Smoke and Mirrors

The charges sounded more fitting for a mob kingpin than an alleged eco-arsonist.

U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton solemnly drove home the severity of the 22 federal counts being levied against Mark Warren Sands, the Phoenix marketing consultant accused of being the Phoenix Mountains Preserve arsonist.

Seven counts of extortion affecting interstate commerce. Seven counts of use of fire to commit a federal felony. Eight counts of arson of a property used in interstate commerce.

All told, Sands faces 300 years in prison and about $5.5 million in fines should he be convicted on all counts.

The hardball lineup of charges for a series of property crimes seemed indicative of the arson task force's frustration at the elusiveness of the Coalition to Save the Preserves -- the group credited with burning 11 Valley houses under construction near environmentally sensitive recreational areas.

Charlton, who announced Sands' arrest last week, spent more time explaining the charges against Sands than he did answering any of the reporters' questions shouted at him inside a downtown conference room.

The questions followed a round of back-slapping by various agency heads. Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt said his department has spent more than $1 million during the investigation, and that the commitment and teamwork exhibited by the arson task force would serve as a model for future investigations. City Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten thanked her constituents who endured the fires.

Everybody had somebody to thank, but nobody would answer the most pressing questions. No insight was given as to what evidence links Sands to the actual arsons. No input on whether he acted alone, other than a terse reminder that the investigation is ongoing.

Once the questions became repetitive, U.S. Attorney's officials announced that Sands was due in federal court. The room cleared, and the pressure faded. Momentarily.

Now their real challenge begins.

The federal government has less than two months to prepare for Sands' trial.

For the assistant U.S. attorneys handling the case, they must prove that Sands is indeed the arsonist and that he purposefully attempted to use arson and other intimidation methods, such as letters to homeowners and the media, to "effect social change."

The federal extortion charges relate to Sands' alleged interference with interstate commerce, meaning the out-of-state businesses that provided the materials to construct the homes that were burned. By issuing threats through CSP communiqués and burning houses, that commerce was effectively halted and/or delayed, the government alleges.

The letters left at the fire sites warning homeowners not to rebuild fit under the federal statute governing domestic terrorism. In short, the statute says that anyone who tries to effect social or political change by committing a crime can be charged under federal law.

"It doesn't have to be called domestic terrorism," says Ed Hall, spokesman for the FBI's Phoenix division. "If someone is trying to effect social change, it would give us jurisdiction."

Gary R. Perlstein, an internationally known eco-terrorism expert and professor at Portland State University in Oregon, says it should be expected that federal authorities would throw the book at Sands.

For one, it sends a message to the public that prosecutors are being as harsh as possible. Second, such weighty charges often encourage a plea bargain in return for information such as whether a defendant committed the crimes alone, or with others.

Regardless of the outcome of the Sands case, Perlstein, who has been following the Phoenix arsons, says there's a fair chance of continued CSP activity.

"Even if the man is given 200 years with no possibility of parole, there's going to be somebody that is so devoutly religious to an environmental cause that they're not going to be deterred," he says.

Sands, who turned 50 on June 20, said little when he appeared in federal court last week. He stood in a purple tee shirt and green jogging shorts, his hands and feet shackled.

Looking deflated, he calmly answered "Yes, sir" to questions.

Sands has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial is slated to start August 7.

One of the federal grand jury's 22 counts against Mark Sands states Sands is the same person interviewed by New Times ("An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist," James Hibberd, January 25).

New Times has argued that the man interviewed by the paper is a confidential source and, over the past few weeks, has refused to answer reporters' questions about whether Sands is the same man.

Comparisons between Sands and the New Times interview, however, are fair and inevitable.

Sands has been charged with eight of the 11 Valley arsons that fire officials have attributed to the CSP campaign in the Valley. The arsonist interviewed by New Times claimed the first CSP arson in January 1998 was committed by somebody else, and that the December 30 fire was a "copycat." Sands was not charged in connection with either of those fires.

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John W. Allman
James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd