Friend in Need

Last August, Warren Jerrems sat in the former recreation room of the Casa Rosa Care Center, a decrepit nursing home. Jerrems, an accountant, has several nursing homes as clients and was helping close the facility.

Jerrems had agreed to meet and discuss his incarcerated friend, Mark Sands. At the time, Sands was awaiting trial, accused of torching a series of houses under construction near the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. Jerrems helped elicit a confession from Sands during a hiking trip while secretly wearing a wire for investigators.

Last week, Sands pleaded guilty in federal court to eight counts of extortion affecting interstate commerce and one count of use of fire to commit a felony. He will be sentenced February 11 to 15 to 20 years in prison and an estimated $3.1 million in restitution. Sands must serve 85 percent of his sentence.

In media interviews, Jerrems has presented his decision to aid investigators as a reluctant and painful choice. Jerrems told the New York Times he hoped cooperating with investigators would help exonerate his friend. For an interview with the Arizona Republic, he teared up while saying, "In my heart, I didn't want to believe he was involved at all," and claimed he wanted to prove his friend's innocence.

In interviews with New Times, however, Jerrems admits he was reasonably convinced of his friend's involvement from his first meeting with investigators. The arson task force offered him the $85,000 Silent Witness reward to betray his friend, and Jerrems now says it's "bullshit" that he may not get the full reward.

At the nursing home, Jerrems even halted the interview to launch into a quid pro quo proposal.

"I don't want to tell you too much about what's going on with this," Jerrems said last August. "I'd be glad to tell you more later, if you're interested in the whole story. I don't mean just 10 minutes. If we could put together something where we write this thing -- you write it, I give you input on it, and we participate on this together -- then I'm interested in moving forward."

"I don't know how it'd work with the financials," Jerrems added.

The word "financials" hung there a moment.

"This could be a television movie," Jerrems continued, "maybe even a feature film. There's just so many aspects -- the religious aspect, the environmental aspect. I've taken notes. I know the task force side. I know my side. I know Mark's side. I got the transcript from the moonlit midnight walk through the Grand Canyon -- that's the ending right there."

Three months later, Jerrems sits in another room. The setting for this interview, Marco Polo Supper Club in Scottsdale, is much improved. But Jerrems is not. He hangs his head and seems depressed. There are no requests for collaboration this time. Just plenty of remorse for Sands and himself.

"I don't know if I'm a good guy or a bad guy," he says.

Jerrems is a native Floridian who relocated to Phoenix five years ago. He met Sands at St. Anthony on the Desert Episcopal Church in 1997. Their families were social, spending Thanksgivings, Easters and Christmases together. And their young daughters were, and remain, close friends.

"I know Mark -- I thought I knew him -- pretty well," Jerrems says.

The men would jog the Preserve trails, Sands frequently guiding Jerrems to several of the sites where houses under construction were set aflame. Jerrems says Sands was always in control of their outings. Sands dominated conversations and planned their activities. Frequently, Sands would mention the fires, even during Christmas dinner. Sands wouldn't take sides in the discussions, Jerrems says, but enjoyed playing moderator, eager to hear what everybody else had to say.

"He was infatuated with [the fires]," says Jerrems. "He was obsessed."

Jerrems particularly remembers the publication of the New Times interview with the arsonist in January. It was a Wednesday night and their daughters were at choir practice. While their girls sang, Sands sat in the pews of the church reading the article. "He was really excited about it," Jerrems says. "He was like, 'Man, you gotta read this.'"

Jerrems read the story, but didn't think of his friend. Later, Jerrems says he read the story again, and he says it became a key factor in believing Sands was the arsonist. Now that Sands has admitted giving the interview, New Times can also confirm that Sands was the person interviewed in Patriots Square Park.

On April 20, Jerrems received a phone call from Sands' wife. "She said something terrible had happened," according to Jerrems. Sands had been arrested on a criminal damage charge for writing "CSP" -- for "Coalition to Save the Preserves," the arsonist's tag -- on a property sign.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd