Burning Man: An Attorney Says He Escaped His Blazing Home Using Scuba Gear; Now He’s Charged with Arson

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin