The Waiting Game

Three weeks have passed since the publication of New Times' interview with the Phoenix Mountains Preserve arsonist. The period has been remarkable for all the things that have not happened.

There have been no fires. No arrests. No reported arsonist communiqués. No comment from law enforcement -- a media blackout. It feels like a pregnant pause, a collective holding of breath, and the eventual outcome is anybody's guess.

"It's a bit like, 'Who's going to blink first?'" says Phil Richards, spokesman for Hikers Intent on Keeping Everybody's Rights Secure (H.I.K.E.R.S.), an open-space and trail-access advocacy group.

In the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, the quiet tension is palpable.

The area is under continuous law enforcement surveillance. Police helicopters rise up over the peaks, hover, and buzz away, while park rangers cruise various recreation checkpoints. Closing times are strictly enforced; mountain bikers say anybody caught in the Preserve after 10 p.m. is stopped, questioned and warned to stay out. The scrutiny lends a slightly militarized feel to the Preserve during off-peak hours, the natural peace ironically broken by two warring forces that both want to protect the Preserve in their own fashion.

In the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area near Squaw Peak, there is a near-constant rotation of casual-wear cops sitting in parked cars sipping Big Gulps. In the corner of the parking lot sits a box of "Arson Update" fliers, advising hikers to watch for suspicious activity that may be connected to the burning of 11 Valley luxury homes under construction near Preserves in Phoenix and Scottsdale. The fliers ask "local regulars" to watch for "people carrying sacks or containers, people 'bushwhacking' off normal trails especially towards a home under construction."

"Remember," the fliers conclude, "it can happen in any neighborhood."

The fliers are produced by H.I.K.E.R.S. in cooperation with the City of Phoenix. Richards says the first "Arson Alert" fliers were distributed at Dreamy Draw in late December. The arsonist's initial round of media communiqués from the Coalition to Save the Preserves (CSP) were typed on the back of the fliers within a week of their Dreamy Draw debut.

The arsonist's sarcastic gesture is probably one reason for the increased security here. During the New Times interview, the arsonist said, "The police think we're leaving from Dreamy Draw, but we're not."

A few blocks away, near North 16th Street, there are three luxury home construction sites.

One was burned by the arsonist on December 15 and is now a series of blackened concrete slabs and a lonely 30-foot chimney.

The second, its neighbor, is at an advanced stage of construction. The house is ringed with a barbed-wire fence and security flood lights. Some of the lights point out at the hillside, some inward toward the house.

The third is a freshly bulldozed clearing that's a couple hundred feet into the hillside.

Neighbors say the area has become an odd tourist attraction of sorts. Curious passersby will stop and stare at the sites.

The most recent construction probably draws the least attention from crime-scene rubberneckers and the most attention from neighbors. Several complain about the site, saying it's cutting off a horse trail that's been there for as long as anybody remembers. The trail isn't a city-sanctioned trail, however, just a path that locals enjoy hiking. This difference highlights the visual ambiguity between Preserve and non-Preserve land. The parcel has been privately owned for decades, but to those who hike the land every day, it feels like part of the community.

"I hiked that trail for five years, and I was so sad when I saw that house was going up," says one resident. The man declines to give his name, noting, "After that fire at [16th Street] everybody freaked out. Everybody living right near the Preserve is a bit paranoid."

One Eyed Fiona, the Celtic band performing at Patriots Square park during the arsonist interview, was visited by FBI agents last week.

Guitarist Chris Turner says the agents had done their research -- mentioning a bandmate's unpaid parking ticket and details from the group's Web site. Turner told the agents that the lead singer vaguely remembered seeing the arsonist, but he says he did not.

"Even if I looked at him, I wouldn't have given him a second thought," he says, noting the eclectic makeup of Patriots Square's crowd.

The band has received e-mails about the story, he says, but the publicity has not affected its bookings.

"Hey, I'm a musician," Turner says. "If he likes my tunes, it's fine by me."

Earth Liberation Front (ELF) graffiti tags have mushroomed in the Maple-Ash neighborhood in downtown Tempe.

The ELF is a radical activist organization that endorses "economic sabotage" against environmentally insensitive corporate entities.

One of the tags is on a private property warning. Others are on water irrigation structures.

ELF spokesperson Craig Rosebraugh says he has heard nothing about the tags or ELF activity in Phoenix.

Federal agents were also interested in the funeral of Geoffrey Platts.

Platts was a Scottsdale author, poet laureate and environmentalist who drowned in the Verde River on December 5. The arsonist said the last CSP fire, set January 18 in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, was dedicated to the memory of Platts.

Reverend Bob Hutson, a pastor at Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Cave Creek, says about 500 people attended the service, from conservatives to "over-the-hill hippies." His receptionist gave the registration book to federal agents shortly after the funeral.

Hutson was not present when the agents arrived, and he says he feels a bit uncomfortable about turning over the book. "If I had been here, I probably would not have been as polite [as the receptionist]," he says.

For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click over to our Arsonist Archives.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd