, which he described as "the inside story of how Wall Street eff'd Asia without a kiss."
In it, Marin warns potential litigants: "The bulk of my personal net worth is now safely hidden in a geometrically complex series of offshore trusts that would make the Clinton Whitewater arrangements seem simple by comparison."
But Marin needn't have worried about getting sued. Unlike Michael Lewis, whose classic Liar's Poker covers much of the same subject matter and time frame as Fluctuations — and did name names — Marin instead gave pseudonyms to his main antagonists, occasionally in a clever way.
Marin's book also provides insight to his personal life. In one poignant passage, he describes how his wife divorced him, allegedly unexpectedly, in 1993 after she and the couple's four young children had moved to Arizona. Marin writes (and his son Schuyler confirms) that he subsequently traveled back and forth from Japan once a month to spend time with his kids.
He notes in the book, "You know you're in trouble when you come to the realization that all you've ever really known — all you've ever really been capable of feeling — is abandonment, rejection, betrayal, pain, shame, guilt, and depression."
Marin's last job in the finance industry was with Lehman Brothers, which fired him in 1997 after, according to what he says, was a massive changing of the guard.
"I was in good shape money-wise at that time," he says.
Around that time, Marin says he bid on and won the original Picasso etchings that included a set from the "Sable Mouvant" series. Completed in the mid-1960s, the etchings were done as illustrations for a posthumous book of poetry by the master's old friend Pierre Reverdy.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Marin says. "It's one of those things where you sell the ranch and mortgage your mother to get it done." (Actually, Marin's mother had died before he bought the Picassos.)
Marin won't say exactly how much he paid for them. ("Seven figures, okay?" is as close he gets.) But he says, "I made a major mistake when I bought them. I thought I would buy and sell and make some money. But what makes a piece of art valuable is what grabs you emotionally, and I've never wanted to part with them."
Michael Marin says he first viewed the Biltmore Estates home as "pure math," a business deal.
He claims it was a straight-up investment and that he originally planned to try to sell it quickly at a tidy profit after buying it for $2.55 million in September 2004.
"It wasn't necessarily my dream house," he says. "But my thinking on it evolved. The more time you spend there, the more you fall in love with it."
The home at 71 Biltmore Estates Drive is a story itself, tucked amid the small enclave of other multimillion-dollar residences near 24th Street and Missouri Avenue.
The exclusive gated community has been home to luminaries such as late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, singer Glen Campbell, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim owner Arte Moreno, and Phoenix Suns star Amar'e Stoudemire.
The unique home "had to have been built by a very egotistical male," says Jana Bru, Marin's longtime girlfriend. Actually, it was an architectural fantasy of Bob Lutz, a well-heeled business executive.
When it was finished in the late 1980s, the home was the ultimate bachelor pad. It had a distinct hipster feel: expansive movie room, sauna and Jacuzzi, manicured putting green, and a master bedroom overlooking the Biltmore (Adobe) Golf Course and with a walk-in closet big enough to sleep in comfortably.
A remote-control panel next to the bed with security monitors and lots of buttons — "the Captain Kirk bit," Michael Marin says — could have fit into a James Bond (as played by Sean Connery) flick.
But not long after the "stud-muffin palace" (as someone dubbed it) was finished, bachelor Lutz became husband Lutz, marrying Trixie.
The Lutzes, who lived there for nearly two decades, became renowned for throwing the best parties around.
"That place meant a lot to us," says Trixie Lutz, who went there with her husband shortly after the fire to survey the damage. "It was a great party home and spectacular for the right person or couple."
A few years ago, though, the Lutzes realized they "weren't using our home to its fullest advantage because we and our friends were getting older, and other priorities — grandchildren and such — were taking over."
The couple decided to put it on the market in late 2006, just as housing prices were about to spiral downward.
Their asking price was $4 million, and county records show that East Valley real estate broker Greg Bensen bought it from the Lutzes in May 2007 for $2.8 million.
Bensen also inked an interest-only, balloon-mortgage deal with the same private lenders with whom Marin did business at the same location in September 2008.
Greg Bensen's name is important in this narrative: He and Marin were partners in the early 2000s in a real estate/financial firm called Once Again, and county records also show several personal financial transactions between the two in recent years.
In 2007 and into early 2008, Bensen apparently was living at his cool, new Biltmore pad. But in April 2008, the private lenders filed foreclosure proceedings against him because he had not been current with his substantial monthly interest payments.
An auction that August put the home back in the lenders' hands for a price of $2.5 million, and their point-man, Scott Gould, looked for a buyer by taping informational fliers to front doors around the neighborhood.
Gould wrote that two appraisals for the foreclosed home had come in at $3.5 million. But he was "willing to sell this home at a bargain price of $2.55 million. I can do short-term financing for the first buyer that can come in with $200,000 down."
His rationale was sound: August 2008 was a dismal time in the Valley housing market, even for luxury sellers.
The Web site PhoenixMarketTrends.com wrote at the time, "There is simply a tremendous amount of inventory out there, giving the few [luxury] buyers an amazing amount of leverage and choice . . . Prices for many homes are dropping tremendously. Prices in areas such as Paradise Valley are becoming affordable. It's a buyer's market."
That lends credence to what longtime Valley agent Russell Shaw tells New Times about the importance (or lack thereof) of appraisals involving high-end homes.
"You can't really use appraisals in areas such as the Biltmore Estates as the gospel," Shaw says, speaking generally, "because there just aren't many sales there to draw a legitimate comparison from. It all depends on how badly a buyer wants something and how badly a seller wants to sell."
Scott Gould says he quickly identified two potential buyers willing to buy the house for $2.55 million. One was Michael Marin, who says his foreclosed pal Greg Bensen told him about the deal.
"It came together quickly," Marin says. "The market had fallen as low as it was going to go, I thought, and this was a screaming deal. My idea was to capture some equity, sell it quickly, and move along. It was all good."
On September 4, 2008, Maricopa County recorded two documents concerning the property at 71 Biltmore Estates.
The first was Michael Marin's $2.3 million balloon-payment deal (plus about $200,000 in interest over a year's time) with the private lenders.
The second was a curious financial arrangement between Marin and Biltmore Estates Inc., a firm registered with the Nevada Corporation Commission.
Marin promised to repay $950,000 to the entity and listed his new home as collateral in second position after the primary lenders got their $2.3 million. Biltmore Estates Inc. had nothing to do with Marin's private lenders — it was a completely separate deal.
The $950,000 "loan" — if that's what it was — raised the official sales price of Marin's home (with the $250,000 down payment) in the county Assessor's Office and in other real estate documents to $3.5 million, which was far more than what he actually paid for it.
But just a month later, in October 2008, Jana Bru — listed as vice president of Biltmore Estates Inc. — signed a notarized document that forgave the $950,000 debt.
Bru, Marin's girlfriend, says she is a longtime friend of Greg Bensen's. The latter is the wheeler-dealer who had lost the Biltmore house to foreclosure. Also, the president of Biltmore Estates Inc. turned out to be Bensen, who is now in parts unknown.
So why would Mike Marin have signed nearly a $1 million promissory note to Bensen's firm at the same time he inked a potentially risky $2.55 million deal on a home that Bensen just had lost to foreclosure?
One answer is that the paper deal between Marin and Bensen (no money apparently changed hands) made it seem as if the Biltmore home had sold for $3.5 million ($2.3 million owed to Gould's group, the $250,000 down payment, and the artificial, but legally documented, $950,000 "loan").
The financial machinations came into play early this year, when Michael Marin joined forces with a East Valley children's crisis center in an effort to sell his new home, a place that already was threatening to become a financial albatross around his neck.
Recent news stories around the nation have told how more than a few people in these troubled economic times try to sell their homes to non-profits (usually charities).
In turn, the non-profits seek to raffle off the house after selling enough tickets to make the deal work. But if the non-profit cannot sell enough tickets to buy the home and make money, the raffle is canceled and the ticket money refunded.
Gambling regulations in most states, including Arizona, don't allow private raffles unless the homeowners become partners with a non-profit. Such homeowners are not supposed to make more money in the deal than the appraised value of their home (which, for better or worse, may not be the actual market value).
The arrangement has worked famously in some instances, with both homeowner and non-profit making some money, and the raffle winner getting a house relatively free (the new owners do have to pay property taxes and other expenses).
Michael Marin says a story on Inside Edition about a home raffle caught his interest early this year.
"I knew about the great work of the Child Crisis Center in Mesa," he says, "and that they had lost a bunch of their funding from the state [of Arizona] in the budget crunch.
"I thought, 'Here's my chance. I'm gonna sell this house anyway and pay a real estate agent $200,000 or $300,000. Why not sell it a little bit at a time with the raffle?' I wasn't going to make any money on the deal, just get out of it what I put into it and move along. If it went well, the center could have gotten maybe $500,000, so it sounded like a great thing, no downside."
Marin says he approached the Crisis Center with the proposition.
"They vetted it for three months, and then gave me the go-ahead to move forward," Marin says. "Everything just felt right."
He says he wrote up the rules for the raffle, started a Web site, and went from there.
If everything fell into place, there would be a drawing on the Fourth of July at 71 Biltmore Estates Drive for the $3.5 million (the artificially pumped-up price) "dream house":
"Michael J. Marin, the artist and author who made his home available to the Child Crisis Center for purposes of making the Arizona Dream House Raffle possible, is climbing Everest this spring.
"Raffle tickets are only $25. Imagine! A completely furnished $3.5 million Arizona Biltmore Estates dream house for only $25! It even comes with a Rolls-Royce! There are hundreds of other prizes available, too."
But the deal was complicated.
Marin's rules dictated that he would sell his home to the Crisis Center only after 176,000 tickets were sold at $25 per ticket. That added up to $4 million worth of tickets, a tall order.
That would have left about $2.7 million for Marin to divvy up with the raffle winners after he paid off his short-sale lenders the $2.3 million he owed them:
"The Owner further reserves the right to sell the Arizona Dream House, if in consultation with the [Crisis Center], it does appear likely that ticket sales will reach 176,000 prior to the expiration of the Entry Period."
In other words, Marin was hedging his bets from the start and wanted — make that needed — another plan in case the raffle failed.
Marin says he planned to pitch himself to the news media as a rich businessman-cum-artist-cum-mountain-climber with a heart for "kids."
He had been training hard for a two-month climbing expedition he planned to take with a mostly Russian team in Nepal, the goal being to reach the summit of Mount Everest sometime in early May.
"I understand local TV — if it bleeds, it leads," Marin says. "But this was a feel-good story with a nice hook: a major-league mountain climber working closely with a charity by putting up his house in the Biltmore for $25."
Marin did get plenty of local publicity before and after he left for his Everest adventure last March, but he sought more.
"We needed national exposure to sell tickets, and Inside Edition expressed great interest in our story," he says. "They test-interviewed me in Nepal, and it went really well. The beautiful house was the hook, of course, and the Crisis Center didn't have to do anything but sit back and count the tickets."
Marin claims he was staying at the Biltmore home "about 25 percent" of the time in the weeks and months before he left the States for Nepal. He hosted a memorable Super Bowl party there during that stretch, says his son, Schuyler.
But a neighbor later told investigators that he never knew anyone was living there after Greg Bensen lost the house to foreclosure in the spring of 2008.
Though the raffle seemed good to go, the Arizona Department of Gaming had expressed serious reservations to the Children's Crisis Center as early as March 24.
Christine Scarpati, who is the center's chief executive officer, wrote in a June 15 letter to the state agency that she had tried to answer those concerns but didn't get an official response until late April.
"During this time," Scarpati wrote to Gaming Deputy Director Rudy Casillas, "we lost the opportunity of national exposure as two of the major networks were geared up and ready to follow Mr. Marin as he summited Mount Everest, which would have ensured the success of the [raffle]."
She reiterated that her board of directors and the center's lawyers believed the raffle would have been legal.
But Casillas concluded that the raffle was illegal in that "the Child Crisis Center, Michael Marin, and the person who wins the home could all potentially knowingly benefit from gambling."
Marin says he got the bad news as he moved ever closer to the summit of Everest, where he had planned to make his best pitch for the home raffle.
"My first thought was, could I have been so wrong?" he says. "But I wasn't. The government was absolutely wrong on the law and on the public policy. There had been a buzz about our raffle, and the reason we didn't sell enough tickets was that we got the rug pulled out from under us. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I went about trying to keep myself alive on Everest."
In late May, the Children's Crisis Center did conduct a raffle of the mere 3,600 or so tickets sold, totaling about $90,000. Apparently, the center split the proceeds with the winner, a Peoria man. Christine Scarpati did not return a call from New Times for confirmation.
Michael Marin wrote in a blog on May 20: "I reached the summit of Everest at dawn, just as the very first rays from the rising sun were bathing the highest point on Earth with a golden glow and casting the shadow of a perfect pyramid on the high Himalayas."
