Burning Questions

Since his April 20 arrest, Mark Sands has been called an "investigative lead" in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve serial arson case. Authorities have been careful not to label him a suspect in the burning of 11 luxury homes over the past three years. They note he is only accused of criminal damage, alleged to have defaced a sign on the property of a home that has twice been torched.

"I hope that people aren't jumping to conclusions," says Sands' attorney, Eleanor Miller.

Still, could Sands, a 49-year-old self-employed marketing consultant, be the one who has been destroying homes, frustrating investigators and flirting with the news media?

"We're not going to comment on either the ongoing arson investigation or the criminal damage," Phoenix Fire Department Deputy Chief Bob Khan tells New Times.

But court documents, news stories and neighbors' comments provide several intriguing details about Sands.

And an exclusive New Times interview three months ago with a man claiming to be the arsonist provided several clues that seem to fit with what is known about Sands ("An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist," James Hibberd, January 25).

The arsonist, who dressed in disguise for a clandestine public meeting with a New Times reporter, has been described as white with an athletic build and no facial hair. He had a confident, almost arrogant air about him. He was depicted as articulate, well-educated and at ease speaking to the press. And he boasted about orchestrating a campaign against urban sprawl and of clues -- notes left at the scene and letters sent to the media.

Sands generally fits the description of the man in the New Times story. Although a driver's license photo published after his arrest shows him with a mustache, a neighbor says he shaved that off months ago.

Sands is a former public information officer with the Arizona Department of Education -- where he worked directly for Lisa Graham Keegan -- and two health-care organizations. He is accustomed to talking to the press, and it's his job to generate interest in an event. A neighbor says he is articulate, educated and exhibits enormous self-assurance.

The arsonist told New Times a group of mountain bike enthusiasts had joined together in the Coalition to Save the Preserves, protesting sprawl by torching homes under construction near the mountain preserves. The key, the arsonist said, was that they blended in with the neighborhoods in which they operated, like once greeting a police officer as one of the members left the scene of a crime.

"If you don't look or act suspicious, suspicion isn't drawn to you," he told New Times.

Sands' brown stucco home in the 9000 block of North 28th Street backs up to the Preserve. Residents regularly use the streets or hiking trails. Neighbors say Sands walked his dog or rode his mountain bike on the paths every day, usually very early in the morning and very late at night.

One person he would frequently greet was the owner of a construction site on North Arroya Grande, a home that was twice burned, according to the owner who asked that her name not be used. After two notes were found on the property warning the owner not to build again, the family put up a sign in an attempt to dissuade the arsonist from again torching their planned retirement home.

Court files allege Sands scrawled "C.S.P." and other comments in red ink on that sign at 12:18 a.m. on April 20 while police watched him. He was arrested five minutes later with a red marker in his possession.

The arsonist told New Times his group had at least four members. But some of the characteristics of the CSP members actually could fit Sands himself.

The arsonist said one was a "Bible thumper," which explained the numerous Biblical references made in notes to property owners and the media. Sands, neighbors say, is active in a Bible study group.

Another member, the arsonist said, worked in health care. Sands worked for two health-care organizations. Another was employed by a "local government agency," the arsonist claimed. Sands worked for the Department of Education in the mid-'90s.

The arsonist also said he was involved in "public advocacy." Sands is vice president of his homeowners association and has taken an active role in neighborhood issues.

Neighbors say Sands, who is married and has an 11-year-old daughter, was speaking at a homeowners meeting two nights before his arrest about police surveillance in the area. He said an officer was stationed across the street from his house because it provided a good vantage point of one of the main access paths to the Preserve. A short walk away is the Arroya Grande property -- a site the arsonist told New Times had "special significance" and was his first fire.

Sands was released from custody early Saturday. He's been ordered to check in with a pre-trial services officer and to stay away from the scene of the crime. Miller says she has advised him not to speak to reporters.

She says she is being kept in the dark about the investigation and declined to comment when asked whether Sands was involved in the sign incident or the fires.

Sands is charged with criminal damage, a class 6 felony punishable by up to a year in prison. Court records say the damage was estimated at more than $400 -- an amount which, according to state law, qualifies it as a felony.

Neighbors and others are puzzled by some of the details that have emerged. If Sands knew police were watching the neighborhood, why would he deface a sign right in front of them and write C.S.P. on it?

Arson experts say part of the attraction for fire starters is the thrill of risk and the attention that ensues. They also say such attention seekers can get jealous when someone else is in the media spotlight.

On April 18, Easley's Fun Shop, a downtown Phoenix landmark, was torched. And the next day, just hours before the sign on Arroya Grande was defaced, TV and newspapers reported that the blaze was the work of a new serial arsonist who has been targeting downtown businesses.

To read more New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, go to our Arsonist Archives

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin