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Businessman Admits Arson 'Campaign' on Arizona Homes

Crime: Eco-terrorist wanted to dissuade developers from encroaching on pristine desert land, he says.

November 08, 2001|ERIC SLATER and JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PHOENIX — A 50-year-old businessman pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal extortion charges, admitting he was the eco-terrorist who torched eight luxury homes as they were being constructed in an effort to halt encroaching development at a desert land preserve.

In an agreement with prosecutors, Mark Warren Sands, a marketing consultant and former spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, pleaded guilty to eight counts of extortion and one count of using fire to commit a federal crime.

He had faced 23 counts in a case prosecutors built around extortion. Sands, they said, attempted to force out homeowners and developers through fear and intimidation.

He could face 15 to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 11 and must pay restitution estimated at $3.1 million.

The arsons, committed over nine months at properties on the rim of protected lands in Phoenix and Scottsdale, had terrified homeowners and builders in upscale neighborhoods when the unlikely suspect was arrested in June.

A task force had been working for months to track down what many here believed was a gang of eco-terrorists, bent on protecting the perimeter of an otherwise unadulterated patch of desert set aside in central Phoenix.

Then police spotted Sands in April writing with a red marker on a sign next to a home under construction in the area.

Investigators had been watching the area after leaflets were found that read: "Thou shalt not desecrate God's creation" and signed "CSP," or "Coalition to Save the Preserve."

Many of the torched homes had been spray-painted with the pledge: "If you build, we will burn."

Police got their first break in January, the day after the last fire was set, when a weekly newspaper, the Phoenix New Times, published an interview with a man who claimed to be the arsonist.

Prosecutors sought to get the New Times' reporters' notes and tape-recording, but a judge did not allow it.

In court Wednesday, Sands, who lived near the preserve, confessed to being the man in the story.

He also said he wrote letters to other local media, as well as homeowners in the area, saying that the arsons would not stop until the construction stopped.

"It was my intent to publicize the campaign and prevent people from encroaching on the preserve," Sands said.

He also said he was sorry for burning a Phoenix home he believed was just being built but had in fact existed for years and was undergoing renovation.

Sands was released after first being arrested in April. Investigators then persuaded his best friend to wear a concealed microphone and recorder during a hiking trip in the Grand Canyon.

At one point, according to U.S. Atty. Joseph Welty, Sands and his friend, Warren Jerrems, took to discussing the nature of evil.

"I've had several dreams about that house behind me," Sands said to Welty "They were terrifying dreams. They were dreams about setting it on fire. One night, I did."

Sands told his friend he set fire to the house again when the owners had the gall to rebuild, Welty said. He set his third blaze a distance away, according to prosecutors, to shift focus from his neighborhood.

By the fourth blaze, prosecutors said he told his friend, the arsons had become a "campaign."

Tim Onofryton and Peggy Myers, who owned one of the homes Sands torched, said they were happy with his plea.

"He's a terrorist," Myers said. "That's what he is."

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