He returned safely to the States, where more temporal matters, such as how the hell he was going to pay for the Biltmore house, awaited.
Marin says he knew he was going to have to do "one of two things: refinance or sell. The mortgage eats you alive. I could have lost a lot of sleep over it. The fire was the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me financially because it took away those two options. You can't refinance a piece of ash, and if you think there was going to be any insurance payout anytime in the next year, you're kidding yourself."
But Marin didn't put his home up for sale in the aftermath of the raffle disaster. To the contrary, he says, "There was a tipping point, and I started to spend more time there. It went to about 60 percent there and 40 percent in Gilbert. Finally — in June, I guess — I made my decision that I might as well live [in Biltmore Estates], and I started to move over there, piece by piece. I was up to my ears in packing boxes."
Marin says he moved over many of those boxes on the July 4 weekend. He says he spent the afternoon before the July 5 fire at Jana Bru's home in Chandler (she confirms this) eating pizza and hanging out.
He says he later drove across the Valley, alone, to the Biltmore house and watched a little television before retiring to the master bedroom on the second floor. He says he'd planned to hike nearby Camelback Mountain, as usual, the following morning.
Condensed but in context, here is what Mike Marin says happened next:
"The next thing I know is getting awakened by some faint, electronic beeping — beep, beep, beep — that I hear through my earplugs. That's what wakes me up. I immediately smell smoke. I hit the button to turn on the light above the bed. Smoke is pouring in from every crack.
"I recall three distinct moments in which I kind of freaked out, and that was the first one. My cognitive dissonance kicks in. I know what I'm seeing, I know what I'm smelling. This can't be!
"Being a guy, I don't hang things up. I throw on my shorts, T-shirt, shoes, and head for the door, which is the only way and leads down the spiral staircase.
"When I pull that door open, it blasts me with this super-heated air and smoke. All I could do was throw my weight against the door and close it. Black smoke has embedded itself in the room. As an old pilot, I'm aware that it's smoke inhalation that kills.
"I get down low to the ground, where I have my second panic moment. I tell myself, 'I'm still screwed. How am I going to get out of there?' The window is an option — it's actually a wall of windows divided into four ceiling panels on tracks, with a little ledge before you drop down to the ground.
"I'm still crouching there, and I realize I have this collapsible escape ladder in the closet. I decide to try to go get it."
But the walk-in closet was several feet from where Marin was crouching near the window. He was going to have to stray from his only viable escape point — the window — to fetch the ladder.
New Times asks Marin why, as a fit guy who recently had conquered the mighty Everest, didn't he just jump out of the window, which was only about 10 feet above grassy backyard?
"I thought I would have broken my neck," he replied.
Instead, he says he fought through the smoke and found the ladder.
"First," he says, "I had to get it out of the box. Then, boom, I literally smacked into my scuba set, and I had a flash of inspiration. I turned on the valve, and when I heard the pssstttt, it was one of the happiest sounds I ever heard. I knew I had pressure."
Michael Marin says he has been diving since his teens. He is asked why he had taken the bulky scuba equipment upstairs to his bedroom closet when he had gobs of storage space on the ground floor.
"Can't tell you," he says. "I was just moving stuff in."
At this point, Marin says, he was coughing uncontrollably:
"I grabbed the ladder and the scuba gear and headed back to the bed, which is where the window is. And that's when I had another panic attack, if you will. I didn't know at that point if I was going to make it. I was feeling a little woozy.
"I knew I had to make a 911 call, and I had to breathe through this [scuba] apparatus, I had to get the window open, and I had to deploy the ladder. The scuba worked fine if I put it on my back, though I had to bend down to breathe into it. Time kind of slows down for me when I get into these situations.
At 4:46 a.m., the Phoenix Fire Department took a 911 call from a coughing man. The female 911 operator asks where he is. Sounding very calm, he gives her the address, saying it's his house.
Not until 51 long seconds pass does the operator ask Michael Marin what his emergency is, nor does he tell her.
Finally, she asks him.
"My house is on fire," he says.
"Just you in the house?"
Marin tells her that he has deployed a ladder.
The operator asks where it is.
"I'd rather work on that than talk to you, so let me get the hell out of here," Marin says, exactly 90 seconds after making the call.
At the same time, a next-door neighbor also has called 911 about the fire, telling another operator, "There's no one living in the house right now. I don't expect there's going to be anybody inside."
Marin continues to New Times, "Smoke was coming up from beneath. When I got the window open, that made things worse. I had a mask and a headlamp, but the mask was of no help. I wouldn't let myself become paralyzed.
"I remember Captain Peabody telling me later, 'The danger you found on Everest, you prepared for. You had the experience and you minimized the risks. But you didn't choose this — a living breathing animal [and the fire] that's trying to kill you."
Marin says he gingerly stepped down the ladder in his scuba outfit and, for the first time, saw the flames. He recalls making a second call to 911 (actually, the operator phoned him, not the other way around), heard the sirens of the approaching fire trucks, and finally took off the scuba gear, about 240 feet from where he had stepped off the ladder.
The firefighters soon arrived. He jumped into his blue Toyota Land Cruiser parked in front of the garage and drove it about 100 feet, out of harm's way, he says.
"I got back out and sat down and passed out at some point," he says. "My blood pressure was racing. My throat was killing me."
Fire paramedics soon took Marin to the county hospital to get treated for smoke inhalation.
"I lost a day," he says. "I can't remember much of anything that happened for a while."
Back at 71 Biltmore Estate, veteran Phoenix fire Captain Dorian Jackson told a television reporter that he'd never heard of anyone saving him or herself by employing a scuba tank.
It would be Marin's claim of using the scuba gear that kept the house fire in the minds of the general public long after it normally would have faded away.
The Phoenix Fire Department assigned Captain Peabody to head the investigation into the Biltmore fire, with assistance from Captain Willie Nelson.
The report of the initial scene-investigation notes that the two garbage cans at 71 Biltmore Estates — recycle and regular — were almost empty and connected by spider webs, "indicating that they have not been moved for a while."
That finding, among others, caused the investigators to pause, especially after Marin told them in an interview that he had been living there "70 percent" of the time.
Their first of two interviews with Marin took place July 7 at his home in Gilbert, two days after the fire. Marin described his mortgage, pointing out that he was insured with State Farm as a package deal from his lenders.
Marin told the investigators that he had bought the house for $3.5 million (not true), and owed $2.3 million (true).
According to the investigative report, Marin said he had "hundreds of thousands [of dollars] in liquid assets," though in a second interview he apparently claimed to have only $100,000 or so in liquid assets.
Marin's Picasso prints still were hanging on the dining-room wall at his Gilbert home at that point, and Captain Peabody asked him how much they were worth.
"Seven figures," the investigator quoted Marin as saying.
Remarkably, Marin claimed not to have insurance on his extremely valuable artwork, because could not afford it.
He told the investigators that he had been planning on moving into the Biltmore house full time and gifting the Gilbert home to his children. How he was going to pay the $2.3 million he soon owed remained unclear.
On the day of the fire, Marin said, he had been working on his artwork on the ground floor of the Biltmore home, noting that he kept highly flammable cans of fiberglass resin, acetone, and peroxide on hand.
He also said the home had nagging and well-documented electrical problems.
Captain Peabody had started his "origin and cause" investigation soon after he arrived at the still-burning home shortly before 5 a.m. on July 5.
"This fire was in an advanced stage of burning when the first fire units arrived," he wrote later. "My observations of this size house and the amount of fire damage was suspicious, being that an occupant was home at the time."
Peabody wrote that he observed several points of possible origin (of the fire), and that "these low points of origin on the second floor and the severity of burn downstairs gave me reason to believe that this fire was intentionally set in different areas both downstairs and upstairs."
On July 9, Peabody and Willie Nelson started digging through the smoldering debris and ashes.
With them was Captain Fred Andes, who handles the fire department's chocolate Labrador, Sadie. The dog is trained to point out fire accelerants.
Fire officials say Sadie has proved more sensitive to the presence of accelerants than the crime laboratory itself.
The investigators noted the long line of boxes leading up the spiral staircase, the ones with junk in them. Some of the boxes had deeper charring on them than others, which to Peabody indicated "an attempted area of ignition."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Along that line of boxes in two locations, Peabody counted all the phone books. Some dated back to 2005.
Sadie picked up the scent of accelerants in several locations, including upstairs in the master bedroom.
In all, Peabody concluded, "I discovered four points of origin where Michael intentionally set fire to burn his house, and three additional areas of interest that showed inconsistent burn patterns with the surrounding area."
Michael Marin's girlfriend, Jana Bru, says longtime Phoenix attorney Richard Gierloff has agreed to represent him. Marin was still in custody as of noon on Tuesday, August 25.