Christopher Benitez Found Guilty of Negligent Homicide and Arson in '01 Firefighter's Death

  Christopher Benitez's second chance at trying to prove he wasn't responsible for the 2001 death of a Phoenix firefighter didn't work out well.

The Phoenix man -- a solider sent home Iraq two years ago to face trial in the crime -- was found guilty today of negligent homicide and two counts of arson

Now 27, Benitez was a teenager when he set a fire at a west Phoenix supermarket, accidentally causing the death of firefighter Bret Tarver. Prosecutors maintained the teen set the blaze in retaliation for getting caught stealing beer at the store a few days before.  



Last year, an attempt to prosecute Benitez for murder and arson ended in a mistrial. A Channel 3 (KTVK-TV) report from March states that 11 jurors voted not guilty, and the one hold-out believed Benitez didn't start the fire at a supermarket intentionally. That seemed to bode well for Benitez -- but a new group of jurors apparently didn't see things the same way.

A brief article from Channel 10 news (KSAZ-TV) wraps up some of last week's closing arguments.

Benitez is scheduled to be sentenced on June 3. We're not sure what he's gonna get, but in a previous fatal arson story we covered in-depth -- the torching of the Young Champions of America headquarters -- three co-defendants received sentences ranging from four to 14 years in prison.

As with the Young Champions case, Benitez  didn't mean for anyone to die -- but arsonists, almost by definition, are reckless. Benitez, even as a teen, may have understood that his actions could usher in someone's untimely death. (His defense attorney claimed at trial, it must be mentioned, that someone else set the fire.)

Fire officials are meeting with Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery today to discuss the case with reporters.


UPDATE: Here is a news release just put out on this case (4:30 p.m.) by Montgomery's office:


Christopher Benitez Found Guilty of Negligent Homicide, Arson


PHOENIX, AZ (April 25, 2011) - A jury today found Christopher Benitez (DOB 5/5/83) guilty of one count of negligent homicide, one count of arson of an occupied structure and one count of arson of a structure or property in connection with a 2001 structural fire that resulted in the death of Phoenix Firefighter Brett Tarver.  All three charges are classified as dangerous felonies.  The jury reached a verdict after four days of deliberation.


"Today's conviction underscores my office's commitment to the pursuit of justice to hold Christopher Benitez accountable for his criminal conduct," said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.  "While we understand that firefighters face many risks in protecting citizens, we cannot tolerate the death of a firefighter that occurs in the context of an intentionally-set fire," he added.


At about 4:30pm on March 14, 2001, the Phoenix Fire Department responded to a debris fire behind Southwest Supermarket, located at 1520 North 35th Avenue.  After successfully battling the fire, firefighters discovered a significant amount of smoke coming from inside the building.  Firefighter Brett Tarver, assigned to Engine 14, entered the building to make sure no one was still inside.  While Tarver and his fellow firefighters were clearing the building, the fire quickly spread.  Tarver was overcome by smoke, heat and the lack of oxygen and subsequently died from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.


An investigation later determined that the fire was intentionally set and the incident was classified as arson.  In August of 2007, investigators received an anonymous tip through Silent Witness that defendant Christopher Benitez started the fire.  At the time the fire occurred, Benitez lived a few blocks north of the supermarket.  About a week prior to the fire, Benitez was caught by a store manager attempting to steal beer from the store. 


In May, 2009, Benitez was charged with one count of 1st degree felony murder, or in the alternative, 2nd degree murder; one count of arson of an occupied structure, and one count of arson of a structure or property.  A November, 2010 trial resulted in a hung jury.  The jury in the second trial found Benitez guilty on the two arson counts and the lesser included charge of negligent homicide on the 2nd degree murder count.


Benitez is scheduled to be sentenced on June 3, before Judge Glenn M. Davis.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern