the letter arrived january 12, the day after the Phoenix New Times published Burn, Baby, Burn. At the time, an FBI task force had credited an unknown Phoenix serial arsonist with torching nine luxury homes under construction along the environmentally sensitive Phoenix Mountains Preserve.The letter came in a plain manilla envelope with a Phoenix postmark and no return address. It went into a locked drawer. And on its January 18 cover, the New Times printed a message intended for one reader -- "To "Thou Shalt Not': 602-407-1706."
As the paper hit news racks Thursday morning, dozens of curious readers phoned the number. All the callers asked the same two questions: why was a phone number on the cover of the paper, and what did "To "Thou Shalt Not'" mean? All the callers asked. All except one.
"Thou Shalt Not -- I got your message," the man says. His voice is calm and mild. The arsonist says he forgot to sign the New Times letter with his usual signature -- CSP. The acronym stands for Coalition to Save the Preserves, he explains. His four-person group is the CSP North Mountain Preserve Unit. "There are other groups forming," he says.
He says he called the New Times because we correctly described the group's frustration with sprawl, and he chides a recent daily newspaper editorial that dismissed the arsonist as "a loser with matches." The caller repeatedly boasts about his group and its ability to elude capture, noting that spotting law enforcement surveillance is easy because "one of us has special training."
"Those who want to niche us as firebugs are mistaken," he says. "There's also a presumption there's only one of us, because how could you do this if people were working in concert, right? Well, there has to be trust, doesn't there? And that's part of what we are establishing right now with this."
The arsonist offers a face-to-face interview. He says to be at Patriots Square park at 11 am in two days -- Friday. No tape recorder. No photographer. Come alone, sit anywhere and read a copy of Burn, Baby, Burn.
Patriots Square is in downtown Phoenix. There are a couple of fast-food vendors, swirls of grass and brick.
Underneath the Square is a parking garage. At quarter past 11, a man emerges from the stairwell and makes a beeline for me. He's wearing an almost comically dramatic disguise: black athletic shoes, shiny black track pants, puffy black jacket, large black Fly sunglasses and a black ski cap.
"Are you alone?" he asks. "Did you bring any recording equipment with you?" Once reassured, he takes a seat. He says he told co-workers he was going to the gym. The track pants appear to be pulled over a pair of slacks.
"Did you see the paper this morning?" he asks.
The CSP burned a 5,000-square-foot house in Scottsdale the night before -- its debut fire in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. "Call Rural/Metro and ask if there were any notes left behind," he says. "They left two that haven't been reported yet. Or maybe the investigators didn't find them. If they didn't, they're idiots."
The arsonist claims the fire was set by an offshoot group called the CSP McDowell Sonoran Preserve Unit. "We're expanding our efforts," the arsonist says. "Six to eight months ago there was nothing there. Now there must be 15 houses under construction. It's private land, but as far as we're concerned it's preserve."
"The timing," the arsonist stresses, "was not coincidental."
There's a pause.
He waits for me to figure it out.
You mean you set the fire because
"We discussed the meeting with you today and thought it would be a good-faith effort to establish our credibility."
I can't think of anything to say to this. So I ask questions instead.
The CSP looks for construction sites along the edge, where builders have recently poured concrete onto virgin desert. They choose luxury houses at an advanced stage of development that are a safe distance from occupied homes. They decide where they will place a small igniter, usually in an inside room facing the desert so the fire has maximum "time to percolate" before being spotted by neighbours.
Nothing is ever written down, he says. No cellphone calls. They discuss their plans on mountain-biking excursions. They decide who will participate and who will stay home. Staying home provides the occasional alibi for the CSP members who have families.
"Each of us has had a hand in two or more," he says. They wait for a calm night. Just before they leave, they have a prayer session. Out of one of these came the phrase "Thou shalt not desecrate God's creation."
"We pray for the safety of the firefighters," he says. "We don't pray for ourselves not to get caught -- that's God's will."
What if he met a homeowner whose dream house he'd burned to the ground? What would he say to that person? "I'm sorry for the pain," he says. "We've burned your dream but not your memories. They're unoccupied houses."
"We're hoping to stimulate awareness,' he says. "We know when to stop. If we have 25 or 30 fires, we're going to make a mistake or get caught."